Liz Oliva Fernández on Life in Cuba Under U.S. Embargo

“I didn’t know how the sanctions affected me or my friends.”

Maximillian Alvarez

People participate in a rally against the U.S. embargo in Santa Clara, Cuba, April 25, 2021. Xinhua/Joaquin Hernadez via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

For the past six years on this show, we’ve talked to working people from across the United States, from virtually every walk of life, about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles. But today, we’re going to talk about what it’s like to live and work in a country that has been designated a political enemy of US empire, a country that sits only 90 miles away from the US, a country that American politicians have resolved to strangle into oblivion for the past 60 years. In this episode, we speak with Liz Oliva Fernández from Cuba. Liz is an award-winning Cuban journalist with Belly of the Beast, an independent outlet covering Cuba and US-Cuba relations, and she is the presenter of two new documentaries, Hardliner on the Hudson and Uphill on the Hill. In addition to exposing the sinister interests behind, and the devastating real-world impacts of, the Cold War Cuban policy of Joe Biden’s administration, pushed by powerful hardliners like Senator Bob Menendez, former Chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the films also document Liz’s experience as a Black journalist from the Global South coming to the US to confront the predominantly white politicians and interests waging economic war on her country. We talk about Liz’s new films, and we talk about growing up in Cuba, becoming a journalist, and life for woking people in Cuba under the US-imposed blockade and designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Hi, my name is Liz Oliva Fernández. I’m a Cuban journalist and also an activist.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like You Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor focus shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network and please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People because we can’t keep going without you. Share these episodes with your coworkers, your friends and family members. Leave positive reviews of the show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and reach out to us if you have recommendations for working folks you’d like us to talk to on the show.

And please support the work that we do at The Real News Network by going to the​re​al​news​.com/​d​onate, especially if you want to see more reporting from the front lines of struggle around the US and across the world. 

My name is Maximilian Alvarez and I am very excited about today’s episode. I could not be more honored to have Liz Oliva Fernández on the call today, calling in from Cuba. Liz is an award-winning Cuban journalist with Belly of the Beast, an independent outlet that covers Cuba and U.S. Cuba relations, and she’s the presenter of two incredible new documentaries, Hardliner on the Hudson and Uphill on the Hill. Now listen, everyone should watch these documentaries and everyone should support the work that Liz and Belly of the Beast are doing and we have linked to those documentaries in the show notes and we’re going to be talking about them in today’s episode.

In addition to exposing the sinister interest behind and the devastating real world impacts of the Cold War Cuban policy of Joe Biden’s administration pushed by powerful hardliners like Senator Bob Menendez, former chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, these films also document Liz’s experience as a Black journalist from the Global South coming to the U.S. to confront the predominantly white politicians and interests waging economic war on her country. Now listen, for the past six years on this show, you guys have heard me talk to working people from across the United States from virtually every walk of life about their lives, their jobs, their dreams, and their struggles through their stories. You’ve heard firsthand how people here struggle to live with dignity, to pursue their happiness and to provide for themselves and their families while navigating the brutal realities of living and working in the gut of the world’s capitalist superpower in the heart of empire.

But today we’re going to talk about what it’s like to live and work in a country that has been designated a political enemy of U.S. empire, a country that sits only 90 miles away from the U.S., a country where people like you and me live and grow and dream where people fall in love and fall out of love where people have birthdays and play sports. A country that politicians here in the U.S. have resolved to strangle into oblivion for the past 60 years. In an article for The Guardian examining the two new documentaries that Liz and Belly the Beast released this year, Andrew Buncombe writes, 

A Cuban journalist is looking to spread awareness of the U.S. trade embargo in two illuminating documentaries arriving in early 2024, Liz Oliva Fernández says whenever she covered news or events on the island, be it the push for democratic reforms or the private businesses springing up after the Castros loosened their grip on power, they always intersected with the sanctions.

Oliva Fernandez, who traveled to the U.S. to promote the film she co-created, says the sanctions have a huge impact. We’re not talking about a small country in the Caribbean sanctioning another one.’ She said, We’re talking about an empire like the United States that not only stops Cuba having normal relations with the United States, but also stops it having normal relations with the rest of the world. If you can’t do business with any country,’ Oliva Fernandez continues. If you have to pay three or four times the regular cost of everything because you’re buying from far away countries, if you can’t use dollars, if you can’t create bank accounts, if you can’t pay with credit cards, there is nothing you can do.’ She explained the sanctions were first imposed by President John F. Kennedy in February, 1962, three years after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries came to power in an armed uprising that ousted the dictator Fuglencio Batista.

Almost a year earlier, the CIA had tried to kill the nascent revolution in the military debacle known as the Bay of Pigs. It had been one of dozens of attempts to kill Castro. The sanctions have had a devastating impact. Cuba’s current GDP per capita is less than $10,000 twice that of Jamaica, but a lot less than in the US where it is $70,000. Because the sanctions are so wide reaching countries across the world who choose to trade with Cuba can find themselves punished. The UN General Assembly has voted many times for the sanctions to be lifted outside a brief period when they were loosened as part of a diplomatic breakthrough with Barack Obama. They remain more pervasive than ever to widespread outcry on the island. Donald Trump added Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism during his administration. President Joe Biden has barely changed that policy.

‘When you talk about the US’ Cuba policy, you’re really talking about the Trump Biden Cuba policy because they’re the same,’ says Oliva Fernandez.”

Again, I’m honored to have Liz with us today to talk more about these important documentaries and we’re going to talk about the process of making them and we’re going to talk about her reflections on visiting the U.S. last year while they were filming these, but as we always do here at Working People and on The Real News, we want to help show y’all what all of these big political forces and what history itself looks like told through the eyes and lives and stories of regular working people. And so Liz, with all of that upfront and knowing all the kind of things we want to talk about regarding the documentaries, I wanted to ask if we could start a lot further back and talk a little more about you and how you grew up in the very conditions that you are now reporting on as an adult. I wanted to ask for many people who are listening to this who may, you may be the first Cuban that they heard from at this length. I just wanted to ask if you could tell us a little bit more about yourself, where you grew up, what it was like growing up, and let’s walk our way along that path that took you to becoming a journalist, making documentaries in the 2020s. But let’s go back to the start.

“They don't talk about people, they talk about government structures, they talk about sanctions.”

Liz Oliva Fernández: Yeah, well I grew up in a really small town outside of the city of Havana called Manawa. I have to say that I had one of the most wonderful childhoods. I was really happy, and this is something that a lot of tourist parents are asking, wondering how it is possible that with so many difficulties in Cuba, children are so happy. And I think because when you are a child, at least that’s my experience, as an adult, okay, I need to figure out what is going on. I need to put a plate on the table, I need to put food on the table. We’re not thinking about that stuff. We were just being kids and having fun and running in the neighborhood with other kids our age and playing and going to school, learning how to play an instrument because we had a particular thing when I was growing up, there is a thing called Casas de Cultura.

It’s like a culture house. They’re in all communities, all kinds of communities, and you can go there and learn how to play an instrument, how to sing, how to paint a painting, whatever you want. They’re free and they’re open to all the public children, but also although they want to improve their ability or be more close to arts. So I was, I dunno, playing games as they’re so basic, we just need a can, when we just crush the can and just play with the can ping pong and everything. We don’t need so much and we’re fairly happy and we embrace. We are not worried about whether we are eating eggs for lunch or if we have chicken or rice. My favorite food, I’m going to say my favorite food is rice, like white rice with fried egg and banana.

That’s my favorite dish and that brings me a lot of memories about my childhood, about the way that I grew up, and listening to the radio. So all the memories listening to the radio with my grandma, I dunno, I just was really happy. And when you are a child, it’s rare because I remember the first time that I had a fancy candy or snack like that, I’m talking about chocolates that are not from Cuba, that are coming from … I was in high school, I think, but when you don’t know those things, you don’t think that you need it at all. I don’t need any fancy chocolates. So I was, for me it was really strange because for example, right now that I have experience of going to the United States, when people ask you if you want some food, they are not asking for the food they’re asking by the brand.

And for me that was really bizarre because if I want crackers, it’s just crackers. I don’t eat the specific brand of crackers that you like and maybe that’s the kind of thing that you are used to doing. But for me, I just want crackers, basic salad crackers or whatever. But I’m not thinking about brands because we don’t have all that kind of brand of stuff, we just have crackers. I enjoy eating the crackers that are for sale in the neighborhood, the supermarket or whatever. But we are not thinking about brands when we think about drinking a soda. We are not thinking in terms of Coca-Cola or Pepsi or Fanta, Sprite, Seven Up; we are just thinking lime, orange, cola. That’s all. So it’s quite different and I don’t know, maybe I can’t explain why because of course as the time passes and you are getting older, you realize certain things that you weren’t able to in your childhood.

But now I remember that my mom, mom is a doctor, so she went to Venezuela when I was 10 years old and she brought me a baby when I was 12 years old, like a baby for playing for games because she wasn’t able to buy a doll, but they made a baby doll that cries and everything. But for 12 years my mom wasn’t able to buy me that kind of expensive doll and she’s a surgeon, she was unable to do that because it was really expensive. It is a really rare thing in Cuba. So I have another kind of doll, but I don’t know the real Barbie. I knew about Barbie when I was 10, 11. I don’t know, but that’s the kind of thing that we are not exposed to. Also, I think that the world is different because we are not posting on social media or the internet and bombing you with buy this and buy that, you can’t live without this. They are pushing people to buy a lot of stuff that at the time you don’t need at all. But I don’t know, I think it was simple, if I have to describe it, I had a simple, happy and really sweet childhood in a really, really faraway town inside of Havana.

“We learned about pregnancy, about autonomy, we learned about abortion rights.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I mean this is one of the many things I love about your work, right? Because of course you’ve been working to produce great video documentaries with Belly the Beast before these two documentaries that came out this year and it’s been really important to you to show people what life looks like inside Cuba and for working people to hear from working people, not just about how hard life is living under the U.S. imposed sanctions, though you do an incredible job of showing that, but you’re always trying to also show stuff like this, the moments of joy, the humanity, the relationships, the life that is worth living, that a lot of people, especially here in the U.S. don’t think about or don’t see. And so that’s why I think it’s so important for folks to hear what you’re saying and I hope you will forgive me for asking a little more about it because I wanted to just ask if you can go back to that happy time in your childhood.

And like you said, it was a different world. It was before the internet, but still the Cold War is unquote ending. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the eighties and nineties that you and I didn’t, it was kind of in the background because we were just kids. But if you go back to that time as a kid, I was wondering if you could just sort of try to paint a picture for people about what a week looked like for you, going to school, playing with friends, what the adults were doing, just any more that you can do to help take people there to understand what daily life looks like for a kid like you growing up at that time.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Well, I was born in the nineties in the middle of something that the government called special periods. I would just wake up really early in the morning because my grandma was obsessed with punctuality at school. So I just woke up really early in the morning. I come from a mixed family. So it was really difficult for my grandma to try to understand my hair, she was a white girl, so I spent 20 minutes combing my hair or more having breakfast coffee, cafe con leche, like milk and coffee, something else with the bread and something like that, to go to school.

My mom would be on her way to the hospital by then because public transportation at that time was terrible. As I said, we used to live well. We lived far away from the city, so she had to go 30 kilometers to go to her work. It was a really difficult time for her in terms of transportation and commuting from work to home. On the other hand, I just had to go to school, spent most of my time there. My grandma picked me at noon because I would have lunch at home and come back. I had lunch, took a nap and came back to school at 2:00 PM for a double session. And when I come back from school I just have to do homework and everything before being able to go out and just spend time with friends. And I remember that my mom used to ride really tired studying because the weather is so hot in the summer.

It’s always summer in Cuba and I remember the blackout, but I didn’t suffer because I just fell asleep because it was too hot and I was too tired. And I remember my grandma or my mom using a piece of paper like a fan for me because of mosquitoes and everything. When I think about that I can think about difficult moments or problems that we had or we have. To my knowledge she may answer differently, but growing up I didn’t have any worries. I remember that sometimes I had to go to cafe de cultura in the afternoon and have dance classes or singing classes or something like that and I just spent time there.

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Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean I love hearing about this though because it reminds me of a conversation I had with Ana Kopi who’s a Slovenian labor organizer today, but we were talking about her childhood in the eighties and nineties growing up in again at this time when the Cold War is ending and the world is changing, she’s still a kid and she was talking about, it was like what she said was very similar to what you said was like, I didn’t know. I was just trying to live my life and have friends and go to school,” and it’s just, I don’t know, there’s something really beautiful about that. It reminds us that life is life wherever you are in the world and that’s a beautiful sacred thing. And childhood can look like childhood in such different contexts because kids just want to play and have fun and explore. And I think that’s something, it’s so simple, but we lose that sense as adults.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Yeah, we have the freedom to do that because it was just the freedom to play with your friends. There was any danger or anything even when the situation in the country was tense. You can’t feel that on the streets with the people. Of course a lot of people were struggling with the crisis with food, medicine, but still they’re like, you can be happy.” And I also remember that the most important thing at the time was bikes. Everybody was riding a bike because public transportation was so bad that people had to bike for miles and while you going to go to the point A to point B, and I remember I started to learn how to ride a bike as an adult because of course we didn’t have the money to buy for children, for kids. So I remember that my dad put, I don’t know what to call it, it kind, I forget the name, but my dad put something in his bike and I was sitting there and just with the point of my toes trying to ride the bike. And it was funny. It was funny. I wasn’t riding a bike worried about, okay, I need to ride a bike because this is the only transportation that we had.” No, I was riding a bike for fun.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I know for folks who are listening to this who have grown up with all the propaganda about Cuba here in the U.S., they may be wondering like, oh Well, when you went to school were you just learning about communism and how bad America is? And was it just blasting from loudspeakers in the streets or were you guys learning about other basic things and talking about baseball?” Again, it’s a very basic question, but I’m just asking because you know how some people think about this stuff and I just wanted to ask how big of, tell us a little more about the culture, I guess is what I would say that you remember for people who were there thinking that you grew up in a Soviet other world.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Well, we received a lot of information about imperialism and the U.S. government being the enemy, but it’s interesting because they always talked about U.S. government imperialism. They don’t talk about people, they talk about government structures, they talk about sanctions, they talk about the missile crisis that we call the October crisis. We talk about sovereignty, we talk about how they can respect the way that we choose to live. They talk about, I remember some books and talk about, I don’t know how to translate it in English, but the way that civilians came to armed defense from the enemy militia. They talk about, of course, the whole story of the revolution and why it was so important to defend that, because that allowed us to be our own, to be the owners of our destiny. They talk about self-defense. Yeah, of course. We received a lot of information about that, history classes and also, civic education, but we also learned a lot of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with confrontation, war, U.S.-Cuba relations or U.S. policy on Cuba. We learned about history, work history, we learned about arts, we learned about sports, we learned about sexual education, we learned about HTAs, I dunno the acronym is in English.

Maximillian Alvarez: STIs, sexually transmitted diseases.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Yeah, STI’s, we learned about pregnancy, about autonomy, we learned about abortion rights, we learned about Black people. We learned about so many things. That wasn’t the main thing. Of course we have a lot about that because we were in the middle of the war. It wasn’t like the typical war, but it was an economic war. It was still in the middle of that. So we learned a lot of that. 

I don’t want to brag about this stuff, but I’m pretty sure that we have one of the highest education levels in the population in Cuba in all the world. So we learned about so many things, math, science, culture, whatever you want. Because Cuban education is one of the best for sure.

“There is no one single journalist trying to tell positive stories about Cuba.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean it’s one of the most remarkable achievements in human society. The amount of literacy and education that was brought to the people of Cuba through the revolution, to say nothing about the healthcare advances that y’all have made and the advances in your education system. But we never hear about that. We only hear about how awful and terrible Castro is.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Yeah, it is for me, it’s ridiculous how people, if they know about Cuba, they know all the negative things that we have, but there is no one single journalist trying to tell positive stories about Cuba. Maybe it’s a question for them, for reporters in the U.S. because it’s not only Cuba, it’s also Mexico, Columbia, El Salvador. They just say that we live in chaos and the U.S. is the most wonderful country in the world. The rest of us are trying to get to the U.S. , the promised land because we’re not capable enough to be a better country. Instead of talking about the role that U.S. has been playing in Latin America in general, forcing us to migrate to the United States trying to follow the American dream that they still are selling me.

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s the part of the story that so many of us don’t hear is that so many Latinos come to the US chasing the American dream because Americans have stolen our dreams in our home countries and our ability to pursue that.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Yeah, I’ll say it’s not the American dream. Yeah, it’s an American nightmare. I always say that because it’s not a trend.

Maximillian Alvarez: No. And sister, we can talk about that all day because that’s how this show got started is the very first interview I ever did on this show was with my dad, Jesus Alvarez, who grew up in a shack in Tijuana, came to the United States when he was eight after his dad abandoned him, his mom died. He lived that American dream and then we lost everything including the house. I grew up in the global recession in 2008, and so he was the first person I interviewed. Like I’m interviewing you now to sort of talk through that because our American dream had become the American nightmare that you’re talking about and that’s a very hard reality for many, many people to confront. And we’ll get to that more in a second when we talk about these documentaries. But I wanted to ask just two more questions before we got there. One, did you think much about kids like me in the U.S., in what we were doing and what we were thinking? Did that enter your mind at all? If not, it’s okay. I’m just curious if you guys thought about what other kids in the U.S. were going through while you were going through everything we’ve been talking about.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Well, I never had relatives or family when I was a kid in the United States. So for me, the United States only existed on the news when they talked about the U.S. government. So I never talked about U.S. kids. I remember that the only kids that I was thinking about was in the kids of the world that don’t have any food to eat because when I don’t want to eat my food, my grandma always tells to me, you need to eat because there is a lot of kids out there that they don’t have any food to eat, so you have to eat. And it was like, I’m feeling guilty because I have this food, this display on the table and there is a little kid that doesn’t have anything, but that kid doesn’t have any citizenship. When my grandma was talking about them, it was like kids out there that didn’t have any food. But yeah, right now I can’t think about it specifically. In other cases just my work was my neighborhood, my block, my school. It sounds simple, but that’s the way I was making it. 

Maximillian Alvarez: No, I mean again, I think it’s beautiful because my parents pulled the same thing on us if we didn’t eat, it was like, You guys should be thinking about the kids around the world who don’t get this, so you’re going to sit at the table and finish it.” Exactly. So again, there’s something beautiful about that. We didn’t know the other existed, but our parents were telling us the same things in such radically different countries. And again, I think that’s one of the common themes of this show and one of the common themes you guys are going to hear about throughout this episode is that when it comes to working people, we are not as different as we are made to feel. We have so much in common and all the things we don’t have in common, we have so much to learn from each other and so much to experience together. And it really is more about the kind of structures of power and domination that are fucking all of us over across the world that we need to be focusing on. God, I could talk to you about this for days, but I know I want to get us to the documentaries into going from there to how you became a journalist. I wanted to ask, was that something you always wanted to do and how was that tied to you developing your consciousness about the United States and Cuba? And so how were those two paths kind of connected?

Liz Oliva Fernández: I never have been thinking about this, but I suppose that because when I was a child I wanted to be a prosecutor and people were really like, this kid wants to be a prosecutor? Do you mean a lawyer and I’d say, no, no, no, prosecutor, I want to be a prosecutor. And I was five. And people were like, what’s wrong with this girl? She won’t be a teacher, she won’t be a dancer and she wants to be a prosecutor. That’s rare. And I think it’s because now I’m thinking and I think that it’s because my grandma and the sense of justice that she was pushing me all the time, we need to do the right thing. We need to thank others because this is something that she can’t develop in Cuba a lot. The feeling of if you are okay, but the rest are not okay, you are not okay because we need to think in a collective way.

We need to embrace others. My grandma always says the neighborhood is also your family. In fact your closest family. So I grew up going to the beach because the parents rented a bus and put all the kids on the bus and took us to the beach. We don’t have money to buy food at the beach, so all the parents cooked one meal for all the kids who wanted them to spend the day at the beach. So I grew up, if I have three blouses but there is a kid in the school that doesn’t have any, I’m going to pick one. And I always remember this lesson from my grandma, if you’re a kid, you want to save the one you like the most. 

So every time that I choose the thing that I like the most for me, my grandma says, okay, we can give them it. She’s like, yes, that’s my favorite. She would say, That’s why we need to give it to them because I’m pretty sure they’re going to love it too.” And I was like, what? No. And those kind things that my grandma taught me during my entire life, that was something that was right inside of me to talk a lot about justice and social justice. That’s why I wanted to be a prosecutor when I was a kid. But how I became a journalist, I think it’s because of my mom, and I always have something to say at a school in meetings. That was the kind of child I was.

So at some point my mom’s like, maybe you need to be a journalist. I say, oh, but I want to be a biologist and study the letters of the language. And everyone’s like, no, no, no be a journalist first. And I go through the old tests that you need to do here in order to be a journalist. But I wasn’t expecting, I wasn’t dreaming of it in university, I became really an activist, like trying to talk about racism in Cuba to talk about all the problems that we have, the Black people to talk about feminism, to talk about LGBTQ rights. So I became more active because again, grandma has taught me about the sense of justice that we need to, and also to stand out for myself the way that I am doing for others. At some point I just was hungry. I just want to make my journalism work for my activism and I dreamed about the fact that I can make it possible and also to talk to a Cuban audience. So that is how I ended up talking to a U.S. audience, I have to say that the job chose me. I didn’t choose the job.

I remember that I just, someone called my phone, a friend called me, saying, okay, there is a U.S. journalism director that is looking for a Cuban to do a documentary about the impact of the sanctions on the Cuban people.” And I was like, oh, okay. I dunno.” Maybe because we are tired of hearing about the sanctions and I think that we in Cuba, we are really tied to hearing all that about the sanctions. And also I think the government hasn’t managed to communicate well about the sanctions. I was a journalist, I was tired too. I couldn’t find the angle per se. Okay, someone wants to do a documentary about that. And I start the whole process and at the end they select me, they choose me and we start to do the documentary. It was, I remember only a three month job, okay, I am doing this.

So I was trying to just finish university. I was trying to rent a place, everything. So I need money. So I was happy to do it. But the most, I was learning about the Che on the part of the Cuban people the most, I just discovered the most, my eyes were open. So what I didn’t know is how it is possible that I didn’t know that. That’s my whole process inside of Belly of the Beast, the most we dig in, the most I learned the most angry, I realize the most that I need to pay attention to that before to pay attention to the rest because there are not enough people paying attention to this is not because when we talk between Cubans about the problems and the issues that we have in Cuba and then we need to find a solution everybody agrees with.

But when we talk about the sanctions, people don’t understand how big and crashing they are. So that’s why just for a while I hope that I can put the most effort that I can to talk about this topic because this is something that is outside of Cuba. So I realized that I need to pay attention to that. I need to do journalism work about that. I need to show to the people and visualize the working class people that has been suffering the most, the impact of the sanctions during this 60 years and more because the sanctions affect all of Cubas if you are in Cuba or outside of Cuba, but affect you more or less depending on your race, gender, your geographical situation if you live in a city or rural area, depending if your family is in Cuba or live outside of Cuba, if you are Black and white, if you’re mixed race.

So all these things, the harm of these things more or less depends on the level of vulnerability that we have.

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Maximillian Alvarez: Well I just wanted to ask about that because like I said at the beginning on this show I interview workers largely from the U.S. and Canada, but increasingly around the world and we have conversations like this, but we talked about their lives but then we talk about their jobs and trying to make a living as a working adult and I don’t know, we should definitely team up and do more of those with folks in Cuba. So people listening to this can hear more about that. But I guess I just wanted to ask you, if we were to do that now, interview a bunch of working people in Cuba, I just wanted to ask if you could impress upon them how much the sanctions impact their lives as working people trying to get by?

Liz Oliva Fernández: It depends. I think it depends because for example, if you talk with a doctor or scientist, it’s going to be easier for them to talk about the sanctions and how they affect their lives and their work. But I think that most normal people in Cuba don’t understand how these affect them because it is not something you have to understand that is against you and against a country. And when they talk about this, they always say this just only affects the government. This only affects the government. The rest is a lie of the Cuban government. Well it is not only affecting the government, if you talk with a person, they’re going to tell you differently. But if it was affecting the government, the majority of the people, the population in this country works for the government and the majority of people who work for the government, the most of them are Black.

So it directly impacts Black people. It’s true, it’s certainly true. Also the sectors impacted the most by the sanctions, healthcare, social security and by technology, all the sectors, the majority [are staffed by] women. So imagine being the head of your family. So you have to face all the things that scar in your work. So you have to be resilient and try to recreate and reimagine all the kinds of things or solutions that you are inventing to try to solve your problems because you have patients, you need medicine. So imagine all the energy that requires that and then go home and try to do the same, trying to be resilient. You reinvent it. What kind of food you are bringing to the table, okay, the children have grown up, I need to buy clothes but I don’t have a way to buy it because it’s all stress all the time.

But this is not something simple. And I know now because I understand better but I didn’t know four years ago. So for me it was okay, my mom is a doctor, I knew about the impact of sanctions on healthcare, but I didn’t know about the rest. I didn’t know how the sanctions affected me or my friends. For us now it’s not just sanctions, it’s being on the list of a state sponsored list of terrorism. How could that affect my possibility to go out to the country or to need a visa to go around? I’m coming from a country who supposedly is a sponsor of terrorism and on top of that I’m Black, so I’m in danger. So there are a lot of things that people are not considering. For example, when Cuba has its own vaccines against COVID-19, I just remember being a collective taxi and someone was so angry about it, angry about the fact that he wants to travel to Spain or he’s going to, I don’t remember where it was. I think it was in Spain or the United States. Yeah, it wasn’t the United States because he was talking about the reunification process with his family in the United States.

He was facing a few obstacles because the United States didn’t recognize Cuban vaccines as legitimate and he was talking shit about the Cuban government like you are responsible because the vaccines, the vaccines that you made, whatever. And he was so angry and he was all the time pointing the finger at the government and he never stopped for a second to say, Wait a minute, we have a vaccine that is pretty amazing. Why are you not recognizing our vaccines as good enough and pushing me to delay my reunification process? I have to face more obstacles because it’s the United States.” For many people it’s like a savior. So you need to find guilt around you because this is the dream, this is the point that I want to reach at some point, so I can’t go against that. Also the sanctions are too big and at the same time are not specific. So it’s pretty easy to lose the details and point with the finger to the person that you have just in front of you, that is your government. The rest is something that is so far away from you and you don’t have any ideas on it. And it’s pretty difficult to do that kind of reconciliation because of course our government is not perfect. They have a lot of faults. But that thing, that specific thing that you’re angry about, that’s not because you’re the government, it’s because of another government.

“I didn't know about the rest. I didn't know how the sanctions affected me or my friends.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Preach sister. And again, I stress to everyone listening to this that you got to watch Liz’s work, you got to watch the Belly the Beast documentaries if you want to learn more about this, right? Because they go into it, they show the different kinds of products and amenities that we take for granted here in the United States that are just frankly not available to regular working people in Cuba. Not because the evil Castro or communist government won’t allow them, but because the US has been strangling this country for 60 plus years, imposing when Liz calls it an economic war, that’s what it is. They have been under economic war imposed by the US limiting every facet of life, what they can trade, what can come in and out of the country, the dollars that they use to buy them. I mean the kind of medical equipment that they can get in the country.

Every delegation of people that I’ve known here in the United States that’s gone to Cuba, the main thing that they say they’re collecting to try to take into the country is ibuprofen. Because I just say that to save for people listening, think about how much you take for granted, being able to go and just buy a bottle of ibuprofen, ibuprofen, Advil, and just how much that helps when you’ve got a kid who’s sick or you yourself have a headache. Imagine just not having that because a country 90 miles to your north hates you so much that they want to make it impossible for people in that country to access things like that. If you want to know more about how deep that goes and how much it affects regular working people, again, you got to watch Liz’s work and we’re going to link to that in the show notes so you can watch it after listening to this conversation, but we’re not going to be able to sum up all of that.

She gets across that work here in the conversation. But I really encourage folks to check it out, especially after hearing this conversation now. And I wanted to ask Liz, with the time that we’ve got left, if we could talk about putting together these two new documentaries, how you tackled that process of trying to communicate how big and impactful these sanctions are and what we can do to fight them. Just talk to us about the process of making these two documentaries and coming to the United States to try to address these issues that are impacting life in your country across the board.

Liz Oliva Fernández: Well, that was really hard for me because I was traveling to the United States for the first time, being exposed to the United States for the first time. For someone who is coming from the outside, I think that I can really relate to, I’m also coming from, there is no different culture between you and the United States. And also we have a lot of things in Ghana. I was really hoping to talk to the politicians. I was really hoping that they were open to talk to the Cuban journalists because I was in the country of freedom of speech. And I get really frustrated when I realize that they are not open to having any conversation with someone who thinks differently than him. And it was like this is not supposed to be. And for me it was really bizarre and new.

I have to be at peace with myself because we tried all the things we could in order to get access to them. The people who actually are pushing for the US policy on Cuba who are pushing for more sanctions, who are pushing from more isolation to Cuba because I have so many questions to ask them that I feel so relieved when our director of photography said, okay, I grew up in the city in DC so I know the people. Let’s talk to them. Let’s try to think about what they think about Cuba, what they think about U.S. policy on Cuba. And I feel so relieved when I talk to people from DC that I didn’t know that DC was a Black city. So talk about my country because of the answers that I found then and also the empathy that I found with them. It wasn’t something that I just felt about Congress or in the State Department or places like that. And that makes me feel that there is hope.

It’s also a confirmation that the United States is not its government, that there are a lot of United States inside of the United States. There are a lot of people that feel empathy not just for Cuba but also in Latin America and Canada and for the war. And there are a lot of people in the United States that feel change when they know about U.S. foreign policy around the world and on top of that in the Global South. And they want to do it better and maybe they have the possibility to leave the country to start living in a new country, but they should stay there because they actually believe that they can win change. Because in fact, I believe that there is a change in the United States. In the United States, there is going to be a change in the world and the way that we relate with each other.

Maximillian Alvarez: I want to ask you a little more about that because again, these two new documentaries which we talked about at the top and folks can watch by following the links in the show notes, the first which really kind of tracks Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey and his role in maintaining and worsening the US policy towards Cuba for many years amidst all of his many, many, many corruption scandals. And it’s a really important documentary that I would encourage folks to watch. But even in that documentary, Liz has a great moment where again, you’re seeing her and her crew struggle to get Menendez to talk to them, let alone address these issues. And of course Menendez never does. But then there’s a beautiful moment where Liz goes to Menendez as constituents and goes walking around talking to people about what they think about the Cuba policy and how even Cuban expats are not for the sanctions, even if they’re anti-Castro.

They say, we know that these sanctions hurt our people, not the government so that we should stop doing them. And yet the senator who’s representing us is not listening to us and going full bore into increasing sanctions and keeping Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list. And then you have another moment like that, which is incredibly beautiful. Frankly, it was the moment that impacted me the most in the other documentary as well. The moment you’re talking about where you’re trying to get politicians in DC to talk to you and talk openly about U.S.-Cuba policy, and they don’t say maybe one or two folks who do, but then you go to the constituents, you go to the working people, you go to Black people on the streets in DC and talk to them and you see just how vast the disconnect is between regular people and the ways that we talk and think and feel about Cuba and the people in power and the ways they talk and think and feel about Cuba.

I wanted to ask you if you could talk about that a little more. I could sense even though it was a beautiful thing to experience and see that we’re not all terrible, we’re not against you and your country and in fact, yeah, we don’t want this economic war on our fellow working people in Cuba, but I have to imagine it was still very hard for you to talk to people living in the country that is trying to kill your country and has been doing so for 60 years and still a lot of people don’t know about it or don’t think about it a lot. Was that tough to grapple with?

Liz Oliva Fernández: I don’t think, for me it’s about difference, honestly. I get that people have different experiences about different topics and different issues and also experience about that because for example, if I talk with a Cuban American, I just want, first I want to listen to his experience or her experience about Cuba or with Cuba. Secondly, I want to understand his position and why they think in that way specifically. But we can make it if you talk to me about it or whatever. But the most difficult thing for me is when someone that doesn’t have any experience in Cuba, that never puts food in Cuba that doesn’t know Cuba or is Cuban people and they call and say Cuba, that they want the best things for Cuba, but they never been here. And they talk to me with anger. So a lot of resentment about people, whatever was a lot of anger and hate, how it’s possible that you want the best for us, how the sanctions are helping to get the best.

So that doesn’t make any sense to me. So that’s the moment that I struggle with the most, but with different experience, with different perspective, I can get it and the most of that, this is something that I experience in your support him, for example, that there is a lot of people that have different experience that have to live Cuba in the eighties, on sixties with the crisis and everything. They don’t have hate for Cuba. They’re sad, they want to come back, they want to be here again, they want to die here, but they don’t do it because they promised to their relatives, father, everything, that they never put it back in Cuba until the regime fell. And I get it and I get the sad thing. That’s why I am thinking that we need a reconciliation process between Cubans in both eyes. We need to start to talk more about the things that we have in common rather than our differences.

And that’s the most sweet part and also the most sad part because there is a lot of contradiction. There is a lot of back and forth. There are a lot of feelings because this is an emotional thing and that’s the most difficult part for me. I put away my emotions too because this is not just my job, this is also my life, my family’s life, my friend’s life, the part of my friend’s life too. So there are a lot of people, there is a lot of pressure on me. There is a lot on my shoulders. That’s why I don’t talk about the name of Cubans. I’m talking about my own experience. I’m talking about my perspective as a journalist, but also someone who lives in Cuba who suffers and also enjoys Cuba.

And that’s the most difficult part when someone talks to me who is totally disconnected to this, wants to teach me about democracy or the regimes or whatever. They think that the sanctions and unlike me about how the sanctions are good for the Cuban people. In what way? Tell me about people who have been in Cuba but also doing this job. I have been interviewing people that are coming to Cuba at different moments for different reasons. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, independents, most of them are against, but I want to know 90% of them are against essentials because they have been here. They understand Cuba for different reasons, not because it’s injustice. Some of them want to do business because they’re worried about money. They see here as a market, some of them because they have family and they want better lives for different reasons where they’re against sanctions.

It doesn’t have anything to do with their government, just their opinion about their own government and what is going on with my contract. So how is it possible that you being a Cuban, them being against it, that’s crazy. But it’s also an industry of hate that was created in Miami and has been maintained today. And it’s sad because you can watch it like you are being vocal. And that’s another thing that the United States loves perfect victims. The U.S. loves perfect victims. But if you are not the perfect victim, and when you point the finger, and that’s why Cuba is so polarizing of a topic. 

They’re starting. They don’t care about what Cuba is. Let’s talk about what we are doing in Cuba. That should be the beginning of all these conversations. But sometimes it’s difficult because if you talk positively about them, you’re a communist. You’re a communist or a socialist, and that’s a bad word. The United States for example, being in the United States and having conversations with people, when they talk about communism, socialism, they talk about that. They say, Okay, what is socialism for you? What does it mean? Explain it to me. Do you think that having access to public goods, public healthcare system is socialism?” Yeah. Some of them say, Yeah, that’s socialism.” And I say, But do you know that U.S. Congressperson or U.S. Congress people if they serve one period in Congress, they have access to free public and the quality healthcare system?” Well, now you know that the U.S. government and U.S. Congress is enjoying socialism too, but you don’t.

And that’s the role of the media and how badly they have been doing their work because there is a lot of misinformation about Cuba. There is a lot of misinformation about socialism and also the stigma that we have been carrying our entire life. They always say that we are in a state of hunger, crisis, desperation, scarcity. But if socialism or the kind of system that we are trying to build here is all of that, what is the point of the sanctions? We don’t need them. We don’t need help. So what is the point of sanctions? What is the point of persecution, what is the point of all of that?

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s funny because there’s a very capitalist mentality that I hear interviewing workers around the country who are trying to unionize and say, when I’m interviewing Black workers in Alabama who are trying to unionize at Amazon, and they are trying to organize so that they can improve their lives and improve their wages and all that stuff. And so Amazon will hire these outside consultants to come in and tell the workers why a union is bad for them and they should not vote for one. And what they’ll always say is they’ll say like, look, you guys don’t want a union because the union could come in here and they could get you a contract where you’re earning less than you’re making now. And so workers will say, well, if that’s the case, then why don’t you just let em come in? You would benefit. It’s kind of like you’re saying, it’s like they keep saying it, like they’re trying to benefit the workers and save them from how much the union’s going to hurt them.

But it’s really just scare tactics to try to get people to believe lies. And like you said, if socialism is this bad, then just let us do it. If a union’s this bad, then just let us have one because then you’ll have to pay us less. So clearly someone’s lying about something. And I wanted to just turn that into a final question because I’ve had such an incredible time talking to you, but I want to be, I’ve kept you longer than I said I would, and I know I’ve got to let you go, but I wanted to kind of zoom out and ask if you had final words for working people here in the United States, because in so many ways, I am the kind of person you’re talking about. I grew up as a first generation Mexican American. I grew up very conservative. I was an American capitalist.

That was our family. We thought that socialism was bad, that capitalism was good, that America was the greatest country on earth, and that if we worked hard, we could make a good life for ourselves and our family. And when I was a kid, one of the things that pop culture and adults would say to try to justify that is they’d say, well, here in America you have all this consumer choice. You can go to the grocery store and you have a million different brands that you can choose from. And in Cuba they have bread lines and they don’t have any brands to choose from, and so that’s why we’re good and they’re bad. And now I’m living in 2024 in Baltimore and I go to the CVS down the street and the shelves are empty and the medicines are barely there. And all the brands are owned by the three same companies and people who maybe once believed that they could work hard and make a good life for themselves have kind of given up on that dream.

After 20 years of the United States making life harder and more impossible for working people, while a few billionaires get richer, all of our tax dollars go to war, like the cost of living goes up. So it feels like all the things that we were told about capitalism when I was a kid and all the ways that people used Cuba and countries like Cuba as examples for why socialism was bad, it’s like, well now most of us are just living in the world that capitalists were describing in the nineties, but when they were talking about Cuba, and I guess I just wanted to ask if I hear this in the conversations that I have with people every week, people who tell me, I used to love this country and then after the government deregulated the railroads and the railroads are making more billions than they ever have. One of them derailed in my backyard and blew up and poisoned me and my family and now we’re fucked. People in this country are getting pushed into the bottom of society and the capitalist society we grew up believing in is crushing us. So I wanted to ask if you saw much of that or what your impressions were of that when you came here and what messages you would have for working people in the United States who are living through that right now?

Liz Oliva Fernández: It’s difficult because I’m pretty sure that, as I said, the war has changed. The war has changed also from the United States. I just witnessed this in the United States because if you say because you have more freedom, because you have more brands to choose, I do really have more freedoms. It’s not that you have many options, all healthy, for example, for food, and you can choose whatever you want, the one that you like the most. It’s not like that. It’s like the one that you can pay for, the one that you can buy, and that’s different.

But if this is the kind of capitalism or the system or the freedom that you want and you got it, I’m happy for you. But in my case, that’s not the thing that I want for me or for my country or for my people because I understand that that’s not actually freedom. That’s not actually the thing that I worry the most. If I have to say something to someone who right now is struggling from working class, that they have a family or specific situation, I just say that the most important thing for me is stop the thinking. Just one person, just one family to stop thinking like that and start to think about collectively, what we can share together, how we can become stronger together, how we can get more wealthy together, how we can work less instead of spending more time with family, friends.

That’s the kind of life that I want. That’s not the kind of life that I got right now, but that’s the kind of life that I want to achieve in a way that we, in a life that we can all live together, being okay together and also start to focusing how be mentally more healthy, but also physically having time for do my own thing, but also to spend time with family, friends, partners, to dedicate time to your children instead of they spend the most of the time just with the face in front of their phones. So it’s a different thing and this is something that you can’t achieve alone.

And that’s difficult because in a society like the United States, individuals are getting the most of the focus. If you are always thinking about yourself, your family, that your family is also your wife or your husband or your partner and your children, that’s all. Forget about all the old generations that came from before you. That’s something quite different from us in Cuba and also in Latin America, families, our cousins are family too, and we’re trying to get as close as them as possible because we are thinking in a collective way in some way. If there is something that kept us alive until today, it is that we think like a family, like a group of people that is not just linked by blood, that were linked by empathy, by experience that we have been going through together and that’s the most important thing for survivors in my opinion.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right gang, that’s going to wrap things up for us this week. I want to thank our amazing guests, Liz Oliva Fernández, for taking the time to have that incredible conversation with me and I want to thank Liz and the whole Belly of the Beast Crew for the important work that they’re doing. And as always, I want to thank you all for listening and I want to thank you for caring and I want to encourage y’all one more time to go check out Liz’s two new documentaries, hardliner on the Hudson and Uphill on the Hill, which you can watch on YouTube using the links that we provided in the show notes. You can also find all of Liz and Belly of the Beast work at belly of the beast cuba​.com and you can also donate and support their work there, which you definitely should do because these stories need to be told and Liz and the whole crew are working their butts off to tell them the right way and they need our support.

We’ll see you all back here next week for another episode of Working People and if you can’t wait that long, then go subscribe to our Patreon and check out the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve got there for our patrons and go explore all the great work that we’re doing at The Real News Network where we do grassroots journalism that lifts up the voices and stories from the front lines of struggle. Sign up for The Real News newsletter so you never miss a story and help us do more work like this by going to the real​news​.com/​d​onate and becoming a supporter today. It really makes a difference. I’m Maximilian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Solidarity forever.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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