You know, my grandmother was part Cuban. Some of my family fled and some are still there. None who left had a bad word to say about Castro because they left before he came to power – they fled abject poverty and the poor being treated like serfs. When Castro took over, the part of my family still there managed to get education and healthcare. Nothing is perfect – they are still poor and they would probably appreciate having building material and modern technology – but the US blockade makes that impossible. You know, freedom means different things to different people. To my family, it meant freedom from slavery. The US blockade meant to break Cuba just made it stronger. I grew up in the Caribbean in an American territory – believe me, I think I would have preferred to grow up in Cuba. When I was in St T, I couldn’t afford to see a dentist, and there was no question of my going to the university unless it was on a military scholarship, which would mean joining the army. Now I live in France, socialist nation, and finally I can get my teeth fixed and my kids can go to the university.
“…Before Castro’s revolution, Havana was in the grip of the United States-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista*. Cuba had fought off its former colonial master, Spain – it was granted independence in 1902 – only to find itself now ruled by a new economic overlord. Havana was famous in those days for three things: cigars, drugs and prostitutes. Cuba caught the eye of the US mafia and became an outpost of drug trafficking and money laundering. The sight of this new imperial order and economic ravaging outraged a band of revolutionaries. In 1959, Castro, a charismatic young lawyer turned opposition leader, and insurgents including an Argentine-born doctor called Che Guevara, overthrew Batista and installed a regime that would become one of the most enduring symbols of communist revolution.
They nationalised businesses and kicked out the Americans. And so began one of the world’s longest running and most dangerous political feuds, which would culminate with the United States and Cuba’s one-time political patron, the Soviet Union, coming to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.
The capitalist world is reeling from a financial collapse induced by the greed of its bankers, and yet Cuban communism survives. There are investment opportunities in Cuba, but the US blocks most efforts and the road to investment in Cuba is riddled with potholes. The US blockade seeks to punish non-US investors that have American subsidiaries or whose products contain more than ten per cent of American components. This has made Cuba an investment pariah.
A few years ago, UK pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline wanted to invest in a joint vaccine project with Cuba’s prestigious Finlay Institute that had developed new child immunisation vaccines and won markets around the globe. GSK had to apply to the US Treasury for permission because the company had American interests. Finlay’s executive director, Dr Franklin Sotolongo, a world-renowned vaccine specialist, explained: ‘Two years later we were told there could be a limited collaboration in the interests of children’s health. But there was one major condition set by the United States: Cuba could not profit from this partnership with GSK.’
‘So how did you get paid?’
‘In chickens,’ he said. ‘GSK wants to invest here, so Cuba places an order for chickens and the GSK money pays the supplier for the chickens. The chickens come here.’
Johana Tablada de la Torre, Cuba’s Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs, said: ‘The Americans give their anti-Cuba laws nice names but with laws like these they’re condemning a country to starve.
‘We believe the US Treasury has more people chasing down transactions related to Cuba than chasing terrorist funding for Al Qaeda.’
The perilous survival of Castro’s regime is rooted in its few but notable success stories. Those are its education and health programmes, both of which are free. Cuba has 98 per cent literacy rates, while childcare is available for the equivalent of $1 a month, according to Fernando Roja Guterrez, the Deputy Minister for Culture. Castro has proclaimed that the island’s biggest natural asset is brain-power. In return for subsidised oil from Venezuela, Cuba sends them doctors. Many medics are trained at the Latin American Medical School on the outskirts of Havana. Their courses are all free. ‘Pre-revolution we had 3,000 doctors. Today Cuba has 75,000 doctors. In those 50 years we’ve been to more than 100 countries giving aid,’ said Dr Muro Valle.
In the past five years, 7,200 students have graduated. Among the current intake is Devindra, from Guyana, who tells me he arrived here four months ago from a poor rural village in his homeland.
‘It would cost me $100,000 for a medical degree back home. I could never afford it. So this is my chance to become a surgeon one day. For a poor country, this is a lot to give.’
So what is Castro’s legacy? The wrongs are obvious: Cubans are crying out for economic change and there are growing dissident voices calling for greater freedom. But if you speak out against the regime, imprisonment – or worse – awaits. Cuba rejects foreign criticism and points to its achievements that are unmatched in Latin America: high literacy, low infant mortality and life expectancy levels comparable to the UK and Western nations.
Cubans have been given a small measure of security in uncertain times even as they bemoan their financial lot. Abroad, Cuba has won useful friends and sympathy thanks to its medical aid export policy. Castro likes to say that where America sends soldiers to enforce its foreign policy, Cuba sends doctors.
Yet Cuba is part of the global economy, still needing our investment and trade to survive, despite its proud character of independence. That blunt realisation marks a real change in the Cuban psyche and for its future.”***
Cubans who came to Miami in 1959 were supporters of the ousted Batista government. Soon they were joined by increasing numbers of wealthy Cubans whose property had been confiscated by the Cuban government: executives of U.S. companies and well-established professionals, including many doctors. Most did not expect exile to last long, but thought Cuba would soon be liberated — first placing their hopes on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and later on the certainty that the United States would never allow the consolidation of a Communist government ninety miles away from their shores. (Note: these people still claim property in Cuba and are waiting for the US to back their claims by force if necessary, ousting the people who work and live on the land now. As you can imagine, Cubans are worried about America invading Cuba and taking over**.)
Many of these people left Cuba with nothing and had to begin anew. Sugar mill owners became gas station attendants; professional women took jobs as maids. Told many times over, their story has by now become an epic. Character loans, dispensed by the Republican Bank, and especially by a Cuban banker named Luis Botifoll, allowed Cubans to start small businesses. Applying the entrepreneurial skills brought from their native Cuba, and taking advantage of the growing Cuban population in Miami, little by little they created the Miami success story for which Cuban Americans have become known.
There was a dark side to this story. As the Cuban exiles fought Castro’s repressive regime from abroad, many committed acts of terrorism. There were illegal incursions into Cuba, assassinations, bombs, and plots — some involving the U.S. government, such as Operation Mongoose. The burglars who broke into the Democratic headquarters at Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex were Cuban Americans. The terrorist who placed the bomb that killed Chile’s ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, was Cuban American. But the most shocking act committed by Cuban Americans took place in 1976, when Orlando Bosch and Luis Carriles Posada placed a bomb aboard a Cuban civilian airliner, killing dozens of innocent victims including young athletes returning from abroad.
* Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/castro/peopleevents/p_batista.html
** (from the Guardian – read the comment section as well) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/01/cuban-exiles-confiscated-property-diplomatic-thaw