Amid last week’s orgy of “recipes from home” at the various dining halls, there passed a largely unnoticed political commentary. “Cuban Beef,” a mixture of beef hash and mashed potatoes, looking remarkably similar to the dining halls’ own “shepherd’s pie,” contained more than just some stale ingredients – its name represented one of many assumptions we have about the small nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Cuba has been fighting for independence since 1868. The United States has had designs on Cuba for at least as long. Today, 96 years after Cuba became “officially” independent under the Platt Amendment, and 40 years after Fidel Castro triumphantly marched his revolutionary government into Havana, the U.S. refuses to permit or admit to Cuba Libre.
In 1992 U.S. Senator Robert Toricelli (D-New Jersey) decided that he would take it upon himself to bring capitalism (he called it democracy) to Cuba. Said Toricelli, “I want to wreak havoc on that island.” Well, he has, through a stringent sanctions bill known as the Toricelli Act, which even the United Nations and our friends in the European Commission condemn as “a violation of international law.”
I have never been to Cuba, and I do not consider myself an expert on the country, but I did see the irony in Wednesday’s “Cuban Beef.” The Toricelli Act has made that particular foodstuff increasingly hard to come by in its country of origin. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say Cuba has not seen beef since 1992, but today even chicken is a black market good. One would suspect Cubans consume little beef when their food-rationing government can only guarantee its citizens 1900 calories a day per person (100 calories below the USDA’s recommendation).
My objection is not to the name of a dish that we will never see again (I don’t have the official results, but don’t worry, it didn’t win). My objection is not even that Cuba can not afford to grow beef – of which one pound requires 16,000 pounds of grain and four tons of water. My objection is not that external conditions have forced Cuba into the midst of a grand agricultural experiment. My objection is that my country, the United States, refuses to learn from Cuba’s experience.
Cuba is currently engaged in what Food First calls “a life and death gamble.” Agricultural scientists and government officials have undertaken organic farming on its largest scale in order to feed the nation under the reality of the Toricelli Act. In this respect, Cuba once again has become a testing ground.
One day, exigencies similar to those currently facing Cuba will confront the rest of the world. Most likely, the causes will be environmental rather than political, but even so, we will have to find a way to deal with them. We should look to Cuba to learn what we can about the successes and failures of its efforts, because one day this may be a necessary thing for all of us to know.
If this is anything like historical examples when Cuba had something to teach us, we are not going to learn anything. We have a habit of not acknowledging the facts when it comes to Cuba.
The Revolution has failed in many respects, but it has also succeeded in others. But you wouldn’t know this from listening to our political leaders, or even students around campus.
One of the most notable achievements of the Castro regime, and other socialist governments in Latin America (all of which the United States has overthrown), has been its literacy campaign. However, when I brought this up in a political argument, a fellow classmate asked, “If the literacy campaign is so successful, how come three fourths of all Cubans are illiterate?”
Regardless of whether that statistic was racist or just misinformed, the student who offered it refused to back down even when greeted with facts from a general history text on Cuba that set the number around two to four percent. That textbook, he said, was biased, because of its title – Cuba – and the Hispanic surname of the author.
It is a legacy in this country, of which this student is only a small part, that Cuban facts are inadmissible in discussions about Cuba. It began in 1898 when the U.S.S. Maine mysteriously exploded in a Cuban harbor, and yellow journalists of the era blamed Spain.
“You furnish the pictures,” New York Journal editor William Randolph Hearst told a photographer. “I’ll furnish the war.”
This was how the second Cuban Revolution, already three years old when the Maine sailed into Havana harbor, came to be known as the Spanish-American War. The legacy lives in the textbook of every student of American history.
The legacy continues today under the Toricelli Act. Cuban citizens were once beneficiaries of a socialized health care system that was an example to the non-aligned world and certainly could have held many lessons for the U.S. to apply in its health care fiasco. Today, they can not get basic medicines.
These are just a few examples of our policy of active ignorance toward Cuba. The best summation of this that I have heard came from another one of my classmates, who said, “Even (unfairly maligned New England Patriots head coach) Pete Carrol knows Cuba isn’t a country.”
Once again, Cuba is involved in a grand experiment. Once again, we are ignoring the lessons to be learned. Once again, too, the lives of the Cuban people depend on the success of this experiment.
Both the Pope and Jimmy Carter expect the Cuban government to fall with the easement of the embargo, and thus they urge the lifting of the sanctions. Without the U.S.S.R. around to underwrite its forays into the economic policy of the moment or subsidize exchange of inferior goods, Cuba must succeed in its effort to employ sustainable agriculture if it is to survive as a sovereign nation. It is most important that the suffering of the Cuban people end. It would be a shame, though, if this effort were cut short before it had a chance to succeed.