by Avery Davidson, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation
“Breaking: Police are responding to a report of officers shot at a location on Airline Highway near Old Hammond Highway in Baton Rouge.”
That’s what I saw on my Facebook feed the morning of July 17th as I was about to leave the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba. That was the only place in Cuba where I had some connection to home: The only place in Cuba where I could sign on to a rather slow WiFi connection and send messages back to my wife. That’s what I was doing when I saw the news.
So, what does that have to do with my trip to Cuba? A lot, actually. When I left Louisiana, tensions were still high over the shooting death of Alton Sterling. Many of the arguments about Sterling’s death centered on race.
After two trips to Cuba, I’ve observed something about the people there. Race isn’t as big a deal to them. Sure, there is some favoritism given to those with lighter skin, at least that’s what a young man with dark skin told me. He should know. He’s a computer technician/programmer, entrepreneur, he’s dark skinned and he actually lives there. What I’ve observed is people walking, holding hands, interacting and carrying on regardless of the color of their skin, shape of their eyes, texture of hair… none of that seems to matter to the Cubans I spoke with and seems evidenced by the married couples with children I saw in Havana. In many ways, seeing that was refreshing.
I also never felt unsafe. It’s illegal for regular citizens to have firearms, but as we all know, a knife can be as deadly as a gun. One could argue that strict rule from the government is why there’s a feeling of safety. Oppressive governments can squash uprisings, and I’m not saying that the Cuban government is oppressive. I’m just letting you, the reader, know that I’m not ignorant to the possibility that oppression can force peace. It seems that it’s deeper than that. At dinner with Cuban news anchor Christina Escobar, we talked about what makes news in Cuba. Human interest stories, events, politics in the country and abroad; all are subjects covered on the news. What is not covered is crime. None. If there’s a murder, not only is it not the lead, it’s not covered. There is no glory in violence. As a man who wrote about more murders and visited more bloody scenes than one should, I appreciate that approach.
At about this point, if you haven’t stopped reading already (TL;DR), you might say to your computer screen, “well, why don’t you just move to Cuba and live there if America is so bad?” America is not that bad. I’m only pointing out differences. I can go on and on about why I prefer to live in Louisiana. You hear people complain about Louisiana roads, but they are not half as bad as roads in Cuba. Drivers avoid entire lanes on the main highways because they are in such disrepair. An average of 3 buildings collapse every day in Cuba because they are in such bad shape. While we were in Cuba, there were rolling blackouts to conserve electricity. The average salary for a Cuban is $20/month. Most citizens aren’t allowed to have boats with motors for fear they will leave the country. The food isn’t as good as in Louisiana. TV is still in standard definition. (Yes, that’s a big deal to the TV guy.)
I can continue with many other “First-World Problems,” but the reality is Cuba still has some real third-world problems. And that brings me to my conclusion. Ending the embargo could make the lives of Cubans better by giving them access to fresher food, cheaper commodities and better technology. It also could inject money into a damaged economy. But what it really does, in my humble opinion, is remove the excuse. In meeting after meeting we heard Cuban officials say things would be better without the “blockade” or “embargo.” Really? Ok, it’s gone. Prove it. We can’t allow the embargo to be the excuse or scapegoat for all of the country’s problems. If we lift it and the problems go away, then that’s a win for the Cuban people and I’ll be happy that humans have better lives for it. However, if we lift it and things do not get better, the the finger pointing comes to an end. The Cuban government will have no choice but to change to make things better for its people. And if my observations are accurate, the young people in Cuba are ready, capable and prepared to make those changes.