Cuba: One man’s motherland
by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
A resident of Las Vegas for 14 years, Andy Williams-Poll is a native son of Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands.
As the presidential campaign reignites fierce debates over immigration and the United States’ long-standing embargo against the communist stronghold, which was ruled for decades by Fidel Castro — and now, his younger brother, Raul — Williams-Poll recently spoke to Black Image about the reality of life on the island for its millions of black citizens.
Originally from Cuba’s capital city, Williams-Poll’s strong African features are complemented, somewhat counter-intuitively, by the thickly accented Spanish brogue in which he speaks.
“I was born and raised in the city of Havana,” he said, “but I consider myself half country boy, because I grew up riding horses, climbing trees … and working the land.”
Though some history books credit Christopher Columbus with discovering the island now known as Cuba, archaeological and other evidence has shown that it had been inhabited by the neo-Taíno migrants for centuries before he arrived.
After Columbus’ arrival, Cuba became a Spanish colony, a designation that resulted in centuries of rebellion by the island’s natives. Tensions between the U.S. and Cuba simmered for years, finally boiling over in the late 19th century with the Spanish-American War. Spain withdrew from Cuba in 1898, and the island gained its independence four years later. Decades of political corruption followed, culminating in the overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The Castros have ruled the island ever since — and as Communists, have long been considered by the U.S. government to be enemies of America. The most enduring symbol of hostility between the two nations has been the U.S. trade and travel embargo — which forbids the exchange of goods, and makes it illegal for most Americans to visit Cuba.
Still, according to Williams-Poll, “Most people in Cuba were supportive of President Fidel Castro. To my understanding, he was just a president like every other president. He established things that I personally don’t agree with, as it relates to people’s freedoms, and he was very strict. But, compared to other presidents, they all have their flaws.”
Williams-Poll acknowledges that he still feels somewhat uncomfortable sharing his candid thoughts about Cuba’s government because it is forbidden in the communist country.
“The thing is that most people in Cuba have seen changes. Even though the economy is bad, it used to be worse,” he said. “Some people forget sometimes what they have been through, even if some things have changed. That is why many people supported Castro when the revolution first started — and also, if they didn’t, they might have died. Cuba at one time was doing all right, with successful businesses and opportunities, but the embargo changed what little progress we were making.
“The embargo is really hurting the people in Cuba, and it is not affecting Castro and his brother as much as it is the Cuban people,” he continued. “Some people want to blame Castro for the embargo, but the embargo is being imposed by people outside of Cuba. … It is not so much about the people and their freedom — it is a political wrestling match between governments. It’s about who’s more powerful. The sad thing is that it affects the people; so, if any country does business in Cuba, they can’t do business with the United States. They have to choose, and their choice is always the United States.
People in Cuba lose their jobs, and the economy hurts everyone. If you don’t have a job in Cuba, you can go to jail for up to four years — because the government assumes you are getting money illegally, or you have an underground business. The Cuban economy needs exchange. And even though Cuba does well with tourism, when you cut trade … off, Cuba suffers because there is no real revenue coming into the country.”
When the economy is struggling, Williams-Poll said, the black population is often the most affected. “Black people used to be slaves everywhere,” he noted. “The slave trade didn’t just happen in America, it happened all over the world. Therefore, because of our history as slaves, we don’t control the economics of our country. So, even to this day, black people struggle. For example, some white people send their children to college because money has been passed down throughout the generations, (but) black people have to work hard to send their children.”
To understand how socialism works in Cuba, Williams-Poll said that while everyone receives free health care, there are also strict limits on how much money the average citizen can have.
“Everyone in Cuba has a notebook in their home, where everything that is spent is logged in,” Williams-Poll explained. “This notebook keeps track of everything that you are supposed to get from the government. For example, you might get three pounds of sugar a month and six pounds of rice a month. If you go over your allotment for the month, you don’t get any more.”
He added, “Everyone must work in Cuba, and those who don’t will get prosecuted. Only certain people who can afford to have their own businesses have them, because the government takes all the money and calls it taxes. So, to make ends meet, some people have underground businesses and they have them at their own risk. My brother once bought a 1950s Cadillac, and the government knew how much he was getting paid from his job and didn’t believe he bought the car on his own earned wages. So, they came to his home and took his 1955 car. The Cuban government is known to not only take your car, but other possessions also. This process is similar to what happened when Castro first took over the presidency and took businesses from people, provoking owners to immigrate to Miami.
Cuba is known for its great doctors, but many do not receive the pay they desire, and they have underground businesses outside of their professions. Cuba is a victim of its circumstances, but it is paradise. Cuba is 40 years behind as it relates to technology, but it has a great educational system. The government really invests in free entertainment, music festivals and carnivals to keep the people happy. The top entertainers in Cuba might be seen at the beach doing a free concert for all. Most people utilize a bicycle or walk to get around, but these behaviors contribute to the environment. The only thing wrong with Cuba is the economy, but it is beautiful. America has money, but maybe not as much love.”
As for matters of race, Williams-Poll says Cuba compares favorably to America.
“One thing that is different is that we don’t have the same racial and social divides that exist here in the United States,” he said. “Fidel Castro is credited with making sure that all Cubans feel equal. Many of the high-ranking officials in Cuba are black. We (Cubans) are more unified as a people … because the socioeconomic distinctions don’t exist.”