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To Cuba With Love

Katie Powers and Nalini Ramachandran

International affairs majors Katie Powers and Nalini Ramachandran are currently on co-op at the activist group CODEPINK from January – June 2015. In February, Katie (below as KP) and Nalini (NR) had the opportunity to travel to Cuba on a 10-day trip as part of a 150-person “super delegation” hosted by CODEPINK. Below they explain what CODEPINK and the “To Cuba with Love” delegation are, and what they have learned through these experiences.

What is CODEPINK and what does your co-op position entail?

CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs. The goal of CODEPINK is to end outrageous military aid and involvement abroad in favor of diplomatic, peaceful solutions.

Both of our positions vary, so every day is different. Some days we stay in the office, which doubles as our house, and plan future actions, research Bills to be voted on in the Senate, write articles, and touch base with our other national offices. We also work on outreach to CODEPINK’s large base of supporters through social media and national email alerts. Other days, we attend protests that are hosted by CODEPINK or by another local organization that we support. In those scenarios, we usually participate in the demonstration while also collecting photos and video footage for our future use. The busiest days are when we attend committee hearings in either the Senate or the House in the morning, and then spend the remainder of the day lobbying on the Hill in the various Congress buildings.

Tell us about the “To Cuba with Love” delegation. What were the goals of the trip and what were your roles in it?

“To Cuba with Love” was organized immediately after the announcement by President Obama to normalize relations back in December 2014. Although travel restrictions have been significantly reduced, Americans still cannot travel to Cuba without a license. The goal of the trip was to provide our supporters with the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of a large delegation and meet with a variety of Cuban people including government officials, urban agricultural cooperatives, members of the Cuban 5, medical students, and local artists. This trip was an opportunity many of our participants have been dreaming about since they were young.

Despite the significant progress that has been made regarding U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuba continues to remain on the terrorist watch list, one of only four countries in the world next to Sudan, Syria, and Iran. CODEPINK is currently pushing to get Cuba off the terrorist list,  so part of our trip was to show that Cuba really doesn’t belong in such a category.

What was the most surprising thing you learned on the trip to Cuba that you would not have otherwise learned?

KP: The most surprising thing I learned on the Cuba trip were the successes of the country despite the U.S. embargo, the unique culture, and the vivacity of the Cuban people, none of which I would have learned had I not taken advantage of this opportunity.

Although Cuba has a socialist government and therefore is not exactly on good terms with the U.S., I learned that its free healthcare/education policies and ration system actually do a lot to ensure the well-being of the Cuban people. As a result, Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world. Also, many people may not know that Cuban doctors were instrumental in helping to combat the Ebola crisis in west Africa.

The Cuban culture was wonderful to experience, from the old 1950s era cars to the never-ending live music playing everywhere we went. The hospitality of the fun-loving Cuban people, such as the cab drivers who would talk to us the whole ride home and the friendly women who gave me impromptu salsa lessons, is something I will never forget.

NR: Regardless of how much you know about the political climate or history of a country, there’s a lot to be learned from the locals and their perspectives. The various meetings and presentations gave me a lot of insight into the good sides of Cuba that you don’t really hear about, such as the social programs that include free healthcare and free education, as well as an extensive literary campaign. That being said, Cuba is far from perfect and has a long way to go. From conversations with taxi drivers and store owners, I learned that there is still a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration with the Cuban government. A cab driver told me it was time for Raul and Fidel to leave power (he actually said it was time for them to die), which is a really risky thing to say. That was the most surprising thing I heard. Every time I mentioned that I was from the U.S., I was met with enthusiasm and hope for improved relations. The people were not hostile or disenchanted with the U.S., despite the years of embargo. On the contrary, the people I spoke with believed it was time for normalization.

This is the first co-op job for each of you. How has the Cuban experience, or more generally the co-op experience so far, affected your goals for when you return to Northeastern?

KP: My experience with CODEPINK has exceeded my expectations of what I thought I would get out of my first co-op — and it has only been about two months! I have had direct interactions with high-level Congresspeople, including Senator John McCain, as well as been able to network with government officials, DC activists, and various others in the field of political science and/or international affairs. And let’s not forget, I was able to travel to Cuba with the largest delegation of Americans since the opening of relations!

This co-op has given me a new lens through which to view our government and more broadly, the international stage in general. I am able to understand the issues debated on in our government from a first-hand perspective, as we attend several Congressional committee hearings on a weekly basis. I will be able to take what I have learned here at CODEPINK and directly apply it in the classroom at Northeastern.

I am given a voice with CODEPINK, to speak out and to advocate for various crucial non-violent paths our country could and should be taking in regards to foreign policy — a voice that I want to take back with me to Northeastern.

NR: This co-op has provided me with a much more extensive understanding of our government and its foreign policies. I think I can say that I know where our government’s strengths are, but I’m also highly aware of its weaknesses. For example, Cuba taught me that every country is lacking in some way, some more than others, but it’s not really fair to maintain an embargo for 50-odd years. As a student of international affairs, this co-op has already motivated me to be more conscious about promoting change and peaceful solutions to conflict. I generally have more clarity about which particular issues need to be focused on, so I think I can more well-roundedly assess policies and actions that I learn about in class. My goal is to be more aware of ongoing government policies and to be more analytical as well. CODEPINK has kept me really up-to-date with current events and legislation, and I’d like to keep up with that once I get back to Boston too. When I get back to Northeastern, I hope to continue my involvement with the issues I’ve learned about, and to find another co-op in the future that ties in with my work at CODEPINK.

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