Work & Dreams of a Chicano in Cuba

By Patrick Velasquez*

 UC San Diego Profesor Patrick Velásquez
UC San Diego Profesor Patrick Velásquez

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 4 – As a full-time administrator and professor at the University of California, San Diego, I made my third trip to Havana, Cuba on September 2-9, 2009.  Traveling under a general research license, I attended a four-day international conference on social justice projects hosted by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Havana.

I also conducted individual interviews with several Cubans who informed my research interests. I traveled with a UCSD colleague, Agustín Orozco, who also attended the conference and with his superior bilingual skills, assisted me with my academic investigations.

My research interests in Cuba are connected to my life as a Chicano educator and community activist for over thirty years. A primary assumption informing my research is that despite our profound differences in material and historic conditions, Chicanos (people of Mexican heritage living in the United States) and Cubans also share a concrete reality.

For Chicanos, the fundamental element defining our reality is our subordinate position in the ages-old racial hierarchy in the U.S.  For decades dating to the armed conflict between Mexico and the U.S. in 1845-1848 (culminating with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ceded half of Mexico’s territory to the U.S.), U.S. racism against Chicanos has severely limited all options for our upward mobility, including educational success. That lack of educational success for Chicanos now constitutes a crisis of national proportions (see The Latino Education Crisis by Gandara and Contreras, 2009).

Likewise, for over fifty years, Cuba has conducted a socialist “experiment” that generated an unparalleled backlash by the U.S. government (including numerous CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro as well as current taxpayer funded efforts to undermine the Cuban government). It continues today with one unalienable, totally contradictory fact: our U.S. government restricts travel by our citizens to Cuba like no other country in the entire world.

Every “American” citizen should wonder: despite the multitude of cruel dictatorships throughout the world, numerous countries that deny their citizens human rights, and countries that practice brutal oppression against women, indigenous peoples, workers, etc., only Cuba enjoys the dubious distinction of being the one space in which our fundamental constitutional right of freedom of movement is denied. Is the U.S. government worried that Cuba’s example of independent thought and action might inspire U.S. Chicanos/Latinos to similar empowerment and self-determination?

As an important aside, on September 11, 2009, President Barack Obama signed a one-year extension of the law used to impose the economic blockade against Cuba, saying that the law (largely applied to “enemy countries” against which the U.S. has declared war) was “in the national interest of the United States.”  Despite a large percentage of Chicanos who voted for Obama, the president again chose to placate conservatives rather than move in the interests of Chicanos.

Meanwhile, Chicanos continue to suffer under the racist yoke of the dominant white society in the U.S., a racism that is increasing in intensity as our population grows (see the documentation by the Southern Poverty Law Center of rising hate crimes against Chicanos and other U.S. Latinos).

Cuba continues to suffer under the economic blockade and political pressure of U.S. imperialism. To me as a Chicano educator, nosotros los Chicanos y los Cubanos juntos somos de la misma raza, that is, Chicanos and Cubans share a bond as Latin American brothers and sisters struggling against U.S. oppression.

Havana Balconies, photo: Caridad
Havana Balconies, photo: Caridad

As a twenty-year employee of UC San Diego, I also struggle with the intolerance of divergent thinking at my institution, especially in matters of race relations. In my educational philosophy, informed by Paulo Freire and other emancipatory educators, one of my fundamental responsibilities is to develop and refine critical thinking among my students.

Those students who take my classes at UCSD generally reflect ethnic backgrounds subordinated in the U.S. racial hierarchy-Chicano/Latino, African American, Pilipino American, Native Peoples, etc. Yet at institutions like UCSD, faculty and staff who encourage those students to question their educational conditions are often isolated and marginalized by the institution. They are not jailed for their words and deeds on behalf of social justice but their livelihood is certainly threatened.

Therefore, when I hear people in the U.S. decrying the so-called dictatorship in Cuba and its subsequent lack of freedom for Cuban people, our parallel seems so much stronger.

How has Cuba been able to stand up to U.S. imperialism for fifty years?  What lessons can our U.S. Chicano/Latino communities learn from the Cuban socialist experiment that might contribute to a higher level of identity, cultural strength, social and political consciousness, and overall emancipation from racism?  I will try to provide some tentative responses to these questions in subsequent writings.

*Patrick Velasquez is a Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego