The Cuba Conundrum

Parsing the myths and the realities of Cuba


| June 28, 2007


In the wake of Cuban President Fidel Castro's transfer of power to his brother Raúl last year, many in the press have rekindled a love affair with the island nation. Stories abound heralding Cuba's exemplary organic farming and health care systems. Take, for example, Yes! magazine's Summer issue, which joined the ranks of socially conscious indie publications praising the quality and humanitarianism of the Cuban health care system. Michael Moore has brought his similar take on the issue to the mainstream media with his latest documentary. Cuba plays a prominent role in Sicko, in which the incendiary filmmaker takes ailing 9/11 workers to Guantánamo Bay and Havana in search of health care that's better than anything the workers could find inside the United States.

Such visions of a health care utopia don't ring true for Bella Thomas, who recently returned to the island after living there for years in the late 1990s. Writing for the British magazine Prospect, Thomas wonders whether the reporters enamored by the Cuban health care system have ventured beyond state-approved hospitals to other facilities, such as one Thomas describes as being 'in a state of filth and decrepitude.' According to Thomas, 'continuing hostilities with the US have played into Castro's hands,' solidifying his power and allowing him to transfer it smoothly to his brother, without improving living conditions for ordinary Cubans. The island has changed little since Raúl took power and it remains a country dominated by a repressive dictatorship. A Cuban friend tells her 'es exactamente igual'(It's exactly the same as it was).

As media-makers from all points on the political spectrum wrestle with Cuba's image, others are looking beyond the symbolic squabble to future realities. According to the Nation's Julia Sweig, the present situation in Cuba presents a unique opportunity for the United States to improve relations with both Cuba and the rest of the world. A silent majority in Congress is experiencing 'regime-change fatigue,' according to Sweig, and they're more than willing to end US sanctions on Cuba, including the travel ban.

A logical first step, Sweig reports, would be to give Guantánamo Bay back to the Cubans. The military base has become 'a global icon of what's gone wrong with America,' Sweig writes, and giving it back would signal a significant change in US foreign policy. The problem is that most politicians don't want to anger the sizeable and vocal pro-embargo Cuban-American constituency. 'Nevertheless,' Sweig writes, 'the time to make that case is now.'

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