Cuban diplomat Felix Wilson talks about his country & his life
On the evening of March 11, 1999--the same day President Clinton was in Guatemala admitting and apologizing for the US role in aiding murderous military forces in Guatemala and elsewhere--three Gainesvillians drove over to the small towm of Palm Coast to hear a representative from the government of another country the U.S. has wronged, Cuba, speak to a gathering organized by the Caribbean American Children's Foundation, entitled "The Afro-Cuban Perspective."
The speaker was Dr. Felix Wilson, Deputy Chief of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, DC (as close to an embassy position as the strained relations of the US and Cuba allow).
Felix Wilson was born in Guantanamo (the city, not the base) on the eastern tip of Cuba on May 2, 1951. This was in the final decade of Batista's reign in Cuba, and life for most Cubans, and Afro-Cubans in particular, was hard and lacking in opportunities. Unable to find work in order to pay the fee to send Felix to school, his mother took him with her to Havana, found a job as a cook, and at 8 years old, Felix finally entered elementary school.
With the overthrow of Batista in 1959, a world of opportunities opened up for the poor and especially many Afro-Cubans. Felix Wilson's athletic skills promoted him to the High Performance Sports Institute, and he played for the University National Basketball Team. He graduated from the University of Havana in 1974 with a political science degree, and served as Secretary of Organizations for the Federation of University Students from 1974-1977, while pursuing his Ph.D. in Sociology, which he received in 1978. From there he embarked on a career as a diplomat, serving in the Cuban embassy in Angola, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria during the 1980s and the early 1990s. He as been at his present position since 1996.
Wilson began his talk by covering the history of Cuba and how outside interests have always been meddling in its affairs and how the U.S. since the late 1700s has coveted the island. He pointed out that what's called the Spanish-American War here, was for Cubans a war for independence from Spain that the U.S. jumped into with the sinking of the Maine, and how the U.S., with the passage of the Platt Amendment, got its foothold on Guantanamo--its piece of Cuba.
This continued interference in Cuban affairs passed on from Spain to the US and lead to a subjugated Cuba that developed a small wealthy ruling class and an economy based on the exploitation of the poor. Batista's rule saw the doors open to the gangsters and glitter as the wealthy and corrupt used Cuba as their playground. Resentment to this exploitation grew and when the revolution came in the late 1950s, Afro-Cubans were well represented in the forces that overthrew Batista. They have gained tremendously from the advances in healthcare and education which became available to all the people of Cuba.
According to Wilson, this is the system that Cuba wants to have respected and is adamant about defending: universal healthcare, universal education, and housing for all. Wilson readily admits that it isn't a perfect system, but it's the system they've been able to develop over the few decades, and that a large majority of Cubans support, despite the lines and the shortages. The strains brought on by the collapse of the eastern block and the continuing embargo by the U.S. have altered and hurt the economy, but through it all, the human needs of food, healthcare, and education are being maintained, and for this, Wilson said, they seek respect.
But respect is not what Cuba gets, and the "lack of elections" is often cited by critics. Wilson addressed this in his talk:
"The United States claims that Cuba doesn't have elections...I'm sure that many of you do not know we have elections. We have secret ballot elections every five years; we elect a parliament. The parliament elects the Council of States, and the Council of States elects the President...No other country, no electoral process in the world is so much maligned. You go to other countries, there are different systems of elections. Those are 'free and fair' elections, according to the United States administration's standards. The ones in Cuba are not recognized as elections...Fidel Castro--'he's been in power 20 years'--what does it mean when Helmut Kohl is so many years in power in Germany, or when Thatcher was so many years in Britain. They don't say anything when you think of the Kings in Saudi Arabia, or the King of Spain. These are heads of states that aren't elected. I don't come here to make any judgement on any other country's democracy. We just want our democracy to be respected. This is the only thing we want--respect. What we have may not be the best, but this is what we have, and its what our people want.
"Unless the United States regards Cuba as another country, and not as part of its internal policies, as it has been regarded by the administration and by some people in Congress, it is impossible to think of a normalization of relations. So, then, what we need is for the American people to get conscious of the need and push for a normalization of relations. How? By talking to other people. ... Cuba has nothing to do with the United States; Cuba is another country. Cuba is at peace with the United States. We don't want to fight the United States. We need friends, we need people who are willing to help in building the bridge between countries. We need people who will go to Cuba and see Cuba for themselves. Visit Cuba. Visit our schools, our hospitals.
"What we need from the American people is to support the struggle for the lifting of the embargo. We don't want everyone to share the political or ideological thing that we have, for sure you have yours. We respect each other's opinions in terms of political or ideological approach. We just want to be respected. We want the American people to write to their Congresspeople, make telephone calls to talk to them--push them--and ask them: 'Why this policy against Cuba [using hunger and disease as a weapon to try and spark political change] when the United States has normal relations with the rest of the world?' The rest of the world! Everybody but Cuba! Why?
"And then you'll have to go back into history and analyze what [has] happen[ed] and this is the only reason.
"And it's not Fidel Castro. Our president is usually portrayed as evil--'it is Castro, and when Castro dies...' This is said everyday in the US. When is Castro going to die? This is the question. And if you ask me I really don't want him to die. I wish him a hundred years. Because," Wilson said in firm, measured tones, "I am what he has done for our people. And what I am, it all leads from the policy of our government. And I'm not the only one. There are millions of Cubans who have enjoyed the same situation I have.
"In our national assembly more than 50 percent of our parliamentarians are black. In the politburo, out of 20 you have seven who are black. You have five black ministers, ten black ambassadors. Whatever we have done--it is much better than it was in 1959 in terms of race."
Wilson went on to describe the big changes in their economy since the fall of the Soviet block--the increasing role of tourism and the problems it brings. Also the need to get food from faraway markets such as rice from Asia, rather than embargoed U.S. rice. Wilson told how the United States Farm Bureau has now come out against the embargo, largely based on the potential grain sales "and these people are used to getting their way," he added, hopefully. Citing the most recent UN vote on the embargo, a 157-2 trouncing which saw only Israel support the US, Wilson wryly pointed out that Israel itself now has economic investments in Cuba, so their vote was not as firm as it might seem.
Wilson's talk lasted forty minutes, and then he spent another hour taking questions from the predominantly African-American audience of about 60 people. It was a rare opportunity for Americans to talk directly to a representative of the Cuban government, a government against who the embargo extends even to the fairness of reporting and the information we receive.
Coincidental to Wilson's visit to Palm Coast, an organization has been formed in Gainesville to work to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring the embargo to an end. The Gainesville-Cuba Friendship Network has long range plans to establish a sister city relationship between Gainesville and a city in Cuba. A tape of Felix Wilson's talk is available for checkout at the Civic Media Center.
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