This summer I went to Cuba as a member of the first Japanese American delegation to Cuba with Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR). Before going to Cuba, and since coming back, many people have been very interested in hearing about our trip. People Ive talked with have asked similar questions about how I felt, was I worried about my safety, wasnt it poverty stricken, did people seem oppressed? While Im no expert on Cuba or US-Cuban relations after 10 days, here are some of my impressions and answers to the more Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
Q: When and why did you go to Cuba? Who did you go with?
The purpose of our trip from August 4-13, 2001 was to meet Cuban Japanese, celebrate Obon on the Isle of Youth, and to experience Cuba, up close and in person. The delegation resulted from the efforts of Judy Ota who had learned about the 100-year history of Cuban Japanese from Francisco Miyasaka, President of the Japanese Cuban Society, when she visited Cuba a few years ago. Last summer, Mr. Miyasaka visited California on a speaking tour, and suggested that a Japanese American delegation visit the Isle of Youth for the annual Obon. We also raised over $3,500 from the community to bring medical supplies and Japanese food, which is difficult to obtain due to the US embargo and trade blockade against Cuba.
Since Cuba is a socialist country, we were also interested in observing some of the social and economic programs, living conditions, jobs, education and housing in Cuba, community projects such as organic farming and gardening, alternative health care clinics, and environmentally-friendly communities.
I went with 17 other Japanese Americans, including my husband, Tony Osumi. Most in our group were Sansei. We ranged in age from Dan Masaoka, who recently turned 18 years old and started college, to Haru Kuromiya, a Nisei in her 70s who has the energy, insight and humor of someone many decades younger.
Q: Were you scared about going to Cuba? How did you plan for the trip?
When Tony suggested going to Cuba for our honeymoon three years ago, I have to say I wasnt very interested. At that time, I didnt know that much about Cuba, and sometimes, the unknown can be a bit scary. Growing up, my only reference to anything Cuban was Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy." More recently, I had watched the public struggle between little Elian Gonzales whose relatives in Miami were keeping him from his family and home in Cuba. Also, several musicians, yoga teachers and community activists who I know visited Cuba last year and came back with exciting stories. So when I heard about the possibility of going to Cuba with friends from NCRR, I was more interested.
We spent about six months of planning meetings for the trip. We met people from the Los Angeles Coalition in Solidarity with Cuba, had political and travel orientation meetings, listened to presentations by others who had been to Cuba, including a Sansei dancer who has taken 11 trips to Cuba for extended periods. We also had been corresponding by email with Cubans from the Friendship and Solidarity groups and Mr. Miyasaka who planned Cuban/Japanese/American exchanges for us in Havana and on the Isle of Youth. So by the time we left for Cuba, I was not scared, only excited about the possibilities. While in Cuba, I never felt afraid for my safety. In fact, since crime is relatively low in Cuba, I felt safer there than I do living in Los Angeles.
Q: How did you get to Cuba, isnt it illegal to go?
Its not actually illegal to go to Cuba. Because of the 40-year old US-imposed blockade against Cuba, you are not allowed to spend any money in Cuba, unless you have a license from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC licenses are restricted to journalists, religious, educational or cultural groups, and Cuban-Americans with families living in Cuba. Since our purpose was to share Japanese and Japanese American Obon with Cuban Japanese, NCRR had applied for and received a six month license for humanitarian, educational and cultural exchange.
Q: Did you meet any interesting people?
Yes. In Havana, Mr. Miyasaka organized a dinner for us with about 60 Cuban Japanese. It was so interesting for us to walk in the room, looking at the Nisei and Sansei Cubans, and watching them watch us. Most of the Sansei were hapa, half Cuban, half Japanese. But seeing the Nisei women blew me away. They looked like my aunties, and the many JA Nisei women that I know. But they were speaking Spanish! Over 3,000 miles from LA, it was an overwhelming feeling of home.
We also got to tour the Presideo Modelo, a prison on the Isle of Youth, where over 350 Issei men in Cuba were imprisoned during WWII. It turns out that our tour guide did her doctoral thesis on the Japanese who were imprisoned during the war, so we Japanese Americans had a lot of questions, comparing the Japanese American experience with those of the Cuban Japanese. Mr. Iwasaki from Holguin, who traveled with us from Havana, was 8 years old when his father was taken away.
Later that day on a visit to a farming coop, we met Miguel Harada, a Nisei farmer whose father was also interned. The Harada family produces most of the watermelons on the island. It was some of the juiciest watermelon I have ever tasted.
Q: Isnt Cuba poor? How can they afford to live?
What Cuba lacks in material goods, they make up for with some amazing social programs. In Cuba, Im reminded of the phrase, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." After the revolution in 1959, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against Cuba, penalizing other countries that engaged in trade with Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed and pulled its economic support from Cuba in the 1990s, the economy took a downturn. They call this the "Special Period," when the economy almost collapsed.
Without trade from the US or the Soviet Union, Cuba had to look to itself for sustainability. Due to shortages in medical supplies, equipment and medicines, Cuban doctors turned to alternative forms of medical treatment, learning about homeopathy, herbal medicine, energetic healing, and basic nutrition. We visited a famous alternative medical clinic in Matanzas.
Without oil for tractors and poisonous fertilizers, farmers turned to organic methods of farming, learning about mulching and using organic nutrients from rabbits. Better for the environment and their health, Cubans were able to find more natural alternatives. With shortages of meat and milk products, over 30,000 organic gardens were planted in Havana during the Special Period.
Although wages are low compared to US standards, education and health care are free in Cuba, and Cubans receive food subsidies. Rent is set at about 10% of wages and utilities are practically free. Once you have paid the value of your home in rent, then you own your home, and pay no further rent or property taxes.
Q: Any interesting places you visited?
In addition to visiting Cuban Japanese families at their homes on the Isle of Youth, one of the more memorable places we visited was Las Tarrazas, a sustainable community development project. In Pinar del Rio province, west of Havana, the area is very rural. In the 1800s it was a French and Haitian coffee plantation with slave quarters. Spaniards cut down trees for charcoal mining. The area had inadequate housing, plumbing, water and no electricity. In 1968, Castro designated the area a natural preserve, and created terraces to stop erosion and re-forest the area. Since that time, over 6 million trees have been planted. Farmers were paid salaries for reforestation projects and given health care. An artists colony and community housing was built in 1971. In the 1990s the first eco-hotel was built, integrated into nature, using solar energy and compost toilets. Today, Las Tarrazas is a well-known ecological research center.
Q: What do you think are some American misconceptions about Cuba?
I think that the media wants us to believe that all Cubans are oppressed and are willing to risk their lives to swim 90 miles to the US. I have heard that Castro is a dictator and that when he dies, the Miami Cubans will return to "take over the country." Several times we heard that when Castro passes away, the countrys social programs will continue, because the people support them. The people that we met acknowledge that the Special Period was very difficult, but that Cuba is recovering. With new economic programs and an increase in tourism, people are very supportive of Castro. Mr. Itokazu, one of the Cuban Japanese we met, said that before the revolution Japanese couldnt get an education, and now its free.
Q: Why is the blockade still in effect?
Thats a good question. On November 28, the United Nations voted 167-3 to condemn the US blockade against Cuba for the ninth consecutive year. Voting to continue the blockade was United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands. The blockade has caused economic damages to Cuba of over $70 billion over 40 years. It violates the Charter of the United Nations and deprives Cubans of human rights and access to food and medicine. Some of the Cubans that we met were happy to meet us, telling us that we had broken the embargo by coming to Cuba.
Q: Is there anything you experienced that makes you think about the world differently?
We Americans are very Ameri-centric. Sometimes we think we are informed because we read the newspaper and watch the 6 oclock news. But we only get a portion of whats happening in the world. Learning about Cuba has inspired me to educate myself more about global issues such as military bases in Okinawa, Vieques, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Seeing such a different picture of Cuba encourages me to be more critical about mainstream media, instead seeking alternatives like radio station KPFK, magazines like "Gidra," "Yes! Magazine," and "Colorlines," subscribing to listserves like email@example.com or the LA Alternative Media Network (LAAMN), or checking out websites such as http://www.alternet.org, http://www.blythe.org or http://www.whatreallyhappened.com.
Q: Is your group going back soon? How can I get involved?
The NCRR Cuba Committee continues to meet. Since the trip was such as success, and we learned so much from the Japanese American/Cuban exchange, we are hoping to bring two Cuban Japanese to Los Angeles in Summer 2002 to share Japanese American Obons. Then in Spring 2003, we plan a second Japanese American delegation to Cuba. We have been invited to the eastern provinces of Cuba and hope to visit Holguin, Camaguey and Santiago. If youre interested in being part of a future delegation, call NCRR at (213) 680-3484.
Q: Where can I find out more info?
Those of us from the delegation feel a strong responsibility to share what weve learned and help to dispel some of the misconceptions about Cuba. In September, over 100 people attended a Community Report Back event in Los Angeles. We shared videos, slides, photos, stories and music. On Saturday, January 12, 2002 members of the delegation will report on the Cuba trip at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco and at Pro-Arts Gallery in Oaklands Chinatown. For more info, check www.ncrr-la.org. Another really good and extensive article about his trip to Cuba by Walter Lippmann at http://www.blythe.org/2months.html.
Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida is a Sansei who writes from Los Angeles. She and her husband Tony wrote the original "101 Ways to Tell Youre Japanese American." Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. Copyright 2001. Reprinted from "The Rafu Shimpo" December 5, 2001 with permission of the author. Copyright 2001.