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.



Getting “Creative” with the U.S. Federal Budget.

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Speaking at Mayflower church in Minneapolis on October 30 2015,  HUD secretary Julian Castro suggested we be creative, as we don’t have the budget to fill our affordable housing needs.

So here is my creative idea. Let’s limit our war budget instead.  We could stop arming everyone in the Middle East, bring the troops home, say no to Obama’s “boots on the ground,” use tax dollars to build housing at home rather than tear it down overseas.

It’s kind of obvious, I know.  Too obvious to be creative. So I dressed it up with some magic markers.  Here, in case you need a translation, is what my drawing is saying:

Affordable housing, plus education, plus infrastructure, plus health care, plus  parks  and other common goods…. Looks like we  don’t have enough money for war! 




Love and rage for Umpqua Community College.


(Photo from Niagara, New York  summer, 2011, anti-violence campaign.)

I forgot to turn in my key after class this afternoon so I  came back in the evening to the Metropolitan State University Minneapolis building where I taught an afternoon class.  I arrived just as students were getting out of class, streaming down the stairs, continuing class debates and notes about assignments, dressed in faded jeans and business wear. Metro State students are all ages — most in their 20s-40s –most finishing a double shift as workers and students, some rushing home to complete a third shift as parents.  Despite these stresses, I could feel the energy of possibility and change, of connection and new ideas rippling through the building.

In the morning I had gotten on the bus with poster-paper rolled in a rubber band and an idea that I wanted students to map out a reparations plans to heal our nation from the scourge of racist policies past and present. In class I divided the board in five parts:

  1. Apologies, monuments, museums, textbooks, and curricula.
  2. Truth and reconciliation
  3. Cash outlays
  4.  Government and institutional reparations in the form of outlays for education, housing etc.
  5. Commit the crime, do the time – retribution.

We talked about different real-life scenarios in which these forms of reparations have been implemented and then students picked one of the five and came up with plans — utopian in that they were in charge — but still in the real world, in a backlash-prone nation.   The atmosphere was jovial and thoughtful as students acted out parts to illustrate their ideas. We talked about breaking through information  silos and overcoming divide and conquer strategies.

One student stopped before leaving to thank me for the class. Another  — after talk of an upcoming paper, another joked  “This was my favorite class, but now you’re wrecking it with deadlines..”

I left class feeling inspired, walking across Loring Park, watching ducks on this gorgeous early fall evening. A dog in the narrow dog park stood like statue on a stump, making me and other passersby laugh. I crossed Hennepin avenue on the pedestrian bridge stepping over young lovebirds being photographed. I wandered around the sculpture garden. Another couple dressed for a glorious occasion were photographed next to the iron swing and the glass fish. I met my partner and we had a glorious evening listening to the magnificent poet  Douglas Kearney  and the soaring notes of a bass clarinet — Walker Art Museum’s free Thursday. 

It wasn’t until I returned home that I heard about the Oregon Community college massacre.  I immediately thought of my students, of the energy I felt in the school building when I returned my keys.

I know such hope and possibility existed  at the Umpqua Community College in  Oregon.


Ten people who made hard spaces in their lives for school, to build a better life,  are gone.

Ten families, ten groups of friends are left to mourn.

Tens of tens of Umpqua students just had the plug pulled from their hopes and dreams.

Another stat to add to the tens of tens of school shootings since Sandy Hook.

I’m glad to see the President angry. We need to stop the NRA. But we also must stop state-sponsored violence of our police and armies. Otherwise we have no leg to stand on when we demand an end to civilian gun violence.

Even the most disturbed can see when the emperor has no clothes.