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Summer 2006 | Volume 29, Number 3 | My Reponse

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 word: colorful.

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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