We don’t hear much about Cuba in the United States, and what we do hear usually isn’t very informative. We know we can’t legally travel there or buy Cuban cigars. When it comes to history and politics, we know the island nation is “Communist” and hasn’t enjoyed positive relations with the U.S. since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. The Cold War may be over, but Cold War era politics continue. No one knows this better than Cubans: A commercial, economic, and financial embargo, now in its 53rd year, deprives them of vital access to medicines, new scientific and medical technology, food, chemical water treatment and even fuel needed for electricity.
Today, many consider the embargo outdated. Daisy Rojas is one of these people. Rojas believes the embargo has not only made life difficult for many Cubans, but it has limited her country’s attempts at economic development. This reality has led to some changes in recent years, such as opening the economy to foreign investment to increase tourism. Cubans have a wide range of opinions on these changes, but the majority share a belief: They want sovereignty without having to return to life before the revolution. Rojas is unwavering on this point.
In her home country, Rojas founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Havana, a faith-based nonprofit that uses popular education to inspire social change, and she now serves as its director of solidarity. She also goes on speaking tours to the U.S. to inform Americans about the embargo’s negative impacts. In October, she toured the Northwest with Witness for Peace, a national grassroots organization with a mission of changing U.S. policy toward Latin America. At University Baptist Church, she gave a rousing speech, yet when we met in person, her warm presence invited conversation — an opportunity to cut through the politics that mire U.S.-Cuba relations and discuss the lives of everyday Cubans.
The U.S. blockade has been in effect since the Cuban Revolution. What did the Cuban Revolution change in your country?
It changed the lives of those who needed change the most: the working class, poor families and small-scale farmers. It changed the lives of women, of Afro-Cubans — an entire sector of society that had no hope for a dignified life [before the revolution]. Since this time, Cuba has made accomplishments in education, in health, in sports and so on. All of these changes have been crucial. We restored human dignity after the revolution.
It has been nearly 54 years since the revolution. Despite all of the advances you mention, Cuba is still on the [U.S. State Department] list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Why?
That is a good question. It is a question I brought with me here, to the United States. How is it that a country that has worked so hard to achieve solidarity with its neighbors and the region is placed on this list? When other countries send their militaries, Cuba sends its medical brigades. We have sent medical professionals to Haiti and other Central American countries when they have suffered natural disasters. We sent doctors to Pakistan [after the 2011 earthquake]. Yet Cuba is still on this list of state sponsors of terrorism. I think it has to do with propaganda against Cuba.
Cuba’s health professionals are world-renowned. How does health care operate in Cuba?
It’s based on [preventive] health care. People are guaranteed access to a basic primary health care provider. There is a comprehensive vaccination program for children and adults. Medical checkups are regular and there is always a follow-up, just in case [a patient] has a chronic illness like diabetes or a heart condition. There are four different levels to the health care industry: First it’s the family doctor. Then there’s something called the polyclinic, where you’ll find specialists. Then there’s the hospital that caters to more specific cases. The fourth level is for specialized or particular illnesses.
What do Cubans want to change in their country?
We need economic development. We also want more regional power and more active [political] participation by the population. We want to offer criticism, but we also want to offer proposals.
What does the MLK Center in Havana do?
The MLK Center works to achieve leadership in the community. We encourage political participation, and we do this by using the model of popular education. [Popular education] was first used in Brazil, and now we’re using it. We work to bring about more solidarity in our own communities and throughout Latin America. We also organize against the economic blockade by hosting North American delegations. [During delegation visits,] we show visitors the reality in Cuba and show them the effects of the embargo.
The MLK Center is a faith-based organization, and you are a Christian. Is liberation theology [a Christian movement originating in Latin America that emphasizes liberation from social, political and economic oppression] part of your faith?
Yes. Liberation theology teaches people to apply the teachings of Jesus to daily life, to bring the kingdom of God to Earth. It came late to Cuba and didn’t arrive until after the 1980s, I’m sad to say. But many [Cuban] Christian leaders supported the revolution, and did this without a theological foundation. Liberation theology came after this, but it carried out an important job because it emphasized social commitment.
Was the Soviet model of Socialism hostile toward Christians?
It sort of considered religion “the opium of the people.” It viewed Christians as being indifferent toward the cause of workers’ rights. I think many Christian leaders have proved this wrong. Take [Archbishop] Oscar Romero [who fought for human rights in El Salvador during the country’s civil war and became well-known as a “bishop for the poor”], for example. There were many Christians in Cuba who supported the revolution.
The Soviet Union fell in 1991. What happened in Cuba?
Before 1991, Eastern European countries accounted for 86 percent of Cuban commerce. Cuba’s oil came from those countries. So the Cuban economy hit rock bottom; the economic situation was horrible for the whole country. After that, [the Cuban government] took some measures that were necessary for survival. They developed a tourism industry, opened Cuba to foreign investment and allowed [Cubans living abroad to send] remittances. Our economy is growing now, and we have hope. We also hope that North Americans will help push for a change in U.S. policy, to lift the embargo.
Is that the main reason the MLK center hosts North American visitors?
Well, we believe that to see, to feel and to smell — you can’t compare that to simply reading history. [U.S. citizens] should be allowed to travel and really see what is happening in Cuba so they can arrive at their own conclusion. We don’t make conclusions for groups that visit, we simply open up possibilities for them to visit hospitals, schools and different places. We want them to see the impacts of the economic blockade and also the triumphs of the revolution.