What Kind of New Cuba/ U.S. relationship? A Proposal.

Reuters photo March 21 2016.   Is there a third kind of economic relationship between Cuba and the U.S. that could actually benefit the Cuban people?

Obama is the first U.S. President to visit Cuba in 88 years.’

That much-repeated phrase  is  true, but it is also misleading, leading one to believe the U.S. and Cuban governments’ have been economically estranged since Calvin Coolidge was president. Erased are the six decades — from 1898 to 1959 when the United States manipulated Cuban politics, first stealing its independence struggle from Spain, then ruling the island with gunboats and economic threats.

U.S. Ambassadors before and after Coolidge’s visit, played kingly roles in Cuban politics, picking leaders and  threatening invasions if policies injurious to U.S. sugar interests were considered. During that time Cubans were constantly struggling to overcome U.S. domination. In fact, in 1928  when Calvin Coolidge visited, there was mass movement brewing, involved Afro Cuban sugar workers, urban labor and feminist (really!) groups and disaffected military,  that would result in a major revolt in 1933.  The U.S. ambassador would be key to subverting that earlier revolution.

After the 1959 revolution the U.S. hoped they could subvert the Castro forces. But  when Cuba began nationalizing sugar interests, the U.S. began 60 years of embargo.  Often, it included third party punishment — you trade with Cuba, you don’t trade with us. The embargo hobbled the nation during every period of its revolution, but since 1990, the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the sugar industry,  choking access to essential goods has exacerbated the “special period” of want and even malnutrition.

As I watch coverage of this historic moment between Obama and Castro in Havana I find myself imagining what a third kind of economic relationship between Cuba and the U.S. would look like; one that would actually benefit the Cuban people.

Since Cuba has little in the way of international currency, a fair and reparative trade relationship  might start with barter. Cuban trades its know-how:  its years of experimentation with preventative health local care, its life-saving research on diseases ravaging the planet,  its of-necessity efforts building neighborhood organic agriculture, its vintage car repair. For a nation now considering the proposal of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for free college tuition and health care, can learn from a nation that does so on an extremely tiny budget.    In a climate-changing world, Cuba’s ability to survive natural catastrophe without losing lives, is invaluable knowledge.

In exchange Cuba gets stuff:

  • Seeds, and all those invisible goods necessary for local sustainable agriculture (like cardboard boxes, fencing etc).
  • Building materials to address Cuba’s chronic shortage in housing.
  •  The solar and wind material to allow  Cuba to become energy sufficient.
  • The material to build mass transit on the island — sorely needed.
  • Medicine and other hardware to realize the possibilities of their health care system.
  • Books and other school supplies to make their education system what it wants to be.
  • The materials needed to jumpstart local economic enterprises.

U.S. tourism in Cuba is already burgeoning and would only multiply.   For this  industry to benefit Cubans, a different model is needed than the pre 1959 version — and that on most other Caribbean islands— where U.S. hotel franchises are the profiteers, jobs are few and bottom-rung,  essential resources like water go to tourists, and drugs and prostitution feeds foreign desires and leaves local tragedies. (Cuba is already struggling with all these things with its European visitors. Its beautiful beaches have been difficult for Cubans to access, as they were during the U.S. imposed Jim Crow segregation of the 1950s. )

Beyond trade, people-to-people exchanges  between activists  against white supremacy, for GLBT, women’s, disability rights and  environmental justice would be invaluable.     Scholars, isolated from scientific and social scientific exchanges with colleagues for decades, will benefit from greater access to the work of their counterparts.

Another world is possible.

U.S. Cuban rapprochement could be a step toward that world,  but it will require something completely new for the United States — an internationalist mindset. For that, Cuba — who has educated foreign doctors for free if they agree to work in their nations for those who lack care, sends healthcare experts when epidemics like Ebola emerge, and is the globe’s first responder when natural disaster strikes —  can be a great mentor.



Sanders’ Truth-Speaking on Latin America is what is Exceptional.



When Clinton  attacked Sanders for speaking out against the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the Bay of Pigs in 1961 at the Univision debate March 9 she exposed an awful truth:

U.S. is not exceptional in its imperial role in the world.  What is exceptional is a mainstream party presidential candidate willing to speak historical truths.   

Sanders responded with a mini history lesson about CIA-supported coups  that overthrew democratically elected presidents Jacobo Arbenz, in Guatemala (1954)  and Salvador Allende in Chile  in (1973).  He could have also mentioned the  Obama/Clinton-supported coup in Honduras in 2009 which overthrew the elected president Manuel Zelaya.

Honduran President Zelaya, like Arbenz and Allende before him*, was taking steps to reign in foreign corporate control of the Honduran economy by endorsing the regional cooperative trade group ALBA. He was also considering bans on mining.

Honduras may seem like a hiccup, a sideshow for those considering a Clinton presidency. But this intervention signaled that under Obama/Clinton, the era of U.S. domination in Latin America would continue. For Latin Americans the coup and Obama/Clinton’s immigration policy — especially toward Honduran children fleeing the post coup violence —  is the same old same old U.S. imperialism.

When Hillary Clinton claims Kissinger — mastermind behind the overthrow of Allende —  as her mentor, Latin Americans know what she means. It is people in the United States who need the primer Sanders offered.

The murder last week of Berta Cáceres, environmental activist in Honduras, was a devastating reminder of the violence that is endemic in Honduras since the 2009 coup, where dozens of activists have been assassinated. It is this violence that has spurred the child refugees to travel solo to the U.S.

The U.S. detention and return of these children is …. “Criminal” is not a strong enough word.

Clinton  (and Obama’s) Honduras policy is not a hiccup, it is everything — an indication of a commitment to an imperial future that looks just like the bad old days.

In memory of Berta Cáceres  in support of other environmental, labor and feminist activists  in danger for their activism in Honduras; for the children of Central America fleeing violence; lets push Sanders and ourselves to continue to demand a future that is truly exceptional – a real break with the colonial past.

Photo by  International Business Times

*Arbenz took steps to nationalize the banana industry in Guatemala and Allende  took on U.S. copper and AT&T in Chile that the U.S. intervened to destroy democracy in these nations.   

Maja Gorland, my beloved 92 year old Aunt, sharing refugee stories. Rest in Peace.

My Aunt Maja, sister of my father, just passed away. She was 92 years old. Below is a draft of my account of  visiting  her during my perimeter bike trip in 2011/2012 when she was still living in Miami Springs, Florida.  

Warnings about biking in Miami traffic, accumulated. We decided to take them seriously, caught the monorail in Hallandale, then walked into Miami Springs to stay with my Aunt Maja in the home she had lived in for 70 years with her husband and four children.  There was not room inside for us, so we put our sleeping bags out on the porch. I spent the next afternoon in the living room, Maya in her wheelchair and me on the couch, talking about her mother — my grandmother.

I was eleven when grandma died. Maja, with her lilting German accent, is my connection to her. She also inherited grandma’s authoritative personality – kindness and firmness intertwined.

“My mother was a nurse during World War One” Maja reminded me, then added a detail I had never heard. “The radiologist she worked with was killed. She took his place. Eighteen years old and no medical schooling. She was incredibly proud of her military service.”
Despite her loyalty to Germany, Grandma somehow knew before many of her Jewish neighbors, that to survive they had to leave the country. “She sent your grandpa away a year before,” Maja explained, “so when the Gestapo came looking, he was already gone.”

Dad had told me about Nazi soldiers tearing apart their home, looking in closets, under the bed, in drawers for his father. Dad was five years old at the time. He remembered thinking  these places were much too small for his father to fit. The  apartment was always dark after that, shades drawn.

Grandma snuck the children out of the country assuming someone else’s identity. She left parents and siblings, knowing she would probably never see them again. They tried to get into Switzerland but were denied entry, a fact I discovered in 2005, when I received reparations from the Swiss government.

Maya was ten years older than my Dad and their memories reflect their age gap. On the ship to the Americas teenage Maja flirted with young men, meeting the one she would marry. Dad hid under his mother’s skirts, watching Orthodox Jewish ladies in the women’s room take off their wigs, revealing bald heads. They landed in Havana and lived in a refugee camp there. Dad remembered his mom had a job pulling the heads off chickens. Maja remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.

To get from Havana to Miami where my grandfather was waiting, my Grandma went regularly to the embassy to see if her name was on the list. When another woman whose name was called did not show up, she claimed to be her. She sold her jewelry to the Havana synagogue to pay for their passage to Miami. In 1987 I visited that synagogue in Havana. They had a display case of the jewelry refugees exchanged for passage.

In Florida, Dad and his other sister Helga started school. Dad remembered first grade, the sting of mispronouncing “h is for hatpins” so the last syllable sounded like “penis.” Maja got a job to help provide for the little ones.

When the family moved to New York City, Maja and her husband stayed in Florida and bought the home along the canal in Miami Springs, where on hot  November morning in 2011, we ate sweetbreads with cousins.

I asked Maja what kind of music grandma liked.

“She had no time for music.” she said shortly.

Then for some reason I asked, “What would the soundtrack for grandma’s life sound like?”

She did not hesitate. “Da Da Da Dum.  Beethoven’s 5th.”

I wish I had asked Maja what her own soundtrack would be. I would imagine it would be something equally strong and embracing.