From the unique perspective of Diego Benitez from Witness for Peace (WFP) who has been on the ground in Havana, Cuba since the beginning of the year. WFP is a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. WFP’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. WFP established an active delegations program in Cuba in 1999. Delegates worked to expose the human costs of the U.S. embargo. Over the next four years, thousands of activists traveled to Cuba with WFP before President Bush revoked WFP's license to travel to Cuba in 2005.
I have spent a lot of time in Cuba the past five months now and I’m not sure where to begin this first blog. Maybe I’ll start by rambling about my experiences through my research and work with our licensed delegations and hope to grab on to something somewhere along the way. I thought things would be different here. For some reason I thought this would be a place where basic human rights were deprived, where big brother watched my every move, where my toes would hurt from walking on their tips…I thought I would lose weight. I thought I would smoke a lot more cigars, drink a lot more rum, dance a lot more salsa and swim more often at the beach. It turns out I was a victim of the mass misinformation campaigns that have been feeding our senses for over fifty years. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was one of those; I think most of us are. Ultimately the truth changes everything. It turns out that I was right about things being different here, just not in the way I had assumed.
Every Cuban family has a ration card to supplement their needs. The Cuban government offers its citizens a social safety net that includes free education, health care, housing, basic foodstuff and a lot more goodies that sound too good to be true. Monthly rations are not the only way of surviving. This is merely a basket of goods meant to satisfy basic needs. They must work to supplement the rest. Each month a member of the family heads to a local bodega to pick up the monthly ration of rice, beans, sugar, oil, coffee, pasta, eggs, a small portion of meat/poultry and a few other basic nutritional goods. If there are young children in the household they receive yogurt and milk. Bread is rationed daily. It isn’t enough to survive on, but something is better than nothing. The rest of their needs are found through the daily lucha, the everyday struggle. Everyone finds a way to survive here. In fact, Cubans pride themselves on being survivors. Sometimes things are done through the black market but the overwhelming amount of success comes from their creativity, hard work and solidarity. They suffer and succeed together which, is something I am still trying to understand.
One Friday night last November, after a full day of meetings with our first People to People licensed delegation, I went to a downtown bar to see a well-known Cuban rock band perform. The bar is called Stairway to Heaven. On Friday nights it operates as a gay establishment. Normally it plays pop and rock music from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Pictures of Madonna and the Beatles adorn the walls with neon paint that glimmers under glowing blue lights.
I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced that night. First, I realized that maybe I should have washed my white shirt with a bit more care the day before…blue light can be cruel to clothing with stains. Second, I slowly came to understand that I was at a gay bar and the realization struck me with awe. I didn’t think that the gay community could gather as freely as it did that night. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of discrimination and social stigma, but not to the degree I had expected. When I lived in Burkina Faso things were much more difficult, flat out dangerous for gay men. Colombia also had/has its challenges. As a straight man I wondered if I would be welcomed or chastised. I felt nervous. Like an underage kid sneaking in to his first bar with a fake ID; I wasn’t sure if I’d get kicked out or not. But, things turned out well in the end and I chatted up a storm with a gregarious physician and his partner, an accountant, who visit the bar at the end of each week to enjoy live music, fine rum and be around friends for a while.
By the end of the night I found myself dancing salsa music with newly made friends while questioning the traditional leadership roles. At no point did I feel threatened, confused or fearful of an unwarranted advance. In fact, I felt flattered if someone thought me handsome. I had such a blast that I go back every now and then with our delegations after a full day of educational activities and introduce them to a side of Cuba they wouldn’t otherwise get to know. The gay community has seen several changes in the past two decades. At one point in history they were sent to re-education camps by the powers in charge. Ignorance spread easily in a traditionally macho culture and being gay didn’t help. Funny enough though, CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education is directed by Mariela Castro Espin, niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba. It struggles for gay rights and social inclusion. Even more interesting is that in 2008 a law was passed allowing free sex-change operations for individuals who qualify! How wild is that? While the LGBTQ community isn’t proclaiming they’ve found solutions to every problem, they do recognize that they have come a long way since the camps.
Education here is what probably has astounded me the most. I have felt comfortable handing text to a rural farmer feeling relatively sure that they will be able to read it. In other countries I wouldn’t do it for fear of embarrassing situations. It turns out that the illiteracy rate here is almost 0%. Shortly after the revolution a campaign was launched to empower every Cuban with the skills to read and write. Young adults and students volunteered in droves to live and teach in the rural country side. The literacy campaigns came to be known as the Conrado Benitez campaign after a young man who was killed at the onset for carrying out such activities. The stories are inspirational; the young volunteering to teach the old, the illiterate, farmers and housewives basic reading and writing skills. It was a golden age for popular education. I often wonder what it would look like in the states, perhaps AmeriCorps?
I will end my first ramble by mentioning that the Pope was here recently. Historically, the Catholic Church has had a strong presence in Cuba. However, after the revolution relationships became estranged and each establishment viewed the other with suspicion. Things have steadily been improving. The Pope’s visit points towards a continued warming of ties. This year marks the first time in Cuba’s history that Holy Friday is celebrated as a national holiday. As far as I can recall we have never celebrated Good Friday as a national holiday in the states. It makes me wonder if Santeria, a commonly practiced Afro-Cuban religion throughout Cuba, will also have a day in history where its holidays are celebrated nationwide.
It’s only been a a few months that I’ve spent a lot of time here and as a foreigner I can hardly tell that there was ever a religious struggle. Things have changed. Everyone acknowledges the turning of a page when religion was viewed with suspicion and Christians concealed their faith. While Cubans aren’t necessarily rejoiced about being able to celebrate Good Friday, they do appreciate a day off. A day off from the daily struggle is always a welcomed treat. And I will end my ramble with that.
Clearly there is a lot left to talk about, not least of which is an economic embargo initiated during the Kennedy administration and kept in place by every administration since. This country has suffered tremendously because of it. There is practically no trade happening between the U.S. and Cuba, and any foreign ships using U.S. ports are prohibited from travelling to Cuba for a period of 180 days. It is an archaic policy that we as Witness for Peace work hard to raise awareness on. Yet, despite all the hardships, Cubans forge ahead and steadily experiment with a Socialist system they have embraced and we have demonized. Most importantly it is done in solidarity. A word I wish we used more often back home.
As I start this Cuba rambling blog, I would like for it to serve the purpose of raising awareness on issues that aren’t spoken about in the states. So please feel free to ask me any questions that on issues you’d like to know more about and I will do the best to do the research and respond. Internet is slow here, but with enough time I will get back to you.
Diego Benitez has been a staff member of Witness for Peace since 2008 and spent three years as part of the WFP International Team in Colombia before helping to re-start the Witness for Peace delegations to Cuba in 2011. To see the original posting of this blog on the Witness for Peace website please click here.