Cuba: Contradictions created by the U.S. embargo



Melanie Pores gives NYSUT solidarity t-shirts to University at LeHabana professors Nancy Real and Evarina Deulefeu, who spoke to the Capital District delegation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melanie Pores, a former bilingual/dual language teacher and member of the Albany Public Schools Teachers Association, as well as a retired NYSUT staff member, recently returned from a people-to-people delegation sponsored by Rev. Raúl Suárez from the Martin Luther King Center in Marianau, Cuba.

The Capital District delegation also included NYSUT retirees Mary Wilken, a former librarian at Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Schools and Dan Wilken, a retired math professor and a member of United University Professions’s Albany chapter. The three are members of the Albany-Cuba Solidarity Group, which includes a diverse group of educators, community activists and labor representatives who believe it is time for the U.S to end its Cuban embargo. The group plans to rally in front of the O’Brien Federal Building from 5 -6 p.m. March 21 when President Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba.

The 20-member Albany/Cuba Solidarity delegation traveled to historical and political sites in La Habana as well as several western communities outside of La Habana, including Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Playa Girón (Site of the famous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962) and Las Terrazas, a worker’s cooperative in the Viñales Valley.

Here are some of Pores’ reflections on her trip, which underscored her opinion that “it’s time for the U.S. government to let go of the need to ‘fix’ Cuba — to put an end to its inhumane and senseless embargo.”

I would like to preface my remarks about my experiences in Cuba by sharing a definition of solidarity that Sue Monk Kidd included in her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter:

“Solidarity is identifying with one another without feeling like you have to agree on every issue. It’s unity, not uniformity. It’s listening without rushing in to fix the problem.”

In traveling to Cuba, I was mindful about how our government has historically felt the need to “fix” Cuba’s “problems” and in doing so has created more problems for Cuba and the Cuban people. Being sensitive to that, I saw my role in our delegation as an opportunity to share solidarity with the Cuban people. Visiting Cuba was truly an honor.

Since I am fully bilingual, I was able to strike up conversations with people throughout our travels. The people I met were friendly and open to sharing their thoughts without any reservation. I was able to walk freely and unrestricted throughout La Habana and the other cities that we visited.

As a retired educator, I was interested in learning more about Cuba’s free universal educational system. Prior to our trip, I did a considerable amount of research to learn about Cuba’s educational system. I learned that, in 1961, a national literacy campaign was initiated that resulted in Cuba successfully eradicating adult illiteracy in the countryside as well as in urban centers with the commitment of teachers, students and other volunteers. The current adult literacy rate in Cuba is 99.8 percent.

The Cubans I spoke with were proud and grateful for their educational system. I came to learn that the Cuban educational system is constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of the country’s economy. To be honest, I was amazed by the number of people who I spoke with who held bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and even Ph.D.s.

In relation to the Cuban health care system, our delegation was able to obtain firsthand knowledge, as three of our delegates fell ill during our trip. Teams of top-notch practitioners treated our colleagues. In each case, their treatment cost less than $300, including intravenous care and other medicines.

For the Cuban people, the collaborative health care system has evolved into a highly successful preventative medical model. We met with Ché Guevara’s daughter, Dr. Aleida Guevara. A practicing pediatrician, Guevara shed light on Cuba’s universal health care system and Cuban international solidarity work in supporting health care professional training throughout the world.

One indicator of the success of Cuba’s preventative health care model is that the infant mortality rate in Cuba fell from 60 deaths per thousand in 1958 prior to the revolution to only 5.8 percent in 2015. To contextualize that figure, the infant mortality rate for the U.S. is 6.2 percent.

After more than 50 years of programs implemented post-revolution, Cuba’s Human Development Index (HDI) value for 2014 was 0.769— which put the country in the high human development category— positioning it at 67 out of 188 countries and territories. Between 1980 and 2014, Cuba’s HDI value increased from 0.627 to 0.769, an increase of 22.6 percent. According to UNICEF, Cuba’s life expectancy rate was 78.45 years in 2015.

In contrast to the good news about the health and economic systems, we heard a disturbing presentation about the Cuban economy by Dr. José Luis Rodríguez-García, former Cuban minister of economic planning. He shared that, due to economic conditions created by the U.S. economic blockade on Cuba, the country is struggling with a dual currency system, resulting in many Cubans having achieved college degrees, but working in the tourism industry where salaries are higher, instead of working in the professions for which they trained.

Another concern Dr. Rodríguez-García voiced was the uneven distribution of wealth in the economy resulting from remittances sent to Cuba from family and friends outside of Cuba.

Reiterated throughout the visit was a strong sense of pride in the principles behind, and accomplishments of, the Cuban revolution, including the sustainability of state-of-the-art universal health care and educational (K-12 and university level educational) systems.

Cuba has made solidarity with other Third World nations a priority since the revolution and has done this by sharing expertise in training educators and medical personnel in over 28 nations across the globe by sending cohorts of educators and doctors to those countries.

We couldn’t help noticing, however, that some younger Cubans did not appear to be as invested in the principles of the revolution, resulting in somewhat of a generational divide. I believe that is why many of the people who I spoke with expressed the need to find ways to effectively engage ALL Cubans in solving their country’s problems together.

It is this sentiment that reinforces my belief that now, more than ever, it is time for the U.S. to let go of its need to “fix” Cuba. We must end this senseless embargo and let the Cuban economy thrive like its universal health care and educational systems.

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