I was 18 years old when my first cup of Cuban coffee was placed before me. Ceramic met my lips, and the bold blend of arabica espresso and pure cane sugar jolted my system awake as it rolled in waves across my taste buds and down my throat. In a gulp, you learn the flavor of a nation, the strength of its lucha — its fight. As the taste overwhelmed my tongue — like the caffeine did my senses — I pondered the thought of how a stimulant to some can be more important for how it satiates others.
I sat my cup down and listened to the fluid Spanish flowing from my brother’s native tongue, flooding my confused American ears, my English assimilation straining my understanding. His voice was relaxed and steady, rolling like a smooth tide, carrying one word to the other in waves. I picked up bits of explanations of the historical period of economic success after policies were changed during the Obama administration; as EEAbroad explains, “The U.S. policies towards Cuba, implemented by Obama, were numerous and included (but are not limited to) opening up investment opportunities, medical collaborations, and even postal services. These policies brought money to the island, boosting the economy.” However, what followed the Trump administration’s assumption of the government was a steady removal of said policies. During Trump’s administration, he withdrew embassy officials, increased financial and banking restrictions and banned “people-to-people” travel. This, along with irresponsible spending and the embargo, made for an economically disadvantaged Cuba. My family did their best to hide the food shortage from me while I was there, but it was evident in shop visits and dinners — beans and rice, seasoned with only salt, in limited rations kept hunger mildly at bay. Nights where hunger permeated my dreams, I thought of strawberries and crisp lettuce, spices deepening the flavors in food. An island floating in the ocean, with little import to satiate its population. My family called not too long ago to explain how these circumstances were only exacerbated after I left.
The Venezuelan economy’s struggles have resulted in significant reduction in the trading of valuable resources such as oil and sugar, thus seriously paralyzing Cuba’s predominant industries. The pandemic’s disruption of the tourism industry further crippled Cuba’s already struggling economy. In Biden’s time in office, he has done nothing to reverse Trump’s sanctions and — aside from condemning the current dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel — nothing in the way of actual humanitarian or diplomatic action. With the historical and current embargo of the United States, it was only a matter of time before Cuba descended into chaos and famine.
Cuba’s famous and communal cafes are now coffee deprived and sugar free.
It is hard to properly contextualize the gravity of what that means, especially from a country with once robust and famous coffee and sugar industries. A current sugarless state from a previous leading producer. A coffeeless day for coffee emphatic people. These goods aren’t the only things missing from markets — most everything is. The currency transition from the Cuban Convertible Peso to the Cuban Peso, which is largely inaccessible and pricey, makes goods and necessities unaffordable. Prices have risen to such extremes that the purchase of scarce foods and sustenance on the island is nearly impossible for most. Cubanos wait in long lines to be met by empty shelves and go home to the same. Shops are stricken by shortages, people stricken by hunger. Medical needs are unmet.
This is not the future I wish for my father’s birth island, the beautifully vibrant island in the sea, anchored by sand and palm trees. The place where I sat to have my daily coffee, where my niece and nephews rest their heads, where my father fled from to seek political asylum and dignity over 20 years ago leaving behind two children and an entire family, still sits ostracized due to the past and is left to starve. We see the lasting effects not of underdevelopment but of overexploitation and deprivation.
Many politicians along with Biden say they stand for a free Cuba while making no moves towards solutions or relief. So I ask my country, what will you do? How will you work towards a free, full Cuba? Understand the responsibility that lies in contributing to the crises’ circumstances, the responsibility we have as a people to ensure that our neighbors and some of our families don’t die when resources are available for relief. A lift of the embargo and enactment of open trade could mean an independent, successful socially-democratic ally to the south. I urge outlets to push for American action and diplomacy.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke out, making a charged statement: “The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba. That would be a truly humanitarian gesture.”
Cuba is facing famine. Shortages of medical supplies limit medical aid while increases in the coronavirus outbreak create grave situations in hospitals. City electricity blackouts and internet blocks leave Cubanos powerless and unable to let their cries be heard. Action must be taken. Awareness and a collective stand is needed. The world must cry out for a free, full Cuba.
On July 11, thousands of protestors took to the streets of El Malecon — a famous seawall and roadway spanning the coast of Havana. Fed up with shortages and the resulting national hunger as well as government oppression reaching a peak, these protesters were met by tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and hundreds of arrests. Even children were attacked and arrested. Internet blockages have limited media coverage of the protests and protesters have disappeared without a trace. Police have even shown up to protestors’ homes, arresting them swiftly. I watched my family and friends’ Facebook stories, chants of “¡Libertad!” echoing out my laptop’s speakers. The violent reaction of the police force — beating children, shooting unarmed citizens — is all the result of malicious government, not the embargo, and that is important to stress.
However, Cubans are not asking for intervention, they are fighting for a truly free Cuba. That means freedom from the oppressive embargo and current regime that are both starving the island. It does not mean American dominance or influence. They want change, true freedom, and an end to the enduring dictatorship and the oppression they experienced under it.
Back in 2018, I sat on the plane departing from Cuba after studying there. I was overwhelmed by the fact that a short span of ocean and crumbling relations now pushed me just out of grasp of my father’s revolutionary island in the sea and my family who gave me a genuine love like I had never known. The truth is, I had grown rather attached to the island in my short three weeks there, studying the culture daily, becoming accustomed to beans and rice for dinner and guava juice breakfasts and its old cars that line streets and carry the rhythm of the clave into the windows of my brother’s flamingo pink living room. Most importantly, I became accustomed to the true meaning of a fight for equity, of authenticity and resourcefulness. I came to find solace in their smiles that expressed an authenticity as warm and enduring as a Cuban cup of coffee. While scrambling to understand their stories and guidance, I picked up on a very clear unwavering support of a truly equitable and free Cuba, one not stricken by the shackles of capitalism and American imperialism. I believe it will be a long time before those dreams die. As I sat on that plane home, my heart ached for the island, for my family that remained. In reflection, I came to the statement posed in one of my international studies classes: “History doesn’t exist until we create it.” This notion insinuates that we are ideally the molders and leaders of our realities, the shapers of our governance and its policies both domestically and abroad. This should lead us in the direction of progress, of rational international relations.
I often ponder theories of resolution. Further and increasingly considering how American journalism accounted for considerable advancements in the Cuban Revolution by vividly painting a picture of its efforts and calling for action from the U.S., I saw and still see no reason why the fight shouldn’t continue until liberation is actualized. For a country that so many Cuban-Americans once called home, the powerful and “free” United States of America cannot claim itself just while it contributes to the destitution, starvation and death of a nation and its people all over differences in politics and lifestyles.
The truth is Fidel implemented social programs (that U.S. citizens continue to dream and fight for) at a time when it was far more revolutionary; actualizing and providing free health care, universal education and housing for everyone were all programs that were seemingly luxuries in other parts of the world. Castro nearly successfully created a socialist revolution that went against everything the U.S. government stood for at the time by creating a system rid of billionaire interest, one that fought for equality, community and education. As a charismatic leader, he made promises to bring about what many prayed tirelessly for, a system unlike anything in the world characterized by outlawing any sentiment that felt otherwise. Unfortunately, a lot of his promises were not kept and the state of U.S.-Cuban relations made for an increasingly stunted economy, resulting in a stunted Cuba.
In Cuba, there is a slow pace of living that syncopates to the rhythm of the tide wavering on the horizon. An “it is what it is” energy radiates from the people. A society centered around family meaning more than blood aligns with the ideals of the nation and humanity at large. Socialism is so ingrained into their social patterns that many expressions of sentiments are geared towards praising the successes of the Fidel regime. Many thank it for its advancements in equality while ignoring the downfalls of the revolution, and limited access to censored internet and lack of free speech and expression further deepen allegiances to Fidel, but also strengthen the role and priority of the community, of genuine connection. I came to conceptualize an understanding that each polity and government has a lot to learn from each other; however, the same sentiment is not necessarily as common among Americans.
I ask why there can’t exist a world with a socially-democratic, liberated Cuba, where its inhabitants’ stomachs are full while ideas, art, culture resources and scholarship are exchanged with the U.S., and why both lifestyles can’t be celebrated for their successes.
To the Cuban people, prioritizing monetary wealth over the overall improvement of quality of life and wellbeing of the country’s people is unnatural. It’s no wonder to me that these very ideals are so greatly opposed by the U.S. The actualization of a truly equitable society obviously poses a threat to the power structures present in American institutions of capitalism. It is not surprising that these structures — against the very consumerism that is critical to the U.S. economy, perhaps even emblematic of the nation in a sense — would be seen as problematic. However, these statues constitute many of the Cuban people’s definitions of liberation. This shouldn’t need explanation, but these differences do not justify ostracization and starvation; it is deplorable to punish a country for fighting for its independence and the right to a dignified life, however socialist that may be. As a first-generation Cuban-American, I fight for a U.S. that stands for Cuba’s independence, respects differences, supports dignified lives and doesn’t starve countries out of spite and preservation of colonial pasts. I hope you do too. Although this may be hard to conceptualize and actualize with outdated sanctions, I hope these words leave an impression and impact that serve as a catalyst for change. I hope to see a Cuba libre — a free Cuba — and I hope to see it soon. I urge that freedom does not wait for tomorrow.
MiC Assistant Editor Ana Maria Sanchez Castillo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.