Since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba—culminating with the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana last week after being shuttered for more than 50 years—much has been written about the country’s ties to black America.
But this renewed relationship with Cuba allows African Americans to explore not only those connections but also Cuba’s connections to Africa itself.
And that’s important.
It’s important because as much of the media has, throughout the decades, portrayed Cuba mostly through the prism of Fidel Castro’s rule and refugees fleeing on raggedy rafts, it portrays Africa mostly through the prism of emaciated babies, failed states, depraved warlords, and people perpetually entangled in the despair of proxy wars and other horrors.
Because of that one-sidedness, we’ve missed stories not only about Cuba’s kinship with African Americans, but also about the role that Cuba has played in the development of the countries of our ancestors by helping them mine their human potential, as opposed to their natural resources.
For example, in 1975, after helping Angola defend itself from South African apartheid troops and other threats, Cuba helped Angolans establish a new national system of education and a literacy campaign.
According to the book The Capacity to Share: A Study of Cuba’s International Cooperation in Educational Development, between 1980 and 1984, Cuba sent anywhere from 800 to 2,000 instructors to teach subjects such as math, chemistry, geography and history in Angolan schools. In addition, Cuba provided scholarships for Angolan children, many of whom were orphans or children of refugees, to receive an education at the Isle of Youth—an island just south of Havana. Originally called the Isle of Pines, it was renamed in 1978 to reflect its mission of educating children from developing countries at junior and senior high schools and at vocational schools built there.
While Cuba educated 11,262 students at the Isle of Youth from 1977 to 1997, when the program ended, the majority of students there were Angolan.
According to the 2000 book Cuba’s Island of Dreams: Voices From the Isle of Pines and Youth, 3,688 Angolan students graduated from its schools. The second-highest number of students came from Mozambique, at 1,647, while the third-highest number, 1,179, came from Zimbabwe.
In fact, out of those 11,262 students, 10,711 came from African countries.
“A few of them returned to Cuba in July 1997 to celebrate the 14th World Festival of Youth and Students,” reported the Cuban newspaper Gramna on July 31 of that year. “They told how they had arrived on the Isle of Youth, homesick and nearly illiterate in their own languages, to be welcomed back by warm and patient teachers; and they spoke of their careers back home in medicine, teaching and a variety of technical fields.”
Think about that.
Cuba didn’t pluck poor Africans out of their struggling countries to be evangelized or subservient, but to empower them with the education that they would need to help their homelands advance.
Even today, Cuba’s kinship with Angola continues. While much of that country’s progress was stifled by a civil war that didn’t end until 2002, in 2009 it began working with Cuban teachers again to help boost its literacy rate, which now stands at 67 percent.
Then there’s Ghana.
Over the past decade, Ghana has become a place where more than 3,000 African Americans and Caribbean people of African descent have settled, according to African Renewal, an information program of the United Nations. Many, in fact, settle there to retire or to start businesses.
But Cuba is one of the forces behind the modernity that is making Ghana attractive to some black Americans. During the 1980s, Cuba trained more than 1,000 Ghanaians in professions that helped the country build its public sector.
Today, Ghana and Cuba are continuing to work together. Cuban academics are traveling to Ghana to provide expertise in areas such as health care and biochemistry, while Cuba plans to offer 30 postsecondary scholarships to Ghanaian students. Twenty will be in medicine, while the rest will be in engineering, sports, health technology and mining.
No doubt, Cuba’s involvement in Africa is an extension of its socialist ideologies. There’s also the argument that Cuba, itself shackled by poverty largely wrought by decades of dependency on the former Soviet Union and the ravages of the U.S. embargo, could ill afford to use its scant resources to help Africans; that it sacrificed its own citizens to further revolutionary goals.
Yet, what’s important to note is the fact that early on, Cuba, in contrast with many Western nations, viewed Africa not solely as a place full of raw materials to exploit or people who needed to be pitied and taught to pray, but as a continent with countries full of people with brains and potential.
It saw struggling Africans as being capable of rescuing themselves, not simply with monetary aid but with the empowerment that education and sharing knowledge brings.
That’s the kind of diplomacy we should all be talking about.