Cuba: Where Si Se Puede

written by: Jeanette Charles
edited by: Dae-Han Song

Cuban delegation to the 40th Anniversary of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.  Source: Jeanette Charles

Cuban delegation to the 40th Anniversary of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.
Source: Jeanette Charles

My first visit to Cuba was in July 2017. Like the millions inspired by its revolutionary spirit and history, I fell in love with this powerful place and its people. Since then, I’ve organized several delegations and educational exchanges to Cuba with Black and Brown organizers, farmers, artists, educators, and healers from the United States. After each trip, people have approached me with concerned looks and some variation of the question: “Isn't Cuba changing?” It’s a strange question and riddled with layers. Often, I reply, “Should it not be?” Cuba is not the same as it was sixty years ago. Revolutionary processes evolve, transform, and respond according to their conditions. People drive these changes with their voices, visions, and vote. So, this year will be different from last year, 10 years ago, and a half a century ago. However, the ways Cubans and many in solidarity with the revolution mark and assess progress as well as authenticity are sometimes different. How and what we consider important factors affecting, influencing, and motivating decisions made within a revolutionary context have a critical impact on nations and our political processes. 

In terms of where Cuba is now, one essential element to consider is the nearly 60 year old U.S. blockade. This unilateral measure, a form of economic warfare, exacerbated Cuba’s challenges after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Known as the Special Period, the Soviet Union's dissolution resulted in limited markets and access to goods for Cuba. While the U.S. calls its policy on Cuba an embargo[1], given the United States' hegemonic position in the world economy and its unilateral sanctions on companies from third parties, these actions constitute a blockade. The U.S. government is waging financial cannons in the form of sanctions. As a result, Cuba faces limited options for trade. This directly stunts Cuban access to materials like top-grade technology and significantly deters foreign direct investment.

However, this material reality has drastically changed over the last two decades, especially due to the country’s fraternal relationship with Venezuela. With the Bolivarian Revolution's nationalization and redistribution of oil wealth, the greater Caribbean has celebrated access to subsidized energy. Under Comandante Hugo Chávez and now with President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela extended its networks to intentionally and ethnically trade with majority African-descended nations and comrades. This exercise of economic sovereignty is seen as a threat to the U.S. As such, Cuba-Venezuela bilateral trade is under sharp attack as the U.S. has increased sanctions against both socialist governments and their people. Nevertheless, Cuba continues to exchange goods as well as services with regional neighbors and other countries around the world to ensure basic necessities. This approach strategically undermines U.S. sanctions since it neither relies on U.S. dollars nor banks. 

In Cuba, economists work diligently to produce annual reports quantifying the impact of the U.S. blockade on all aspects of society. In 2019, they estimate cumulative damages at approximately  134 billion US dollars. To put the amount into context, Cuba’s GDP in 2017 was roughly 97 billion dollars.  Nevertheless, the Cuban people and their revolutionary state continue to innovate in spite of these challenges. 

Cuba’s focus on preventative and holistic medicine embodies this sentiment. Since the Cuban government cannot easily purchase medications for serious diseases in progressed stages, Cubans must identify and treat or entirely prevent problems early on. Cubans have been successful in this endeavor because of universal access to health care: Cuba boasts the highest number of doctors per person in the world. Cuban people are healthier and happier for it. The average life expectancy in Cuba is 79 years old and maternal mortality and morbidity annually decreased to 4.16%. Furthermore, Cuba trains some of the world's greatest doctors at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) at no financial cost to students. 

What people don’t realize when they worry about “Cuba’s changes” is that Cubans are in essence: imagining, planning, and directing their own future. People’s unease about “changes” often implies that Cuba is opening its doors to capitalism and abandoning socialism. However, that’s not the case. Cuba is refining and sophisticating its social system. Moreover, Cubans are being very intentional about how to engage with other countries. Cuba wants to develop and stay relevant while also maintaining and advancing their socialist society rooted in principles ensuring life with dignity. They do this 90 miles away from the globe's most dangerous empire and largest consumer economy. The reality is that the world is dominated by U.S. capital. 

While Cuba needs to commit to a certain level of international engagement, that does not necessarily suggest that they must compromise their principles. Fundamentally, Cuba is testing whether we can build societies that have socialist and humanist values but also recognize the limitations and choices within global capital. Cuban economists, political theories, and other highly developed citizens constantly research other nations’ approaches. They study Vietnam, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. They look at other strategies, how nations are structuring their economies and what has been successful or not. Then, Cuba starts developing different equations for what they should do. "We don't want the IMF. We don't want the World Bank and we're not going to let corporations come in and decide what they're going to do with our resources...We will make sure our people have work," explained one Cuban economist I’ve met with delegations.  

Ultimately, corporations carry out egregious acts because the elite class and capitalist states allow them. A friend once told me, “Airplanes run on some of the worst fuel because governments [do not implement environmental restrictions].” Certainly, technology that makes such fuel unnecessary exists. But, without government regulation, there is no impetus for change. Instead, consumers are blamed when they aren’t the root cause. 

One of Cuba’s current development projects includes the Mariel Special Development Zone in La Habana with the potential to become the most productive port in the Caribbean. Cuba’s approach seeks to ensure job security and comply with environmental regulations. This economic plan stipulates that foreign companies and other investors build industries that Cubans both want and will benefit from. Ultimately, this is a very national and working people centered plan. Their orientation strikes the difference between a socialist, humanist state versus one that is capitalist and appeases imperialist capital. If you do business with Cuba, they set the terms and conditions. A comrade of mine based in Jamaica once remarked, “To have a Caribbean nation say no to the IMF,  after Jamaica has been devastated by neoliberal policies and by institutions like the IMF, for a Caribbean Nation to say ‘no,’ to say, ‘We don't want to hear it. We don't need you, we'll figure out something else’ -- is really powerful.”

Cuba is navigating the world’s most treacherous terrain both carefully and determinedly. For example, Cubans want more access to the internet and they’re analyzing how to provide this technology without completely compromising their society and national security. How do you keep people intellectually engaged and humane while also facilitating the resources and access to things they're curious about? They are staring down these questions that prompt challenges and contradictions. Cubans are curious, well-studied, and have made significant contributions to the world. And, the internet is not the defining marker of a society’s global engagement. In spite of sustained U.S. intervention and blockade’s efforts to contain the Cuban revolution, Cubans do not live in isolation. Rather, Cubans are all around the world: Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela, Bolivia, China. They’re on medical missions, educational programs, diplomatic tours, and cultural exchanges.  

There’s a beautiful humanity in Cuba I don't always feel or witness in other places. Working class people have a dignified life. Of course, they face challenges, but they live with a refreshing dignity. My last delegation focused on Cuba’s Maroon Roots. We hosted Black and Brown youth from the US in Cuba to learn about the African Diaspora and Black liberation struggles. As we concluded the delegation, one young Black man commented, “I've never been somewhere where I can walk at 11 o'clock at night on the street and people are not afraid of me. I could walk around in my hoody and people don't give a fuck.” Given the ongoing reality of U.S. warfare against Black people within its borders to the history of wars in Nicaragua, Vietnam, across Africa, and the Middle East -- his comment moved people to tears. Not to romanticize Cuba, but it is an inspiring and magical place. Cubans fought hard for this reality and these conditions from their independence to this contemporary revolution. Cuba is truly a “si se puede” place. 

  1. An embargo refers to the policy of one country not trading with another or not allowing its port and territory to be used for trade.