African-American Med students find life-raft in CUBA

About seven years ago I first heard of a program that seemed too good to be true!  Simply, the country of Cuba had a program where students could gain their medical education, training and degree at no cost to them.  Med school cost are crippling for most and range from $140,000 – $175,000 and that is just tuition.  When you factor in room & board, meals, supplies and other things the cost can easily skyrocket to nearly $500,000.

My treks started in 2014 and due to needing laser-focus energy on my two topics; Race in Cuba and the Old Negro Leagues in Cuba, I forgot about the program.


Fiction or Non-Fiction

Just like you I love entertainment.  The problem I have is limited time so when it comes to reading or viewing screenings, as a historian I tend to focus on non-fiction or real-life issues.  Maybe that is the reason I prefer documentaries?  The Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF) kicked off its 27th year last Thursday.

Lo and behold one of their features is “Dare to Dream.”  It is a riveting documentary that chronicles med students earning their credentials in Cuba.

(courtesy of Pomona Valley Med Center) Completing his residency at Pomona Valley Medical Center. Resident Year: 2019 Undergraduate School: The University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma Medical School: Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina

In 2000, a delegation representing the Congressional Black Caucus had the courage to visit Cuba and meet with Fidel Castro.  Part of their discussion was the pathetic health care African-Americans and other minorities had to deal with.  Later that year members of the Cuban Health ministry visited the group in New York and announced Castro was creating a program for the population affected to complete their studies in Cuba and the cous de gras was there was absolutely no cost.

Approximately half of the initial scholarships were targeted for African-American students.  The remainder were for Latino and other ethnic minorities who came from underserved communities.


The Escuela Latinoamericana de Ciencias Médicas (ELAM) program initially offered 500 scholarships total for US students.  Thus far nearly 200 US students have graduated and nearly 30,000 students from over 100 countries worldwide have benefitted.  IFCO is the organization which identifies and places students in the program.


As for those from the United States, they are placed in hospitals all over, including Pomona Valley Medical Center.


The first class of 1,498 ELAM doctors graduated on August 20, 2005, with 112 from other Cuban medical schools: 28 other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States were represented by the graduates. The ceremony was led by Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Reportedly attending were Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antigua & BarbudaPrime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of DominicaPrime Minister Keith Mitchell of GrenadaPresident Martín Torrijos of PanamaPrime Minister Denzil Douglas of St. Kitts & Nevis and Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent & the Grenadinesas well as high-ranking government representatives of The BahamasBarbadosBelize, the Dominican Republic, EcuadorGrenadaGuatemalaGuyanaJamaicaSt. LuciaSuriname and Trinidad & Tobago.


The documentary has two more screenings before PAFF ends.  To be informed and see for yourself this remarkable program I would encourage you to attend PAFF or purchase the video.

  • Friday – Feb. 15th 4:30pm
  • Saturday – Feb. 16th 6:30pm


Here is the trailer

Dare to Dream: Cuba’s Latin American Medical School from Jennifer Wager on Vimeo.



CUBA: The Race dynamic

We are flooded with so much information, most of it we push it aside and keep moving.  Then, there is a little we keep and ponder what it means.


The exact date escapes me but it seems about ten years ago that I heard the issue of race in Cuba explained in a way I had never heard nor appreciated.  I was listening to an interview with Professor Dwayne Wickham.  He taught at Morgan State University as well as being a columnist with U.S. Today.  Interestingly he was speaking about his many visits to Cuba and the notion of remittances.  His conclusion was yes, Cuba has a problem with race and among other things it could be seen through remittances, among other social dynamics!



Cuba became a colony of Spain in 1492.   The natural resources the Spaniards found required a large labor pool to extract and develop.  Thus, thirteen years later or in 1512 African slaves were imported to the country.


“At the peak of the slave-based economy, enslaved people comprised nearly one-third of the Cuban population.”


Fast forward to the Haitian revolt as once it occurred, owners of sugar plantations moved their operations to Cuba, specifically on the eastern shores to Santiago.  The result was Cuba became the largest producer of sugar and those slaves needed for labor became important as communities of Afro-Cuba folk developed and once slavery was abolished they took a foothold in the population and the rest is history.

Even today Cuba is known for its vast sugar and tobacco plantations.





The little I knew about CUBA didn’t focus on race or more specifically those of Spanish descent and those of African descent.  Perhaps like you I just viewed Cubans from a singular perspective, not one from obvious racial characteristics?   The discussion on remittances brought the issue into more focus as while the majority of Cubans proclaim unity or oneness, those relatives who were forced off the island or otherwise left after the 1959 revolution eventually settled in the United States.  As their lives were rebuilt they were better able to transition as Cubans in America.   Yes, this came with much struggle, sacrifice and perseverance.


The impact of those survivors resulted in them being better off than those family members or friends who were left behind.  Thus, through all of the years and up to today the money and the goods received are called remittances.  So, to the issue of race the majority of those who fled to the U.S. were Spanish Cubans or of European descent and the result was the recipients in CUBA became materially “better-off” than their Afro-Cuban fellow countrymen.  The people who left are to be applauded for their resilience and ability to “start-over.”  The issue of race raises it head as in Cuba everybody could use a little help but once the first batch of Cubans arrived after the Revolution,  the United States changed its policy and those of  darker hue or of Afro descent were discouraged or otherwise told they would not be welcomed, thus many simply stayed in CUBA and continued their lives.  Could it have been they were deemed supporters of Fidel and his regime?  The subtlety is race played a pivotal role in determining who was on the receiving in, and who was not.


Discussing race, not an easy discussion


Discussing race as a topic is not easy.  It’s very polarizing and people simply shun away as some feel the discussion centers of who is the “good” and who is the “bad.”  Or, they simply don’t want to be reminded of historical facts so for them it’s easy not to discuss.


Race has long been a paradigm to distinguish people of different ethnic groups.  While people are people race illustrates the great divide.  In the United States the work of noted social scientist, Dr. Francis Crest-Welsing is a leading authority.  For those serious about obtaining an objective analysis of the topic her book, “The Isis Papers” is a great reference and must read.


While race is used to distinguish people, it’s engine is racism.  Therefore, as a construct, the lighter one’s hue the better the opportunity or privilege.  Likewise, the darker one’s hue, opportunity lessens as well as their privilege.


Aside from those initial Cubans who settled in Miami, it’s not until you are inside Cuba that you fully appreciate the race dynamic.  You quickly come to accept of the 11 million plus people, there are many more than the 13% who are defined as Afro-Cubans?  The effects of racism slap you in the face as for many it is much easier to dismiss any signs of African heritage and proclaim you are “white” or “other” than for who you truly are.


“Make no mistake, Afro-Cuban also fled.  But they typically were workers of the Spanish Cubans.” Professor Esteban Morales Dominguez


In 2015 I discovered “Race in Cuba, Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality” written by Esteban Morales Dominguez.  The book is very intriguing and places the race issue front and center.  You come to quickly understand Morales Dominguez is not an apologist for the Castro regime or trying to sugarcoat the obvious.  Instead the book highlights facts supported by documentation that help to better understand how and why race in Cuba is a hot topic.


The Castro critics


Having a solid grounding of contemporary history on Cuba might help you establish a better perspective.  No doubt, Fidel Castro and the current administration has many critics.  At the same time, it must be noted the extreme racism Afro-Cubans suffered up to the regimes of the Revolution.  The racism being meted out in Cuba was similar to that of the rest of the world, particularly where there was European dominance.   The revolution singled out those who supported or benefited from the likes of Fulgencio Bautista and his predecessors.  The ideals Castro adopted centered on making CUBA equal for all.  Thus, the notion of educational equality, employment equality, and social equality was a centerpiece of why the Revolution was necessary.  As you might imagine, these measures motivated most Afro-Cubans to side with Fidel and support the cause.  Once the revolution occurred people saw immediate results as Afro-Cubans were given equality and some elevated into the power structure.


At the same time, those who were on the opposite end of the Revolution never stopped their vitriol.  While many left the country, or were imprisoned or otherwise dealt the blow of not supporting the regime, they never stopped their criticism or counter-revolutionary tactics to take back control.  As a matter of fact, their antics are very similar to those Americans who even today continue to want to fight the Confederate War.


In his book Professor Morales Dominguez makes clear the issue of equality is a process and the remnants of racism and its stubborn effects are not wiped out just like that.  Therefore, the fact that some lives are better off today than before the revolution is a positive reality, but leads to criticism of those who never fully supported the Castro regime or those who through the years have become disgruntled.


No doubt, race in CUBA remains an issue.


Why write the book?


I asked Dr. Morales Dominguez why he wrote the book?   His eyes gleamed as he stressed the pride most Cubans have of their country.  “It’s very simple, either you support or appreciate what Fidel is trying to accomplish………or you don’t!”


He went on to explain in 2009 a group of prominent African-Americans presented a document to the Cuban government, denouncing it as a racist regime.  “Statement of Conscience” created quite an uproar as the government felt it was anything but racist, despite Afro-Cubans still being dealt the hand of systemic racism.  The ideal was even though progress had been made there was still much work to be done.  Interesting the letter was signed by the likes of Cornel West, actress Ruby Dee Davis, former congresswoman Carrie Meek and Rev. Jeremiah Wright just to name a few. Afro-Cuban author Enrique Patterson called the declaration “historic.”


It was through this declaration that Professor Morales Dominguez felt compelled to use his educational gift and resources to provide a counter position or one that more related to the majority of Afro-Cubans in Cuba.  Thus, a series of essays were created and subsequently became the material for the book, “Race in Cuba.”

As Morales Dominguez told me, yes, we still have many problems in Cuba but ever since the Revolution groups have attempted to use a variety of mechanisms to divide the country, even those such as the signers of the petition who you might feel would be an ally given their likeness of Afro Cubans.  His contention was they are entitled to their opinions but never was it intimated that Cuba had been transformed into some oasis.  Most like him, accepted and understood progress is not necessarily immediate but more of a process.


Cruz, Rubio, et. At…..20 Million Dollars

Speaking of counter groups, I asked the professor why so many, particularly those in Florida despise their own country?   His response was interesting.  Ever since Fidel took control and even though the subsequent battles, those who fled assumed with the support and intervention of the United States they would be able regain control of the country.  This became a rallying cry for many and that remains their fuel for the hatred of the Castro regime and anyone who supports it.   The Professor pointed out that is why so many from the Cuban-American community in Florida opposed the actions of President Barack Obama.  Having written extensively on Obama, which includes over twenty-three articles, the Professor voiced appreciation of the common-sense approach he was taking.


He then pointed out the 20-million-dollar fund that politicians with Cuban heritage use to appease various groups and maintain counter-revolution support aimed at thwarting the Castro regime.  Professor Morales Dominguez mentioned, “they are like paid employees” who work for the funders of the money and distribute it to various groups in the disguise of democracy but the intent is to denounce the Castro regime.


So, this brings us back to the race issue.  Cubans are defined as one.  Yes, since the Revolution Afro-Cubans have seen progress but there is still much work to be done.  Professor Morales Dominguez is the consummate work horse as even though he no longer teaches, he is in much demand as an authority on the subject.  At seventy-six, he beams with pride when recounting why he joined the Revolution.  Even his wife, Katia who was a master professor in Economics talks about how serious she took her meetings with Fidel and leaders of the movement to help create a better Cuba.  The notion of prior to the Revolution, illiteracy was at epidemic levels.  A call went out to those in their teens such as Esteban, Katia and so many who accepted the goal of making Cuba a more literate country.  This topic comes up often when I speak here in Los Angeles to the critics of the Castro regime.  As much as they may despise Fidel and anyone associated with him or my empathy for the people of CUBA, they can’t explain the success of the educational policy and why the literacy rate in Cuba is higher than the United States?


Professor Esteban Morales debunks the notion that only 13% of Cuban are of Afro heritage.  He blames the flawed data of the census questionnaire or the type of questions asked for the conflict.  His hope is the next census is clearer so there is no ambiguity of what percentage of Cubans are Afro.  He stated from his observation the number is clearly thirty-five percent, if not more, as the majority of the country are comprised mestizo or mixed blood and there is little if any defined as “white”

This is a recent photo book on Fidel which the Professor gave me from his personal library.

Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba

Che. photo courtesy of Fred Thomas, III

I am looking forward to my upcoming trip to Cuba in November.  It is  extremely important for me as I have been blessed to line up interviews with two pre-eminent scholars on topics I am covering, then Tillerson announces this!

No doubt, when traveling to another country, as citizens we rely on our State department to look out for our best interest.

I know folk who get sick drinking the water next door, or the person who loses their passport in another country!! yikes, or the person petrified to leave the neighborhood, let alone city or even the United States.

Thank god, I’m a little more calculating or willing to take measured risk.  The State department’s memorandum is quite clear, then again it is a bit nebulous depending on one’s perspective.

Even prior to the announcement,  within a trip already scheduled to be in DC, I had planned to visit the Cuba Embassy/Consulate.  My primary purpose is to get specifics on obtaining my travel visa which is needed for entry into Cuba.  My concern is the disparity in pricing of the tourist visa as if the true or only cost is $100 (from LAX) then, that is what it will be!!!  Period.  But, I need to justify the why, from a legitimate authority.

Now for those like me who are traveling to Cuba and also may be concerned about today’s State department announcement my suggestion is to do like I did.  Step back and think rationally, then since it is tough to contact the State Department for a real conversation, you are better off contacting your CONGRESSIONAL representative.  Mine was extremely knowledgeable and pleasant.  And yes, I received the information I am seeking.

Today’s State Department announcement is not a mandate or a directive but more of an alert.  So, while some may in fact cancel their trip, given my planning and familiarity of where I will be visiting, I am willing to take my chances and keep my schedule in place.  So, as of today I have a green light.

Listed below is the announcement by the State Department in response to the issues affecting the United States Embassy in Cuba.

Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba


Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 29, 2017

Over the past several months, 21 U.S. Embassy employees have suffered a variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature. The affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping. Investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks.

United States Embassy in Havana, Photo courtesy of Fred Thomas, III

On September 29, the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.

In conjunction with the ordered departure of our diplomatic personnel, the Department has issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff. We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens. The Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.

The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel. We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.

The health, safety, and well-being of our Embassy community is our greatest concern. We will continue to aggressively investigate these attacks until the matter is resolved.