As you all already know, Will and I were blessed to go to Cuba, August, 2009, with Tsukimi Kai, a Berkley, CA., based cultural sharing/oral history project which takes Japanese Americans to visit Japanese Cubans in Cuba. We call ourselves Nikkei -- Japanese who immigrate to other countries and those who are their descendants. The Japanese Diaspora is much larger than I knew. I remember being so surprised and thrilled at the same time to know we were also in Cuba, and that I would have a chance to go to Cuba.
As many others of my generation I was fascinated with Cuba -- a close neighbor island country who had, in many of our opinion, waged a successful Revolution gaining independence from the harsh interference of the US. I say harsh, because the interference came in the form of organized crime, drugs and prostitution, and plantations with its traditional slave labor. Call it what you like but men from Africa and Haiti were working back breaking labor in harsh conditions all day, and in the end, paid nothing.
It is amazing that in 1959, Cubans successfully kicked out the mob, the plantations and were able to self govern.
For my generation, Cuba stood out as a country which gained independence from one of the most powerful nations in the world at that time, and still continued 50 years later, struggling, but still free.
I went with as little expectations as one can imagine. I had heard about the brigades of Cuban doctors who were the first to arrive at disaster scenes to help, oftentimes, in the third world, were already there when the disaster struck and already known and trusted. I had heard that the country is 100 percent literate. I knew everyone had the necessary basics -- a home, food, and free education from primary grade through college, even medical school. I felt positive about the Revolution but the only images I saw being an American was army drab and Fidel Castro shouting. Cold war images.
Arriving in Cuba my interest was piqued and my heart warmed. I saw there, felt there, witnessed there was transformational. I felt free. I felt embraced for who I was. I saw self-reliance, love of life. It is important also to note what I did not see. I did not see what had become such a familiar look among the young people that I had just become used to it. Having taught 30 some years in public school, I was used to seeing the stress which comes from unsafe environments in the faces of young youth of color. My first remembrance was arriving in Havana, walking toward our hotel, seeing many youth whose faces were relaxed, retaining child-like expressions youth should have, youth who feel no fear, are well cared for. I'm talking of something beyond what a family provides. I am talking of the level of relaxation when one belongs in a society or community and knows, expects that one is a part of and valued by the community. That was my first impression, and from there, day after day, many times of day, the cold war stereotypes were replaced by other images, other feelings, other amigos and familia.
After returning home, Will and I have talked to many groups, and met others who have traveled to Cuba. We have energetic conversations with them as well with the kind of heart to heart conversation compadres have meeting one another, talking, finishing each others' thoughts, saying "YES! I know what you mean. I feel exactly like that!" Leading to more and more stories.
So a group of us decided, let's have a conference on Cuba. Let's share our experiences and others and help change the way people feel about Cuba.
Yesterday was the culmination of our work. I will blog about what we learned and shared organizing it later. Right now, I want to share with you the presentors and presentations. I was too busy to take notes. So the details and factoids will be missing. But I will share the sense of the wonderful presentations made.
Judith Castro: Judith is second generation Peruvian-Cuban. She talked about how she learned more about the Peruvian side because she only heard bad things about Fidel from her mother who left with her parents after the revolution. Judith's talk was about transformation -- the transformation that came after she spent some time with her Cuban family during the special period. As a young woman in high school, it took a lot of courage to travel from Miami to Havana by herself with very little information except names of her family. When she reached Cuba, she eventually found out where her mother's brother and wife lived and when she arrived was met with emotion and welcome that moved her heart. Life was hard but the family, the neighbors, the friends shared everything. Judith talked about the creativity and ingenuity Cubans used to make do, to fix things, to get enough food during bad times, to make a little money. She also talked about learning another way of looking at things, a different sense of priority -- that what was good for the human being, what was good for the society was what was important. Because of the blockade and the further tightening of the embargo by the US, and the loss of the Soviet Union as a economic trade partner, everything was hard. But everyone, somehow, found ways to keep the society going.
Judith also talked about gender equity. Women make up almost half of the government, and in a short time. They successfully bring up issues which are important to women. The human rights changes are quite successful in Cuba because the strong advocates for human rights of one group or another are powerful parts of the government.
When Judith returned to the United States, she saw things so differently from when she left. Her eyes were opened to how one makes decisions if it is based on human rights. She encouraged everyone to do so on a local level, a grassroots level, even if government is based on profit based priorities.
Barb Morita: Barbara Morita, P.A., has extensive first hand disaster response experience as a member of a disaster medical response team based in the U.S. Her disaster experience includes the World Trade Center (New York, 2001), Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, 2005), the San Diego wildfires (California 2007) and earthquake response in Haiti (Jan 2010). She also worked with the International Medical Corps in Patek Indonesia following the tsunami.
Morita has 30 years of experience as a Physician Assistant providing care to medically underserved communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. She is currently the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Alameda Health Consortium of Community Clinics.
Following the intense experience as a medical responder to Hurricane Katrina Morita decided to look at alternative models. In December 2007 she joined a field research study team on disaster preparedness hosted in Havana, Cuba by CLAMED (Latin American Center for Disaster Medicine).
In her presentations Morita pulls all of these threads together: experience as a disaster medical responder, disaster preparedness field research in Cuba and service to medically underserved communities in the U.S.
Morita said the turning point for US emergency response was September 11. From that time, US emergency response was focused entirely on terrorism, and not on natural disaster. For the Cubans, the turning point was the disastrous hurricane during the early year of the Revolutionary Government, when many thousands of people were killed or simply lost. Within a few years, Cuba had developed a response which reduced the number of victims dramatically. And more importantly, developed a system in which every human being was accounted for.
Both the US and Cuba were hit by a hurricane of almost equal power a few summers ago. A week before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Hurricane Dennis hit Cienfuegos in Cuba. Dennis was, in fact, more powerful. In spite of that, Cuban losses numbered 10 while after Katrina, one approximated the loss to be more than a hundred thousand.
The sobering statistic was who were the dead. They were the most vulnerable. And most of the deaths were by drowning. Without going into details, in the US, there is a belief that one buys preparedness. Those who can afford an SUV, gasoline, emergency supplies can get to safety, can save themselves. Those who cannot afford either materially or physically -- climb and break through the rooftop, swim -- cannot get themselves to safety.
In Cuba, as the director of Hurricane Prediction and Preparedness said, "the most important priority is human life." The first step, even before the hurricane hits, the children away from school go home. Before leaving, they have prepared their rooms to house people from flooded areas so they will be comfortable. (Schools are some of the safest buildings in Cuba). The next step, is to bring in the harvest and distribute; cut down dead branches; fix things which need to be fixed; clean out sewers and drains; secure valuable appliances, etc. in storage so they will not be ruined; account (on a neighborhood level) every person in every neighborhood. The women's organization are responsible to know, who is sick, who is elderly, who is disabled, how many children.
In Cuba since every 100 people have a doctor, during hurricane alert and preparedness, the doctors, knowing each of their patients well, make sure that those who need to are to be sheltered in the hospital itself, those who don't need that, he or she makes sure they have enough of all of their prescriptions.
And finally, people are moved to safe and sturdy places if their homes are not safe enough.
A huge difference between the US and Cuba was the preparedness. In New Orleans, the people were given 19 hours notice, less than 24 hours, that they were going to be hit. It was learned that the reason for this was the mayor was concerned of convention centers suing the city for interfering with the visitors.
Another huge difference is who is responsible. In the United States, the people with authority are outside "experts" and for the most part, everyone at this level was someplace else, and took days to focus on New Orleans. In Cuba, those responsible and in authority are the local leaders. One, they know the people and the people know them. Two, if they mess up, they know that they are going to be held accountable.
Barbara also said there is a particular cultural attitude which also comes into play. In emergency situations, it becomes important. In Cuba, for example, people who live in the East, isolated though they may be by lack of gasoline for easy travel, would send all their trucks to the site of the possible hurricane. When asked "don't you need your vehicles?" they will answer, "Yes, but the people hit by the hurricane are the priority right now." It is to that level that the national sense of prioritizing for hurricane and other natural disaster plays out.
I am leaving important stories and examples out, but I encourage anyone who wants to present a real option to emergency relief to contact Barbara Morita of Berkeley, CA.
Dennis Gilbert of Free the Five - I regret I was helping to get lunch on the table for the crowd for Dennis' talk, but I have blogged about the Cuban 5 so please refer to this very important issue. In my opinion, we are the best placed people, Americans, to help deal with this injustice.
Scott Misksch of Latin American Solidarity Committee -- Pastors for Peace is coming through Eugene July 6. We will be gathering construction materials and tools to go to Cuba.
Steve Wake, filmmaker -- Steve brought three pieces from the Tsukimi 3, the trip we went with the Berkley people to Cuba. The first centered on the effect of the cultural exchange using footage from all three Tsukimi Kai trips. It is so heartening to see how the Cuban Nikkei and allies developed their own Obon Festival. The first trips, TK1 and TK2 left drums, the Lion and some dances. By TK3, the Nikkei in Cuba had learned several dances and made traditional outfits, demonstrated folk and traditional art, drummed, sang and danced. The beautiful new Lion and the dance was fantastic! By any standards one could say that the cultural sharing aspect was a great success!
As for the other two, they showed the importance of the oral history gathering part of our trip. One clip showed two families side by side. The brother and the sister had such different memories and remembrances of their father. Steve had interviewed them and the grandson over all three trips.
The second of these two was the favorite. The video was of Goro Yamamoto who fought with Che except was not chosen to go to Bolivia with him, and his sister. The interview with the sister this last trip brought cheers from the audience. When she was asked if she supported the Revolution, her answer was, "Well, because I am a teacher, of course it was my obligation to teach the young people to do the right thing." That blew us away. The way of thinking in Cuba of every person showed the difference of cultural and societal values. Being a teacher carrying the responsibility to do what was right despite hardship, to take an ideological, moral stand is so impressive. Fear has no place in a teacher's life as it does for teachers who are expected by the State to teach obedience to the State.
Tania Triana, PhD: Tania is a professor in the Romance Language Department. She teaches Caribbean studies, especially Cuba and doing some focus on Haiti next year. Dr. Trian is very engaging, and very immersed in her study of race, the history of racism, why racism, and is presently also studying tourism in Cuba. She shared from very interesting insights which made me thankful for having gone with a tour. As she said, the tours give Cubans the opportunity to talk about what they're proud of. I loved that. Tourists who go on their own are usually guided to the tourist areas and when hooking up with individual Cubans will be told what they want to hear. I've noticed that. The people I talk to about Cuba who have gone on their own and go mostly to tourist or entertainment areas mostly see the disgruntled side of Cubans. Both Triana and Castro have shared that Cubans like to complain and argue. Not that their complaints and arguments should be dismissed, but it certainly should be seen in context. Being an American, ie., in a completely different society with completely different priorities, and filled with stereotypes about Cuba, I prefer to go on a tour than meet Cubans casually as a tourist and learn what a culture is proud of, what they value, what they accomplish. As an American, since our culture is the opposite, one might say, it just helps us in our own self-evaluation as a nation and as citizens or residents -- more so than just hearing complaints about Cuba. THAT we get plenty of.
I would love to take Dr. Triana's class on Jose Marti and hope I can someday.
I did not attend the workshop on getting into medical school but will let you know when I learn more about it. I attended the workshop of how to organize a trip to Cuba and all I can say is that things change, and even if you fit all the stipulations of the US, the US will decide, and often you will be denied anyway. So in the end, one will always need to decide to, basically, honor the blockade (which dishonors your human right to travel) or break the blockade -- openly or under the radar. You are forced into those narrow choices by a outdated Cold War policy and by openly discriminatory administration of it. The whole world visits Cuba. The whole world accepts Cuba as a nation among nations. The US does not. If that isn't a situation of the Emperor Has No Clothes I don't know what is.
Finally, Will showed his Impressions of Cuba which tells a lot about Will and, as well, why he loves Cuba and Cubans. I watch it several times myself. It lifts my heart, it cleans my soul just to know there is such a place where valuing human beings is such a deeply ingrained valued that strangers who are passengers in a bus reach out of the windows to help those getting on with their baggage, smile, and wave to the camera; where a young woman when asked what would you say to American youth, smiles and says, "Turn off your televisions. Sit under a tree, breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the songs of the birds. So often people of highly developed countries want to go past their borders, but sometimes it is good to take time and look inside and evaluate", to see the simple sunrise and sunset, the music, the musicians, the icons of justice honored, the happiness of a Committee in Defense of the Revolution Block Party, a fine table of organic food that "Californians would envy" teased our translator, the proud Lion Dancer at Obon which also included Okinawan Dance, Japanese arts and Santeria Drummers and Dancers and the beautiful faces, Japanese, African, Indios, Latin, Anglo, without stress, without road rage, without impatience.
The day's events ended with musicians singing Cuban songs -- until the singer in the middle of her soulful chorus stopped and said, "It is so emotional, so romantic . . . I'm stopping and singing some songs from Mexico" ripping into a lively and familiar song. I guess, though, I was especially touched that in thinking of me, the group felt before ending, they must sing Misa's favorite, and sang with great heart, "Guantanemera" -- and I picture Jose Marti on the Malecon, or the white sands with Royal Palms of his beloved land.
Throughout, thanks to Carmen (tender pork which melted in your mouth, beans, rice, and two kinds of chorizo, pinto bean dip (one being soyrizo), Guadlupe, drinks, Will, salads, Andrea's special Salsa, Carmen Garcia's tamale, Remie's coffe and pan dulce, Twila's bagels, Adrianna's creamcheese, mango paste and crackers, black beans and rice, Metropol's mocha rum cake with chocolate and oranges, and my pork, hamhock, chorizo, and vegetable Cuban stew with crusty bread. We ate all day long!
People who came brought things to share. Mitzi brought her letters from the Cuban 5, her art purchased from Cuba, photographs. Juanita brought Cuban solidarity statements and handouts. Hannah brought a magazine for everyone with a wonderful article on "How to Visit a Socialist Country" mmostly about Cuba. Adrianna shared her photographic art from her December trip to Havana. Dennis brought the Cuban 5 poster and their defense statements and Cuban flag. Herb his posters of Solidaridad, Bring Down the Blockade.
Juventud FACETA youth and their incredible mentor Patricia introduced all speakers. Patricia pushed my conscience about not having translators. Five people attending needed translators. Patricia said, "This is a matter of equity." I was both ashamed and grateful. She and Adrianna stepped up to do the important work of translating and I am so grateful. Luckily, Carmen brought the equipment out for simultaneous translation for the afternoon sessions but the morning sessions without complaining cut their presentations in half -- Barbara Morita, Dennis Gilbert and Judith Castro who did her own translations. I felt so bad when I saw Patricia, getting her head massaged, eyes red and glazed after almost two hours of translating, saying "Just give me one hour of total silence please."
It was a day of lessons, of sharing, of breaking stereotypes and celebrating Cuba. About 100 people came in and out; 35 stayed for Peña. Steve mentioned he might like to do another Cuba Conference next year at the UO. I hope he does. I will surely be there!
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