April 13, 2011

On Being Cuban

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While some of us may have lingered in Ithaca for Spring Break to catch up on work, many of our peers sought adventure in foreign countries in hopes of building memorable moments that would add to their overall college experiences. A few of us decided to put aside the Spring Break adventures and make our way home for a week of relaxation. Unfortunately, for many Cubans in exile, going home was not really an option. Cuba often calls the attention of many, not only because of its complex relationship with the U.S., but also because it’s “so close yet so foreign,” a catchy phrase often used to describe an island country whose reality couldn’t be further away from the tropical paradise most imagine it to be. Cuba’s reality is not only defined by its political relationship to the U.S. or by the exotic foreignness many attribute to it. What truly defines Cuba is the Cuban people’s relentless spirit as they struggle to find the means to get soap, meat, clothing and other materials we take for granted in our daily lives in the U.S.

To best understand Cuba we must first comprehend its history. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, the U.S. sought to colonize territories in the Caribbean and solidify its Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. After the Treaty of Paris, Cuba became a U.S. protectorate. In 1902, Cuba gained pseudo-independence from the U.S., where, via the Platt Amendment, the U.S. had the right to “intervene” in Cuba’s politics to protect its “sovereignty” whenever it saw fit.

To those familiar with the early 20th century, Cuba was really not alien to the U.S. at all. The U.S. maintained close economic ties with Cuba (specifically Havana) up until the late fifties. Cuba’s intimate relationship with the U.S. sped its development at a time when most of Latin America remained firmly third world. When no Latin American country had the luxury of having televisions, Cuba had them. When no Latin American country had cars for its citizens, Cuba had them. When no other Latin American country was sending its children to be educated abroad, Cubans were. Havana became Las Vegas before Las Vegas even existed, epitomizing an exotic paradise where Americans could buy land to retire on if they so wanted. These close economic ties with the U.S. made Cuba its de facto puppet for many decades. Cuba’s economic relations with the U.S. were kept strong through Fulgencio Batista’s repressive government during the 1950s. His corruption and murderous mistreatment of his people inspired a group of young revolutionaries to rebel against his regime, which they saw as exacerbating the divide between Cuba’s poor and wealthy classes. On New Year’s Eve 1959 Fidel Castro entered Havana, giving rise to the longest-standing single man government in the world.

The impact of the Castro regime today pervades into every element of Cuban society. Over Spring Break, a Sun columnist visited Cuba and was surprised to find that the food found on the island is lackluster compared to that found in Miami. Cuba’s one of the last centrally planned economies in the world today. Food distribution is done under a rationing system where the average Cuban is lucky to receive meat (or meat substitute) once a week. Consequently, there exists a substantial black market for food. A person caught purchasing food illegally runs the risk of heavy fines and even imprisonment. However, many Cubans do purchase food commodities from the black market, especially if they run a casa particular, which are hostels that afford the average Cuban a means to increase his income of $20 per month (average). As one might expect, the quality and quantity of the food in Cuba suffers tremendously due to this strict rationing program and expensive, often poor caliber, black market. Thus is Castro’s Cuba.

Furthermore, out of 13 million Cubans in the world, two million live in diaspora. The reasons for this large exile population are quite simple: oppression and restriction. The government made no quarrels executing citizens in its earlier days and, to this day, deceives its citizens. In the 1960s and ’70s, primary school books in Cuba stated that it was the Soviet Union that invaded the beaches of Normandy (because everything was going so great in the Stalingrad apparently). For political and economic reasons, many Cubans flee the island in search of better futures. The U.S. gives 40,000 visas a year to Cubans, and many others create their own rafts and attempt the Florida Straits to come to the U.S. There are even documented cases of Cubans jumping onto airplane landing gear as planes take off and retract the wheels into their interior. For those Cubans who remain on the island two options exist: dissidence or apathy. For those who choose dissidence, the government is quick to silence them.

Cubans as a people lived under both Spanish and American colonialism, sham democracies and dictators. The Cuban spirit is resilient, and like our brothers in China, Egypt and anywhere else where dictators threaten human liberty, we do not acquiesce to injustice. We exhort those who visit our majestic island, to journey not as tourists, but as travelers with open minds, eyes and consciences.

Karla Vergara Pérez ’11 and Reinaldo Alij Pérez ’12 are members of the Cuban American Student Association. They can be reached at Cornell.CASA@gmail.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Reinaldo Alij Perez