It has taken over fifty years for the American system of government to spawn a President who could discuss US access to health care with the President of Cuba. At a joint press conference, it was clear that Obama welcomed Raul Castro’s insistence that the right to health care is just as important as the right to protest.
The Cuban president was courteous enough not to point out that American protesters, though rarely arrested, are likely to be pepper-sprayed, and that while pretty much all Americans have access to the internet, they can never be sure their phones are not being bugged or their messages read.
While the Castro brothers, who have probably set the record for longevity in power (Zimbabwe’s Mugabe has only been in power since 1987) arrest people who demonstrate in favor of a system that makes health care dependent on wealth and charges for higher education, the American government spies on activists who believe their countrymen should enjoy those rights. Not to mention how hard it would be for anyone promoting these ideas to get any but the most menial job.
The ‘war on terror’ allows our government to silence anyone who disagrees with the bedrock of our belief system: sink or swim free enterprise.
I spent the better part of two years in Cuba from July 1963 to June 1965, speaking repeatedly and at length with Fidel, Raul, Che, Celia Sanchez and the other members of the government, about their individual reasons for participating in the Revolution. (When Raul stopped by my hotel room to size me up and discuss a time for an interview, his eye fell on Engel’s Origins of the Family and Private Property, which I was reading at the time: As he headed for the door he said: “Be careful the same thing that happened to me doesn’t happen to you!”
“What’s that?” I asked
“That you become a Communist!”
I told him I wasn’t a joiner and that has never changed. But one thing occured to me thinking about Barack and Bernie: the former moved seamlessly from being the mixed race son of a single mother in an obscure backwater, to suave interpreter of Wall Street aspirations, while the latter, in his seventh decade, remains the feisty defender of the man on the street he was in his student days.
At a time when US presidential candidates are doing their best not to contradict themselves from one day to the next, it is also refreshing to hear Raul Castro reiterate the same convictions he held fifty-four years ago: every human being is entitled to the basic necessities of life.
I revisited Cuba in 2011 when my book was presented at the Havana Book Fair and saw how much it had changed while remaining true to the revolution’s ideals: uniformed school kids flocked to the book fair, happy to be alive, while some of their older brothers and sisters were having trouble finding work worthy of their education, resorting to the courtship of foreign visitors to be able to enjoy the latest fashions. No one was going hungry, a rancher I shared a meal with was well-dressed and young couples were being encouraged to take up farming, and Fidel was the first world leader to identify climate change as humanity’s greatest threat. Five years later, Raul clearly hopes to leave Cubans with more opportunities, while not sacrificing the fifty-odd year old gains Americans have yet to make.
P.S. My chronicle of the early years of the revolution will soon be available again from Tayen Lane, under the title Cuba: A Diary of the Revolution, Conversations with FIdel raul, Che and Celia Sanchez.