Chico girl travels to land of ‘evil Commie dictator’

Jahlelah Francia

Jahlelah Francia

Just back from a trip to Cuba, where the U.S. economic blockade continues to stifle but not quite suppress the socialist economy, 15-year-old Chicoan Jahlelah Francia said she wished every American could experience the island.

“It was amazing. It’s very different and a lot poorer,” she said. “The people are just incredible. I lived in Florida before I moved here but I didn’t really know anything about Cuba except that Fidel Castro was an evil Commie dictator.”

Upon visiting the island, Francia said her preconceptions went out the window.

“I didn’t ever sleep in Cuba. I would go out at night and talk to people,” she said. “Only one person I talked to said anything bad about Fidel Castro, and he was drunk.”

Francia’s trip was part of the 16th annual Caravan to Cuba, an effort organized by Pastors for Peace, which donated some 140 tons of medicine, medical supplies and other humanitarian items to the people of Cuba. About 150 participants took part, traveling in school buses from their own communities, gathering aid from church and peace groups on the way to Hidalgo, Texas. From there, they crossed the border into Mexico and, from Tampico, boarded planes to Cuba. This year, the group’s Web site claims, 43 boxes of computers and computer supplies were seized as contraband by U.S. customs officials at the Mexican border.

For 45 years, the U.S. government has sustained an economic boycott against Cuba, which the State Department refers to as a “Totalitarian Communist state.”

Although Europeans and others continue to vacation there, strict visa requirements keep most Americans away. Francia said one goal of the Caravan is to break the embargo.

“The goal is to end the embargo because it’s illegal and immoral,” Francia said.

While Francia and others who have visited Cuba tell of a poor but culturally vibrant nation struggling to survive, the U.S. government paints a picture of jailed dissidents and repressed citizens. A 2003 White House report called Cuba’s government “one of the world’s most repressive regimes,” one that “also cynically exploits U.S. humanitarian and immigration policies.”

Francia admitted she may have been exposed to some state propaganda while on her trip. But she also said the U.S. government is drastically and hypocritically overstating the situation.

“As far as jailing journalists, to some extent we do that here. We have a very controlled media here. I personally didn’t experience that [there]. [The Cuban people] hate the U.S. government, rightly so.”

Cuba had been somewhat insulated from the U.S. trade embargo up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time Cuba was heavily dependent on the U.S.S.R. for food, medicine and energy. Once those subsidies began to dry up in the mid-1980s, Cuba was faced with major shortages. To some extent, those shortages still exist, with electricity in many areas only available for a few hours a day. But Cubans have learned to grow much of their food organically in small, cooperative plots. This approach has led to the creation of hundreds of community gardens, blooming up in nearly every undeveloped lot and field in Havana.

Francia’s mother, Eartha Shanti, who sells sprouts at the farmers’ market, said she is proud of her daughter and shares her opinion of the U.S. blockade.

“I totally trust her,” she said. “It’s the young people who are going to bring us peace and prosperity in the world. I feel like this has really broadened her perspective.”