Fairfield Now - Fall 2007
Sabbatical in Cuba
by Dr. Joy Gordon, J.D. / Professor of Philosophy
I've been doing research on economic sanctions for many years. I've also been going to Cuba for conferences and research for nearly two decades. When I had the opportunity for a sabbatical, it made sense to spend it living and doing research in Havana, looking at the impact of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The Cubans call it el bloqueo - the blockade. While it consists of legal measures and economic pressure, in Cuba's view it is no different from a military blockade: It is as if the U.S. had surrounded the island with warships to prevent anything or anyone from entering or leaving.
For centuries before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the United States and Cuba had an intensely close relationship. That year, the U.S. broke off diplomatic ties and later, during the Cuban missile crisis, imposed broad economic sanctions on the island. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s, 80 percent of the trade Cuba had subsequently established with the Eastern bloc dissolved with it. Cuba's rebuilt economy again collapsed.
In 1992, the U.S. tightened the embargo considerably, expecting that if the economic situation worsened to the point of desperation, the Cuban people would rise up against Castro. That didn't happen then or in 1996, when the U.S. made the embargo even more stringent. The Cubans called it a "double blockade" - harsh new restrictions coming on top of the collapse of their trading relations with the eastern bloc.
During that time, while visiting a colleague's home, I learned that the only food in the house she shared with her mother and brother was a bag of tomatoes. It needed to last 2-3 days. Shortages of power and cooking gas were constant. The water quality deteriorated without chemicals and equipment to purify it at its public source, yet without cooking gas, it was difficult for families to boil it long enough to make it safe for human consumption. Each shortage in turn triggered another crisis.
These terrible conditions, however, did not undermine the stability of the state. Instead, the Cuban government moved quickly to restructure the economy, shifting from sugar production to tourism, and established trade with 60 new countries. There were deals with Spanish hotel chains, an Australian mining company, Israeli citrus orchards, Italian and Mexican telecommunications companies, Caribbean cruise lines, and a broad array of Canadian joint ventures.
But the sanctions imposed by the U.S. in the 1990s were "extraterritorial," now interfering with trade between Cuban companies and third countries. Any ship docking in Cuba, for example, would not be allowed to dock in the U.S. for three months before or after. Any ship that did so, regardless of its country of registration, would be subject to confiscation, along with its cargo.
These laws were greeted with fury by the international community. Canada, Mexico, and the European Union protested, and passed retaliatory legislation. In 1992, Cuba introduced a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly, condemning the United States for violating international law by interfering in its trade with third countries. The vote was 59 for, 3 against (U.S., Israel, and Romania), and 79 abstentions. Since then, the vote has steadily grown in Cuba's favor, to the point that last year, 183 of the U.N.'s 192 member countries joined Cuba in calling for an end to the U.S. embargo. Despite the wishes of the international community, however, the U.S. has not relented.
Stringent rules continue to govern everything from academic travel to family visits. Until 2004, Cuban-Americans could visit family members in Cuba annually. That year, the U.S. government extended the timeframe to three years. Exceptions are rare, as one of my neighbors in Havana related: His brother in San Francisco could not receive permission to visit his dying mother in Cuba because he had visited her two years earlier. A friend of mine explained that, "Even those who know Cuba well do not understand the depth of the tragedy the three-year rule imposes."
Cuban families are traditionally close. Combinations of grandparents, children, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses, stepchildren, and grandchildren often share the same household. If they don't live in the same house, they exchange daily phone calls. If they don't live in the same province, they visit several times a year. Even in the worst times, when the bus system had nearly collapsed, people slept in the terminals, waiting days to get a seat.
Cuba's scholars are also affected by the embargo. Under the anti-terrorism law passed after 9/11, Cuba's access to U.S.-produced technology is highly restricted. That includes not only personal computers, but even cartridges for inkjet printers. During my sabbatical, I worked with many of the country's elite economists and political scientists, who often used paper and pencil for their research or university lectures because computer access is so limited. Yet because Cuba is on a list of terrorist states, it is a violation of U.S. export law for an American to bring so much as a laptop battery to a Cuban colleague.
The impact of the embargo is visible everywhere. On the streets of Havana, it's not unusual to see a motorcycle with a sidecar and a woman in that sidecar carrying a huge birthday cake; or two men loading a washing machine onto a bicycle taxi; or 1950s-era Chevys driving down the main streets (powered by old tractor engines). It's easy to find yourself chuckling and marveling at Cuban ingenuity. But the reality is that there's nothing marvelous about it: It's a set of desperate attempts by ordinary people to compensate for an urban transportation system that is in ruins.
Gasoline is unaffordable for most; spare parts for car or truck repair are unavailable. The crisis is worsened because Cuba cannot buy buses, trucks, cars, tools or spare parts from any U.S. company. And under the "extraterritorial" provisions of U.S. law, Cuba cannot buy them from a European, Asian, or Latin American company either, if it's a subsidiary of a U.S. corporation.
I have been coming to Cuba for many years, and each time I visit, it seems remarkable to me to find such intelligence, decency, and dignity in the face of hardship and its many forms of degradation. It is hard to be here without hoping for something better for the people I know: the former English teacher who sells cakes out of his house; the dentist who hires out his services as a taxi driver; the people in the city who ride the camello (diesel trucks converted into buses), barely fit for human transport. It is also hard to be here without being acutely conscious of the policy of my government, a policy of worsening the hardship and calling it a fight against tyranny.
While on sabbatical in Havana, Dr. Gordon hosted several Fairfield University administrators and faculty during spring break. University President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., and the Rev. James Bowler, S.J., facilitator for Jesuit and Catholic Mission and Identity, looked into developing an academic program and met with members of the Cuban Jesuit community. There to conduct research were: Dr. Jocelyn Boryczka, politics; Dr. Gisela Gil-Egui, communications; Dr. Dina Franceschi, economics; and graduate student Ed Feldheim.
While there, the group took in a baseball game as well! Pictured are (row one, front to back): Dr Boryczka, Fr. Bowler,
Dr. Gordon, and Feldheim; (back row): Ariel, a translator; Dr. Franceschi; and Fr. von Arx.