By Ellsworth I. A. John, ambassador of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to Cuba
I feel moved to write this opinion piece for two reasons: 1. The number of text and/or WhatsApp calls I have received from concerned Vincentians about the “plight” of our students in Cuba; and 2. Providing clarity to the new batch of students who would be traveling to Cuba later this year.
Recently, two text messages in a group chat of the Vincentian students in Cuba were combined as if it was the collective opinion of all the Vincentian students and posted on social media. This post, in addition to some comments from students in other CARICOM countries, generated expressions of concern across the region and I think it is important to put some context to the Cuban experience.
The United States is the principal trading partner with all of the countries in Caribbean, given its proximity, and as a result our diets have consisted primarily of goods produced in the United States. It’s an acquired taste and while one can debate with on whether our reliance on some US goods have been good for our health, it is the reality for all of our students. The diet in Cuba is a culture shock. So when they travel home during the vacation, they return with stocks of familiar items, which are not just confined to snacks but also include personal care items.
However, as is well known in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba has been subject to an economic and financial blockage by the United States for the past 60 years and while this blockage is not supported by almost all of the other countries in the United Nations, one of the consequences of the embargo is lack of access to US-made products. While some might argue that this lack of access is a good thing, for persons who grew up on US products it provide a challenge.
In response to the embargo and as a general policy of providing balanced meals, the Cuban government has placed emphasis on agriculture, and throughout the country there is an abundance of fruits and vegetable stands with such products as cabbages, carrots, eggplant, plantains, tomatoes and cucumbers available throughout the year. They import products from friendly countries, however, the embargo has an effect on those imports because of the long arm of the US on the banking and financial systems. They also devised a programme for providing those balanced meals to the citizens. Some of our students have not adjusted to the menu choices and the fact that they bring supplies when they return from vacation retards that adjustment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caught the whole world off guard and both developed and developing countries are responding to the best of their capabilities, making weekly and sometimes daily adjustments to avoid an economic disaster while protecting the health of their citizens. In Cuba, the challenge is even greater as the United States under President Trump has ramped up their pressure instead of granting economic, financial and humanitarian easing in the face of the pandemic. Yet, Cuba has responded by sending their doctors and nurses to countries all over the world, including the Caribbean and specifically in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we are the benefactors of 16 medical practitioners to help us fight the pandemic. This service is being provided free of cost.
Earlier this month, approximately one-third of the students and their parents posited the idea of hiring a charter company to bring the students home. At the time there were no classes taking place at many of the schools. Indeed, they were in a holding pattern for over a month as the situation with the pandemic evolved. While assisting the students with the gathering of information regarding cost and logistics for a charter, I cautioned the students to take a wait-and-see posture, as the situation with the pandemic was very fluid. Currently, indications are that the Cuban authorities has done a holistic assessment on the pandemic and they are now implementing a schedule for academic training that will allow all students to complete the course work for this semester while maintaining their accreditation standards. The academic period would end, as scheduled, in July.
Guyana has sent “care packages” to their students in Cuba and some of our students applaud this action as an indication that their government care about the well being of their students — an implication that the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines doesn’t care. This is simply not true and the government has indicated that if the parents are interested and are able to arrange for their children to receive the items that usually accompany them when they travel from home, we will facilitate. It shows that parents are willing to make a financial sacrifice at a time when the government in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is maintaining measures to protect Vincentians while minimising the economic downturn. However, we just have to be careful that at a time when the government of Cuba is providing three meals a day to the student population that numbers over 2,000 foreign students, we don’t flaunt excesses that the Cuban counterparts don’t have access to. We have a true and tried creed by which we operate our foreign policy in St. Vincent and the Grenadines that we are better than no one and no one is better than us.
As usual, we had a high number of young people who applied this year for scholarships to study medicine in Cuba and I look forward to welcoming later this year those who were successful. You will be joining the 57 students who remain as students with four students graduating this year, one with specialisation. After seven years in Cuba, you will join over 360 Vincentians who have graduated from Cuba to date. Many now hold prominent positions at home and in regional and international institutions.
Please understand that Cuba is a country that is implementing the vision of Fidel Castro by providing training for young people in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. This is being done under challenging circumstances as I explained above. Students coming to Cuba are given an orientation before leaving St. Vincent and the Grenadines and are made aware of the challenges that Cuba faces due to the embargo. They are also aware of the cultural difference with our country. It is a choice that they make. Just be assured that the embassy is here to assist you to the extent possible and to facilitate the smooth completion of your studies in Cuba.
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