Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Panelists Discuss the Past, Present, and Future of U.S. and Cuba Relations

The U.S. and Cuba agreed to diplomatic relations in December 2014. What do you know about Cuba and Cuban contributions to the world? What does this new agreement mean for Cubans, Americans, and others? What does it mean to you? The Hispanic Heritage Month Panel on “U.S. and Cuba Relations: Past, Present, and Future” answered these questions and more on September 26.

Students, faculty, and staff from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University participated in the program, which was co-sponsored by Tech’s Office of Hispanic Initiatives and Student Diversity Programs.

Georgia Tech School of Modern Languages Associate Professor Juan C. Rodríguez opened the discussion with a historical overview of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba since 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. He briefly discussed the Cuban Revolution in 1933, the emergence of the new Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, how Cuba was affected after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the recent diplomatic relations with the U.S. 

Panelists then reflected on the impact of a lifted trade embargo with the U.S., race relations in Cuba, and the meaningful contributions of Cuba to the world.

Lifting the Trade Embargo

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro called for the removal of the U.S. trade embargo. Castro argued that Cuba and the U.S. could make more progress on their shared agenda if the embargo was lifted, but the leaders disagreed on some issues, including human rights.1

“Lift the embargo, and see if socialism survives in Cuba,” commented Richard Laub, director of Georgia State’s Heritage Preservation Master’s Degree Program.

Rodríguez emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the Cuban people and the Cuban government. As Cassandra Gomez, undergraduate student in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, added, “Many Cuban people are fearful of what these opened sanctions could mean.”

Race Relations in Cuba

In the U.S., 38 percent of the population is non-White, including Blacks, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. They make up 17 percent of Congress.2 In Cuba, around two-thirds of the population is non-White, primarily Black and mixed race, and make up about 30 percent of civil and public leadership.3  

“Racial issues in Cuba manifest in institutional leadership,” said Rodríguez.

Georgia State Department of Political Science Associate Professor Henry Frank Carey explained, “You don’t have high crime rates in totalitarian societies. As Cuba democratizes, I think the crime rate may increase from an ‘us versus them’ phenomenon.”

Racial issues are difficult to express in Cuba, according to Georgia Tech GoSTEM Director Diley Hernández. “In Cuba, the official narrative is that there is no racism or sexism because the Revolution ‘fixed’ inequality issues,” she said. “In a totalitarian regime, you cannot acknowledge those issues because in doing so, it is seen as dissenting from the regime.”

Cuban Contributions to the World

The panel agreed on Cuba’s remarkable contributions of art and music to the world. “Cuba has done an outstanding job in keeping art and culture highly accessible to everyone in the country,” remarked Hernández.

Laub added that “Cuba has a robust art and historic preservation program to maintain their architecture,” and according to Carey, “New Orleans became the way station for Afro-Cuban music and dance.”

And of course there’s baseball. “Unlike other Hispanic countries with soccer, baseball is the national sport in Cuba,” said Gomez. “Some Americans think that Cubans are so different from them, but their national sport is our national sport.”

Georgia Tech Human-Centered Computing doctoral student Michaelanne Dye also noted the growing technological advances in Cuba. “The technology sector is fascinating. In the coming years, the latest technology will penetrate Cuba, but currently, Cubans have used ingenuity to connect 9,000 homes in Havana with homegrown internet.”

This panel discussion was part of a series of events to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at Georgia Tech. Other events included the Kickoff on September 15, Cross-Cultural Workshop on September 20, Mini World Cup on September 23, and Closing Banquet on October 5. 

 

1 Teresa Welch, “Obama, Castro: Lift the Trade Embargo,” U.S. News & World Report, (March 21, 2016).
2 Jens Manuel Krogstad, “114th Congress Is Most Diverse Ever,” Pew Research Center, (January 12, 2015).
3 Damien Cave, “Cuba Says It Has Solved Racism. Obama Isn’t So Sure,” The New York Times, (March 23, 2016).

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