A History Lesson in Havana
By Josh Daugherty '06
1959 was a year of changes for Cuba.
A young lawyer named Fidel Castro
seized power from the United Statesbacked
dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro fell from favor with the U.S. government
when he aligned himself with the world’s other
superpower, the Soviet Union. And so began
another chapter in the Cold War.
Forty-three years later, in a freshman-year
history course at Seattle Pacific University,
I learned about the history of relations between
the United States and Cuba from Professor of
History Bill Woodward. With September 11
fresh in my rearview mirror, at first the Cold
War seemed like history for my parents’ generation.
Though I don’t remember the details
of that class session, I do remember being curious.
What is Cuba like now? Is the country the
same place it was 43 years ago? What have we
learned from the Cold War that is relevant to
international relations today?
In November of 2005, now a declared history
major, I had the opportunity to travel to
Cuba, where I began to investigate those
questions for myself. With the CCCU’s
(Council for Christian Colleges and Universities)
Latin American Studies Program, I spent
two weeks in the tiny island nation — one
week in Havana and another traveling
throughout the country. When I stepped off
the plane, I thought I understood Cuba.
It was neatly categorized in my mind as a sad,
dark country, run by an evil dictator. It’s funny
how personal experience can change your
point of view.
Because of the program’s emphasis on history,
I spent time talking to many different
people: politicians, professors, teachers, farmers,
and pastors. I quickly
learned that Cuba was not
the hell I first imagined it to
be. My new vision of the
country was forming, and
here’s how I’d describe it in a
On a warm night in
Havana, I joined my fellow
students on the rooftop of an old colonial
building, where we listened to a Cuban band.
As I looked out at the city below, I reflected
on what I thought I knew about Cuba, and
what was unfolding before my eyes and ears:
smiling faces playing beautiful rhythmic salsa
and meringue music. I’ll never forget watching
a woman in her 70s dance as though joy
were running through her veins. Could this
really be Cuba?
And even though my short visit only
scratched the surface, I saw pain and contradiction
in the country, too. With an average
salary of $20 per month, life isn’t roses. Yet
the nation’s literacy rate is 99 percent, and
citizens are guaranteed free higher education
at the Universidad de La Habana.
With that trip fresh in my mind, I had
another life-changing opportunity last Winter
Quarter when, in a history course with Associate
Professor of History Michael Hamilton,
I listened and talked to Edward Nixon, the
brother of late President Richard Nixon. It
was a profound history lesson: a chance to hear
about the Cold War from someone one degree
away from the presidency. Nixon spoke of that
time as a monumental battle between good
and evil, and passionately argued the merits of
democracy over communism. It was the stuff
you read in textbooks — but, like being in
Cuba, it was history brought to life. I loved it.
What I’ve learned about the Cold War
helped me unpack the way Cuba and the
United States understand each other today.
And, in my view, I think it’s unfortunate that
both nations continue to relate on Cold War
terms long after the Cold War has ended.
While learning about American history is
vital, I think it’s just as important to know the
histories of other countries. After all, the
United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
If Americans have more knowledge about the
history of other nations, we’ll not only better
understand the people of those nations, but
we’ll also improve our foreign relations.
Whether studying Cuba’s social structures
or the French aristocracy, I think that the value
of history is infinite. The author David
McCullough recently said there are no truly
self-made people in the world. We all stand on
the backs of the people who came before us.
I think that is a great truth.
And it all boils down to
history — a discipline that is
not only fascinating, but
which also has the power to
humble you. History shows
us both the beauty and the
sadness of life. And ultimately,
I believe, history
shows us Jesus Christ, our true source of hope
in this world — no matter where we live,
Seattle or Havana.
University Scholar Josh Dougherty, who graduated
in June 2006 magna cum laude, was an
honorary chairperson at Seattle Pacific’s 2006
Downtown Business Breakfast in April. The history
major, who recalls a fascination with Daniel
Boone stories as a child, says his favorite course
at SPU was “America in the 1960s” with Associate
Professor of History Michael Hamilton.
He plans to visit Spain this autumn.
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