Americana in Cuba

Graham Sowa

Outside the cafeteria at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM)

Finding Americana in Cuba is not easy.  Sometimes I see Coca Cola in some stores, but then I read the can and it says “Bottled in Mexico.”  Nestle products are easy to find in Havana, and Americans are notorious for their processed food consumption.

However, if you took some time to read that fine print you would see that Nestle has its headquarters on the other side of the Atlantic.

I have come across some sad looking non-dairy coffee creamer with a little American flag printed on the side proudly proclaiming “Made in the USA”.  The old American maquinas on Cuban streets are an easy find, but a glance under the hood or body reveals a conglomeration of non-Americans components.

So even though I don’t have a lot of success looking for Americana in Cuba a couple of weeks ago some friends and I decided to go try to watch that great American pastime, the Super Bowl.  Leave it to American hubris to let otherwise reasonable people to believe that their national sport should be able to be viewed from anywhere on the earth.  I mean, it is the Super Bowl after all, right?

This year’s Super Bowl was especially important for us Texans, since it was held in the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.  The stadium came at no small price.  And even though Texans are notorious for avoiding higher taxes no matter how great the need, the good people of Arlington, Texas voted for a tax increase in order to build the new 1 billion USD stadium.  Sure, there are millions of children without health care or access to quality education in Texas, but hey, priorities.

So in search of the Super Bowl in Cuba my friends and I set off to the hotels in swanky Miramar.  We struck out at the first hotel because their television at the bar was broken.  Our second choice, the Hotel Panorama, proved a success.  We were on the 11th floor Executive Club just after kickoff.  How popular is the Super Bowl in Cuba?  Well, even though we arrived after the start of the game we still got the table in front of the small flat screen T.V.  There were two other groups of people watching the game, both from Northern Mexico.

ELAM medical students going to do clinical studies at the policlinic facilities.

The Green Bay Packers ended up winning, and within a few minutes after the game clock ran out the field was flooded with players, coaches, and managers wearing T-Shirts and caps that said “Green Bay Packers- Super Bowl Champions”.

I took a pause when I saw this.  How did they know who was going to win?  How did they have all those shirts and caps ready to distribute within seconds after the game ended?

As it turns out two sets of championship clothing are printed; one for each team.  The event organizers immediately promote the victory of the winners and feed the consumer driven merchandise demand that surrounds American sporting events.  But what about the losers t-shirts that wrongly proclaim them the champions?

This year the Pittsburg Steelers, the losing team, t-shirts were donated by the Super Bowl and National Football League to World Vision.  World Vision is a Christian international aid group, and they accepted the donation as a “gift in kind”.  Gifts in kind are donations of objects or resources other than money.  This means that the National Football League does not have to pay taxes on the cost of the 100,000 shirts they donated and World Vision gets to give away a bunch of T-shirts to, I assume, really poor people that have a great need for T-shirts.

Now, as someone who has worked and volunteered at home and abroad trying to achieve social justice and equity in this world I’m upset.  How can organizers of an event held in a stadium that cost 1 billion USD claim some type of moral victory because they donated a 100,000 T-shirts that should never have been printed in the first place?  And who decided that of all the things the poor need the most T-shirts rank up at the top of the list?

The more I see self-promotion surrounding international aid, with its expansive network of highly paid professional workers it takes to distribute this aid, the more disillusioned I am with the whole concept.  I believe that private foreign aid has become an aid industrial complex.

Pensions and livelihoods are tied to the necessity of having poor people to give stuff too, no matter if the poor people need it or not.  I don’t want to knock all “gifts in kind” from America, but this example is not out of the ordinary.  Americans love giving away their trash like they are doing the world a favor.

Then I look at Cuba.  What are Cuba’s “gifts in kind” to the world?  Free education, like the one I am enjoying, even though secondary schools for Cubans have had a teacher shortage for years.  Free doctors, who serve abroad without their families and away from their homeland with few resources other than a profound sense of purpose.  And not too many decades ago the Cuban soldiers who gave their lives to help topple the apartheid regime in Southern Africa.  Now these are what I consider “gifts in kind.”  Those t-shirts are really just “gifts of convenience.”

With this in mind Americans should never have to guess why most of the world routinely expresses their thanks to the Cuban people and their Revolution.  This probably also explains why no one has ever come up and thanked me for Coca Cola or Super Bowl t-shirts.  So while World Vision waits for next year’s Super Bowl and the 100,000 shirts that Americans have no use for let’s hope that Cuba will keep giving their best to the world.  Or better yet, let’s try to follow their example.

Graham

Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.


4 thoughts on “Americana in Cuba

  • March 18, 2011 at 8:13 am
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    Graham pursue objectivity. Later you will be grateful.

  • February 21, 2011 at 11:14 am
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    We will send your e-mail to Graham.

  • February 21, 2011 at 10:50 am
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    Hi Graham, I’m a fellow Texan reading your diary here with interest. Can you please contact me when you get a chance? I’d love to ask you some questions about Cuba. Or if the paper could put me in touch with you, that would be great. Thanks! Take care…

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