Mayor Cantrell and members of the New Orleans delegation at the Latin American School of Medicine. Photo by Christopher Horne.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell says there was nothing impromptu or secretive about the trip she and roughly three dozen others took to Havana, Cuba in early April, adding that the seeds of the journey were planted in the fall of 2018 after she met with Cuba’s ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez and other leaders from the island nation.

“They sent a delegation to New Orleans to meet and discuss opportunities surrounding a sister city partnership,” the Mayor told The New Orleans Tribune in a telephone interview shortly after returning from Cuba. “That started the process.”

Economic development opportunities between the city and Cuba topped the list of relevant reasons for her visit.

Members of the delegation included representatives from the Port of New Orleans and the New Orleans Business Alliance, Cantrell says.

Members of the New Orleans delegation visited the Mariel Port Special Development Zone, which features a container terminal, general cargo, bulk and refrigerated handling and storage facilities. According to the itinerary the Mariel Zone is “ideally situated to handle U.S. cargo when the U.S. trade embargo is eventually.” 

“Before the embargo, New Orleans was Cuba’s top trade partner,” Cantrell says. “It’s not a matter of if, but when the embargo is lifted, we need to be ready to resume and expand that relationship.”

The Visit to Cuba 

In addition to the Mariel Port Zone, points of interest during the nearly week-long trip also included a cultural tour of old Havana, a visit to the Muraleando neighborhood in Havana to see first hand how a public art project has transformed an entire community, a trip to a primary school, another to the Literacy Museum, and still another to the University of Havana, where students must buy their books, but tuition is free. 

“What struck me, from the perspective of culture and community, were the number of statues that honored the contributions and impact of Afro-Cubans. All people who contributed so much to the history and development of the island nation are publicly honored and recognized,” said Tribune publisher Beverly McKenna, who was part of the delegation. “These were major monuments, not just statues hidden in obscure places. As some in New Orleans continue to wrangle with how we reconcile and pay homage to our own history in a way that is both accurate and honorable, I think we would do well to take a look at how the Cuban people have honored their nation’s true heroes and revolutionaries.”

Then, there was the visit to the Latin American School of Medicine, where Cantrell says the community-based, holistic approach to medicine is a definite take-away for New Orleans. A part of that model includes actively recruiting students from low-income, marginalized communities who will go back to practice medicine in the communities from which they came, she says, adding that she was especially interested in exploring Cuba’s community-based healthcare model. 

“We have to change perceptions of how healthcare is administered. I would love to engage the medical community driving to meet the needs of our people—not just with empathy and compassion, but with direct services.”

For those who scoff at the notion that Cuba has anything to teach New Orleans about healthcare delivery or anything else for that matter, Cantrell reminds that glaring disparities exist in New Orleans and throughout the nation. 

To make her point, she shares an anecdote about a local resident who, after burning her foot with hot grease in a cooking accident, chose to tend to the wound at home instead of going to the hospital. After it became evident that the burns were not healing properly, she received medical care that likely saved her foot from amputation, the Mayor tells.

The Mayor doesn’t specify a reason, Who knows? Maybe it was likely a lack of trust in the established medical community fueled by institutional racism and a lack of cultural competence that led the woman to not seek professional medical care as her first alternative. Or maybe it was a lack of health insurance.  

Whatever the case, as Cantrell notes, “This happened in New Orleans, in 2019, right now. We are a developed country, and we have resources. And we are dealing with disparities at an alarming rate. While we have made strides, we still have work to do.”

The Mayor is right. We have work to do. And the glaring disparities are not only in healthcare, but in education, employment, income and other areas. Still, there is no need to take Mayor Cantrell’s word for it or ours, for that matter. There is plenty of data to backup the assertion.

One year ago when the New Orleans Data Center released its Tricentennial edition of its Prosperity Index, we were properly reminded of our city’s desperate and disparate straits, which are cause for even more alarm if you happen to be a Black New Orleanian. 

The picture isn’t pretty. We’ll paint it for you anyway. 

According to the index, in New Orleans where risk factors in our segregated neighborhoods increase mortality due to exposure to toxins, substandard housing, and violence, African Americans are 56 percent more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than White New Orleanians. They are nine times more likely than Whites to die of homicide. And while the rate of deaths from strokes for both Blacks and Whites in the city is on the decline, there has been a larger decrease in the stroke death rate for Whites than Blacks.

There’s more. A full 71 percent of Black households in New Orleans have earnings below living wage, while the same is true for only 31 percent of White households. Picture this: the percentage of Black folk earning less than a living wage is almost identical to the percentage of White folk earning above a living wage. Do you have any idea what that looks like on a graph or chart?

A Black child (47 percent childhood poverty rate) in New Orleans is more than five times more likely to live in poverty than a White child (9 percent childhood poverty rate). 

So . . . Why Not Cuba?

While 79 percent of White men in the city are employed, the employment rate for Black men is only 56 percent. Black-owned businesses in New Orleans are only getting two percent of all receipts.

Additionally, 51 percent of renters in New Orleans paid unaffordable housing costs in 2016, according to the Index. With homeownership rates 54 percent for White New Orleanians and only 41 percent for Black New Orleanians, the group that comprises the majority of local renters is no secret or surprise.

Maybe it’s us. But we’re having a really hard time understanding the conundrum. Could somebody, anybody please explain: 

Why Not Cuba?

Among the most telling statistics in the Data Center Prosperity Index is that African American mothers in New Orleans with master’s degrees or higher had a greater likelihood of having a low birth weight (LBW) baby than White mothers with a high school degree or less. The LBW rate among even the most educated Black women is 11.9 percent, but only 8.7 percent for the least educated White women. To put it another way, in New Orleans, a very well-educated Black woman is almost 27 percent more likely to give birth to a low weight baby than a White woman with just a high school diploma or no diploma at all. 

To echo Mayor Cantrell, this is happening right now…in New Orleans.

So . . . uhmmm . . . Why Not Cuba?

As the report notes, infants born with low birth weights are more likely to have developmental problems, more likely to die before their first birthday, and more likely to experience other life-threatening, chronic illnesses later in life. Studies indicate that the prenatal care available to women and their nutrition help reduce the risk of low birth weight pregnancies. In other words, there is a really good reason low birth weight rates are used world-wide as a barometer for gauging the welfare, safety and prosperity of a place and its peoples. But as other studies tell, the systemic racism that exists in how medical professionals relate with African American patients continues to result in poor care for Black people, which helps explain why Black women in New Orleans and the rest of the nation can’t seem to catch a break, even when they have a bunch of letters after their name.

Meanwhile, according to a report issued in 2016 by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the rate of low birth weight in Cuba was 5.3 percent—the lowest of all Latin American and Caribbean nations. But wait, there’s more. At 5.3 percent, Cuba’s rate of low birth weight births is more than 50 percent lower that the state of Louisiana’s low birth weight rate of 10.8 percent and almost 40 percent lower than that of White women with only high school diplomas in New Orleans (8.7 percent). It is both disturbing and disgusting that the 16.2 percent rate of low birth weight births among Black women in New Orleans with only high school diplomas or no diplomas is more than three times higher than Cuba’s.

We could go on, but why? 

At this point, all we want to hear is someone answer this burning question: 

Why Not Cuba? 

Critics will say that Cuba is a poor nation, with human rights issues. Wow, we already feel kinship. But we also see a nation where the literacy rate is astronomically high, where higher education at public institutions is free and the low birth weight rate is lower than that of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the rest of the U.S. mainland, along with Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which happens to be a U.S. territory for all of the Trump supporters.

Bottom line is that our city needs help. 

The Mayor is hoping to make some of that happen with her push for New Orleans to get its fair share of the tourism dollars generated in New Orleans. And while we support this effort 100 percent, we do have some concerns about whether it will get the legislative backing needed to alter how hotel tax revenue is distributed in the New Orleans. In fact, even if does get the support, we know that the needs of our city and its people are so great, that while this redistribution of funds would be an important step in addressing the inequities, challenges and needs in New Orleans, it would be just one of many necessary measures.

Besides, New Orleans needs more than just money. Oh, we’re not crazy; we need the money too. But with the money must come innovation, change and a commitment to doing right by all of the citizenry. How much innovation and change do we need? So glad you asked. We need so much that no one in New Orleans—NO ONE—is in any position to wince, shutter or flinch about from where the ideas might come. While there are those who insist on turning this trip into some political misstep by the Mayor, daring to ask why she would choose to visit Cuba—of all places—for a cultural, economic and information exchange, we look at the data and examine the circumstances we see every day across our city and ask, simply: 

Why not Cuba?

Let’s face it, if Martians were doing something innovative and effective for their people, especially the Black Martians, in the area of healthcare delivery, education, or economic development, then an ever-loving mission to Mars would be entirely appropriate as far as we are concerned. 

What’s The Real Issue?

So what has all of the alarm and concern really been about? Clearly other leaders of our city have visited other nations, including Cuba, before. 

During the same week as the Mayor’s trip to Cuba, local mainstream media very straightforwardly  reported that several state tourism leaders were headed to western Canada to promote the Sportsman’s Paradise . . . minus the negative editorializing.

In advance of our city’s 300th anniversary, former Mayor Landrieu and a delegation went all the way to France. According to broadcast media reports, the cost of that trip for the Landrieu and his four staffers, alone, was more than $16,000. That did not include the price tag the people of New Orleans paid for other city leaders who traveled with the mayor. We could not find that tidbit in either of the major daily newspapers both of which appeared to get riled up by Cantrell’s recent trip to Cuba. They reported the trip, of course, but there was none of the consternation about why he went or who was going or how much it cost. 

Don’t misunderstand. We aren’t tripping over Mayor Landrieu’s trip to France back in 2017 either or any other leaders’ official travel log.

We are, however, noting the markedly different manner in which the trips were reported on. Hey, maybe it is because they received a press release about Landrieu’s trip to France or the state officials’ trip to Canada before they made it. Well, if that’s it, we would advise Mayor Cantrell’s team to send a detailed press release to the local media any time she plans to travel outside of the Orleans Parish limits. 

Then, we will put the water on for some Earl Grey so we can sip and see if they treat coverage of her travel on behalf of New Orleans any better than they reported on this one. Yep, we’ll wait.

But we don’t expect to see much of change. We are talking about the same mainstream, local media that has attempted to dictate, second guess and criticize almost every step the Mayor has made. They criticized her for not quickly naming members of her a transition team. Then they went in again on her for not announcing the top members of her administration fast enough for them. Then there were those who suggested that she appeared to be in a “rush” to name a new police superintendent.

Here’s the real deal. The reason certain folk were all upset and vexed over the Mayor’s trip to Cuba is the same reason they are all perturbed about her executive decision to reduce the threshold on school-zone speed camera tickets. It’s not that she did it. Their problem appears to stem more from the fact that she didn’t get an “ok” from folk in this city who have grown way too accustomed with pulling strings from the shadows. Of course, they will not dare admit that. Instead, and with the aid of the local mainstream press, they are trying their best to convince the rest of us that this is all about the public trust.

It’s too bad we weren’t blessed with such a powerful, advocating, righteous mainstream media when our schools were stolen  and privatized . . . without public notice. 

Sorry, we digress. But the reality is that we aren’t buying that ALL of this criticism of the Mayor is about looking out for the best interest of the average New Orleanian. We know better.

Hey look, we get it. She is the mayor of New Orleans. Her actions and activities on behalf of the people she represents is certainly public fodder. But we can’t find where it’s written that the Mayor is obligated to report her schedule to the local media. It’s great if she sends press releases about trips and such. It is a courtesy—a long-standing, time-honored practice, even. But it ain’t a requirement of the job.

She is the mayor of New Orleans, and she is a smart woman. There is no way she thought that she and roughly three dozen other folk were going drop in on Havana, Cuba representing the people of this city and folks weren’t going to know about it.

The price tag of the trip for the Mayor and all of the city leaders was less than $16,000 according to media reports. The non-city officials, including The New Orleans Tribune publisher and co-founder of McKenna Museum’s Beverly McKenna, paid their own ways as part of the delegation. 

Doesn’t sound like there was much worth hiding, if you ask us.

So, Mayor Cantrell led a delegation to Cuba and didn’t tell local mainstream media in advance—which seems to be the real issue, the real thorn in the sides of many. Maybe it was an innocent oversight, at best. And maybe, it is a sign of strained relations with some local media, at worst. 

The good news is that either of those can be corrected if that’s the goal. The even better news is that neither of them negates the fact that the Cuban government and people have appeared to make strides that we might benefit from examining and understanding. 

And with that, not only are we over the pundits and critics that turned this trip into an opportunity to poke at the Mayor, we are really over the ones that chose to use it as a chance to ridicule Cuba while our city faces major challenges, disparities and obstacles it needs to address.

If the people of Cuba have something to offer, New Orleanians are in no position at all to look down on them or their accomplishments.

Yes, we understand that for decades the relationship between the U.S. and Cuban has been strained. But it wasn’t always that way. And probably won’t be that way forever. 

We are just wondering why there is no problem appreciating the similarities between our cultures—music, food, architecture and so on; yet some among us can’t seem to admit that maybe, just maybe, Cubans have done something right in other, even more impactful areas of society. 

Instead of criticizing Cuba or the Mayor’s decision to travel there (whether or not she asked “Mother, may I”), the naysayers would do well to grab a pen and paper and take notes. Let’s not pretend as if New Orleanians don’t face boil water advisories, health and income disparities and many other issues.

In short, we have problems that need solutions

Of course, when none of the racial disparities and uneven conditions described in the Prosperity Index apply to or impact an individual, it becomes a lot easier for those folk to just criticize.

But if the critics who insist on declaring that we have nothing to learn from Cuba are not going to take notes and help the city move forward, they should stay silent and keep their shortsighted, suspiciously racist rants to themselves. 

Travel arrangements and coordination by Diaspora Travel Experiences and Abril Baloney Sutherland.

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