Cuba Libre (Part 1)
This week, the US economic embargo on Cuba hit 50 years. Without going too deep into the politics of this clearly failed foreign policy, I thought it was a good time to share how my decision to change my career track to full-time humanitarian work led to my interest in the plight of the Cuban people and how it became the focus of my doctoral research in diplomacy.
What does a country girl from Seattle know about Cuba?
Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.
Actually, I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. Maybe it was a result of growing up as a child of the cold war era, or maybe it was the numerous pop culture references to the “Forbidden Island” that caught my adventurer’s spirit, or maybe there is a connection that I haven’t discovered yet- but something has called me to learn all I can about Cuba and, hopefully help (in some small way) to end the unjust, unethical and immoral policy that has contributed to much suffering of the Cuban people.
Close…But No Cigar
I first tried to visit Cuba in 2001. It didn’t go well. My boyfriend and I were “detained” upon arrival and held at the Havana International Airport for 24 hours. The guards were not unkind, but they were not friendly either. They wore camouflage soldier’s uniforms and carried AK-47s. It was frightening at first, but luckily I had brought two suitcases of children’s medicine and a case of shampoo, soap and hotel shoe-shine kits that we traded for toilet paper, bottled water and snacks. Despite being held, no one took anything away from us- word got out and the guards, janitors, and airport staff lined up, everyone waited in turn and politely thanked us, especially for the baby aspirin and cold medicine. The shoe-shine kits were very popular with our guards, but no one could tell us why we weren’t allowed to pass through customs. We tried everything; offering thousands of dollars in bribes, pleading, tears, etc…but in the end, they put us on a plane back to the Bahamas. We met some other people who were also detained and being sent back, and they speculated it was because of 9/11 and Castro’s plan to finally align with the USA (by randomly refusing entry to US citizens?) and against terrorist states. We’ll never know for sure, but the experience made me even more determined to return and explore Cuba.
In 2010, I took time off work to travel to Leogane, Haiti to volunteer for earthquake and hurricane relief at the start of the cholera epidemic. It was an intense experience, to say the least, and lead me to consider what more I could and should do as a human on this planet. I looked at all of the international relief agencies and was surprised to learn that Cuba, whom I knew was suffering economically in the wake collapse of the Soviet Union, had immediately sent dozens volunteer doctors (in addition to the 300+ medical personnel already on the ground prior to the earthquake) and were considered by many in the international community as the unsung heroes of Haiti’s relief efforts. Castro’s “Doctor Diplomacy” strategy (well-intentioned? propaganda machine?) was intriguing and reignited my interest in Cuba.
After I returned from Haiti, I co-led a Habitat for Humanity Global Village build to Jordan, and on New Year’s Day 2011, I walked though the rose-red city of Petra with several close friends; reflecting on the work we had just completed and what goals we would set for the coming year. Something clicked in my heart and I knew I had to find the right way (for me) to change my career path and my life.
After much due diligence and late night essay writing, I ecstatically reviewed my acceptance letter from the program of my choice and read my PhD research proposal feedback. I was excited to read that my proposed area of research “Use and Leverage of International Volunteers in the Diplomatic Process” was well received by the acceptance committee. They said this was an under-studied topic and “favorable potential for original contribution is high” Woo-HOO! I was so excited, but then read further to see the feedback was quite strong in recommending I narrow my focus to a specific region or sector. I immediately thought about Cuba and wanted to focus my research on (if? how?) international volunteers were being used/leveraged in the absence of a formal diplomatic relationship with the USA. So many questions, so much to learn…I revamped my proposal and set about visiting Cuba (gulp!) to establish academic contacts and scope out the volunteer landscape.
Yep, I finally made it in to Havana and beyond! In Part 2, I’ll share some of my favorite photographs and early research on volunteering and diplomacy links between the USA and Cuba. I’d love to know…what are your thoughts on the embargo, Cuba and the (potentially) unconstitutional law to block legal to visits of US citizens to Cuba?