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With respect to Cuba, the American conception of “nothing” is not understood in conventional economic terms, but through a liberal rendition of freedom. With this version of freedom comes a set of values that if not perpetuated, suggest an un-freedom worse than access to a livable life. In this country, we value freedom to fail and struggle more than the right to a standard in our quality of life.

“…Cubans have nothing.” These were the last words exchanged between a stranger and myself as we both stood in line at JFK Airport waiting to check our bags for a flight to Havana. Three minutes before this, I had stood in line, chatting with my friend waiting to check our over-sized luggage and a young woman stood behind us eyeing our bags. She asked, “Are you going to Cuba?”

Unable to contain my excitement, I exclaimed, “Yeah, it’s our first time!”

She didn’t seem to share in my enthusiasm, as she asked, “Are you staying for a long time?”

“No, just a few days”, I replied.

Her face did not betray her underlying motives for posing this line of questioning. “Well, are you leaving stuff there? I mean, that is a lot of stuff.”

Only then did I realize that I had become a part of a conversation having little to do with me fulfilling a life-long dream of traveling to Cuba. After letting her know that we had no intentions on leaving things there, I asked why she was so concerned with our baggage.

Her voice was exasperated. “Cubans are really poor. It’s a third-world country.”

Having traveled to quite a few poor countries, I remained confused. Why was it unacceptable to bring a big luggage to Cuba? Had I missed something in my combing through travel blogs on Cuba about being culturally sensitive with the size of my luggage? “I’ve been to other so-called third world countries with this same luggage. I don’t understand why it’s a problem.”

Again, with an air of irritation, she replied, "Cuba is different: Cubans have nothing.”

Our formal conversation ended shortly after that. I, though, continued the conversation in my head and with my travel companions.

I wanted to respond to the young woman with the statistics and anecdotes that I had accumulated over the years in studying the country that showed Cubans being more socially developed than the U.S. I also wanted to ask what exactly did she mean by “nothing?”—didn’t they have breath in their bodies? Isn’t that something? That she was particularly focused on my luggage, I could only deduce that she was speaking in terms of material wealth. I wanted to explain how American notions of poverty are also so much direr when cast on to other countries, but much more forgiving when applied to the U.S. I didn’t say any of this to her, quite frankly, because she said that it was her third trip to the island. I did not have the first-hand experience to challenge her claims. I could only bow out gracefully as I awkwardly dragged my bag to the next weigh station.

Up until my actual trip to Cuba, I had made a habit of reading about this island just 90 miles south of Florida, capable of stoking so much ire and pity in the American psyche. I had tried to read and engage the history of the country from relatively balanced viewpoints: from Carlos Moore’s Pinchon: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba to Fidel Castro’s War, Racism, and Economic Injustice. The native literature always portrays a more complex and evolving social and economic landscape than that depicted in U.S. media.

The quantitative evidence also shows that Cubans were fairing much better than most. Infant mortality rates are around 4.5 deaths per 1,000 births in Cuba and 6.1 deaths per 1,000 births in the U.S. States like Alabama have infant mortality rates as high as 8.7 per 1,000 births. Cuba also has the lowest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the western hemisphere. Contrast this with places like Washington D.C. HIV/AIDS is officially an epidemic in D.C. Still, I knew that there was only so far that being bookish can take you in a debate predicated mostly on people’s lived experiences.

The exchange in the airport was also not the first time that I had been charged with being insensitive to the plight of Cuban people. Once, as a Teaching Assistant for an Introduction to Comparative Politics class, I was attempting to explain to my students how modernization theory, with its push for liberal democracy and capitalism, does not necessarily lead to easy acquisition of social goods. I provided Cuba as an example of a country that does not subscribe to the typical ideals of democracy and capitalism, however the country has less poverty and higher literacy rates than a lot of so-called democracies. A student immediately exclaimed, while raising his hand, “Yeah, but Cubans don’t have anything. My family is from Cuba, and they all hate it there.” At that point in time, I had no personal experience to counter his claim. To the student, I could only give the same reticent look that I gave the stranger in the airport.

That conversation and others like it haunted me all the way until we landed in Jose Marti International Airport. I expected the airport to look like one that I had visited in West Africa, where the floor was still dirt and there was no air conditioning or conveyor belt to bring out the bags (this was because the airport was undergoing renovations)—this was what I imagined from a country that had nothing. Instead, I found an airport similar to many small airports that I had been to both abroad and in the U.S. I found people picking up 40-inch plasma televisions and expensive sound systems from the cargo area. I did not get the feeling that people would be comfortable bringing such high-end electronics (at least not that openly) into a place where people have “nothing”.

Cuba is the only country that I had ever visited where not once did I encounter a beggar on the street. It was also the first country where I received the same prices as the locals when I shopped in the market, despite my obviously American accent.  The rest of my experience in Cuba only fortified my initial sentiments: our notions of nothing are inextricably tied to a history of political propaganda against our neighbor to the South.

The unqualified victimization of Cubans is most evident in the unfolding of this past weekend with the onslaught of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and parts of the U.S. On Friday, Cuba experienced its first category-5 hurricane in 80 years. Parts of the island remain flooded, infrastructure remains destroyed, and thousands are still unable to return home. With such catastrophic damage on such a small island, the death toll reached 10.

The Cuban government was able to mitigate the effects of Hurricane Irma through its Hurricane Response System, which the government created in 1963. Included in the response system is an evacuation plan that relocates those most likely to be affected to safe shelters. Despite domestic damages, the Cuban government has already sent 750 health workers to neighboring islands in the Caribbean that suffered from the storm.

There has been very little attention paid to the government’s preparedness or continued commitment to sending health workers abroad when needed. There has also been scant acknowledgement that Cubans are 15 times less likely to die from hurricanes than Americans, according to the Center for International Policy. And, unlike the current American government, the Cuban government has long acknowledged and put in place measures to address climate, which is inarguably linked to the rise in natural disasters.

With respect to Cuba, the American conception of nothing is not understood in conventional economic terms, but through a liberal rendition of freedom. With this version of freedom comes a set of values that if not perpetuated, suggest an un-freedom worse than access to a livable life. In this country, we value freedom to fail and struggle more than the right to a standard in our quality of life.

This is especially evident in Donald Trump’s plans to continue with economic sanctions in Cuba until the Cuban government implements internationally supervised elections and freedom of speech, among other traditionally liberal American political institutions. Otherwise, how could anyone choose a place like Cuba to concentrate their philanthropic resources when only a few miles south of the island is another country where political, economic, and social infrastructure have been interminably assailed since 1804?

The notable Anthropologist Paul Farmer aptly demonstrates the racialized and politicized ways in which Americans can easily see Cubans as victims, despite their advancements in standard of living, while Haitians are viewed as a liability.

There are consequences for painting Cuba with such broad strokes. In one sense to consistently refer to Cubans as impoverished and destitute reproduces a narrative that serves larger American, capitalist interests. Despite numerous attempts at political usurpation and a full embargo since 1962, the country continues to provide basic necessities to its population and those wishing to become citizens. No other country could boast of such a thing. We also miss the opportunity to learn from Cuba.

This is not to say that the country is a utopia, no country is. And, the American media has provided a litany of both truths and ‘alternative facts’ about Cuba. However, Cuba can be more to Americans than just a missionary trip. It can provide us with useful social and economic models (as well as solidarity) in our own struggles for livable wages, healthcare, and decent housing.

Using Cuba as one of many models may in fact alter our notions of ‘nothing’ and ‘freedom’ so that the two are not so inextricably tied together. As more and more Americans flock to Cuba, I hope that the national discourse begins to counter the one-sided narrative that we’ve been reproducing since the Cold War.       

* T.D. HARPER-SHIPMAN is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research interests include political economy, international development, Africa, Latin America, and human rights.



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