My trip to Cuba with CODEPINK

(photo of me and Medea Benjamin by Shahid Buttar) I had a powerful experience in my travel to Cuba this past week, as part of the CODEPINK delegation, “to Cuba, With Love.” The theme of this whole visit was to show Cuba more love than its been getting from our country. The delegation made clear that they hope this trip would accomplish three goals: one to take Cuba off of the list of nations that the U.S. has defined as “terrorist” nations. Two, to lift the fifty plus year old trade embargo that former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed since 1959 because of their sovereign socialist revolution, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, that ended the dictatorship of U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista. Three, to close Guantanamo Bay prison which the U.S. military has used for over one hundred years to torture extradited individuals from mainly Arab countries that have been held there without charge. Guantanamo Bay prison is one of the last remaining bastions and symbols of the increasing police state that the United States is becoming. On our first night we met with Kenya Serrano of the Cuban Institute of Friendship With the People. She said that the closing of Guantanamo will be a historic justice. She also talked about the character of the Cuban parliament since their revolution: 45% of those in the Cuban Parliament are women. Medea Benjamin said that in the U.S. not even 20% of the U.S. Congress are women, and that we have a lot of work to do to get Cuba off of the terrorist list. Medea asked the President of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, what challenges between U.S.-Cuba relations exist from the Cuban perspective. Alarcon said that the U.S. government still has the same goals despite their announcement of wanting to establish diplomatic relations, but that they have other means of accomplishing their goals. This statement was an allusion to the efforts of think tanks like the National Endowment For Democracy that are currently spending millions of dollars to topple the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Obama’s federal budget that he drafted this month has more money than ever for the U.S. military while no more money was allocated to public schools. Alarcon said that we have to take on the challenge implicit in the decision to establish diplomatic relations. That we have to work at those decisions as civilized as possible. He said that Obama made an important decision to recognize the failure of the embargo. He said he decided to use his executive authority, like Eisenhower used his, to make the embargo more flexible. He said that more can be done, not just to reopen an embassy, and send an ambassador, which requires consent and advice of the Senate. It is also important to eliminate the economic embargo and the travel ban. Alarcon noted that “it is clear that a majority of Americans do not want a confrontation with Cuba.” Then he defined what Cuban values in the twenty first century are. He said that Cubans believe in the majority to have healthcare and education. Why should any state determine healthcare and education in any other country? He asks. He says that in the Cuban constitution, healthcare is a human right, and that the U.S. continues to support countries that do not recognize the right of women. Without naming such countries, Alarcon is referring here to Saudi Arabia which as a theocracy boasts some of the most oppressive sexist laws, such as those laws that forbid women from driving and from serving in the government. When the question and answer time came up, Kenya Serrano answered my question about whether the Cuban government recognizes same sex marriages. She said that the country does not yet recognize same sex marriages. In Cuba she said that such an idea is respected at an individual level, but not tolerated. In the United States, however, same sex marriage is welcomed in an increasing number of states. I spoke with several Cuban citizens about how public display of affection is not tolerated. I also spoke with several U.S. citizens about how LGBT rights is about much more than same sex marriage. It also includes a right to education and employment which in most cases makes the right to marriage moot. I think that the right to marriage for many of us have to take a back seat to the rights to employment and healthcare that the nation routinely denies to not only people of color but also LGBTQ individuals of color. I was very impressed with the fact that Cuba, unlike the United States, has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world (4.43 deaths per 1000 births). Alarcon said powerfully at the end of this talk that Cuban is not for sale, and that the notion of a country being for sale is a neoliberal policy. Cuba will welcome foreign investors, but on Cuba’s terms and not on the terms of the foreign investor. This reminds me of how democratic socialism operated in Jamaica, compared to the revolution that was pursued in Cuba. Kenya said that the internet is mainly for social use and that it is expensive for the Cuban government to get internet from Canada. This makes the internet on some level cost prohibitive to the majority of Cubans. However it has paid a lot from the Canadian government to secure internet use for its citizens. Serrano said that the Cuban government is committed to the protection of political prisoners like Assata Shakur. Alarcon added that Assata Shakur is a victim of racist U.S. policy and under a very serious threat by the U.S. government. I am grateful that leaders in the West recognize the sheer racism of the U.S. government towards Assata Shakur. After teaching the autobiography of Assata Shakur called Assata to two of my English classes, I completely opposed the idea of Eric Holder and Barack Obama sanctioning her being on the U.S. Most Wanted Terrorist List as of May 2, 2013, forty years after she was shot in the arm by a New Jersey State Trooper and wrongfully accused of shooting a state trooper. I am disappointed in my country for persecuting a woman, not for a crime she actually committed, but for her political beliefs. This goes against everything the United States claims to stand for. Alarcon said that the United States effort to improve diplomatic relations with Cuba may put Assata in a more dangerous situation. This is especially true after watching the leaders of South American nations in Oliver Stone’s film South of the Border who suggest a very real threat of assassination in the wake of “more diplomatic” relations. Alarcon vowed to help defend Assata Shakur from any increased threat to her life that this “improved” diplomacy might bring. I was able to give letters of support to Assata Shakur to U.S. citizens who strongly disagree with her being placed on the terrorist list. (Above is a photo of myself and Kenya Serrano of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People) Later that evening on Monday, February 9th, I visited the home of an LGBTQ rights activist in Havana and learned a perspective of Cuban life from an LGBTQ perspective that was more critical of the Cuban government. I was told about how the Cuban police use the charge of prostitution to silence, intimidate and jail Black Cubans. But I was also later told about how prostitution is in fact a serious issue that the Cuban government is seriously trying to curb. I was with a friend who said she observed the Cuban police arrest a young Black man for no apparent reason. The activists during this visit educated me immensely. One told me about an article in the Granma newspaper that featured an interview with Fidel Castro being asked about LGBTQ rights since the revolution. The activist said that when Castro was challenged about the persecution that LGBTQ activists face after the Cuban revolution, he admitted that the abuse of the LGBTQ community was not acceptable. But he also gave what these activists thought was a sorry excuse for an apology. The activists at this meeting agreed that while the Columbian police actually protect protestors, Cuban police do not. The police was seen as a tool of repression against the working poor, like its seen in the United States. They described CENESEX as a paradise that in reality does not exist. Activists explained to me that Cuba is still a homophobic country because of patriarchy and because of the machismo that was inherited since the Cuban revolution, seen in the images of Che, Fidel Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. While I read in Leslie Feinberg’s book “Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba” that individuals who want transgender operations can have then paid for by the Cuban government, I learned from these activists that there are actually very few who can have these operations at CENESEX. Those seeking these operations have to go through a lot of red tape that ultimately denies access people who are not very close in some way to people in CENESEX. In order to get through this red tape, applicants for this transgender operation in Cuba have to be in line with the Cuban Communist Party, and be part of the system and Afro Cubans are generally excluded from that process. Meanwhile later this evening, a second, different group met at the home of an older psychologist who works for CENESEX. I learned from this psychologist that the country has come a long way in approving transgender operations. On the day we visited the activist group, we learned that the police passed a law saying that LGBTQ individuals passed a law saying that LGBTQ individuals cannot assemble in certain places like Malecon, which was within feet of the Hotel that I was staying at. In the home of a CENESEX employee, I read and learned about their human sexuality primer, called in English “puberty” that described the possibility of a same sex relationship between two men and two women. There were some questions in this second group about whether this book in fact discussed the possibility of same sex relationships and before our second meeting was over, we in fact discovered that yes, this Puberty text which is available to all public schools in Cuba does in fact teach the possibility of same sex relationships. That alone puts it light years ahead of the Jamaican government which in its brazen ignorance is obviously hostile to the idea of teaching its youth about the possibility of same sex relationships. (This photo is a page of the Puberty text issued by CENESEX in Cuban primary schools) On Tuesday I visited two schools: first, the San Alejandro School of the Arts and the second was an Elementary school. The day we visited the Arts School, the students were taking an entrance exam however we were able to visit some of the art galleries featuring the memorable work of some students. One of the pieces featured was by Marian Rodriguez who showed me the stone on which she sketched. My limited knowledge of visual art prevents me from sharing the type of art that this is. I also appreciated visiting the Elementary School and to hear a poem about Jose Marti by an eight year old young man. I was struck by the fact that each school has an administrator that is a member of the Cuban Communist Party and makes some effort to enforce some standard of learning throughout the country. This made me think of the U.S. public schools and how a quality education depends on the income of the parents and not the level of commitment of the child. It seemed that a majority of the Cuban citizens had a deep awareness of their history and the importance of their revolution. The day we visited these schools we went to one of the many cooperatively owned businesses in Havana, El Jardin De Los Milagros. The government provides a tax cut from 29 to 13% to cooperatively owned businesses like these in order to encourage them. The food was remarkable. I have absolutely no complaints about the food in Cuba. If anything for me, it could have been a bit more spicy. The owner of this restaurant was a part of an Agricultural cooperative with thirteen other co-owners. What if small businessowners in the U.S. would form a cooperative and receive tax incentives? I think I had an important conversation at this restaurant about the way that the Cuban government’s role for the Cuban people is a like a father protecting a child from the potentially dangerous (as it was called on this trip) “tsunami” of imperialism. There were some serious critiques of the Cuban government that I heard, however in most cases, I either agreed or sympathized with the decisions the government took to defend itself. I think free market capitalism in theory might work, but in the United States, its coupling with mass incarceration and crippling austerity policies makes it extremely harmful and I think ultimately dangerous for countries like Cuba. In most cases what others call the repression of the Cuban government I would call a protective measure against the danger of Yankee imperialism. Later this afternoon we visited the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medica. We learned that this school has graduated 24,000 students from 88 countries including the United States. The students go through a six year program. The first three years are at a central location and the rest at other schools across the country. The first two years they are trained in Cuba and during the third year, they leave to work in a hospital in Cuba. At the end of their fourth year, they have to perform an exam. PANORAMA is the journal of the school. These doctors are trained to treat transmittable diseases like Measles. They have MRI machines, nuclear medicine, CTC scanners. We were given a tour of the school from its secretary. I had an important conversation with two medical school students about their time here. This routine reminds me of the role that American universities played for African intellectuals in improving the plight of their home countries. I am thinking specifically of Robert A. Hill’s article in the book Marcus Garvey And the Vision of Africa edited by Amy Jacques Garvey and John Henrik Clarke. He talks about the role that colonial education for intellectuals like Marcus Garvey, (and Hubert Harrison, Kwame Nkrumah for that matter) can play in advancing the anticolonial struggle. These two men took the colonial education they learned and applied it to improving the plight of their home countries. Unfortunately because of the West’s military superpower, anticolonial struggle has so far resulted in neocolonial leadership that still serves the interest of the West. It is clear that the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medica was interested in training doctors to serve their country, not to serve neocolonial, private capital interests. I had very interesting discussions with two medical school students about the helpful roles that Cuban doctors played in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. (this is a photo with a medical student at Escuela Latinoamericana de Medica) There was some discussion in our casual conversations about two drugs made in Cuba that could help U.S. citizens if they were imported. One was a cancer vaccine and another was a diabetes medication. CODEPINK members on this trip were able to talk with a representative from the U.S. State Department in Cuba about whether these helpful drugs provided by Cuban medicine could be imported to the United States. The representative said no: only privately owned goods could be imported into the United States. When asked for his rationale for this restriction, the Representative, of what is called the U.S. intersection (an intermediate stage of a developing U.S. embassy) replied that the United States’ whole goal is to have the Cuban people wake up in the morning and not need anything from their government. Their policy which is to promote the private sector can be seen here. Jodie Evans of CODEPINK said that this kind of policy by the U.S. essentially creates INEQUALITY, which is exactly why Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the socialist revolution that toppled the U.S.-appointed leader Fulgencio Batista in 1959 in the first place. This policy of not wanting the Cuban people to wake up in the morning and not need anything from their government is the red flag that Ricardo Alarcon warned us about in his Monday, February 9th talk to our delegation. My goal as part of CODEPINK is to call attention to, and to end the inequality and the brutal imperialism that the socialist revolution fought against. Haber Biotech is a Cuban state-run pharmaceutical company that will not be allowed to import drugs treating diabetes or cancer in the United States. The U.S. government enables and encourages this profiteering behavior by U.S. pharmaceutical companies that care more about profits than about people. It will take work to prevent the inequality that U.S. government “diplomacy” will create. I had conversations with other delegates about the different ways that the Cuban government can tax goods that they sell at a high rate and redistribute that revenue in order to continue the founding principles of the socialist revolution, which are detailed clearly in the book A Cuban Revolution Reader edited by Julio Garcia Luis. On the fourth day of the trip, I took a tour of Casablanca where I saw a monument of Jesus Christ done by Gilma Madera. This was the most powerful day of the trip, because I attended a talk about the work of filmmaker Gloria Rolando, who directed and produced the film Eyes of the Rainbow about Assata Shakur. (this is a photo with Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando) At this talk, we saw two at least two other films she produced, that she later discussed. One was Las Raíces De Mi Corazon (The Roots of My Heart) about Sara Gomez, a fearless Afro-Cuban journalist who fought the demands of Western industry to study and present stories about Afro-Cubans. The other was Los Hijos de Baragua about the migration of a family from Jamaica to Cuba. We saw another film on the 1912 massacre of Cuba’s Partido Independiente de Color (PIDC). I asked her before we saw this film if she interviewed Aline Helg about her book Our Rightful Share, and Gloria told me that she did. I was absolutely mesmerized and inspired by the art of Gloria Rolando. Her film on Gomez reminded me of my dissertation, which focused on radical journalists like Pauline Hopkins who sought to study and uncover for her readers the radical histories of Toussaint L’Ouverture and John Brown. We also discussed her very new film called My Grandmother which is dealing with her grandmother’s relationship with the Catholic order of nuns in Maryland. Very interesting. Rolando said that the Cuban revolution tried their best in many ways to abolish colonial oppression but the past of slavery is real. Another film by Rolando focused on the appeal of U.S. jazz and its icons like Cab Calloway to Afro-Cubans. On the next day, we heard the director of CENESEX, which is Cuba’s Center For Sex Education (Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual) who is Mariela Castro Espín. She said that a society of socialism is a society that lifts everyone, and that even though the Cuban revolution bought many important changes, “there is still generalized homophobia in society.” She acknowledged that sometimes the police mistreat citizens. I remember specifically meeting a young Afro-Cuban gay man who said that he knows he will be less harassed by the police compared to others because he has a Swedish passport. Like Serrano, she said that same sex weddings are not legal in Cuba, but that their process of socialist transformation in Cuba is not yet completed. I was personally impressed with the way that sexual education in Cuba teaches the imperialistic history to its citizens in a way to avoid it. It also teaches the history of gender roles. I am fondly reminded by Sarah Schulman’s book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, that discusses the phenomenon of homonationalism (a term Schulman borrows from Jasbir Puar), which is using gay or queer identity to advance colonialism. Homonationalism is barely checked or critiqued in the United States much less challenged. I think Cuba guards itself from this mindless homonationalism by teaching the very important imperialistic nature of homophobia. In a formerly Spanish Catholic society I think homophobia will be very hard to eradicate, but even though the nation does not recognize same sex marriages, they have much more to teach the United States about how to meet the basic healthcare and educational needs of its citizens. Castro Espín said that our sexual parts should be instruments not of power but of emancipation. This reminded me of the film Goodbye Uncle Tom produced by two Italian filmmakers, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, who in a deranged way were able to force their audience to, contrary what Castro Espín says here, enjoy seeing men use their organs to rape or to use their sexual parts for instruments of power. It is a very disturbing experience but a very necessary one to understand the psychology of a rapist who thrives on imperialism. She said that women knew about their G-spot long before the German psychologist Ernst Grafenburg started writing about it. She said that all humans come from Africa, and the stereotypes used to essentially justify rape of oppressed women like Sarah Baartmen are wrong. Lymphomania and Homosexuality were wrongfully classified as pathologies. What matters more than a man’s penis is his mind and his spirituality. Teaching about contraception only is insufficient sex education, Castro Castro Espín. If we want to create a new society, she said we cannot use the historic ways of understanding sex. Castro Espín said that there a lot of individuals in the Cuban parliament that are sabotaging same sex marriage, even though the political will is there. She said that CENESEX so far has been able to complete 26 (twenty six) transgender operations. On Thursday, I visited the University of Havana, and got the contact information of some very important professors. I saw the spot where journalist Gil Noble was able to interview Assata Shakur and I took a photo of it. I was also looking for their library. I learned from filmmaker and very inspirational tour guide Catherine Murphy that the journal Afro-Hispanic Review published by Vanderbilt University is an important scholarly journal that reports historic trends in the Afro-Hispanic world. A final powerful message of this trip was a sit-down with a powerful political refugee from the United States, Ms. Nehanda Abiodun. She sat down with us and explained how she became a political prisoner. Her mother was a Baptist integrationist and her father a revolutionary nationalist. She met Malcolm X when she was eight years old. She attended Columbia University and started working at a methodone clinic. She said she later learned that methodone was more addictive than heroin. She worked at the Lincoln-Detox Acupuncture Center that Mutulu Shakur founded. She said that she had to leave the methodone clinic she was working at when one of her clients was struggling with illicit drug addiction. She was told by her superiors that if she did not raise her client methodone dosage, she would be fired. She refused, and was fired. She later said that former New York mayor Ed Koch closed the addiction clinic because he said it was “a breeding ground” for terrorists. She worked for a network of anti-drug defense centers set up in part by H. Rap Brown that was dedicated to weaning individuals off of drugs, and to providing political education. Eventually, because of her political beliefs and affiliations, she, like Mutulu Shakur, became targets of the COINTELPRO operation. By 1980, she was #3 on the Most Wanted Terrorist List. The government claimed she had stolen $4.8 million over several years. When I asked her what she had in common with Assata Shakur, she said that they are both committed to the freedom of their people, that they are extremely comfortable in Cuba, and that they will do what they can to help their people. When I asked her what the U.S. can learn from Cuba, she said that the U.S. can learn from Cuba how to be more humane. They know how to divide one egg among one million people instead of dividing over half of it to less than 0.1% of the people, like the U.S. has done with wealth. She said the Cubans have maintained a certain dignity and have not reneged on their principles of humanity. She said that we should all write Mutulu Shakur and thank him for trying to curb the deliberate effects of the U.S. government in making heroin addicts out of Black people, as Gary Webb wrote about in his book Dark Alliance. She said when Sekou Odinga was murdered tortured by U.S. authorities, he refused to speak and still could not be broken because he believed in his principles. Principles, Nehanda said, will maintain a relationship even in hard times. She said that the Cuban government saved her. They have also promised not to return any political prisoners. They forced her to sit down and to recuperate after the persecution by the U.S. government. This reminded me of Assata Shakur drawing similarities between herself and runaway slaves, on whom local sheriffs and patrollers put a bounty, like the outstanding $2 million the federal government promises to anyone who is able to capture her. Nehanda said that the reason Mumia is off of death row is because of the power of the people. She made very clear that her and Assata’s work with the Black Liberation Army did not start in the 1960s, or even the twentieth century for that matter. She said that the work of the Black Liberation Army started with the first Africans on the African continent who resisted. Nehanda’s words reminded me of the reality of Assata Shakur’s statement that Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. They are created by their social conditions. The United States ruling class and government that they operate through helped create political refugee revolutionary because they create a social conditions that creates drug addicts for the purpose of creating individual private wealth. That closes public schools and creates private prisons for the purpose of enriching individual private wealth. Her message was clear. This was an absolutely amazing trip. Special thanks to several individuals who made my trip to Cuba possible: my grandmother Maudlin, my father Anserd, my sister Marilyn Greene and her husband Dr. Quincy Greene, Dr. Elaine Terry, Dr. Heather Thompson, Dr. Lena Ampadu, Larry Robin, Amy Kietzman, Mr. & Mrs. Carlton & Arlene Brown, Andre Brown, Patrick Reid, Revan Sheriffe, Dana Shepherd, Evan Todd Green, and especially Ahmier Gibson. -RF.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.

2 thoughts on “My trip to Cuba with CODEPINK”

  1. Thank you for creating an excellent recap of your experience in Cuba. I learned a lot from reading it. I think the truth of how homophobia is being struggled with lies between what Cenesex claims and what individuals state. I am encouraged that the state has appointed a representative who is articulate and dedicated to addressing this form of discrimination. Undoubtedly, they have a way to go. Which representative in our congress could even begin to discuss homophobia publicly and claim to protect the rights and safety of transgender and homosexuals in our country?

  2. Judi Gardner and I, (Charlotte Koons) will be using excerpts of your fine review in our To Cuba With Love Event on 3/8, 10:30AM to 12:30 at Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington LI, NY.

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