By Javier Garcia-Bengochea y Bolivar, [Durham] Herald-Sun guest columnist
I am a Duke alumnus and Cuban exile, one of more than a million people forced to flee Cuba virtually penniless since 1959 as well as one of 14 million Cubans in Cuba and worldwide collectively robbed of their property, rights, freedoms and heritage as Cubans. Fortunately, I was not one of the hundred thousand who died trying to escape Cuba. As you read this, Duke returns from another alumni trip to Cuba, exploiting a loophole in U.S. law. Travel to Cuba is chic. “Everybody” is doing it and so, too, is Duke. Yet, this is not an innocent enterprise. Time has passed, but not as a catalyst for change in Cuba. Cubans continue to be denied property rights, including their civil rights and vote and are more repressed each year. Americans speciously believe that exposing Cubans to them will bring change. For Duke this “opportunity to learn” and be part of “the conversation about Cuba” occurs entirely in a vacuum.
The isolation of Cuba over five decades extends well beyond the U.S. embargo, which has obscured what Cuba is, an international pariah due to perpetually hostile policies towards her people and her partners, past and present. Since the Cuban missile crisis exposed Fidel Castro as the most dangerous figure since Stalin, democratic nations have spent trillions of dollars fighting Cuban aggression on every continent. Cuba has been a haven for terrorist groups, including the PLO, ETA, FARC and probably al-Qaeda. Cuba seeks our enemies for alliances. The Castro regime has defaulted on more than $75 billion of international debt, excluding several hundred billion dollars in damages to former property owners in Cuba. Cuba continues to expropriate foreign assets in Cuba without compensation. Cuban agents rob U.S. taxpayers through Medicare fraud estimated to be billions of dollars and facilitate drug trafficking. Cuba is unrepentant for taking an American, Alan Gross, hostage. These are only a few of their sins.
The result has been the systematic destruction of virtually all material and social value in Cuba. Only the vices, the pre-revolutionary past, Cuba’s natural resources and the indomitable spirit of the Cuban people remain to be exploited. Tourism, the regime’s last hope for hard currency, will eventually exhaust these, too. Duke, in its complicity, contends Cuba travel is an academic exercise. Really? These trips are entirely scripted and choreographed by the Cuban state or, more precisely, the oligarchs who control the Cuban economy. These elites select the hotels, restaurants, and events, even supplying the “dissenting” voices aimed to bamboozle Duke alumni that Cuba tolerates free speech. Duke accepts this indoctrination without question. Such bias in the work of any Duke student would be categorically rejected. As an academic and intellectual exercise, these trips are pure fraud. Duke never considered that the majority of the items and venues in their November trip, “The Art & Architecture of Cuba,” are stolen, not only from Americans and Cubans in exile, but from the millions of Cubans still living in Cuba.
And the money paid to travel agents (yes, selected by the regime) and spent in Cuba? Into private corporations managed by the oligarchs, many of which are registered in other countries. These control the tourist industry, stores and medical services for foreigners and Cuban elites, which exclude ordinary Cubans. Not one Duke dollar funds the purported social benefits of the revolution, which have become illusory.
Duke dismisses that until recently it was illegal for most Cubans to visit the tourist hotels, restaurants and stores, mostly because these Cubans were stereotyped as black, panhandlers and prostitutes. That they are mostly black and the elites who host Duke are mostly white is no coincidence and is emblematic of “Cuban socialism.”
To wit: Cuba’s two-currency system of the convertible peso (CUC) and the traditional peso (CUP). Duke pays the Cuban tourist enterprise in CUCs (~US$1), the legal tender for foreigners, while Cuban workers are paid in CUPs (~US$0.04), the legal tender for Cubans, by the Cuban entity as if the two were equal. Duke is indifferent to this fact. Discrimination is, therefore, maintained through poverty. The two-currency system is outright theft from ordinary Cubans and is legal and institutional apartheid; it is slavery. Apparently this offends no one at Duke, not even within the Gang of 88. Duke’s Cuba travel only strengthens the real embargo of Cuba: the internal embargo of goods and services between these oligarchs — Cuba’s 1 percent that consumes resources, produces nothing and, most perniciously, is accountable to absolutely no one — and the Cuban people. Ironically, this disgraceful situation coincides with Duke’s capital campaign targeting its prosperous alumni, made so by strong property rights and the rule of law, which Duke disparages for Cuba. Such naiveté and hypocrisy occurs to the delight of their Cuban hosts. Duke Forward? Evidently not.
Dr. Javier Garcia-Bengochea y Bolivar is a neurosurgeon and 1981 Duke graduate. Born in Havana, Cuba, he lives in Jacksonville, Fla.