What Relaxed Restrictions on Cuba Really Mean

January 14th, President Obama signed an executive order, and on the 28th of January it went into effect.  It was thrown out with the trash on a Friday afternoon, a safe time after the mid-term elections, in order to protect various members of congress from voter backlash.  It has received little to no publicity, and on NYT it couldn’t be found by searching for “Cuba” until a week or so after the fact.  Every piece I’ve read on it has reported few facts and even less analysis.  So what does it really change?

  • All airports in the US can apply to send direct flights to Cuba.  The direct flights will still land where they always do (Jose Marti airport outside of Habana), but now Miami is not one of the only options.
  • There is no time limit.  Before, it was a 12 week minimum stay for undergrads, making short-term faculty-led programs impossible, which have greatly grown in popularity in recent years in the world of American university-level study abroad.  3 months for a semester abroad doesn’t seem unreasonable, but for many college students, that’s a big commitment.  And once you’ve spent three months using Cuban showers, eating Cuban food and sleeping on Cuban beds, you will seriously value what a 4 week program could do for Cuba.
  • Pursuant to the above point, Northeastern University is sending a Dialogue to Cuba this Summer 1.  Apply! 
  • Speaking of faculty, previous restrictions meant that students had to have a full-time, benefits-eligible university rep with them throughout the duration.  That means you need a professor willing to spend 12 weeks in Cuba every year or semester, or have multiple and have them rotate, or do it like NU and ship a rotating cast down there.  That also meant paying all of those people and buying out their courseloads, an expensive business.  Now, you still need someone down there, but they no longer have to be a full-time staff member, opening up the door to TAs.  Are you reading this, OISP and Profe?  That means you can send a qualified, experienced upperclassman or recent grad down there.  One you can trust and who speaks pretty good Cubañol.  I’ll wait by the phone.
  • Non-Cuban-Americans can send remittances of up to $500/fiscal quarter.  Before, people like me could send nothing.  Now, as long as I’m not sending it to Raúl and other party higher-ups, I can send $500 every 3 months, in case I hit the lottery or something.
  • Also, the same rule applies to Cuban-Americans, which means the legal limit for remittances is up by $200 and remittances are no longer limited to family members.

Don’t listen to the bunk about students and church groups “now” being allowed to travel–that has always been the case, under a license.  That license will just have fewer rules attached to it, as outlined above.

For those of you who have been keeping tabs on US-Cuba politics, this is basically reverting back to the old Clinton days of the “People to People” program, and fully un-does everything G.W. Bush did.  It isn’t everything, but Obama is basically doing all that he can.  I think it’s worth noting, yet again, that Obama cannot lift the economic sanctions (commonly known as the embargo or “el bloqueo”) and that only Congress can.  And of course, this is a friendly reminded that he signed an executive order to close Guantanamo that is now three years overdue, but congress has done a neat little job of blocking any and all funds to do that, effectively knocking the President’s legs out from under him.

So, yes, I do think Obama is keeping his promises about Cuba.  Now let’s see if congress can work up the guts to do anything other than slow him down.

I Got a Job!

For my final coop, I knew I wanted something international. This job will be leading Northeastern freshmen who were accepted to the January semester (Jan starts as we call them) on a fall semester abroad.  I will TA one of their classes, organize their service-learning projects, lead them on excursions, tutor when necessary, help with homesickness and culture shock, and make sure everyone makes it home alive.

No, I don’t know where I’m going yet.  I could be sent to Australia, London, Costa Rica, or Thesaloniki, Greece.  Of course I prefer the developing nations, and the chance to be back in Latin America or the Mediterranean is amazing.  It doesn’t hurt that this position is well compensated, and I felt better about it when Sheff said she feels like it fits my niche well.  What exactly is that niche?  Well I think it’s something like educational, socially-minded travel.

But I still had a lot of trouble with this one.  It all comes back to the conundrum I’ve been having for the last few years: there are a lot of subjects that interest me, and whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t directly help people, I feel guilty.  I feel like I’m slacking, like I’m a coward, like I’m taking the easy way out.  It doesn’t help that so many people told me they think it isn’t challenging enough, hard core enough for me.  Several people, after I told them I accepted the job, referred to it as babysitting.  (side note: I will never understand why people think it’s okay to bash your job to your face, but it happens all the time at NU with coops.)

I did, however, find some great comfort from an unlikely source.  The Global Poverty Impact groups that my friend Kevin started are interfaith conversations about equality, poverty, giving, eradicating poverty, why we care and the best way to help.  We also make small, permanent lifestyle changes in order to spend more thoughtfully and set aside some money to go towards a cause of our choosing.  I love how thought provoking this group is, how respectful and smart its members are, and the “Live Deliberately” ethos that I think anyone can get behind, regardless of their religious views.

But I digress.  Jen, a social entrepreneurship person and member of my capstone class, had great insight.

“Just think abut how many freshman you will be effecting.  You can teach them about all the opportunities they have to do good at Northeastern, and be a role model to them.”

It meant a lot to me to hear this from Jen, someone who has also struggled with how to combine socially-minded endeavors, earning money, furthering a career and getting the most out of Northeastern.  When I think about it that way, N.U.in still helps me with the mission I once (and still?) have:

I want to travel to parts of the world with injustice, spend my time there in a meaningful way, and learn their stories so I may tell them on their behalf.  If I can make people understand and care using the gift of my writing, I can catalyze more action than I ever could have accomplished as just one person.

At the time, I was assuming that fact-based fictional stories, plays, or screenplays would be my method.  I never even considered blogging or any sort of journalism, which now seems like such a silly omission.  If I can use service-learning, reflection and this time abroad (perhaps in a less-developed country) to instill an ethic of global awareness and helping others in a useful way, I can consider working for N.U.in a success, and progress toward my mission.  When I think about how much impact Julie Miller had on all of us in Benin, this seems attainable.  Because of her, we were more thoughtful, patient, cooperative, positive and open-minded individuals.

So I am genuinely excited about this job, and the possibilities it brings.

Starving Children

I hate the argument that you cannot let a child starve, that it is some sort of moral imperative.

It is a logical fallacy.

If you really believed that it is impossible, immoral and unacceptable to turn your back on a starving child, you wouldn’t be doing it constantly, millions of times over.  You would be selling all your stuff and feeding the millions of starving children all over the world with the money.  But we don’t, because that isn’t efficient, and that isn’t effective. What confuses me is that on a micro level, people suddenly see it as the only option.  Perhaps exploring other options, and fully examining the potential foibles and pitfalls of food aid is in order, rather than leaping into it.

Feeding starving people is an emotionally driven action.  It’s personally satisfying, which is nice for you.  It provides a great hero moment; it makes you feel nice about reducing human suffering.  But are you actually reducing human suffering?  What about inciting food riots, putting locals out of business, or creating dependence?  To be clear, I’m not arguing for inaction.  I’m arguing in favor of thoughtfulness, of consideration, of logical decision making.  I agree that hunger is heartbreaking, and theoretically unacceptable.  But I don’t think the best way to stop it is to hand out cheeseburgers and sacks of American-grown corn all over the world, either.

People always tell me they, “couldn’t sleep at night,” if they ignored that hungry child.  But that makes it about us, the outside observers, rather than about the child, and what they really need.  And who says the child is really starving?  Sometimes everything is as it seems, but people who work the streets know how to prey on Western emotions and senses of propriety.  We’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t think I need to explain how giving to a begging child doesn’t always go where you think it does, and the child isn’t always as they seem.

And why is it that a starving child is worse?  Because they’re helpless?  Saying that inherently contains a fault on the part of the parents.  It means that on some level, the speaker holds the parents responsible for their hunger, whereas children share no such burden.  This is not only rather not reflective of many of the cultures in which the word’s poorest live, but it applies a set of imaginary conditions in which a person is given a fair chance at making money and accessing and preparing an adequate amount of healthy food that they would choose to eat.  Food insecurity is such a complex subject, and I don’t see how we as individuals, especially if (like me) you don’t specialize in food insecurity, we can presume to step in and do good.

I don’t think there are really that many people in the world who vote in favor of children remaining hungry, so I would love to hear more honest discussions of food aid, with less righteous indignation.  Please consider the other issues at play such as those previously mentioned.  And what about equality?  Why does that ONE street child get your food, help or attention, and not the others?

For those foaming at the mouth that I could ever think of not feeding a starving child, please consider that as offended as you are when I don’t want to give food aid, I am equally offended by your assuaged conscience, by your ability to feed the child in front of you and ignore the others, and by your need to eradicate your own guilt.  The “I’m sorry, I guess I just care too much [unlike you],” line is getting a little old. I love that some people, like John Wood and this great tumblr, don’t believe in poverty porn.

And to those who discuss food insecurity and aid with intelligence, grace and level heads, I do apologize.  But lately this discussion seems inescapable, and I am continually shocked that otherwise brilliant people act as though there is only one possible correct answer to a very complex problem, and that all who disagree must be heartless.

Cuba

It is so inconceivable to me that Cuba is this far-away, unattainable, imaginary place.  To me, Cuba is home.  When I went to Benin, I didn’t miss Boston, Mass.  I missed that sunshine balcony in habana, cuba.

Yes, it is crazy and hungry and desperate and backwards and hypocritical.  But it’s also musical and smart and beautiful and politically aware.  It’s hiphop and dancing and cuba light and fresh fruit all the time and the best beaches you have ever seen.

My friend Sarah, who went with me to Egypt, is going for the Dialogue.  And Allyson might apply as well.  It makes me so jealous.  And beyond the obvious bit of I want Cuba to be mine and only mine, I just want to be back there.  I want kisses on the cheek hello, no matter how inefficient I constantly complained they are.  I want stars at night in the city, and stairs forever to get home.  I want walking everywhere you go, and salsa with strangers, and ghetto spanish like you wouldn’t believe.  I want Chango and fidel on tv and no ads and Victoria Hasta Siempre.

The Dominican will be amazing, and so will wherever I go next.  But it won’t be home.  It won’t be Egypt and it won’t be Cuba.  It won’t be that feeling of never knowing what’s legal, of torn out parking meters, of instant friendship with strangers, of total impotence against the lack of facts, of surrendering to serendipity.

I’m putting on my shade to cover up my eyes.  I’m riding solo.  Te extrano, Cubita.  Besitos y mucho ache

Special Needs in the Dominican

We were at an orphanage called Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, or Our Little Brothers(/sisters/siblings).  They had a house for severely disabled children, with special attendants and some ramps and things.  Most of the rest of the children were pretty well mainstreamed, like a little girl I spent time with after the special needs house got to be a bit too much.

There was Professor Shaugnessy, sitting with a little girl on his lap who was quickly running out of steam.  She played with his sunglasses, snuggled up against him, and continually put in and removed everything she could from his shirt pocket.  Sitting next to him were the women from the trip who I expected to see: exceptionally kind, patient people who made it a priority to play with the special needs children all day, even though it hurts more to spend your time there.

But I also loved, that later, when I was walking around alone, fists clenched, not wanting to interact with another single human being, the lanky autistic boy with dark skin was suddenly running past me, smiling and laughing like he was having the time of his life.  and right behind him came Dave, who usually just gets written off as some sort of goofy hippie, laughing and running and having the time of his life.  what an odd pair, but good lord they were having so much fun.  Dave couldve been makng dirty jokes and playing basketball with the able boys, but here he was.  And i dont for a second think he saw it as a sacrifice.

When I see something like that, it sort of overwhelms me and I had to go for a walk by myself for a while.  But for the grace of god, as they say, that could’ve been my little gremlin.  She could have been the little girl who was locked away out of fear, or the child losing hair from the friction of the restraints.  I don’t think I was ever so upset about Dede’s health as on the day when I was told she didn’t have downs syndrome or mental retardation.  I hadn’t known they were on the table until then, hadn’t known we were at that place.  But that’s just the Harrington way–don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to, and never tip your hand until it’s all over.  All over, I suppose, but the crying.

I think of Dede, and those little kids at Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, and it guts me a little bit.

I remember that awful feeling of coming home to an empty house, and knowing something was terribly wrong.  I am thankful for people like Mike who stayed on the phone with me all night so I wouldn’t get upset, or Miss Killian who was such a comfort to my mother and I.  I think of four years of tests coming back normal for a little girl who couldn’t sit up of her own volition.  I think of a mother who was terrified to ask questions like, “will she ever walk?”

But we are so lucky.  Lucky Paul has a good job with insurance, and one that means Melissa didn’t have to go back to work for a few years.  Lucky to live in Massachusetts, with some of the best doctors in the world.  Lucky to live in a time when shipping DNA samples off to Eastern Europe is no big.  Lucky that Dede was the second child, not the first.  Lucky that she has a big, loving, patient family.  Lucky we live so close and so do the Grews, so no one had to bare the cross alone.  Lucky the doctors figured out the right cocktail.  Lucky that no one is afraid of Dede, that we know how to help her.  Lucky that we’re not ashamed.  Lucky that she can now walk and talk.  Lucky that one day, people will meet her and have no idea any of this ever happened.

If Dede has been born in some other part of the world or in a different time, she may have been shut away from the world, or sent off somewhere.  In many places, they certainly would never have figured out her problem.

We are so incredibly lucky.