“With your blog post, you’re supporting the very regime that crushes my Afro-Cuban brothers and sisters,” came an angry response from the Cuban exile community in Miami to my blog post about my recent trip to Santiago de Cuba. The commentator went on to accuse me of being a propagandist and ignoring any facts that didn’t support her perspective about Cuba from thousands of miles away. I was taken aback by this knee-jerk reaction to dismiss a depiction of Cuba as a complex, culturally rich place rather than the romanticized utopia of most travel blogs, or the politically-expedient “dystopian society under a tyrant’s grip”.
Cuban-Americans have traditionally been the most fervent supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. However, what one immediately notices upon arriving in Cuba is that the embargo has only perpetuated the classism and racism that the Cuban Revolution claimed to want to end. In a society where the average monthly wage is $18, White Cubans from Miami and elsewhere are able to send money directly to their relatives so that those relatives can climb the socioeconomic ladder and bypass the harshest impacts of the embargo by redecorating their homes to rent out rooms, updating their cars to provide taxi services to tourists, or opening restaurants and cafes.
Given the nature of migration out of Cuba, however, Afro-Cubans remain the most socially and economically marginalized by the embargo, rarely having family abroad to support them. Despite the claims of the Cuban exile community, an Amnesty International report said: “The negative impact of the embargo is pervasive in the social, economic and environmental dimensions of human development in Cuba, severely affecting the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups of the Cuban population.”
The perspective of the people in Cuba themselves—especially the Afro-Cubans—was in direct contrast with the Cuban American woman who commented on my blog as the self-appointed voice of the people. Many of the Afro-Cubans I encountered welcomed and celebrated the easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and fervently asked that I share my experience with others. They genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to reach out to the rest of the world. They wanted to welcome tourists into their homes and be able to open businesses in order to ascend to the middle class in a way that the embargo had always prevented them from doing. And, at the most basic level, their lives depended on the renewed ability to access the food, freedoms, and medicines that the embargo had routinely denied them.
This level of detachment from the realities on the ground and the need to hold on to a past that no longer exists, regardless of the consequences, isn’t restricted to just the Cuban exile community. An example of the consequences of a vocal, yet uninformed diaspora played out in the Haitian-American community during the Clinton Administration. After democratically-elected President Aristide was removed in a military coup, the Haitian diaspora became pawns put forth to legitimize the U.S. embargo against Haiti. If the Haitian diaspora had simply looked towards our Cuban neighbors, we would have seen the crippling socioeconomic impacts and long-term ineffectiveness of an embargo. However, like our Cuban counterparts, many Haitian-American leaders at the time operated with a single-minded political agenda that did not prioritize the needs of the people in Haiti. Thus, the relatively short-lived embargo rendered Haiti unable to trade with other countries, forced much of Haiti’s manufacturing industry to permanently shut down, agricultural production took a dive, deforestation was exacerbated, and the human rights violations perpetuated by the regime only increased. Malnutrition, famine, and high unemployment were all the inevitable end results. The impacts can still be felt today in Haiti.
Our inability, at times, to accept that the narrative we’ve been telling ourselves needs to be updated causes our interventions to become problematic.
“Earlier immigrants may have had to lie to themselves to assimilate or cope with migration, leaving our generation with half-truths,” said the Ecuadorian-American travel writer, Bani Amor. “It's common to see uneducated diasporic people regurgitating narratives that can be traced back to a problematic root. Some critical education would ameliorate these issues, along with the understanding that you can't and should not be “speaking for” your people as a whole, especially if you've never/seldom been to that place.”
I learned this lesson when the former dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier unceremoniously returned to Haiti in 2011 as the country was still reeling under the devastation of the earthquake. I was filled with a sense of righteous outrage for all that my family had lost and all that my people had suffered under his reign of terror. When I called my mother, the person who had suffered the most in our family, she listened quietly to my rant before replying solemnly, “At least under Duvalier people had enough to eat.” I felt my anger dissipate under the weight of her words and the message she was trying to convey to me from our position of privilege in the U.S.: have enough humility to remember that the people in the country we left have needs that outweigh your current priorities.
There is a level of hubris in being able to create policies from afar that impact the lives of people in a country you or your parents left decades ago. As members of diaspora communities, it’s time to admit that we can get it wrong and, when we do, the consequences can be detrimental for generations. Or, as Bani put it, “Simply being [blank] doesn't automatically endow you with any cultural wisdom.” If we are not careful, our voice can be used to legitimatize what is essentially imperialism in countries we claim to care about. Rather than demand to lead, we have to take our marching orders from the people on the ground themselves and use our access and privilege to help them shape their country and their future.
France François is a writer and world traveler with a master’s degree in International Development. Read about her travels and adventures redefining what it means to be black and abroad on her blog or follow her on Twitter: @frenchieglobal