Cuba through the Looking Glass of the Cold War

By Courtney Parker*

cuba-4HAVANA TIMES — The eyes on the life size replica of Che Guevera in the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, Cuba seem to follow you around the room – not that I was prone to move around much. Something about the artificial gaze seemed very much alive; I remained transfixed in front of it much longer than the others in our group. The remaining members of our ‘people to people’ tour moved through the exhibit at a more touristy pace, marveling here and there but remaining, for the most part, appropriately detached from what they saw.

The museum had a quality of timelessness. The artifacts were well preserved; the bullet holes scattered about the marble surfaces contributed as much to the larger narrative as any of the carefully curated exhibits.

Some years back I had also been entranced by the film – based on the writings of a young Che Guevara – ‘Motorcycle Diaries’. Something deep inside of me was stirred by the story of this young, privileged Argentinian medical student who took off on a journey through South America’s most impoverished regions and was forever – and radically – changed by what he saw.

I wept during the scene where he swam across the river to join the lepers on the other side. I was emboldened by his revelations about an indigenous political party…a political revolution…of justice and unity. Growing up immersed in United States Cold War propaganda, of course, I knew that his journey had taken an extremist, violent, and militant turn in his later years, but I connected with the young Che, the idealist, a man after my own impractically idealist heart –  perhaps in the same way many young US idealists blindly connect with our own slave owning, Native American killing, founding fathers of ‘liberty and democracy’.

The truth is, I came to forget much about Guevera’s story. And by the time I watched it again years later, I had traveled through much of Latin America myself. Two life-changing trips to Costa Rica, a dash of Panama and Mexico, and then deeper journeys documenting human rights crises in Guatemala, Colombia, and later, Nicaragua. I had likewise been transformed by my travels. A dyed in the wool idealist, I entered academia – not medical school, but health science – determined to make a difference. I did what Che did, but backwards and with much less charisma and flair.

cuba-5When I initially returned from my trip to Cuba, I wrote an op-ed disavowing the embargo. And from there on, my claws would inevitably come out whenever anyone criticized Cuba – be it Che, Fidel, communism or socialism – and I was always chomping at the bit to remind everyone of the United States’ own human rights blind spots.

By the time of Obama’s famous visit earlier this year, I had mellowed out a bit. I knew that Cuba had created a stellar medical, humanitarian and public health system in the vacuum of capitalist industry but I also knew that their ability to obtain necessary supplies to operate at peak function was dampened by limits on free trade. It saddened me to imagine the antique cars disappearing from Old Havana one by one, as their caretakers might potentially lose some of the drive to continue their meticulous upkeep in the grips of a more ‘free’ market; yet, I held faith in the Cuban people as being more than capable stewards of their own culture, in any new paradigm that emerged.

I began to forgive my own country for its own shortcomings after a tumultuous journey through the lesser known conflict zone of Muskitia, Nicaragua in February of this year. It was then I came face to face with the latent potential for brutality, propaganda, manipulation and suppression that could emerge on the other side of this antiquated geopolitical binary of capitalism vs. socialism. After I was attacked in the Sandinista media, and later in Telesur, for reporting on Indigenous rights – and ironically, an Indigenous political party like a young Guevera had once apparently envisioned –  I was pretty much done being a Bolivarian leftist state apologist. This does not mean, however, that I am now a capitalist state apologist. In all honesty, I don’t see any moral high ground in either system right now, as both – at the international level – continue down the destructive and unsustainable paths of extractivism.

Disappointed as I was by the Sandinistas, I never lost my love for Cuba. And though I worry Nicaragua is spiraling backwards in terms of progress, with Ortega’s enthusiastic embrace of authoritarian neoliberalism, I see Cuba doing something wholly different. In Cuba, I see a companero of Los Estados Unidos, emerging hand in hand with us from a long, outdated war – moving past the false dichotomy that kept us divided for so long. Our healthcare and public health crises need the mentorship of Cuba’s leadership. And it is time we shared our material and medicinal wealth in return.

cuba-7I am excited about a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. I believe it is time to move past the false dichotomy of capitalism vs. socialism. I believe we can build relationships based on fair trade and mutual respect. I believe we can work towards universal standards of human rights while still respecting national sovereignty. Values such as: freedom of the press, the right to healthcare, the collective demand for corporate accountability, and respect for the environment and the rights of all humans are universal. And, I believe that through the mutual embrace of these values, we can heal the wounds of the past, one relationship at a time.

The importance of a truly independent media outlet such as Havana Times is something I have come to appreciate beyond measure. The balanced reporting and views represented in HT – as other media outlets are becoming more and more polarized – is a model for the world to notice.

As a PhD candidate in public health, I am preparing to write a thesis on Latin American botanicas and immigrant health. Right now, where I live in the southeastern United States, we have a large Latino/a immigrant population who experience a lot of barriers towards accessing mainstream health services. Botanicas – traditional Latin American venues of holistic healing — have been emerging to fill this vacuum, even as our government attempts to expand healthcare options to marginalized groups overall.

It is no secret that the United States has long been in the grips of a systemic healthcare crisis. We are currently extremely divided, as a nation, on how to move forward. We seem to be taking the long road towards the universal health coverage that Cuba has long enjoyed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined some goals to guide all nations towards more innovative and integrative medical and health service models in their ‘Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023’. When I was in Cuba, I noticed that even among the cutting edge, modern medical research taking place, there was still present an enormous respect for more traditional and natural types of remedies. Because of this, I would like to invite any Cuban with expertise, experience or interest to contact me at [email protected] if you can or would be inclined to offer some perspective or information about this type of integrative medicine and the role it plays in Cuba. I am interested in short term and long term research collaborations.

In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to continue supporting Havana Times and independent journalism. Let us look to a future where we are all able to grow and prosper beyond the outmoded divisions of the past.
*Courtney Parker, MNPO is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate in Health Promotion and Behavior at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.

27 thoughts on “Cuba through the Looking Glass of the Cold War

  • October 29, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    Sorry, you don’t get the last word just yet. The only thing sincere about your attempt to heal a decades long divide between cultures was your sincere betrayal of the very economic and political system that has afforded you the freedom to travel and study the far less fortunate. Your backstabbing comments regarding the US healthcare system while largely ignoring the failings of the Cuban system bespeak of your political biases. Your comments are far from neutral. Methinks your hypersensitive reaction to my almost tongue-in-cheek remark about “white guilt” confirms my guess. Finally, and most sincerely, I was not attempting to discredit your self-described traumatic experience. I apologize if you took my comment as discrediting. Word to the wise, when you open your remarks with a list of your credentials as if to imply that what follows is the gospel because a PhD said so, you may find that more humble PhDs, lawyers, professional engineers, waiters, and bus drivers are more likely to pounce. Let the weight of your remarks qualify your point. You never know who else has the sheepskin. By the way, horrible, horrible person? Really?

  • October 29, 2016 at 8:47 am

    I have not had one single person attempt to engage in an actual discussion in this comment feed — only unfounded attacks — so I have had no other course of action but to defend myself. Believe me, I would have chosen otherwise had it been left up to me. You are *still* reducing me to a few pictures that were taken in the rare downtime we had. Holy cow. Stretch your mind a little bit and stop trying to reduce a human being to a singular stereotype to project all of your anger onto.

  • October 29, 2016 at 8:36 am

    I attempted to reply to this last night but it may not have worked on my phone. In a nutshell, you are speaking to me as if I am defending Castro when I am not. I am merely trying to build bridges between the public health workers and researchers between two cultures; I have said nothing in defense of the state, nor do I intend to…You are indeed projecting this onto me because you apparently have nothing better to do than shadow box with an imaginary Castro supporter on the internet. I was in Cuba long enough to know that he does indeed still have some supporters, so you may kindly go find one to debate and leave me out of it.

    I re-read my responses several times and am quite okay with my behavior. You don’t get to attack someone’s education and then attack them again for merely defending it. That is just the height of ridiculousness and hypocrisy. And calling someone aggressive for merely defending themselves? That’s called gaslighting.

    And yes, I do view capitalism and socialism as a false dichotomy and what Castro, you, or anyone else thinks does not debase this.

    And the U.S. is indeed in the grips of a healthcare crisis. There is no debate about this between either political party here, the only debate is how to address it. Sorry this news hasn’t made it to you yet.

    You have made so many false accusations (projections) it is hard to even know where to begin. I diplomatically called Guevera an impractical idealist who took an extremist, violent and militant turn. I don’t know what religion you practice but I’ve never heard anyone talk about a deity in that way.

    And you can’t make a blanket statement about ‘natural medicine’. There are a number of plants that have enormous healing powers and a number of ‘evidence-based medicines’ which have turned out to be extremely dangerous (sometimes due to the evidence being derived merely from short term trials with no potential for longitudinal study.) We are about to enter a post-antibiotic era, and the price of pharmaceuticals is skyrocketing around the world. Please go read about the WHO’s Traditional Medicine program, or poke around PubMed a bit for actual studies on natural medicines that weren’t sponsored directly or indirectly by those invested in ‘Big Pharma’.

    Now please back off with your generalizations and accusations. This is getting extremely boring.

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