President Barack Obama recently made an historic visit to Cuba in the latest step of his initiative to re-establish ties between the United States and Cuba.
Havana has been under an economic embargo by Washington since 1962. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, there were even US-backed attempts to overthrow the Castro administration and assassinate Fidel Castro himself. These actions greatly strained relations between the two countries. Many Cubans also fled Cuba and were given asylum in the US.
Despite international pressure spearheaded mostly by the US, Cuba maintained its stability and was able to sustain itself on what limited resources it had access to. The Soviet Union back in that time gave tremendous support to Cuba and such support helped Cuba to stay on its feet in spite of the embargo.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and a reduction of aid from Russia, Cuba has relied on the resilience of its people and its socialist structures to maintain order in the society. Often criticized for a poor human rights record, Cuba has remained a communist state.
I had the opportunity in 1990 to visit Cuba as a student representative from the Cave Hill Campus. I witnessed what was happening especially with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the impending hardships on the Cuban society. I found a people who were very resilient and who survived on whatever they had.
It was far from being a materialistic society. Cars made in the 1950’s were the norm and driving as though they were recently made. Refrigerators and other electronic devices were out of that age as well and all working. The attitude of the people I met then, including many students, was an attitude of making do with what they had and trying to build upon that.
At a meeting of university students from across Cuba with Fidel Castro and government ministers, I witnessed an extraordinary event. Students, rather than complaining about a lack of resources, were actually reporting on their own initiatives to help offset any deficiencies on the part of government. Ministers were called out by Castro in front of the students to report on any issues under their care and chastised if such matters weren’t being properly addressed.
It was a time of limited oil coming into the island and I remember students and other officials telling Castro they will make their way to school on bicycles. At that time, I wondered what would happen when this country finally moves into the modern age and gets spoilt by the materialism so common in western societies.
How will the attitude be then? Would it change to be like the rest of us who complain bitterly when we can’t get something or will it remain an opportunity to look for alternatives?
Fidel Castro gave a speech for three hours at that event without a written text. Such was his command of leadership. One evening, while we were there, he came to a student’s event unannounced. His presence obviously evoked a lot of emotions for the Cubans there and they all broke out chanting, “whatever you want, Fidel!”
For many, Cuba has not done well with human rights. For others, Cuba is an example of survival against all odds. The history of Cuba’s liberation from the clutches of the rich, powerful landowners is worth studying. Its path to communism was probably imposed upon it after nations like the US gave refuge to those affected, and continued their efforts to undermine the revolution.
Caribbean governments have made it a point over the years to maintain close relationships with Cuba. This has worked to their advantage, as Cuba, in spite of the embargo, has done exceptionally well in several areas.
In health, they have been leaders in many ways, developing remedies and ways of dealing with the numerous health challenges facing many developing and even developed countries.
Their doctors and healthcare professionals have gone all over the world to help. In education, Cuba has also done well and caters to students from many countries.
President Obama’s move is a bold one but it is also very strategic. Many countries, including those in Europe and even Canada, are doing business with Cuba. It has huge potential for economic growth.
It would be unwise for any right thinking US administration to ignore this reality. Cuba sits right off the coast of Florida. The continued US embargo on Cuba would only work to America’s disadvantage.
Fidel Castro’s response to Obama’s visit, as carried in the media, shows a still very defiant revolutionary. Fidel cautions Obama not to take the Cuban people for granted. He knows too well the struggles he had against US administrations and is obviously wary of any promises made. His experience and wisdom still seem important for the current Cuban administration.
President Obama made a promise when he first came to office, to close the Guantanamo prison on Cuba. To date, he has not done so and recently, while preparing to go to Cuba, again he pledged to do all that was necessary to have it closed. Guantanamo prison is a sore on the world and a shame for all those who think that it should remain. It was set up reportedly to make the world a safer place.
People were literally kidnapped and transported there from different parts of the world under the Bush administration, in its so-called war on terror. Denied justice, incarcerated and tortured, many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were later found to be innocent civilians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Several prisoners who have since been released have told harrowing stories of their time in captivity. We should read those accounts for often we believe that these super democratic countries live by the ideals of truth, freedom and justice for all. The reality, however, is that they do some nasty things behind the scenes under the guise of fighting terrorists and evil-doers.
Shaker Aamer, a British prisoner who was held hostage for 14 years without trial at Guantanamo and was released in October last year, says that he and the 779 men held there, were subjected to not only physical but also mental, psychological and religious torture. There are 91 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo which Aamer says was built with the sole purpose of experimenting on people and breaking them. Shaker has told the media Guantanamo is run by psychologists with the sole purpose of destroying the human beings it holds.
Before President Obama leaves office, he must fulfill his promise of closing Guantanamo. Those who remain should be afforded justice if there is sufficient evidence to bring a case against them or they should be released. The International Criminal Court is perhaps an option for such cases to be heard but the US refuses to join.
Like re-establishing ties with Cuba, so is closing the Guantanamo prison. Both certainly bring to an end an ugly chapter in United States history.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace and Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)