Anyone looking to learn about Cuba on may U.S. news websites will, more than likely, wind up believing it is filled with more despair than progress.
The Miami Herald, for example, which is regarded as the premier outlet for news about Cuba because of its proximity to the island and population of Cuban exiles, recently published 19 links to articles and opinion pieces about the country on its Cuba page.
The lead piece is about Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas and his weakening condition from a hunger strike to protest human rights violations by the government. It features a photo of him with his emaciated body and glassy eyes staring upward.
Eleven other pieces are about controversies over which workers get to build the hotels and how or whether the Cuban government will pay for properties it seized during the revolution, about Cuban migrants getting to the U.S. on makeshift rafts and U.S. efforts to deport them, and how the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014 hasn’t led to improved human rights for the Cuban people.
As if all of that was going to happen in two years.
The other seven pieces are about tobacco production, the economy and tourism.
The Herald’s coverage mirrors much of the way that the U.S. media covers Cuba – through the prism of U.S. interests and U.S. ideas of what constitutes human rights.
Peter Schwab, a professor of political science at SUNY- Purchase, first exposed this conundrum in his 1997 book, Cuba: Confronting the U.S. Embargo. Among other things, the book focuses on how the Western idea of human rights – freedom of speech, property rights, civil and political rights – conflicts with the socialist idea of human rights.
The socialist view centers on economic and social rights. In Cuba, that translates into the rights of everyone to have free access to food, health care and education.
In its struggle to protect those rights Cuba has, within the past 50 or so years, accomplished much – especially in the areas of health care and education. However, those accomplishments are often filtered out from the U.S. media because of the conflicting ideologies that Schwab describes in his book.
That is why it so important for people to see Cuba for themselves, and why a group of educators, journalists and professionals recently traveled there with Morgan State University to witness those accomplishments outside of that filter.
There was much to see.
A Novel Approach to Health Care
In Havana’s many polyclinics, everyone learned that family physicians, nurses and other health care workers are tasked with providing primary health care to patients who are, in fact their neighbors. That’s bcause they have to live in the same communities with the people they serve.
While the focus was largely on primary care because embargo laws continue to make it difficult for Cuba to buy pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, the preventive aproach has apparently been working: According to the CIA World Factbook, Cubans can expect to live for about 78 years, while people in the U.S. can expect to live for about 79 years.
Cuba has also developed a lung cancer vaccine and a treatment for diabetic foot ulcers – advancements that the U.S. could use – and has an infant mortality rate of 4.6 per 1,000 babies born.
That’s lower than the U.S. rate of 5.8 per 1,000 – according to the World Facebook.
La Luta Continua – The Struggle Continues
Further exploring outside of the filter, we heard from a leading black Cuban academic, Esteban Morales, about the struggle of black Cubans to gain racial equality in a country where capitalist ventures are upending ideas of socialist egalitarianism.
“Profiling is a little issue in Cuba, but not much,” Morales said, “But there is racism and racial discrimination. “For a long time, we did not recognize this…”
Morales also described a burgeoning movement among black Cubans, many of whom are employed in state jobs, to push for more access to jobs in the tourism industry.
That’s because Cubans who work in the hotels and restaurants are paid in convertible pesos –which hold 24 times the value of the Cuban pesos that state workers earn.
While the problems of black Cubans being profiled or denied access to tourism jobs has been reported in the U.S. media, that coverage tends to portray the black Cubans as victims trying to escape the country.
Morales, however, portrayed them as fighters trying to change it.
A Force In Education
A session on education in Cuba showed how it not only manages to maintain a 98 percent literacy rate through the free education it provides as a tenet of its 1959 revolutionary promise, but also how it has become a force in education largely in what is known as the Global South – countries in Africa and Latin America which continue to struggle to build and maintain educational infrastructures.
Cuba has exported thousands of teachers to more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Its Latin American Medical School it trains doctors from around the world – even the U.S. – for free with the agreement that they will return to their home countries and practice medicine in struggling communities.
The resourcefulness of the Cuban people was evident in things that were witnessed outside of the sessions. Things like American cars that were built in the 1950s but serve as necessities for Cubans and curiosities for tourists.
Things like replicas of cars and cameras created out of aluminum Coke, Sprite and Bucanero beer cans – aluminum that would otherwise be thrown out or recycled into new cans.
The Truth About Human Rights
Clearly, it is important to recognize the plight of dissidents such as Fariñas and what appears to be a constant struggle on the part of many Cubans to be able to speak freely and to protest the government.
The western idea of human rights encapsulated in civil liberties and political rights should not be discounted. Civil liberties and political rights are key to social change in virtually every country – including the U.S. That’s why movements such as Black Lives Matter exists.
Yet news about the U.S. isn’t filtered solely through a prism of protests and battles for social change, but through many other things – such as entertainment, business and innovation – that lead Cubans to form broader opinions of what the U.S. is like.
But when virtually the only news that people in the U.S. receive about Cuba is focused on the lack of human rights as defined by western values, or about migrants washing ashore in South Florida, that paints a distorted picture of Cuba.
Because in spite of its troubles, its adherence to human rights as defined by socialist values has led to innovations and accomplishments in health and education – areas where the U.S. and Cuba are now trying to collaborate.
It shouldn’t have to take a trip to Cuba to see what those values have wrought. But as long as it does, it’s important for those who do visit to share what they see and experience beyond the U.S. filters.
Tonyaa J. Weathersbee is a multiple award-winning columnist and multimedia journalist in Jacksonville, Fla. To learn more about her and her work, go to www.tonyaajweathersbee.com or www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee. Or follow her @tonyaajw.