Topic: Cuba and N.O.
Cuba and New Orleans: Learning a New Rumba
A dance of survival has begun between two faded jewels of the Caribbean. Can it last long enough to pay dividends to both sides?
By J.B. Borders
One of my favorite films of the past year is “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which won an Academy Award for best song but deserved even more acclaim and recognition than that. “The Motorcycle Diaries” has one of the most inspiring tag lines ever used to market a film: “Let the world change you…and you can change the world.”
The film is based on the true story of two twentysomething middle-class Argentines who take an eight-month journey through Latin America in 1952. One of the men is a young biochemist; the other is a medical student. They start their trek on an old motorcycle owned by the biochemist, Alberto Granado, whose goal is to make it from Argentina to Venezuela in time to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. The medical student just wants to make sure they carve out a few days for him to visit his girlfriend along the way.
As is often the case in such grand journeys, things don’t quite work out the way they initially planned them. What does happen, however, ends up having more significant impact on the young men than they ever could have imagined at the outset. The travelers not only experience for themselves the beauty and rich heritage of Latin America, they also learn a great deal about the suffering and injustice that exist in that part of the world. More importantly, as a result of the trip, each of the men develops the resolve to devote his life to changing the conditions that afflict so many of their people.
The young medical student goes on to become one of the most important revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who, though he was an Argentine by birth, is inextricably linked to Cuba and the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Che and Fidel met in Mexico in 1954, where a small rag-tag band of Cuban exiles was plotting to overthrow Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Five years later, they would succeed. Moreover, their success would fundamentally alter the political and social order not just in Cuba but in all corners of the globe as well.
Let the world change you and you can change the world.
Che and Fidel insisted on building a socialist society in the new Cuba. They ran the American Mafia out of the country. They nationalized industries, seized large estates and began redistributing the wealth and assets of the nation.
These actions earned not only the ire of the Mafia but also the enmity of the United States government, which promptly imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and denounced it as a “Communist Menace” ninety miles from the American coast.
Since 1960, the United States government has tried virtually every trick in the book to force “regime change” in Cuba. They have funded military invasions, assassination attempts, negative publicity campaigns, internal discord and economic strangulation. None of it has produced the desired effect.
Even though Che Guevara was killed in battle in Bolivia during an unsuccessful revolutionary war in 1967, Fidel Castro has managed to maintain power in Cuba and to keep the nation on its socialist course of development.
Now, some of the forces in the United States have come up with a new strategy to beat the 79-year-old Castro – trade with him. To her credit, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and her economic development director, Michael Olivier, have capitalized on this opportunity and secured a $15 million trade agreement with Cuba.
For New Orleanians, that’s good news. The city’s cultural and trading ties to Cuba go back to the earliest days of the Crescent City. Havana, Cuba’s capital, was established in its current location in 1519. By the time New Orleans was founded two hundred years later, Havana was already the leading city in the New World and, according to some historians, remained the cultural capital of the Americas for at least a hundred years more.
In many respects, Havana was a big sister to New Orleans for generations and though the two are now poised to be back in stride again after all these many years apart, the presumption is that the relationship will eventually help socialist Cuba – and its eleven million, predominately-black population – change to become more like capitalist America.
But I hope that America, particularly Louisiana and especially New Orleans, will change to become more like Cuba in at least four important aspects.
First, I hope we follow Cuba’s example and make literacy a paramount community priority. The literacy rate in Cuba is 97 percent. In Orleans Parish, more than 30 percent of the population, 150,000 people, function at the lowest literacy level or worse. That is unacceptable even in the second worst state in the greatest nation on Earth.
So maybe Cuba can help us adapt their Yes I Can literacy program to our city. Nothing else seems to be doing the trick. Meanwhile, the Cuban approach is reported to be rapidly increasing literacy in several other nations including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, and Venezuela.
Second, Cuba is renowned for providing free, high-quality medical care to over 98 percent of its citizens. Maybe they can show us how to fix our Charity Hospital system and neighborhood clinics in exchange for a few boatloads of rice and other commodities.
According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Cuban government has already stepped up big time to help in the training of African American and Latino medical students. In 2000 Castro himself offered 500 full scholarships for U.S. citizens to study at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, provided the graduates pledge to practice in poor U.S. communities. This past academic year, there were “88 U.S. students enrolled at the school, 85 percent of them members of minority groups and 73 percent of them women,” the NEJM reported.
And lest the scholarships for U.S. students seem like an attempt to curry the favor of the Bush administration, the Latin American School of Medicine has long dedicated itself to training doctors to treat the poor of the Western hemisphere and Africa. Twenty-seven countries and 60 ethnic groups are represented among the school’s 8,000 students. And the Cuban government finances all this education probably for a lot less than Halliburton overcharges the U.S. Department of Defense in an average week. But that’s another story.
Sure, it’s going to be nice to have Cuba’s money circulating in our economy. But money isn’t everything. In fact, I would be willing to give Cuba some its money back if they could help us overcome racism in Louisiana.
Like Louisiana, Cuba was a notoriously racist place just 45 years ago. It had endured slavery and had become infested with exploitative Americans who used white supremacist theories and social policies as a tool to oppress Afro-Cubans.
Today, however, Cuba enjoys a reputation as a country that has all but eliminated racism in its social, economic and political systems. And though the hype has probably outpaced the reality, we could definitely use a good dose of that kind of publicity. Imagine how much hipper a post-racist New Orleans would be.
Let the world change you and you can change the world.
Finally, since Cubans are also known as incurable romantics, maybe they can teach us how to rumba – to dance as couples again, sensuous and attentive to our partners and not merely preoccupied with doing our own thing and being as nasty as we wanna.
I have a notion that if we change the way we dance with each other, we will change the way we talk to each other. And if we change the way we talk to each other, we can change the way we act with each other. And if we change the way we act with each other, we can change the way we feel about each other. And if we change the way we feel about each other, we can love each other more. And the more we love, the easier it is to be just. And whether we appreciate it or not, a more just world would do us all some good right along through here.
So if we can learn to rumba a little with Cuba, there might be more in it for us than just a fatter pocketbook. We just have to be willing to stay on the dance floor until we master a few new moves.
And there’s no telling what that might lead to.