I break my long-standing absence from my column by referencing and reflecting on the great words of Maestro Yasser Musa: “I recognize the beacon that is Cuba and its revolution, especially to the micro-nations, like us, of the earth. In the face of great adversity, we continue to struggle to determine who we are and it is our responsibility to teach solidarity and social justice.”
Cuba is affectionately referred to as “la isla bella” for good reason; it is a remarkably beautiful country, of even more beautiful people, one of the world’s greatest contributors to the art and music industries, and she has a heartbeat which she marches to without apology. Indeed, my visit to this country, by way of a volunteer opportunity, was a spiritual one because I got to see and exist within the midst of this revolution Maestro Musa speaks of. The Belize-Cuba relationship predates the naming of our now nation-state Belize, a relationship that started in 1981 when Guatemala in protest of our independence turned back students that were on scholarships in that country (News5, 2001), and Cuba has a 47-year relationship with the member states of CARICOM. Cuba’s undeniable support to Belize, CARICOM and the rest of the world continues to be the truest definition of solidarity, as the people of Cuba have done so even while being the David up against the Goliath of the Western World — The United States of America: a power that has enforced an unjust commercial, economic and financial blockade against the nation for six decades, 61 years to be exact.
In addition to unequivocal support of our self-determination, Cuba has more visibly supported us with what it does best, medicine, through the hundreds of Cuban medical professionals that have served us in our hospitals and clinics over the years, but more particularly in asset-building by providing scholarship opportunities, particularly in the medical sciences. In my support to the #AbajoElBloqueo movement, I wanted to give voice to that and hear first-hand and untainted accounts from friends, Belizean students in Cuba, about what their experience is like studying on the Big Island, because media houses controlled by the United States of America will spin the Cuban lifestyle how they see fit. I got to speak to premed, second and third-year students of Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, the institution founded by the late Comandante Fidel Castro in 1994 that has been educating Belizeans ever since. In talking to each of them there was a great sense of gratitude for the opportunity being afforded to them despite homesickness, the stress of medical school, studying in Spanish and adjusting to the changes in dietary culture, since Cubans will never understand the undying relationship between Marie Sharp’s pepper sauce, and the taste buds of Belizeans.
After three years, Ms. Flowers noted her appreciation for the volume of cultures she is exposed to at school, where she is educated amongst young people from almost every country in the world. A third-year student made note of what studying medicine in a country that has free health care means to her. She harped on the fact that being a doctor in Cuba is a service of compassion and not one of profit, as a patient is seen as a person rather than a client. Each person can enter a hospital and receive all the tests required without worrying about a single thing other than getting better, and doctors work diligently to find a diagnosis and nurses are celebrated. It is the country where each young person is afforded the opportunity to seek their career of choice, and contrary to what most media portray, is a country of technological advancement and development. I asked them to comment on how the “bloqueo” has impacted their studies. For the 4th year student, she said that it solidified her belief that Cuba is the most independent nation in the region and reaffirmed to her that International Relations is not just this abstract policy concept, but rather a very palpable construct that manifests itself in the lives of human beings. The interviewees all emanated this sense of solidarity with the people of Cuba. A sense that what the USA does to Cuba they do to Belize because it happens to them. They spoke of how the embargo affects the flow of petroleum to the country, which in turn affects the transport system — so much so that buses would not be able to run making transportation difficult and oftentimes costly (a sobering thought that had me think of Belize’s current Liquid Petroleum Gas debacle). Data has only recently been a part of the Cuban society, and it sure does not work like the Digicel LTE we are accustomed to and complain about. Embassies have shut down, flights have been cut, medication availability has decreased and the variety of products in any store is limited. They also highlighted how the recent reinforcement of the Cuba Donative Remittance now does not allow for Belizean students to receive money through services such as Western Union. Cuba has indeed taught them the value and skill of prudence.
My final question to them had to do
with whether or not they regretted their choice to pursue studies in Cuba, and the answers that resounded warmed my heart. All in all, there were responses of solidarity rather than regret, of gratitude rather than ungratefulness. They mentioned that prospective students must be open-minded and come mentally prepared to face things you may never have faced if they pursued education anywhere else in the world. I contend that it is a dual and dare I say paradoxical experience of being born and raised in a county where consciousness is a dream, is criminal, and then being plunged into one where consciousness, creativity and innovation are survival and are indeed celebrated as an integral part of life — and that is where that mental shift began for these students. In fact, I propound that that space is where nation-building begins.
“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” –James Baldwin, 1965 (Rima, 2015)