On Friday, the gang went to America.
We had planned a visit to the U.S. Interest Section. Since the U.S. doesn't have diplomatic relations with Cuba, we don't have an embassy here. Technically, it's part of the Swiss Embassy. It was really interesting and we earned a lot. The following are some of the more interesting things.
1. Purpose of the U.S. Interest Section
This took a lot of explaining. If the U.S. doesn't want to have anything to do with Cuba (no trade, travel, etc.) why do we need our own section? Well, at the Section they help U.S. citizens living/visiting Cuba (legally). They also help Cubans who are looking to receive asylum in the U.S. The U.S. legally accepts 20,000 Cubans a year. The waiting time for immigrants from an country to get a green card can be 10 or 15 years (or more). But Cubans have a special status. All Cubans are considered refugees (most people are considered refugees until they leave their country, but since Cubans can't leave, they're refugees when they are in their own country). Therefore, they can become an LPM (Legallys Permanent Resident) in about 18 months. Also, any Cuban who sets foot in American soil is legally allowed to stay; the U.S. will not deport them (this is called Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy). The agreement used to be that any Cuban who made it to international waters (via raft, boat, what have you) would be brought to the U.S. as well, but that law changed in the 90's. Now, anyone found in international waters must be returned to Cuba with an agreement that the Cuban government doesn't punish them in any way (no jail time or anything). The U.S. periodically does checks on these people to make sure that they're being treated properly.
The Section also tries to gather as much info as possible on Cuba to send back to the U.S. This is especially important because Obama is reviewing our policy on Cuba right now, so the more information they can send, the better. The problem with this, however, is that the Cuban government will not talk to FSO's at the U.S. Interest Section. They try to set up meetings or whatev and they are denied. So the U.S. has to go through thirs parties to find out stuf (Mexico or Spanish embassies). So this just makes it hard to get info.
2. Internet? What a novel idea.
The U.S. Interest Section runs two 9soon to be three) internet "cafes" to give Cubans better access to the internet and specifically to international news. The internet is uncensored and anyone can sign up for a slot of 1-2 hours of free internet. They have about 40 cmputers right now with more on the way and apparently hundreds of people use them every day. BUT you always have to think of possible consequences for Cubans. If you have visited the American Interest Section, there can be negative effects career-wise; it can hurt your chances for getting a promotion if you've used the American internet.
3. Forest of Flags
A little more about Cubans access to news: I might've mentioned this before, but on the side of the building there's a scrolling news bulletin. It's updated 4 times a week and has world news headlines (in Spanish!). Things about Obama's inauguration, stuff in Iraq, Israel/Palestine conflict, what have you, are flashed across this giant screen. Recently, a big item was about a priest who was murdered in the Cuban province of Villa Clara. This went unreported in the Cuban press. Shortly after the U.S. started broadcasting these messages, the Cuban government erected about 50 black flags in from of it in an attempt to block the news.
4. The U.S. breaks it's own laws
Okay, not really. But I think I may have incorrectly reported on this before: the U.S. trades with Cuba. In fact, it is the island's fourth largest trading partner, after China, Venezuela, and Spain. In the 2008 fiscal year, The U.S. did $717,000,000 USD worth of sales to them, up about 65% from the previous year. Othe countries who trade with Cuba know that they have no money, and kind of allow them to buy stuf on credit (i.e. they don't have to pay them for years and years). The U.S. on the other hand, makes the govenment of Cuba pay in cash upfront before we even ship them anything. Also, in the grand scheme of things, 717 million dollars isn't that much money. That wouldn't even bail out our banks.
5. They will not throw you in Guantanamo
Tip for anyone who wants to enter Cuba illegally: if you have a problem, they will help you. They do not stricly enforce the no travel policy. So if you lose your passport, all of your money, or you're plane ticket, they will help you out. Don't worry.
Okay, so that's all I have for the U.S. Interest Section. Let's move on to the U.S. marines
While leaving the Section, the woman who talked to us (she was annoying, self-rightous and American-centric) invited us to the Marines house for a St. Patrick's Day party. She told us there would be green beer, green jello shots, and dancing. Everyone from the Section was invited.
We go out to lunch after and discuss. Were we going to go? For one, we didn't know what to expect. I was thinking that this party was going to be like a frat party: a bunch of boys in the Marines who haven't talked to girls in months (neither the Marines or the FSOs are allowed to date or even really befriend Cubans). Others were thinking it was going to be like a cocktail party because families of the people who worked at the Section were invited. Either way, we decided it would be an adventure. Eight of the gals got dressed up and went to Miramar.
Thankfully, when we walked in, we saw one of the women who had talked to us that morning. She pointed out the bar and the dance floor and told us to have fun.
The barmen (and woman!) were the Marines who lived in the house. First, the Staff Sargeant (I'm not actually sure if this was his title, but he was the one in charge) came up to us and asked who was 21. We all nodded slowly, confused. The drinking age is 16 and unless I'm buying drinks in USD, I don't understand the point. Also the fact that none of us were asked for ID was odd. So we hung out at the bar for a while, meeting some of the Marines. I talked to the only female in the whole house for a while. Aside from being one of the most socially awkward human beings I have ever talked to, she was pretty nice.
She told me that she's only 21 (the youngest one out of the 8 Marines in the house) and she's been serving since she was 18. Before Cuba, she served in Iraq and Senegal. She's currently working with the Department of Homeland Security to get her degree in Terrorism (yes, it is called a degree in Terrorism). Tara asked her if it is difficult to be a woman in the Marines. She said yes, because first, it's more physically demanding and you don't get any slack (which is expected), while at the same time you have to work twice as hard to earn people's respect even when you can complete the physical tasks. Ahh, the hypocrisy.
So anyway, as the night went on and the Marines started to loosen up and share some more info (might've been the green beer).
What I learned from the Marines:
1. They don't like Cuba. Because it's Cuba, they're not allowed to leave the island or the city! For a lot of them, traveling was the reason why they joined the amred forces. Some one told us that when he was stationed in Korea, he went to Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Japan. Here, they can't even leave Havana.
2. They don't take advantage of being in Havana. They say they go out at night and such, but they pretty much limit themselves to Miramar (a really rich, touristy suburb of Havana where they live). They're not allowed to date or even really hang out with Cubans. In other words, they don't really know anything about Cuba.
3. They think really ridiculous things. Like Cuba is a super dangerous country. We told them that we travel around the country quite a bit and they asked us what kind of security we travel with. Excuse me? I never feel unsafe in this country. It's like living in any other city: don't be stupid and you're fine. Also, this is a very safe place especially for Americans. The Cubans want the embargo lifted. Something happening to an American here would be a PR nightmare. Speaking of the embargo, there was a Marine who didn't really know what it was. Meg was talking to him about how Cubans are starving and he was trying to blame it on the Cuban government (which, yes, they play a role in this as well). Meg then said "Well, I don't think the Americans have helped then out very much either, with the embargo and all." He then looks at her, in all seriousness. and asks "What do you mean?"
They were also convinced that "the Communists" (Yes, those are the words they used) are watching us all the time. Oh dear.
So in other words, I think that since they don't know Cubans or the real Cuba, they will never understand anything about this country. Not that I do or can or pretend to.
All in all, the whole night was weird, interesting, and fairly sad.
I come home in exactly 2 weeks.
In other completely unrelated news, I have the first sandal tan of my life. I thought my feet were dirty for like a week until i believed it. It's very faint but I kind of like it.
Also, I really miss cheese.