In May, I traveled to Cuba on a women’s delegation with the US Women and Cuba Collaboration. Since 1960, the US government has placed an economic embargo against Cuba. The Cubans refer to this policy as “El Bloqueo,” which is Spanish for “blockade.” The blockade has had a devastating impact on Cuba’s people. Though the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, brought free health care to all Cubans, there is limited access to medications because of the blockade. Yudith Fuertes, the Holguin provincial delegate of the Federation of Cuban Women, said there is a need for medicine only manufactured in the US and from corporations that have business in the US. Cuban patients are denied these medications because of the blockade. Explaining how this policy isolates Cubans, Fuertes says, “We cannot live just by ourselves. We are part of this world.”

And Cuba does serve as a melting pot at the fringes of the American continent. During my time in Cuba, I learned about the presence of the Chinese community. Chinese laborers were brought to Cuba when the African slave trade was being challenged around the world. Approximately 130,000 Chinese laborers were brought to Cuba between 1853 and 1874. After multiple waves of Chinese immigration, a Chinatown was established in Havana, which became the largest of its kind in Latin America. The Chinese population in Cuba was 40,000 as its highest. Although there are only about 500 Chinese Cubans left in the country today, you will still find influences from the ethnic Chinese community throughout Cuba.

In Havana, our delegation met with renowned Cuban artist, Flora Fong. She has received awards from the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba and the Federation of Cuban Women. Her art can be found all over the world. We also visited Santa Clara, where Chinese Cuban guerilla Juan Pablo Navarro-Levano Chang is buried alongside Che Guevara, the revolutionary leader. Perhaps the most contemporary contribution from Chinese culture is the acupuncture and massage you’ll find practiced in Cuba, which doctors use to make up for the limited availability of medications.

But despite limited medicinal resources to the country, health care is available to everyone, and even the poorest of Cuban women can access prenatal care when they become pregnant. In fact, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the US and Canada. There are “maternity homes” where women with high-risk pregnancies or special needs can be seen by a nurse 24 hours a day and can get vitamins for free.

You may be surprised to know that despite the country’s challenges with the blockade, Cuba has a very high literacy rate. What is not surprising is that when a government prioritizes its people over profits, then communities will have opportunities to become educated and be healthy. This is the case for Cuba. Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s literacy rate was as low as 60 percent. Under Castro’s leadership, the Literacy Campaign was instituted – a year-long effort where teachers and students, as young as 10 years-old, traveled across the country to teach people how to read. After just one year, illiteracy was essentially eliminated.

The API community values healthy families and educating our children. This past legislative session, the API community fought hard to maintain basic human services to protect the health and vitality of our community. Despite the economic struggles Cuba faces, it has made tremendous strides in providing critical basic needs to its people.

The Collaboration offered me a unique opportunity to experience life in Cuba and learn that there is more than one model of democracy. Legislators are elected through a democratic process that is quite different than our own and there is wide support for it. Cuba’s electoral process is a grassroots effort that is not tainted by corporate interests. You will not find corporations or “special interests” backing political candidates and muddying their values. Grassroots communities and organizational leaders nominate candidates – this ensures that candidates have proven themselves through their acts of service and commitment to the community. The provincial and national elections occur every five years, and the municipalities elect their leaders every two years. Perhaps we can use elements of the Cuban approach to take better care of our communities here in the US, while advocating for the removal of the blockade to allow Cuba to provide even better health and human services to its people.

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