Weeks before the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, one of America’s top anti-war activists traveled to Cuba to promote improved relations between the United States and Cuba.
I spoke with Medea Benjanin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK, right around the fifth anniversary of the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations.
She led a delegation of Americans and a few Canadians who explored Cuba, learned about its culture and looked for ways to support the Cuban people in the face of new economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
Benjamin said Cuba faces a “very, very bleak future” if Donald Trump is re-elected in November. She told me:
I’m absolutely incensed that one man, Donald Trump, could cause so many problems, so many hardships for so many people in Cuba. And how do we allow ourselves as Americans to get to the point where we let one man determine policy? You know, it’s quite ironic because we went to the U.S. embassy here and we had a meeting and the representative of the U.S. government says, ‘Well, you know, I’m only doing my job and the U.S. is democracy and you have to go back home and do your part as citizens to lobby your government.’ And we kind of laughed at her and said, ‘You know, if only it worked like that,’ because these are executive orders.
This is not done by our Congress. This is done by one person. This is done by Donald Trump who changed everything and took us back decades in terms of U.S.-Cuban relationships.
So you know, that sounds like a dictatorship to me. That doesn’t sound like a democracy.
The full interview is below:
Medea Benjamin: I’m the co-director of a peace group called CODEPINK. And I live in Washington, D.C., and I try to stop war.
Cuba Money Project: You’ve been involved in Cuba for decades.
Benjamin: When I first came to Cuba, it was back in 1979 and I came here because I had been working for the United Nations. I was a nutritionist working with malnourished kids around the world. I thought it was horrible that there were kids who had, who didn’t have access to food. And I met Cubans in Africa who were working as doctors and nurses. And they told me that there was no malnutrition in Cuba. And I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Everywhere I’ve gone, including in the United States, there’s malnutrition. They said, “There’s no malnutrition in Cuba. Come and see for yourself.’ So I came to Cuba in 1979 I was amazed at the way they took care of children to make sure that every child, I mean, it was almost over the top.
I ended up having a child in Cuba. I married a Cuban and I’m skinny and my husband was skinny. And they thought our child was malnourished, just because she was skinny and they would keep saying, ‘You got to feed her more, you’ve got to feed her more.’
There’s a lot of attention paid to children. And so when I came here and started, I had to work here to be able to get the right to stay. And there weren’t a lot of jobs available. So I ended up working as a translator for the Cuban newspaper, Granma. But I’m kind of a contrarian, so no matter where I go, I usually get in trouble. And that was the case in Cuba. I was criticizing the newspaper, saying it wasn’t really reflecting all the great debates that people would have on the street and why can’t we be more dynamic as a newspaper?
And so I ended up getting in trouble in Cuba. And after about three years, I was deported from Cuba. I didn’t come back for a number of years because I wasn’t allowed to, but after a while I was asked to write a write about Cuba and I said, ‘Well, I can’t, they won’t let me in.’ And a friend of mine, it turned out was the lawyer for the Cuban government, and he convinced the Cubans to let me back in to do a story and see if it was fair and indeed the story they considered fair, and that gave me the ability to keep coming back to Cuba. So I describe my relationship with Cuba as a love-hate relationship, and I’m one of the only people that I know of that actually got an apology from Fidel Castro because it was very traumatic when I was kicked of Cuba.
I was married. My husband had to choose between leaving his family here and possibly never coming back or going with me to the U.S. and he chose to come with me, probably a mistake. But you know, our lives were very affected, like so many millions of Cubans’ lives have been affected by the, the terrible relation between the U.S. and Cuba. And, and you know, some of the, the, the hard line of the Cuban government toward many of these things. And one time when I came back, I was at a gathering where Fidel Castro was and he actually came up to me and put his arms around me. I learned you don’t put your arms on him or they will be immediately pinned behind your back by plain clothes people who say don’t touch the Comandante – one of the reasons he stayed alive. But he said to me, ‘The revolution has made many mistakes and one of them was the way that we treated you.’
So that was quite remarkable. In any case, there are many things I appreciate about Cuba, the healthcare system, the education system, the, the idea that nobody should be going hungry, that nobody should be left out on the streets, that we want to confront issues like racism, although it has taken Cuba a long time to really confront that directly. Many things I love about this country and many things that drive me crazy and would make it very hard for me to live here.
Cuba Money Project: And so, how do you see the state of U.S.-Cuba relations?
Benjamin: One thing I love about Cuba is that it’s different. You know, you go around the world and you see us fast food places. You see a replica of the, U.S. model or the neoliberal model, and Cuba has been trying to do something different and we never know how different it would be if the U S had left it alone to develop, never know how much of these problems are caused by the blockade, versus the Cuban government’s own top down model.
But certainly it is fascinating country and and we have to look for models that are different. Ours doesn’t work in the U.S. and the world is burning up because of a capitalist model that’s about growth and destroying the environment. We need other models and Cuba’s one of the, the few places around the world that tries to do something different and that’s so important for us to learn from.
Cuba Money Project: And have you taken any flak for your position in Cuba?
Benjamin: Well, I’ve taken flak from my position on Cuba from all sides, from the right in the United States that says that Cuba is this horrible dictatorship. And why are you supporting this dictatorship? And the left in Cuba that thinks the Cuba’s this paradise, and why are you criticizing Cuba? So certainly you get involved in Cuba and you express your positions, you’re going to get attacked often times by many sides.
Cuba Money Project: The point that you raised about trying to figure out how many of those problems and what the degree of the problems are due to the blockade and due to Cuba’s own inefficiencies. When you look around Havana and you see there’s a fair amount of decay, do you think that it’s the system or the blockade? How do you rationalize what you see visibly on the streets?
Benjamin: Well, the blockade is really tightened now under Trump. And so now I think the blockade is really the No. 1 by far issue, but it’s affecting the Cuban economy. But there were other times, I mean, I lived here for three years during the really good times in the early ’80s when the Soviet union still existed, when people had enough of everything. And then there were a lot of things that didn’t work. And that was because of the Cuban government. We used to call the restaurants. No hay – there isn’t any – because you’d go in and you get this long menu and they’d say, ‘No hay, no hay, no hay.’ Why was that? The way they were stifling the farmers, the way they were not allowing farmers to sell directly to people the way they closed down the farmer’s markets when they did at some point allow them to sell. Bad, bad policies.
And I, I wrote a book called No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today, that really criticized a lot of the Cuban government’s policies that took the U.S. corporate farming and the Soviet state farming model and used that instead of really supporting the small farmers from the beginning. So I think there were a lot of things that were wrong in the Cuban government’s own policies, early on. But I think today you have to say that 80% of the problems are around this blockade and especially under Trump.
Cuba Money Project: And what’s the purpose of your trip this time? What would you like to accomplish?
Benjamin: Well, I have been coming to Cuba maybe once a year, sometimes not, not every year. After the relations under Obama were improved, we found it was such a joyous time. I was at the (Cuban) embassy in the U.S. and we had a tremendous party and we were so happy. And then we took big groups to Cuba. We had 150 people that we brought down one time, another group of a hundred people because people really wanted to come. And it was such a hopeful time. But almost ironically as an organization that I belong to, CODEPINK, we were saying, well, we don’t really have to put a lot of energy into Cuba because things are going well now. When Trump came in and started tightening the screws, we’ve really feel like we’ve got to put more focus on Cuba right now and being here now, and I see how things have deteriorated so quickly in just a few years’ time, I’m incensed by it. I’m absolutely incensed that one man, Donald Trump, could cause so many problems, so many hardships for so many people in Cuba.
And how do we allow ourselves as Americans to get to the point where we let one man determine policy? You know, it’s quite ironic because we went to the U.S. embassy here and we had a meeting and the representative of the U.S. government says, ‘Well, you know, I’m only doing my job and the U.S. is democracy and you have to go back home and do your part as citizens to lobby your government.’ And we kind of laughed at her and said, ‘You know, if only it worked like that,’ because these are executive orders. This is not done by our Congress. This is done by one person. This is done by Donald Trump who changed everything and took us back decades in terms of U.S.-Cuban relationships.
So you know, that sounds like a dictatorship to me. That doesn’t sound like a democracy. Even if people voted for Donald Trump, they didn’t vote for him to break relations with Cuba. They didn’t vote for him to increase the embargo. I mean most people have in the U.S. have no idea what he’s doing around Cuba. They have no interest in Cuba, but certainly have no interest in making life miserable for the Cuban people. And poll after poll in the United States shows that the majority of people want good relations with Cuba and approved of Obama’s policies. So what Donald Trump is doing is totally undemocratic. And of course it’s inhumane. It’s unfair. It should be illegal because no one country and one person should have that power to do that. And we see the votes at the U.N., where year after year, there is the United States, Israel and this year one other country, the right-wing government of Brazil adding it’s ridiculous vote to say we should keep this embargo going.
But the vast, I mean the overwhelming majority of countries in the world say we should have good relations. I work mostly on the Middle East and one of the countries that I focus the most on is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive, disgusting horrendous, misogynist countries in the world. It is the country responsible for spreading terrorism around the world because of its perversion of Islam called Wahhabism. This is the great partner, the great ally of the United States. The No. 1 weapons purchaser in the world for the United States is Saudi Arabia. So don’t give me any crap about, we care about democracy in Cuba and we’re, we’re going backwards in our relationships because Cuba is an undemocratic country. I mean, that’s absolutely ridiculous. If anything, this is about votes in Florida. This is about the small, minority view of Cuban Americans who are well organized and have a lot of money because a lot of it comes from us, the taxpayers.
And they, have relationships with senators like Marco Rubio with representatives like (Mario) Díaz-Balart, and they have influence way more influenced than they should have, but they’re the only constituency for whom this is the No. 1 priority for 99.9% of Americans. Cuba is not their No. 1 priority. And so this small group has undue influence and can get to dictate policy like they’re doing right now. So this is a long answer to why I am so incensed about what my government is doing. It pains me tremendously to know that Cubans in their everyday lives from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to bed are influenced by the policies of Donald Trump, the transportation that they can’t get on to get to work. The fact that they have to get up earlier in the day just to figure out how they’re going to get to work.
The fact that most of the time they can’t work because there’s no electricity or because they don’t have the resources that they need to do the work that they should be doing. I mean all of this is because of U.S. policy right now. So I think if America is so, that’s why we brought a group of Americans. We have 50 people on this trip. I want to bring more people. I want to keep doing trips. I want to go back to the times when we organized a lot of trips in Cuba because more people in, in the United States have to know. And I want to do more than that. I want to, organize, have a center here in, in Cuba where we can bring people where we can bring donations, where we can have a solidarity center where people can learn about what’s happening, where people can meet other like-minded people, not just from the United States, but from Europe, from other places in Latin America. We have to do a much better job at organizing and finding ways to go around the U.S. blockade, but also finding ways to put pressure, back at home to say this policy is totally unacceptable.
Cuba Money Project: So I was researching this issue of tax dollars spent in Cuba and according to my calculation, the U.S. government – between the State Department and USAID – spent $417 million here from 1993 to 2008. That money goes to, a lot of it goes to human rights activists, but a large portion of that money is to shape a certain narrative about Cuba. And two of the most recent, I think very flagrant attempts to shape a narrative was 1) $3 million to investigate Cuban doctors abroad. And, and you know, there’s a lawsuit accused accuses the Cuban government of trafficking doctors. So anyway, this is part of that. And then 2) money given to rights activists and to expose the failures of the Cuban revolution. What really strikes me about those two projects is all of our money is going to try to promote a one-sided perspective. I mean, sure, Cuba has problems. If you were to go to the United States and just investigate the very worst problems we have, you would come away with, ‘Oh my God, this place is a nightmare.’ What do you think?
Benjamin: Well, first let me take this issue of the doctors. I can’t think of a program more insidious than the U.S. trying to destroy this doctors’ program. My initial love for Cuba came from seeing Cuban doctors work overseas. This was decades ago before Cuba even started charging for this. They were in the poorest countries in Africa, in the poorest parts of Africa, giving free medical services. And that’s how I learned about Cuba. And I said, ‘Oh my God, any country whose government sends these people overseas, I mean this is like a Peace Corps, but on a huge scale and not sending untrained kids like we do in the Peace Corps. Sending doctors.’ I said, ‘Any country that does this has to be a wonderful country. Let me find out more about this.’ And that was back in 1979 when I came here. Having fallen in love with that program.
That is the most beautiful program I can think of that any government does. Training doctors from all over the world, from poor countries and training Americans who can’t afford to go to medical school in the United States, go back and work in poor areas in the United States. It’s remarkable. It’s an extraordinary program. Sending tens of thousands of doctors to work around the world in areas where the local doctors wouldn’t work. That’s amazing. We should be applauding that country. We should get it down on our knees and thank the Cuban government for doing such a wonderful job trying to spread healthcare around the world. And instead, what are we doing? Paying people to find insidious ways to destroy that program. Trying to get the doctors to defect. Trying to find the holes in the program to day that, ‘Oh, these doctors were used for political ends.’ These doctors were, whatever, it took to find the worst in the most beautiful program.
And so I think that is just horrendous and we should be going trying to counter that showing, for example, right now in Bolivia, where I just was in Bolivia, the believing coup that happened, one of the first things they did is kick out 725 Cuban doctors. Well, what I’m been hearing from friends and Bolivia is now these poor people I not able to get health care in these really poor places where the Cubans were the only doctors, the only access to healthcare that they had.
What are we hearing in the U.S.? Oh, that Bolivia, thankfully throughout these, communists who were parading there as doctors, but were really, either, they were, working for Evo Morales or they were soldiers for Cuba. I mean, just garbage that’s made up. So the, the medical program, the way the U.S. is trying to destroy it, to malign the, the doctors themselves in this whole program, but to cut the most ingenious source of revenue of any poor country I have ever seen.
I couldn’t believe it when they told me that that was the No. 1 source of income for Cuba. I said, that can’t be, it’s got to be tourism. They said, ‘No, it’s more than tourism.’ I mean, what a brilliant – this is Fidel Castro. You know what a brilliant mind came up with the idea of training Cuban doctors and after sending them out for free, realizing there’s actually a market for this and getting paid, and that’s why the U.S. is now calling that human trafficking because the way it works is it’s a voluntary program that the Cuban doctors get a percentage. Yes, it’s a small percentage, but it’s way more than they would make here at home. And what does the money go to? It goes to invest in the healthcare system. It goes to invest in the education system. It goes for wonderful things back home in Cuba, and if Cubans didn’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it.
But this is what’s called now human trafficking because the government is taking the majority of the salary that the host country gives. It’s, it’s just a disgusting perversion of the whole idea of human trafficking. Anyway, that’s how I feel about U.S. dollars going to show the, to try to make this out into a terrible program when it’s one of the most beautiful programs that exists in the world today. So the other thing that you asked about was just paying U.S. dollars, going for finding the worst in the Cuban system. And sure, you go anywhere in the world and you pay somebody to find the worst in their system, and you’ll find horrible things in the system. I could give you $1,000 to come to Washington D.C. where I live and investigate the worst in the system. And you don’t have to go very far. You could just find the people who are lying in the street suffering because they are homeless. And talking about how in the capital of the nation’s wealthiest country in the world, there are so many people that don’t have a roof over their head. So why should I my government be paying to say the worst about any country. Why isn’t my government paying to help people around the world? And that’s something with all the criticism that I have about Cuba and the Cuban system, that is the one most beautiful thing about the Cuban government from the time of the revolution until today. The whole idea of solidarity, the whole idea is the absolute opposite of Donald Trump. Donald Trump is for yourself. Everything for yourself. You can never be rich enough. You can never have enough things, and that is what makes you happy. And that’s what makes a good system. The Cuban one is the absolute opposite that you’re put on this Earth to help other people. And if you have one loaf of bread and somebody else doesn’t have any, you divide that loaf of bread up. That solidarity is the thing that binds us to the rest of humanity. And that is the beauty of the Cuban ideology, the morality of Cuba. And so I find it just so perverse that my government would pay to find the bad things in the system instead of helping.
And I, I want to say one last thing, which is, you know, I dream sometimes of what the U.S. and Cuba could do together. Cuba, this tiny little country of only 10 million people that is extremely poor. I don’t know the per capita income, but it’s probably like $300 a year. Very, very small, but it has an outsized footprint in the world because of its, what it does in the world. But imagine what the U.S. and Cuba could do together. Imagine if U.S. doctors and Cuban doctors could team up to go to Haiti and help people in Haiti. Imagine with all the climate disasters that we are now confronting if U.S. and Cuba, that’s incredibly good at dealing with disasters. I mean, we just went to see what they did after the hurricane here, and how they rebuilt the community in less than a year. And we have the, the Puerto Rico example where they’re still suffering from the hurricane there. What we could do if we teamed up with the Cubans to make people’s lives better, and that’s what we should be working for.
Cuba Money Project: Do you think we should fund dissidents here?
Benjamin: I don’t think the U.S. should be involved in funding dissidents anywhere, really. I don’t think it’s our business. I think we should be working to try to create atmospheres where people have more ability to change their own governments, not by funding them but by things like having open travel and open trade relationships. And that kind of things that Obama was doing was creating an atmosphere where people would eventually here have more openings. And that’s the kind of thing, the influence that we should go for.
Cuba Money Project: How do you see Cuba if Trump is re-elected?
I think it’d be disastrous. I think things are really serious here. I think this, stopping the shipment of oil from coming to Cuba was terrible and that already happened once and the U.S. might be prepared to, to really confront on the high seas ships that are coming from, from other countries and create a war.
I mean this could be a war because you have Russian tankers coming here. Things are getting very bad in Cuba and could get really worse. And so I think that, you know, the world is in danger with another four years of Trump. U.S. is in a lot of danger with another four years in Trump, but Cuba is really in danger Cuba, Iran, potentially North Korea where things are going backward again, but this island is facing a very, very bleak future if there are four more years of Trump.
Cuba Money Project: Even if he’s not re-elected, it’s still almost one more year.
Benjamin: Even with one more year, things are bad now. And we just see the lack of traffic in the streets. You know, there, there’s just so many signs, the things that are extremely difficult. People are living on the margin here, and you’re right, one more year, is going to make things a lot worse.