Since Obama’s December 2014 announcement that the United States would normalize its relations with Cuba, there has been an onslaught of communication about what this means, how it can help Cubans on the island, why it is problematic, why this is a defiant attempt by Obama to win political points and why this illustrates Obama’s sympathies to socialism and dictators. Misunderstandings have permeated the news. 

As the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at a residential university in Ohio, I have been approached by many agencies hosting trips to Cuba to develop partnerships with Cuban higher education institutions. And numerous advertisements have appeared in my inbox urging me to travel to Cuba “before it is spoiled.” After all, these advertisements proclaim you don’t want to lose the opportunity to see Cuba before the “capitalists” modernize it. The irony is deafening. To say this is patronizing and condescending is to understate the reemergence of the “colonial gaze,” which tends to treat the other as exotic, to be objectified and exploited.

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As the doors begin to open and we start to peer in, it is vital that the academy strive to recognize the complexity of Cuba’s history, its rich and varied arts and cultural traditions, its attempt to resist an imperial project, its human rights record, its suppression of voice, as well as its attempt to provide universal healthcare and education. We must resist telling a single story, either a story framed exclusively by stakeholders who despise the revolution and its aftermath or by stakeholders who have romanticized the happenings on the island. The residents of the island, with their varied opinions and with their varied aspirations, deserve better from us. Neither romanticizing, patronizing, nor demonizing will do.

To deny the human rights abuse record of Cuba is to ignore, misleadingly, some of the ‘ugliness’ of the revolution. Considering the continued censorship and confinement of artists and democratic activists, e.g., Tania Brueguera and El Sexto, or to the long history of censorship initiated by Fidel Castro’s “Palabra Contra Los Intelectuales,” it is impossible to deny the fact that many Cubans have been forced to live double lives, lives of self-censorship that included overt surveillance, and constant threat of detainment.

We need to remember, however, that not everyone on the island is complicit with the political, ideological and social path the government continues to forge. We should remember that many courageously challenge their homeland as they aspire to live in a country that will allow them to express themselves sincerely without fear of reprisal.  And just as some accept reluctantly that the United States is the United States of George W. Bush, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Obama, we also recognize that it is the United States of Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Philip Larkin, Muddy Waters, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Nina Simone. Our stories, after all, are always complex and tortured, and should not be reduced to a single homogenous narrative.

Through an initiative titled “Opening Doors to the World” Otterbein University hopes to tell a story that shows our students and our surrounding community that they must always resist telling and believing “a single story.” We have an obligation to share with our students and our community both the artistic achievements of the Cuban people as well as to engage in critical dialogue about Cuba’s history.  Adopting a visual arts exhibitions titled “An Island Apart” combining it with panels on Cuban social and political history, with panels on doing business in Cuba today and culminating with a celebration and performance by one of Cuba’s premiere composers and jazz pianists, Jose Maria Vitier, we hope those who are fortunate enough to experience all our programming will come away resisting “a single story.” As educational institutions, we need to create educational opportunities that don’t “show people as one thing over and over again,” that don’t just simplify and repeat.  

Cuba’s history, which lacks no unemotional rendition, is a history of conquest, a history of struggle, a history of contestation, and to suggest otherwise is to reduce its people both living and dead irresponsibly. And, it is also a history that has produced some of the most beautiful and moving music, some of the world’s most celebrated writers and poets, a history that has produced courageous folks willing to risk their lives in their struggle to realize a democracy, a history that has challenged the world to reflect on the possibility of, even in its failure, a classless society, a history that has challenged many in the Americas to wonder how it is that we might forge a just society. I am not an apologist nor am I am attempting to placate the establishment in any of its forms. Our burden, as educators, is always to question the status quo, wherever it resides and whatever its face. Only then can we achieve a critically engaged public culture worthy of being called “democratic.”

Martinez-Saenz is the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.