Daisy Rojas’ simultaneously translated presentation, “Cuba, the People, the Embargo and the Economy,” held at Central Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon, on October 9, 2012, held some surprises and important little-known information. Co-sponsored by Jubilee Oregon, Witness for Peace NW and Portland Central American Solidarity Committee, 55 people were in attendance, filling the room. The atmosphere was electric!
The ease in which Daisy and her superb translator, Diego Benitez, communicated, showed that they had much experience as a team. Never dull and sometimes funny, Daisy weaved and danced, gesticulated, and was, intermittently, serious and intense, smiling and laughing.
Several things surprised Roberta Badger-Cain, Jubilee Oregon and First Presbyterian Church member:
- In the days of colonial occupation of Cuba, the entire native population that inhabited Cuba was destroyed – every man, woman and child. The Spanish who brought in slaves mainly from South Africa and Namibia following the discovery of gold on the island, together remained. Residents of Cuba are either Spanish or Creole (Spanish – African mix). Learning this, it was good to hear that despite some racial difficulties, Cubans before and since the revolution, live in strong solidarity.
- Raul Castro, further easing governmental authoritarianism, asked the Cuban people for their suggestions for changes needed for Cuba. His administration declared they would consider all recommendations. Daisy reported that thousands of critiques/suggestions have been pouring in. This move may have been made so that the “brain drain” that has been going on for some time, slows, ceases, and ideally, even turns around so that Cubans repatriated in Canada, the U.S., or Spain, may begin to consider returning some day. But for whatever reason, such a request is nothing short of miraculous, especially for a communistic, albeit modified, system.
- Having Daisy corroborate the bitter-sweet results of more capitalistic social, economic and political practices in recent years, it shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Cuba has severe exit restrictions on those leaving; basically, once a Cuban leaves, he/she is not allowed to return. But I was amazed. Thinking about it, fear of returnees bringing back more negative than positive influences from capitalistic cultures seems plausible. So imagine my renewed surprise to pick up the New York Times (October 17, 2012) and see a front page article entitled, “Easing Path Out of Country, Cuba Is Dropping Exit Visas”! Even with a caveat, and despite the ongoing hardships of the U.S. embargo and world economic challenges, I am happy for Daisy Rojas and the Cuban people. May freedom with justice be upon them.
Bob Brown, Chair of Jubilee Oregon and member of Havurah Shalom, reflected on his visit with Daisy and on what she discussed in her talk:
- The room was filled with interest and enthusiasm. There is so much interest in Cuba and it continues to amaze me that, after 50 years, we still enforce an embargo with a country that is so close to us. In some ways, however, the embargo has made the people and the institutions stronger and more resilient. Daisy reported that there is much to be thankful for in Cuba: 90% literacy rate, women’s’ equality, an education system that is free through college, a medical system that provides excellent care to everyone (although there are some issues with getting drugs and other supplies because of the embargo).
- There is change in the wind in Cuba – especially around the economic systems of the country. The “class-less” society of Cuba is opening opportunities for economic reform. People can now own property, business can form without government controls and individuals are encouraged to participate more in a market economy. My question to Daisy was about protecting the values of equality and community as the country moves into a more market driven culture. Daisy’s answer to this question was that she agreed that there were risks in this cultural shift. Upon reflection, I feel there are big risks but that if there are people like Daisy in leadership roles in Cuba, the systems will adapt in ways to maintain some of the virtues of their society. Time will tell. I hope this is not just wishful thinking.
Our brief time with Daisy and Diego was so enriching to us. We are thankful to Witness for Peace NW for sponsoring Daisy and for all the welcome and support our Portland community demonstrated to our guests. We have much to learn from Cuba and I now have two friends who I hope to visit soon.