Monday, September 29th, 2014
Why is Cuba such a contradiction? Because Cuba is characterized by everything I was told the world should not be! Socialist not democratic, communist not capitalist, systemic human rights violations, a dictatorship, inefficient, unproductive; should I continue? I was able to get a sense of this notorious island during a seven day immersive learning excursion with twenty-seven other MIIS students and the renowned Professor Jan Black.
There was a time when I imagined Cuba as a socialist utopia. I had thought Cuba was going to be the national anthropomorphization of Eugene V. Debs famous quote that is “opposing a social order where it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives to secure barely enough for a wretched existence. But, there is no substitute for actually visiting the country – after seven days in Cuba, I’ve realized that the little island nation, and the United States, are a lot more complex than I was led to believe in the comfort of my Midwest upbringing.
As an American, I grew up on the smell of apple pie; lightly toasted crust, crisscrossed across the top, somehow evoking feelings of liberty, justice…righteous stuff. You see, Cuba, at least for United States citizens, is one gigantic contradiction and trying to digest and make sense of the country through the nationalistic viewpoint from which my mind has been programmed to think, whether I like it or not, is no easy task. Close your eyes and think about apple pie. Now, envision biting into pineapple sorbet. So, I apologize now if, and that is a big if, you get to the end of this blog and you walk away more confused than you started. That’s fine though. Cuba could be the poster child for the phrase; the more you know the less you think you know.
Our professor and guide Dr. Jan Black told us to experience Cuba using our five senses. I would like to take the liberty of taking you, my reader, along for the ride with the idea of trying to engage your five senses. Unfortunately, I am less likely to engage your sense of smell. But, here we go:
We met with all different types of people, from Cuban foreign ministers to a diplomat from the U.S. Interest Section. We also met with individual Cubans, both pro-government and oppositionist. We met with U.S. expats working with the Cuban health system and Cuban students studying international relations. What was so trying after listening to all of them was that you could easily pick each one up and place them into two buckets, Cuban Nationals (CN) or U.S. Nationals (USN). Whether we were speaking to Cuban oppositionists or expat sympathizers of the Cuban government their rhetoric fit, nicely, within these two buckets. Their world-views and indeed those of us students had been systematically crafted by the nations from which they grew up and regardless of their support for either side or not they continued to use rhetoric that perpetuated the conflict between the United States and Cuba. What was most contradictory of all was that these two worldviews of the same conflict were like hearing two completely different stories for two completely different historical events told perpetually for generations upon generations without change.
How are these national worldviews constructed within a citizenry? It is often much more subtle than one would assume. Irrespective of whether we understand nationalism as a positive or negative force, it is generally acknowledged that nationalism places the nation on the highest pedestal and viewed as the supreme agency of meaning, collective identity, and moral justification. Critically noting that one of the powerful ways in which nationalism becomes historically instated is through its presumption that the nation is sacred, likening it to be equivalent to the church. Interestingly, if nationalism is being valued as sacred within the population we can see its physical manifestation in the ritualized images of national leaders and national public ceremonies that are underscored by the nations presumed history of greatness. Harry Anastasiou, a professor of Conflict Resolution at Portland State University and world-renowned leader in the settlement process in Cyprus, goes as far to claim nationalism can be a justification for divine election.
To demonstrate just how subtle the presence of nationalism is in our everyday lives I have included the photos of the front and back of a postcard I brought back from Cuba. Here on this postcard we can see physical, relevant and daily manifestations of both USN and CN and it should allow us to further understand how nationalism is installed in the hearts and minds of its citizenry’s “collective narcissism and exclusivist notions” that perpetuate the conflict. On one side of the post card we see a photo of a billboard in Cuba. The billboard reads, “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre” next to the image of one of Cuba’s most iconic national leaders, Ernesto Cheguevara. “Hasta la victoria, Siempre,”a common phrase seen and heard around Cuba, roughly translates to “Always victorious.” A simple suggestion that Cuba’s “divine election” is a moral justification for the use of force or violence to ensure the Cuban nation is victorious, forever.
I brought this postcard back from Cuba and sent it to a friend. I sent the card from the U.S. and had to attach a U.S. postal stamp, which conveniently reads “USA Forever” next to the iconic national flag of the United States, which can be seen in the bottom right of the picture. This is a simple suggestion that the U.S. nation too, is supposed to be everlasting, above all other nations. Two simple images combined with rhetoric that generates collective narcissism for one’s own country and therefore excludes all others.
These two simple and fairly common phrases on the same postcard and seen on a daily basis in the U.S. and in Cuba, most likely evoke emotions and sentiments rarely analyzed by their readers. However, they have profound effects on each population’s worldviews. Since the U.S. and Cuba are fundamentally opposed to each other how can Cuba be victorious always if the USA is supposed to be victorious forever? Indeed, a provocative juxtaposition of both nationalistic viewpoints and just how contradictory these two nations can be.
Despite this propaganda propagated by each nation’s government that leads us to believe our side of history is the correct side, it is not separate historical events at all but rather a singular relationship that is decades old and has affected future generations. Their “official histories” pick them up as they are born and blindly place them into one of these boxes like what was so nicely done for me. If I could have avoided this ear to ear mind piercing juxtaposition of “right” and “wrong” I could have perhaps had a second to sit and enjoy Cuba for what it really truly is; another, yet completely unique and colorful example of human perseverance over incursion, dominance or, better yet, colonialism that I too can be proud of my own nation for (at least at one point in our history this could have been the case). Cubans and U.S. Citizens aren’t that different after all – apples or pineapples, it’s all fruit, right?
-This is a journalistic piece adapted from a larger academic paper produced entirely by the Author. The piece intends to further dissect the nationalistic viewpoints of each country and explain how nationalism tends to perpetuate international conflicts. Although the writing is entirely that of the Author many ideas were inspired by Professor and conflict resolution practitioner Harry Anastasiou. The entire piece can be made available upon request to the Author.
About the Author: Josh Fleming is a MA in International Policy Studies student at the Monterey Institute. He currently works as a graduate assistant in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management and is the IPS First-year Student Council Representative.
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