This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Today, the missiles are long gone, as is the threat of nuclear annihilation. However, the gap between the two nations remains, prompting much discussion in this country about when and how to move forward, given the rigid US policy still in place.
This is also the 50th anniversary of the day my childhood in Cuba was blown apart by Fidel Castro’s revolution.
On Sept. 6, 1962, a band of angry soldiers stormed into our home and seized the keys from my father’s hand. He was abruptly stripped of his business and all his financial assets. My family left Cuba that afternoon.
We had suffered constant harassment from a government who labeled anyone expressing a desire to leave as gusanos or “worms.” Someone in our neighborhood had been placed in charge of spying on us to report any suspicious activity. My brother, sister, and I did not attend school that last year to escape Communist indoctrination.
Gone was my motherland, and left behind were my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends, most of whom we never saw again.
For most Americans, the Cuban Missile Crisis is but a footnote in history, having dimmed with the end of the Cold War. Many are impatient and want the economic embargo to end. This was evident at a forum I attended on the Cuban Missile Crisis this summer at the Wellfleet Public Library. The talk was led by Peter Kornbluh, a professor at American University, who is working on a book that takes a fresh look at the crisis, based on newly declassified CIA and State Department files. The audience seemed more interested in opening up Cuba as a new tourist destination than in considering the enduring lack of human rights.
I love the United States as deeply as I do because of the personal freedom it provides through its wondrous ideals. If we as a country espouse the belief in human rights, then it would be a disgrace to simply acknowledge the totalitarian system in present-day Cuba in order to satisfy a personal curiosity to travel there.
Today, Cuba has one of the most deplorable records of human rights abuse in the world. Innocent people continue to be arrested, tortured, and killed for attempting to exercise freedom of expression. Cuba remains an island-prison. The overall population is not free to come and go as they please. Cubans face years in jail if they try to leave the country without a special government permit.
The average salary is the equivalent of $18 per month. Food remains rationed and scarce. The population may be largely literate but it is rigorously censored. The health care system so often acclaimed by the outside world is, indeed, free. Yet Cubans must take their own sheets, soap, and food to the hospitals and, often, little or no medicine is available. Proper surgical tools and anesthesia required for operations are routinely lacking. The only Internet access available to the Cuban people is in tourist hotels at a cost of $12 for one hour of service.
Do we dismiss this and ignore 50 years of suffering because we want to see the sights, when such unspeakable oppression still prevails? No one could be more fatigued from waiting for change than the Cuban people who have suffered and continue to suffer such indignities and pain. The 1950’s cars along with the crumbling structures of once-glamorous buildings prove the extent of the abandonment and neglect the government has shown for the needs of the Cuban people through the years.
Cuba is an example of what happens to individual lives when personal freedom is removed from their world.
Since I am an American citizen, I know I have a voice.
The only way to move forward is by not leaving the Cuban people behind.
Gisela Gugger is a teacher in New Jersey.