This serious question must be asked today as an untold number of students undertaking scholarship studies in Cuba find themselves stuck between a rock and the middle of nowhere as they try to return to Havana in time for resumption of studies post-COVID.
Many complained about rough conditions at the onset of the COVID-19 in Cuba, claiming food was bad and generally complaining about everything they’d become accustomed to and accepted before the epidemic was declared a pandemic.
Using Social Media, the complainants fed their contrived grievances directly to radio and TV stations and other media channels to home to press their cases for returning home while Cuba battled the pandemic from house to house.
In turn, after those who could afford facilitated early hasty departures from Cuba before airports were closed, parents of others stuck there piled pressure on governments to arrange departures through chartered private flights.
Encouraged by parents but in most cases welcoming any opportunity to return home, many who took early flights home simply abandoned those whose parents could not afford, leaving them to face the pandemic alongside their Cuban hosts.
Having abandoned Cuba for weeks and/or months and flown home at their own risk, undergone 14 days quarantine upon entry and exercised their choice to face and combat COVID-19 at home instead of at school abroad, the hasty returnees then faced their first Catch 22: the new academic year was under way in Cuba and the University of Havana was about to reopen, but Cuban airport, like everywhere else, were closed.
The usual modes of transport (Caribbean Airlines, COPA, etc) were closed and with their classroom doors about to reopen, panic started to set in, students and parents again complaining, this time that their respective governments were not doing enough to arrange or facilitate their return to Cuba in time for classes.
Having had and ate their cake in Havana and at home, the complainants and parents sought their own possible backdoor avenues, some even traveling to other countries where non-commercial flights operate on emergency bases, to try to fly into closed Cuban airports.
Wedged between their rock and that hard place, the stranded students and anxious parents would learn that should they not be able to return to Cuba in time for classes, they would have to wait until next year, as Cuba cannot put its national school system on hold for students who chose to cut-and-run at the first sound of the COVID-19 siren and left their fellow nationals and Cuban hosts to face the pandemic alone.
It was a hard choice for the students and parents, as hard as those concerning 23 saint Lucian students on scholarship in Venezuela who cut-and-run as soon as the US sanctions started biting hard, similarly raising a ruckus about inability to cope with what their Venezuelan hosts had to cope with daily, resulting in their abandoning of their scholarships to return home instead of bearing-it-out like the Venezuelans paying for their free education had to.
A similar choice faces thousands – maybe millions – of Caribbean citizens who’ve lived their lives in the USA when COVID-19 started to take Caribbean lives across New York, resulting in dead victims being buried without a funeral, corpses dumped in mortuaries and eventually in unmarked mass graves.
Most, if not all, confounded by the life-or-death suspense of not knowing their COVID status, sent messages to their government representatives in the US and families back home, to the effect that never mind their love for America, they would prefer and certainly wished they had a choice to ‘Go home and die’, where they would at least have a chance of a funeral, even with limited attendance forced by COVID protocols.
Before CIVID was brought under control in Wuhan, African students unsuccessfully demanded their governments arrange private flights to take them home, many complaining of being targeted for unfair and unequal treatment in certain provinces, others simply wanting to fly out of harm’s way, even if their home nations were no less safe from COVID-19’s initial worldwide spread.
The Caribbean students in Cuba – and their parents – faced a very dissimilar choice, having the chance to decide whether to go or stay, with a minority going and most staying.
Those who opted to remain faced the battle alongside the people whose sacrifices allowed for their free scholarships in a country with a near-perfect health system, and which was the first to assist the Chinese to develop early clinical approaches to combat COVID-19 in its birthplace, Wuhan, as early as January 25, 2020, less than a month after the virus was officially confirmed on December 31, 2019.
Those who left will likely remain with a year-long bitter taste in their mouths that can easily sew-up an appetite for sour grapes.
But it didn’t have to be so and what’s being reaped now was sewn decades ago when Caribbean governments and Ministries of Education departed from the original context in which the scholarships emerged.
Those associated with organizing political and diplomatic arrangements leading to the awarding of annual Cuban scholarships to CARICOM and OECS member-states are at one in pointing out that such scholarships, which are also available to African, Asian, Arab, North and South American and European students, were originally designed to benefit bright sons and daughters of families that can’t afford the sheer cost of university education.
In Saint Lucia’s case, such scholarships were available through political entities with ties with Cuba and solidarity entities such as the Workers Revolutionary Movement (WRM) and the Saint Lucia-Cuba Friendship Association (SLCFA) and later the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP), as well as the Progressive Labour Party (PLP).
Scholarships granted as intended to qualifying students whose parents could not afford, they were all and each schooled about conditions in Cuba by those who returned annually for holidays.
But regime change in 1982 resulted in the incoming United Workers Party (UWP) administration bending the Cuban rules to award scholarships to sons and daughters of families and friends that could have afforded, easing well-off families from payment of affordable fees and denying qualified students whose parents could and would never afford.
The cumulative effects over the years have resulted in the difference in appreciation of the value of their scholarships now being seen in those Caribbean states where governments exercised their authority to change the rules and defeat the original purpose of the scholarships.
Those students whose parents who have appreciated the value of the free scholarships have been encouraged always to make the similar sacrifices as the Cuban people for the duration of their studies, bearing in mind that at the end of it all they will have graduated as professionals they would not have been without the scholarship opportunity.
Those whose parents could afford to spend the money saved to ensure their sons and daughters live lives way above the standards of average Cubans end-up providing them with debit and credit cards enabling them to rent expensive apartments and quality vehicles, to ‘live it up’ above the Cuban standards – even in a few rare cases offering to bribe professors for special treatment.
There have also been cases where well-off students’ behavior at their expensive rented apartments in poor communities has forced the authorities to demand that they return to the dormitories they abandoned.
Fortunately, not all Caribbean ambassadors and embassies in Havana have been baited into supporting the unreasonable behavior and demands of students who insist on always eating their cakes and still wanting to have them.
Unlike the Venezuela scholarship students who abandoned ship with rough winds on the horizon and gave-up their studies permanently, the Cuban scholarship students affected simply have their studies put on pause, placed on hold by their own doing – and who knows, COVID-19 having unleashed the creativity levels the region and the world have never known, the Cubans may even offer them a way out through online classes.
But short of calling those affected ‘ingrate’, (or ‘ungrageful’ as many still wrongly say with right intent) it’s necessary for those who understand and are capable of speaking to those affected (students and parents) about the need to better appreciate the sacrifice Cuba and its people are going through, despite five decades of US sanctions, to provide their scholarships free of all costs.
All Caribbean ambassadors will tell you it’s a normal hassle trying to keep-up with the complaints and demands of students spread at university faculties across Cuba, now compounded even more by unreasonable demands from sons and daughters of elite families insistent on having the best of both worlds in the wrong one.
Cuba-CARICOM ties have emerged considerably since 1972 when four Caribbean Prime Ministers – Barbados’ Errol Barrow, Guyana’s Forbes Burnham, Jamaica’s Michael Manley and Trinidad & Tobago’s Dr Eric Williams – collectively broke the back of the crippling US embargo against Cuba by collectively and together establishing diplomatic relations with Havana.
That was before CARICOM was born and Fidel Castro and the Communist Party of Cuba have never, ever forgotten that it was four young English-speaking Caribbean nations that did what only Mexico and Chile (at the time) had done in all of Latin America: to exercise their sovereign right to choose their partners and to make friends with a close neighbor with shared historical links.
Fidel Castro died and his successors have kept the Caribbean scholarships alive as part of their internationalist duty to Humankind in poor developing countries or similar circumstances in developed nations, just as they have also kept alive the Henry Reeve Brigade as a global army of doctors and nurses to help the world fight diseases, from AIDS and Ebola to SARS and COVID-19.
Decades of anti-communist propaganda by a global media solely in the hands of imperial empires denied much of the world of the truth about Cuba and its relentless battles for survival from the first US-backed mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 all the way through five decades of embargos and blockades of everything from medicines and medical equipment for hospitals to food.
But the internet age and entry of the social media international landscape has also put real information about Cuba at the fingertips of the world, leading to radical changes in the past two decades in the way the world sees Cuba and interprets the six decades of ceaseless US hostilities across a dozen US administrations.
CARICOM and OECS governments have reaffirmed the region’s collective political support and appreciation for all the help coming the region’s way since 1972, after the 1979 Grenada Revolution and since the US invasion in 1983 — and particularly after the Cuba-CARICOM Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (TECA) was signed in 2000.
Thousands of Caribbean professionals who graduated from the university of Havana over the past four decades and the thousands of Cuban medical professionals across the CARICOM region have together touched the lives and improved the health of millions, with countless numbers of Caribbean citizens also visiting Cuba for private reasons ranging from holidays to specialized medical attention.
It used to be unthinkable – once upon a time – that any Caribbean student would have behaved the way some did over COVID.
But, thanks to those who saw and treated the Cuban scholarships more as opportunities to save money and deny those most in need, some Caribbean students and lucky parents seem only interested in graduating and qualifying, with no apparent interest in what it is costing Cuba and its people.
Here’s hoping those affected by their own doings catching-up with them in the garden where you reap what you sew will have or eventually come to learn the myriad lessons emerging from the sorry chapter in what has otherwise been a positive story of ties between Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors, particularly since 1972.