Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cuba: Why I Care

Cuba: Why I Care
By Claudia Fanelli 1/20/2007

I am not Cuban. I don’t attempt or pretend to be. I am Italian-American, the granddaughter of economic, not political, immigrants. As a result of my background, the concept of political immigration was foreign to me until I met my Cuban-born Spanish professors in college twenty years ago.

Even so, knowing them as well as I did but never discussing their ordeals, I had only marginal knowledge of Cuban history. With regard to the Cuban exile experience, well, let’s just say that if I didn’t hear it from Tony Montana, then I didn’t know about it. My ignorance was never questioned much since I live in Pennsylvania where the Cuban population is sparse.

However, now that Cuban history and literature are part of the high school Spanish curriculum where I teach, I felt compelled to know more than what the student textbook told me. Books, Blogs, movies, documentaries and talking to Cubans have helped me to understand what is so seemingly foreign a concept to the average American: the current situation in Cuba.

Other teachers ask me questions about Cuba and while I am in no way an authority, I do my best and get an answer if I don’t have one. You see, my colleagues have no clue about what is going on in Cuba, and until I began talking to them, they really didn’t care to know. Perhaps they are relieved that I keep abreast of what is taking place so that they don’t have to. After all, Cuba is barely a blip on the radar of most Americans.

I am always sure to inform the curious about the suffering and the human rights violations that are taking place in Cuba as a result of a 48-year death grip on the country and her people. I cite my sources when I need to and I state statistics when challenged by a fan of Fidel. Once presented with the propaganda espoused by Hollywood and parroted by those who swallow it, I unload the litany of contradictions as well as the endless list of human and civil rights violations that people who don’t live in Miami either don’t know or choose not to acknowledge.

More and more frequently, someone will ask me “Why do you care so much about Cuba? We don’t even have Cubans around here.” I have no agenda. I don’t have Cubans in my family and my closest exile friend died this summer, taking with her the stories of what happened to her in Cuba that she couldn’t bring herself to share. I’m just an American who wants to see freedom established in a country that Americans clamor to visit clandestinely without regard to what is actually taking place there.

Now it’s true, where I live Cuban-sightings are few and far between, but yet only an hour away is Union City, NJ, where a huge population of Cubans live, and New York City is just a stone’s throw from there. It’s hard to stay provincial once you are aware of the fact that people who left behind everything they owned, risked being jailed or killed or who made the ultimate sacrifice of sending their children by themselves (14,000 of them to be exact) to another country to escape the hell of their own, live sixty measly miles from here. One would think that I shouldn’t have to justify why I “care” about Cuba. Why should I care about a country in such close proximity to us that their people try to swim to get here after their makeshift rafts fall apart in the sea?

Why should I care about a country where the citizens are denied the simple freedom of using the same hotels and restaurants as the tourists? At a mere 90 miles away from here, how can I say that I don’t care?

Engaging in a “Why do you care?” discussion means keeping a calm head, for I must make my points rationally, removing emotion from the argument so that I don’t lose my cool. The problem is that now I am emotionally invested in this issue: I am disgusted, infuriated and heartsick about what I know takes place on the island. This makes remaining calm in the face of people who think communism is a good system or that fidel Castro is “misunderstood.”

But perhaps the most frustrating conversations take place with those who are apathetic. “They’re not our people,” I have been told. “Not “our” people?” I ask. “Were the Ethiopians “our” people? Americans recorded music and sponsored Live Aid to help the poor and oppressed there. Were the Bosnians “our” people? Americans went to fight ethnic cleansing for them and there was nary a protest that they weren’t “our” people.

Were the victims of the tsunami in Thailand “our” people? Americans donated money from their own pockets to help them. Since when do others have to be “our” people for us to care about humanity? And by “care,” I don’t mean take to the streets and burn Castro in effigy or protest the regime; I don’t expect that. I just mean not being apathetic.

Why should caring about the people suffering in a brutal, oppressive dictatorship that is so close to the USA be any different from being concerned about Darfur, Thailand, Indonesia, or anywhere else? And if anything, we should care MORE because we have an enormous population of Cubans living right here on OUR SOIL- which is now THEIR SOIL. Perhaps that is the problem.

People see how Cubans have prospered here (over 125,000 Cuban-American owned business in the US), how much they have contributed to society and the economy (over 26 billion dollars are generated by their businesses annually) and how they have made their own way, even though they arrived with the clothes on their backs. Maybe they just assume that Cubans were good to go from the moment they arrived so life in Cuba can’t be that bad after all; ergo, Cubans don’t really suffer.

“Castro isn’t that bad… he won a Human Rights Award- that must mean something,” some uninformed people have told me. “Do you know who awarded him that award?” I ask, a little giddy to reveal the award sponsor. “Moammar Gadhafi, you know, from LIBYA?” “Oh,” is usually the response to that. Conversation over.

Nobody is going to defend Gadhafi. No wonder people don’t care about Cuba- if Castro has a human rights award in his possession, everything must be right with the world! Far from deserving human rights awards, Cuba’s totalitarian dictator has a long list of violations against both human and civil rights. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I heard that the Cuban government has Decree 988 which says that "executions can be carried out in less than 48 hours, without trial,” I scratch my head and wonder where the international out crying is.

Death without trial?

In Philadelphia, convicted cop-killer Mumia Abdul Jamal got his trial and was sentenced to death and the liberal left in Hollywood went ballistic trying to get him off death row, where he has been for twenty-four years. But to be put to death within 2 days and not get a trial and nobody makes a scene? Hollywood has the biggest bully pulpit in the world and yet nobody says a word about Cuba, and the Hollywood elite continue to visit Cuba and revere it as if it were paradise on earth. How am I expected to wrap my mind around that?

The Cuban American National Foundation stated that in 1992, there were 266,000 men, women and children in 241 prisons and concentration camps and there were 54,000 Cubans dead for political reasons, including 12,486 killed by firing squads. Keep in mind that these statistics are fifteen years old- I shudder to think how high the total is today.

Should this not bother me?

Why do I care that “only” 52,000 rafters tried to escape Cuba and out of those, 17,000 were successful? (That begs the question, what happened to the other 35,000 rafters?)

Where are Susan Sarandon and Ed Asner? Has anyone told Oliver Stone about these figures? Is Hollywood so enamored with Castro that they can just ignore these heinous crimes against humanity?

Castro puts to death thousands upon thousands of people who dare not to tow the Communist party line, yet Hollywood embraces this man? Am I the only non-Cuban who cares about this?

Do I have to be Cuban to care? Or is the majority of the country so provincial that what happens outside of their own town is not important unless a loudmouth Hollywood type says it is?

I think that Hollywood’s romantic notion of the revolution and its leader have contributed to the American apathy toward our neighbor in the Caribbean. After all, it was Hollywood, not Cuba, that produced such films as Havana, Motorcycle Diaries, Comandante and the upcoming Che.

If the apathetic population of the United States really thinks that because Cubans here are successful or are jealous of them and therefore cannot muster up enough concern for humanity to give Cuba a second thought, they might want to consider the stats.

U.S Census data shows that in the first fifteen years after Castro took power, over 640,000 people fled the island. The total for over forty years of Castro’s regime has passed 1.5 million people. Not all of these were affluent like those who left the island soon after Castro took over.

Rather, these were the people for whom Castro had supposedly created the “Revolution,” the working man, the poor, the oppressed. If he had done right by them, why would they be leaving en masse? In 1994 when he announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, 35,000 people tried to raft their way to the US.

Try to understand that- people crafted makeshift rafts and hopped on them, pushed off into the ocean, not knowing if they would live or die, just for freedom. These people were the regular people, desperate to escape death squads, ration cards, denial of freedom of speech and a ban on religion.

These were the people who, when faced with the idea of “Socialismo o Muerte,” chose death. Death by drowning, death by sharks, death by dehydration… Yep, Cuba must be a real paradise if these choices trumped life on the island. And why should I care? I think the question should be “Why shouldn’t I?”

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