By: Tannishtha Pramanick
Since the time of Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, after overthrowing the corporate-minded and corrupt Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the country has seldom been on positive terms with the United States. Castro’s Marxist-Leninist policies were not to the taste of the United States, and rightfully so.
In theory, Castro looked to promote a higher standard of living for Cubans, as well as liberation from the consequences of the wealth-gap that had originated under the power of the sugar plantations and corrupt businessmen. In practice, these policies only served to deteriorate Cuba’s economic conditions, leading to a decline in the quality of life of most Cubans. Despite Castro’s regime operating under communist policies, the United States did, initially, recognize the nation and its government. As time wore on, Castro started increasing trade with the Soviet Union, as well as nationalizing businesses, mainly American-held ones, and increased tariffs on US imports. In retaliation, the United States began a series of economic sanctions, each one more severe than the last. The process began with banning US exports to Cuba, as well as banning Cuban sugar imports, and concluded with a full-scale trade embargo, complemented by strict travel restrictions, all implemented by then-President Kennedy. Eventually, the United States severed diplomatic ties entirely in 1961 with the island nation as a precursor to pursuing covert operations in order to overthrow the Castro regime. They have not succeeded with doing so, as their most infamous attempt, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, culminated in both near catastrophe and failure.
Recently, and for the first time since the Carter administration, the United States and Cuba have had a thawing in their relations. On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama announced his intent to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. This development was met with aversion or support in the Cuban-American community, depending on which side of the divide members are on. Republican Cuban-Americans are against the move, as they feel that by bargaining with Castro, Obama is acting like an enabler for his communist government. Democrats are more open to negotiations, as they feel that by focusing on current conditions in Cuba, they can help citizens of the island nation eventually attain a better standard of living.
In a three-part interview with Cuban-American activist and law student, Carlos Estevez, The Foreign Observer gets an in-depth look what life is like in Cuba and what it means to be both Cuban-American, and have to deal with issues involving Cuban-American relations from a personal perspective. Carlos was previously a politics op-ed writer during his undergraduate studies at NYU at the Washington Square News, and was president of the Cuban American Students’ Association. He currently studies at Columbia Law School, and lives in New York City.
Part I of this interview explores living conditions in Cuba and the background and recent history of the country under Castro’s rule.
Tannishtha: To clarify, you were born in Cuba and you lived there until you were eleven?
Carlos: Yes, I was born in 1992 and I lived there for eleven years.
Tannishtha: How was that? How would you describe the conditions and what was it like growing up there for so long?
Carlos: Well, right around that time the Soviet Union fell, and they were the primary providers of the Cuban economy. The GDP shrank so much, so quickly that there was just massive poverty for the whole population. There was a shortage of food, of basic health needs, you know, blankets, soap, everything. It was pretty bad timing on my part to be born there. It was also a pretty oppressive time for activists. Every time there would be a rally, they would just be shut down and put in jail. They had a lack of teachers too. High school kids, people who had just graduated high school, were put into teaching middle school and elementary school.
Tannishtha: Did you have those high school graduates teaching you in say, fifth or fourth grade?
Carlos: Yeah, I did, and they would make mistakes sometimes. And you’d tell them, ‘that’s actually wrong, that’s not the proper Spanish.’ They were kids who had just graduated high school and they had never been trained really, you know, like serious training as a teacher. There would also be one teacher for your classes. The same person who had just graduated high school would be teaching math, Spanish, science, everything.
Tannishtha: Do you remember the government trying to make excuses for that, or some bizarre PR statement explaining why this is what it is?
Carlos: They would always do so by saying there’s a blockade from the US, and that’s why things are the way they are. They would always call it a blockade, and not an embargo. For example, there was no internet access in the late nineties and early two-thousands. Even now, there is very little internet access. The Cuban government says the US is actively blocking the internet from getting into Cuba, and they would just say things like that about most things.
Tannishtha: So was it just the internet, or was it other things as well, with them saying ‘Well American hates us…’ and so on, and so forth?
Carlos: They would not explain that it was not the blockade for everything. They would use the embargo as an excuse for why there was no internet, and other similar situations. But in reality, the embargo has nothing to do with internet connection or WiFi, or anything like that.
Tannistha: I recall in one of your columns you wrote about the embargo, and it being called a blockade, because the [Cuban] government wants to use it as an excuse to maintain antagonistic relations between the two countries. In light of the fact Obama did try to use executive action to soften the situation between the two countries, do you think Cuba is going to continue to spin this blockade story and promote it?
Carlos: Well, I think that’s the main reason it was a good idea to end this policy of isolation towards Cuba. Because now, Cuba is forced to end this propaganda-ridden story of the ‘US is blockading us.’ They can no longer use it, because they have announced publicly they are opening the relationship, and have said they’re going to work with the US. They can no longer say that the US is the enemy in doing this to Cuba.
Tannishtha: What you’re saying is that they’re going to be forced to stop saying that this is a blockade, and admit that their services are not enough for the country and they cannot provide for the people?
Carlos: Oh, I don’t think they’ll admit that they’re failing. But they’re going to have to find a new excuse. They definitely cannot say the US is the excuse anymore. It’s going to be very awkward, because all throughout Cuba they have hundreds of billboards saying that the US is the enemy and they’re blockading us. On TV, they have advertisements saying that capitalism is horrible, and once you go to the US, they will work you to death. Now, they’re going to have to erase that from the society, essentially.
Tannishtha: Do you think after trying to do that, and once the Cuban public becomes more aware of what the reality is regarding the US, Cubans will be more likely to revolt? More so than they have done in the past?
Carlos: I think the Cuban public will not revolt, no matter what. There are a number of things lacking in Cuba. For example, if you think about the Arab spring, they had more resources. There is even less internet access [in Cuba] than in places like Egypt. There is even less communication. Very, very few people have telephones. So, let’s say you want to tell someone, ‘Hey, let’s start a revolt.’ It’ll be very hard to tell that person via email, and you have no internet, no phone, and it will all be word of mouth. People who have internet are highly controlled. People who have phones, and are activists, are also very tightly controlled. The economic situation is so bad, that people are mostly worried about getting food on the table, instead of thinking ‘We really need political freedom.’ So when the policies changed last week, people were thinking ‘Maybe this will help, maybe we will have more money, more food,’ instead of thinking, ‘Maybe we will have more freedom.’
Tannishtha: Right, because of how decrepit the situation is, people will think ‘First you have to eat, and then we can move on to freedom.’ So now they will seek sustenance first, before they can chase something abstract like rights.
Carlos: Right. Cuba is also one of those countries that bans weapons. So, they are all tightly controlled by the government. Even if you can get a group of people together, there’s not much you can do. It’s forbidden by the way. I forget what the number is, but after five people or so, it’s forbidden to assemble.
Tannishtha: I personally find that pretty funny, because you look at Castro, and just the whole movement, and how they got it rolling, and then five people or more, and it’s ‘You’re going to go to jail.’
Carlos: Yeah. I think the biggest revolt that has happened since then was in the mid-nineties. A couple years after I was born, like I told you, things were really, really bad, far worse than they are now. People just got fed up with the lack of food, and other things, and they took to the streets, and they started breaking windows and protesting. I was there, and my parents and I, we went home since it was so dangerous. Fidel Castro sent the Cuban army into Havana, and they beat everyone up and put them in jail. They cleaned the streets, and then Fidel Castro walked onto the street and said ‘Listen if anyone has a problem, you can just tell me. See, everything is fine.’
Tannishtha: So nothing has happened in almost twenty years?
Carlos: Nothing of that scale, no. There is a big activist group, but they are very oppressed.
Tannishtha: Along with the PR machine, the propaganda, and the blockade-embargo issue, you’ll hear from a lot of Americans and Canadians the oft-quoted statistic that Cuba’s infant mortality is so low, and that their healthcare must be great and that in the US, we treat people who are poor and without health insurance so poorly. Can you explain how that works?
Carlos: It’s very simple. In Cuba, if you are pregnant, you have to have an ultrasound, so it’s mandatory. You have to have a series of checks, basically, to see how your baby is. If there’s any problems with your baby, you have to have an abortion. What happens is that the babies that are born in Cuba are very, very healthy. That’s why there’s a very low infant mortality rate and very high life expectancy, almost the same as in first world countries. The government chooses to selectively keep only healthy babies. It’s not just speculation. You can see that Cuba has a really high abortion rate, even compared to poor countries in South America where abortion is legal. Some people have tried to do concrete studies on this, but research is oppressed.
Tannishtha: That’s something you don’t really see or hear about, the whole Brave New World scenario playing out there. It’s pretty awful. Switching from abortion to religion, do people practice, knowing the history of the country, Catholicism in Cuba? And knowing about this abortion situation, how do they deal with this?
Carlos: They won’t tell you that your baby has a defect and they want you to abort it. They say there’s a complication with the baby, and to take a pill, and drink something, and they recommend the abortion citing health concerns. They really try to coax you, and make it so in the end you will have an abortion. I would say a lot of people in Cuba are Catholic, a large majority.
Tannishtha: I was thinking that as well. How long has this abortion policy been in effect in Cuba?
Carlos: I can’t tell you how long exactly, but it has definitely been around for a couple of decades.
Tannishtha: When people are being told to take the pill, and that you’ll get better, and then it’s probably RU-486, the abortion pill, they won’t know what’s going on? Even if they have aunts or mothers or friends who have been through this?
Carlos: Even if that’s the case, they will be told they really need to do this and it’s the only viable way to go forward.
Tannishtha: Oh, wow.
Carlos: People in Cuba have so many preoccupations, that I don’t think anyone is really ruled by the religion in terms of what they will do in practicality. The religion is also pretty mixed, as they’re mostly Catholic, but many people also believe in Santeria, the west African religion. They’re not really strict Catholics, in the sense of how someone is in the US is, so they won’t be against gay marriage or abortion because of that.
Tannishtha: In Cuba, the practical aspects, like views on abortion and gay marriage, are not really tied to their Catholicism? Because, In the US, with public policy, the two are pretty tied, and you’ll see a lot of that in publications like First Things or the National Review Online, both of which are really influential.
Carlos: People are really lucky to even be Catholic in Cuba, because once Fidel Castro took over, he essentially banned Catholicism. He took all the priests and head nuns and literally put them on a ship and sent them away. Faith is a private thing Cubans practice in their homes.
Tannishtha: Right. That’s often seen in communist or socialist governments. The whole situation of faith being shut out of the public sphere.
Part II of the interview will be published next Friday. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and content. The original interview took place on, and was recorded on, December 30th, 2014.
Tannishtha Pramanick is the Editor-in-Chief of The Foreign Observer, and a student at the University of Toronto studying Economics, Statistics and Political Science.