By Courtney Parker*
HAVANA 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.
When 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.
I 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.