The University of Iowa

UI Student Recounts Study Abroad Experience in Cuba

January 20th, 2012

Commentary by Will Mattessich for The Daily Iowan

As America’s representative do their best to curtail our freedom of speech with the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, I couldn’t help but think of a place where Lamar Smith and his cosponsors could learn a lot about censorship. It’s a place that seems to be stuck in time, where I and 12 other University of Iowa students studied over winter break: Cuba.

Being there provided a fascinating look at the results of America’s Cuban foreign policy and a unique perspective on the embargo.

The hotel we stayed at had Internet stations, which was the only part of the lobby that didn’t look like it was right out of the movie Casablanca. Certain sites that didn’t line up with the ideology of the glorious revolution were blocked. Censorship is so severe that any new websites must be approved by the government, and the government even uses proxy servers to obtain citizens’ usernames and passwords.

Driving through the Vedado district of Havana, one of Cuba’s relatively more affluent areas, you will find brightly colored Spanish-style houses with pillars in front that were built in the 1920s. Old colonial mansions may now be home to three or four families raising chickens in the front yard.

Continuing east along the seaside Malecón road, alongside Cuba’s famous 1950s American cars, will lead you to Old Havana, much of which is restored to the way it looked in the 19th century. The cobblestone streets there are narrow to provide shade from the Caribbean sun, and they wind through a series of stone forts and cathedrals and plazas.

One of the most common sayings we heard in Havana was “no one starves in Cuba.” The government pays for food and housing and medicine, so even if people are malnourished or don’t get to eat what they want, they get by. Unlike anything else in the country, health and education do work.

This scene was incredibly charming for us Americans, but it’s not what Cubans want. They want access to new cars that don’t break down and basic needs such as soap and shampoo. They want to be able to use high-speed Internet and buy cheaper electronics (an old CD stereo cost $500). Musicians want to be able to send their music to California and New York. Writers want to be published at American universities.

Cubans refer to the embargo as “el bloqueo” — the blockade. It’s a restriction on commercial activity between Cuba and the United States, including a travel restriction preventing American citizens from spending money in Cuba. There are some loopholes that allow American companies to sell Cubans food.

It’s a 21st century country whose problems are continuously being tackled with a 20th century mindset. There’s no Cuba-Soviet alliance anymore, and the idea that the United States is pursuing its Cuban foreign policy for humanitarian reasons is a joke, because the restrictions on medicine and supplies hinder Cuban lives far more than they help. In addition, our track record of picking and choosing dictators to support is abysmal and hypocritical, so our leaders have no moral high ground from which to berate Fidel Castro.

But it’s important to think about what exactly an immediate end to the embargo would mean. A graduated policy change would be better than a sudden one. The second-world haven of Havana would become America’s hottest new tourism destination, and American corporations would have a new populace to exploit. Imagine if Iowa students on spring break turned the beautiful streets of Havana into the massive resorts and dirty Bud Light bars of Cancún or if JP Morgan Chase started investing Cuban money. The Cuban infrastructure would be overwhelmed, and the island could lose some of its unique flavor and culture.

Still, even though many of Cuba’s problems are self-inflicted (or government-inflicted), when I was there, I did not hear a single way in which the embargo has helped any Cuban citizen. It would be fair to allow them control over their own island’s future.