Two Sides to Every Story: Lessons in Life from Cuba
Last Saturday I returned from spending a week in Cuba on a trip sponsored by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education(NADOHE). The trip included some “official” activities, e.g., meetings with academics, government officials, artists, religious leaders, etc. It also included some time to wander the city of Havana on our own.
Based on what we have been led to believe about Cuba, I would not have been surprised to see a people beaten down by oppression and a sad, gray place, much like the way the Soviet Union was depicted during the cold war. I would have though I would find a backward country confronted by poverty, disease, lack of education or healthcare and a place in which people were being constantly watched by the police or military.
And yet my experience was quite different. I found a country with the highest literacy rate in the world. An education system that is free and produces more than twice as many doctors, per capita, than the U.S. A universal healthcare system that not only provides free healthcare to all but, includes first-rate research. In terms of visible scrutiny, we saw fewer police officers and military personnel and felt less scrutinized than I did when I was in Singapore, Malaysia or Israel, and the people were welcoming, industrious, incredibly resourceful, and lovely to be with.
I want to be clear that I am not meaning to glorify Cuba. I’m no “babe in the woods,” and I know that there are many things that we didn’t see, and probably never would see. I know that Cuba is no panacea and that there are undoubtedly still violations of human rights, suppression of dissent, and restrictions of freedom of movement. They still have serious race problems, even though their aspirational race policies equal or exceed our own. Most of their people live in very poor conditions, compared to the US, and their average salaries (which are managed by the government) are pathetically small. Yet, the trip was remarkable in many ways. (If you are interested in a more detailed look at my trip, keep reading after this blog for my daily “travelogue”) However the main thing I was struck by was how different the country occurred to me relative to how it has been portrayed for the past 55 years.
My postings received different responses. Many people thanked me for sharing what I had seen, yet others were extremely critical, including one person who wrote, “Beyond me why anyone would want to visit any repressive regime around the world…”
During the time that we were there, the deal with Iran was being debated. As I watched the debate on CNN, I couldn’t help but wonder how different Iran might be from the way it is depicted? I thought about how differently the story of the Middle East is told by Israelis versus Palestinians. I wondered how democracy in the United States might occur to a foreign visitor who landed in the wealthy neighborhoods in Potomac, Maryland, versus one who landed in Anacostia, the poor African American community in SE Washington, or, for that matter, one who landed in Appalachia? I wondered how U.S. democracy might be communicated about by somebody who was Native American versus somebody who was a wealthy Californian? I wondered how our vaunted “right to vote” might be talked about by African Americans in Florida, Iowa or the dozen or so other states that have recently enacted voter suppression laws?
I thought about how many companies I have been in where the leaders see things one way, and lower level employees another. And I thought about how many relationships I have seen where one partner tells a very different story about it than the other one does.
We think we see the world as it is, but invariably we see the world as we are. We have a remarkable capacity for confirmation bias. As the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “We see what we look for, and we look for what we know.” So we gather the information that reaffirms that which we already believe or what we want to believe. And we make the process easier by labeling people or countries (“Communist”! “Socialist”! “Capitalist” “Imperialist.”) And then, as the great economist John Kenneth Galbreath said, “Most human beings, given a strongly held point of view and evidence to the contrary, will quickly go about refuting the evidence.”
So my lesson from Cuba is not to assume to know the definitive truth about what is going on there. I saw what I saw, and reported my interpretation of what I saw, but I do not even begin feel like my one-week visit gives me the “Truth.” The lesson that I’ve taken from the experience is a stark reminder to listen carefully to both sides of the story before I make up my mind, whether it is about international relations, or an argument with my wife. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth the effort.
A Travelogue from Cuba: July 10-18, 2015
HAVANA DAY ONE: Hola from Havana! Arrived without a hitch. The city is beautiful, and though the old buildings show the signs of need of repair (that our senseless embargo has contributed to), the city is incredibly safe, clean and charming. People are warm and friendly and go out of their way to talk about how excited they are to “be friendly with your country!” Sitting down here it seems so bizarre that we have kept this “banishment” going for over 50 years. Looking forward to exploring!
HAVANA DAY TWO: We had a chance to go through the old part of the city and learn more about the history and also to learn more about the spiritual life of the country. Went to a service at the Church of the Black Madonna and then an amazing evening with the female poet laureate of Cuba and Pablo Menendez, one of the most famous Cuban Jazz musicians on the rook of his home. His band played a concert for just the 39 of us. The more I am here the more I see how incredibly industrious the people are here. They seem to be able to make rocket ships out of junk. I know that it’s silly to feel like a couple of days means much, but I’m also struck by the lack of feeling of “big brother.” American news is on TV without any apparent censorship…etc. Tomorrow we meet with the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the people to discuss US/Cuban relations me race, and later with a Cuban filmmaker whose themes address culture, race and identity. More to come!
HAVANA DAY THREE: We went to the home/studio of Jose Rodriguez Fuster, a native Cuban artist sometimes called “the Cuban Gaudi.” Amazing world of mosaics created. He also has invested his own money and efforts to do the same for his neighbors over a four-block radius! They call it Fusterlandia. This morning we met with a representative from the Cuban Institute of Friendship for the People to learn about their social, educational and healthcare systems and then this evening with award winning historian and documentarian Gloria Rolando who shared her latest work on the plight of black Cubans, many of whom were brought to the Island in the early 1900s as virtual slaves to work the sugar and banana plantations. It is striking to see how U.S. Policy has decimated this country, from the attempts to use the island as a plantation by United Fruit and the sugar companies, to the propping up of the dictator Batista to support mafia and financial activities in the 30s-50s, to the attempts to overthrow the government and assassinate their leaders, to the current economic chokehold. It’s amazing that we portray them as a threat to us! There is no perfection here, and racial dynamics are very complex and troubling, but it is enlightening to see the story from the other side! More to come mañanai!
HAVANA DAY FOUR (for those of you who aren’t sick of this!): met this morning with the minister of education to learn about the free Cuban education system. Students never have to pay for any education from start through grad school. All are expected to giveback two years of community service after graduating…could be teaching or working in other areas. If they don’t go to college they can go to trade school instead. There are clearly disparities in the system as to different parts of the population…not surprisingly there are racial dynamics here like everywhere else…Black Cubans tend to be less successful.
She also talked about the impact of the ongoing U.S. Blockade on their economy.
We then went to the museum of literacy, which tells the amazing story of how the entire country took on shifting from 23.8% illiteracy rate to 98% literate in one year in 1961. 250,000 people, including 105,000 between the ages of 14-16, took on teaching people to read and write throughout the island from January 1, 1961 to December 1961. In one year they taught over 700,000 people to read, from children to the oldest, a 108-year-old woman. They eradicated illiteracy and became the most literate country on earth…which they have maintained to this day. It especially impacted the predominantly Black population in the East. An amazing story. They have since made their literacy training system available to over 30 other counties around the world. Of course at the same time President Kennedy was forming the Peace Corps and what was to become vista and Americorps…all designed to produce the same kinds of results! But rather than sharing best practices, what was the U.S. doing while they were trying to teach their people to read? It was during that time that we launched the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
It seems so ironic that they have this remarkable record in medical care and education, both areas that we struggle in, and rather than trying to learn from their success, we refuse to interact with them. Seems crazy. I know they have serious issues that they have to address, and ones that I’m sure that we will not be exposed to, but I’m struck by how we get caught up in labeling people and countries “communist” or whatever, rather than finding the places where we can mutually relate and work together. The irony of the Iran deal happening today was not lost on them or us.
HAVANA DAY FIVE: Started the day at the Cuban Federation for women. We met with the director who told us about the remarkable network of support that they have created for women throughout the country. They have offices in all 168 municipalities and over 80,000 community based offices around the country which help women with everything from family planning, health issues, domestic violence, etc. we then went to Freedom Plaza, where Fidel gave his famous four hour speech on liberation day and saw a building size tributes to Che Guevara nd Camilo Cienfuegos as well as the marble statue to Jose Marti, the father of Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s striking how there are no such public monuments that we have seen to Fidel or Raul Castro.
After that we had lunch at the hotel that Ernest Hemingway used to live in. While we were there a young woman named Yadi came up to me and asked if we were Americans, and when I told her we were, burst into tears and sobbed for five full minutes as I held her. She was so moved that Americans wanted to know about her country and had never met one.
We then had two incredible meetings, the first with Dr. Esteban Morales, who has been called “the W.E.B. Du Bois of Cuba.” He is the country’s leading race relations expert and spent a good deal of time telling us the contradictions between the stated policies of the country and the systemic racism that black Cubans still face. It was an interesting juxtaposition to our own system in which people in the dominant group (they call them “white Cubans”) do not want to talk about the plight of black Cubans. I guess Bill O’Reilly has more in common with the Cubans than he thinks! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself! LOL)
We ended the day with Jorge Maria Sanchez Egozcue, a leading Cuban economist who explained how the U.S. Blockade has undermined the Cuban economy. One of the absurdities that he explained was that one of the main justifications we used for branding them a terrorist nation was that they had a relationship with the El Salvadoran “guerrillas,” who are now the leaders of the government that we have a relationship with! He also discussed the dangers inherent in the opening up of the relationship between our countries. They expect an explosion of visitors and will have to deal with an infrastructure that is underdeveloped because they have chosen to use their limited resources on education and health. They also will have a challenge because their population is somewhat overeducated to staff the hospitality industry to the degree that they will need. Their education system has been so effective that they produce an extraordinary numbers of doctors and the like!
Now off to see some Cuban Jazz! More to come mañana!
HAVANA DAY SIX: Another fascinating day with our emphasis today on healthcare. We started this morning by driving about 90 minutes out of the city to an intentional community of about 1200 people in the mountains. The community was created as a way of reforesting an area that had been completely deforested by the Spanish years ago. It reminded me of an Israeli kibbutz and also welcomed tourists from many countries. We had an opportunity to meet with two of the four doctors who serve the community and hear about their practices.
After getting caught in a torrential mountain rainstorm, we headed back to the hotel and had an opportunity to meet with four African American students who are graduating on Wednesday from the Latin American School of Medicine, a program that Cuba has created to train people to serve in underserved communities around the world. They have been here for six years, having come down from Oakland, Brooklyn, Newark, and Chicago. Their classmates are from 35 different countries. None of them spoke a word of Spanish before coming here and spent 6 months in a Spanish immersion program so they could then attend medical school 100% in Spanish. They were remarkable. The program is entirely funded by the Cuban Government, including all expenses, living expenses, down to paper and pencils, and a stipend to live off of. The only obligation they have is to provide medical care in underserved communities when they go back.
The Cuban medical system is fully integrated, including best practices of western medicine, Chinese medicine, and botanical medicine. They heavily emphasize preventive care, having a created a free universal healthcare system, which is built on community doctors who regularly canvas neighborhoods to check on family health and provide counseling and support. And yes, they still do house calls! The research capabilities are remarkable…some of you have probably recently read about breakthroughs they have discovered in cancer treatment, suppression of HIV transmission from mothers to baby, etc. The nest result is that Cuban life expectancy is 79.2 years (according to the world health organization) slightly longer than ours! They have more than twice as many doctors per 1000 people than we do.
The students also talked about the fact that they felt much more comfortable being Black here than they do in the states, though there is still a clear racial pattern in this country of black Cubans being underrepresented in some positions and generally being in more low level service positions.
We closed the evening by having a dinner of 5 with a woman who is a doctor and her son who shared more details about the family life of Cubans and, especially what it was like to be a doctor.
They also gave us a pretty frank account of what censorship is like. They said for the most part Cubans don’t have access to Internet just because the country is technologically not prepared for it. As a doctor she has Internet in her house but it is dial-up like we had about 15 years ago. She said they have access to pretty much anything on the Internet with a couple of exceptions. For example, pornography sites, which if somebody goes on there likely to find unavailable the next time they try to go on. They also said that generally sites that are extremely hostile to Cuba are blocked. But the people who are professionals, who are historians, academics, or for example in Foreign Service like her older son, have access to the sites and are encouraged to read them. We have not been restricted in any way in terms of where we can go or what we can see. We can go out walking through the city, take pictures of anything, or grab a cab to go anywhere, without any restrictions. I frankly have been a bit surprised by how easy it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ‘nother level to this that we don’t see, but on the surface it’s not odious. The four American students who we met with earlier all said the same thing.
The Cuban family also told us how excited they are to have the U.S. Embassy opening. All in all another remarkable day. One more day to go!
HAVANA DAY SEVEN – The Journey Ends
Our final day was spent focusing on history and the arts. In the morning we paid a visit to the Museum of the Revolution, the chronicle of Cuban history. The museum is housed in the building that was formerly the Presidential Palace, which Batista and other presidents resided before the revolution in 1959. The bullet holes are still in the wall from the final battle. The story is, of course, told from the viewpoint of the victors, as all history is told. (They say that the difference between a terrorist and a hero is who gets to write the history, but much of it is well documented in other places.) The dictator Batista killed thousands of people and then left the country with over $300 Million when he was overthrown, which doesn’t even include all of the additional money that was taken out by others who left, including American mobsters like Meyer Lansky who were in cahoots with him. I don’t know what that means in current financial terms 55 years later, but it has to be close to a billion dollars, a cost that the Cuban economy has never really recovered from. And, of course, the United States Embargo has only deepened that financial distress.
We also spent some time with Eduardo Roco Salazar, one of the most famous Cuban artists, known as “Chocolate” or “Choco.” We got a chance to be in his studio and see not only his final works, but also his works in progress. Choco creates from his roots in the African-based Cuban religion, Santeria, which was brought over from West Africa by the slaves that were taken to Cuba. It is an interesting practice because, in order to hold on to their beliefs, many Cuban people have integrated Santeria symbols and Gods into Catholicism so that they could continue to practice in the face of missionaries who were trying to convert them, which has created a unique blend of the two. We also had a chance to talk with some average people on the street and hear their impression, with remarkable frankness, including some examples of disagreements with government policies.
We then went to see a small museum that is in the house that Che Guevara lived in on top of a hill overlooking the city. The house is hardly what you would expect for one of the leaders of the revolution…about 8 rooms and maybe 2000 square feet. Very simple. And then, finally, finished with a visit to a Jazz club to listen to some more Afro-Cuban Jazz. And then, this morning, as we waited in line for hours at the Havana airport, we ran into the Washington Gay Male Chorus who were going home after spending 5 days on the Island singing to a number of audiences.
It will take a while for me to process all of this. I know that some of the things that I have written may be interpreted by some as glorifying Cuba, and given the shock of seeing how different the country really is from how it has been depicted, especially by the U.S. government for most of my life I probably have overemphasized the positive to some degree. It hasn’t been my intention to say that Cuba is better than the U.S. But my experience is that they are not the “terrorist country” that we have been told they are. They are a country that overthrew a tyrannical dictator and years of oppression by imperialist countries (including ours) to claim their own destiny in their own way. They are a remarkable community, and an example of the needs of the many being greater than the needs of the few. They work together in the face of extraordinary odds, with amazing tenacity, resourcefulness and creativity, to find a way to make life work. And they do it with a warmth and friendliness that is palpable. They are remarkable generous to Americans, even as they have so many reasons not to be.
They have accomplished some extraordinary things: universal literacy; a free educational system that offers the possibility of education to an overwhelming percentage of the population; a universal free healthcare system that has created an overwhelmingly healthy population; more than twice as many doctors per capita than almost any other country; and a sense of collective community and warmth that is palpable and results in an environment that is one of the safest I have ever been in.
They have challenges too, especially economically and, as I have written earlier, racially. They have a depleted and ancient infrastructure, and the level of freedom of speech and movement that their citizens have is not the same as in the U.S. Yet they have the capacity to come together to address issues in a way that would be very difficult for us to do. If we continue in the direction of opening up our relationship it will undoubtedly create challenges for them to develop infrastructure to handle it. But their sense of national pride and community is undeniable and I look forward to future visits.
Maybe the most important learning is that there are two sides to every story, and the side that I saw there bore almost no resemblance to what I have heard from our government for over 50 years. As citizens we have to be sure to do our own homework and make our own judgments without blindly assuming that what we hear is true. As we explore this new agreement with Iran we, once again, have an opportunity to blindly believe what we hear or do our own homework.
Go to Cuba when you get a chance and make up your own mind.
Special thanks to Dr. Ben Reese from Duke University and the rest of the group from the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education for including me in this incredible learning opportunity, and thanks for reading my longwinded reports!
To read more of Howard’s writings, check out Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives and ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance