Chris Schulz Published

Local Activist Recounts Trip To Cuba

People walk near a mural depicting a Cuban flag in Havana, on April 16, 2021.
Earlier this year a West Virginia activist travelled to Cuba, an opportunity not often afforded to U.S. citizens.
Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

Since the 1960s, the U.S. embargo on Cuba has prevented American businesses from conducting trade with Cuban interests. Travel by U.S. citizens to the island has also been significantly limited.

Earlier this year, a young West Virginian member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation traveled to Cuba on a humanitarian mission.

Reporter Chris Schulz sat down with Jack Tensley to talk about his trip.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Schulz: Obviously socialism is in the name of the party that you’re affiliated with, the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Can you give me just a brief definition, or what you understand that movement to be?

Tensley: The definition really is workers controlling the means of production. We are advocating for workers, working class people, which is the majority of Americans. Those are the people who don’t own the means of production: businesses, corporations, textile plants, all of those things. We want to see them in political control of not just the country, but their lives. 

When people have control, they have democracy. We really, very strongly believe in democracy, and socialism and democracy go hand in hand. We trust them to know what they are doing with their work. We’d like to give that power back to people so they can have self-determination of their lives. They can decide what needs to be produced, how it needs to be produced, and whose needs need to be filled. But if we could decide as workers, ‘Oh, no, we want that money to go towards roads and schools and health care,’ then we can really see those kinds of benefits.

Schulz: Tell me a little bit about what you do as a group.

Tensley: We do our organizing in the Eastern Panhandle, mostly in Martinsburg. We do a lot of community engagement. We currently have a fun clean streets campaign. And it’s like our biggest campaign at the moment. And we spent a while knocking on doors and just asking people like, ‘What would you like to see change in your neighborhood?’ It’s really important that we hear from the people about what they want, and what they would like to see change, and then we advocate for that, and we try to help them get that. Also, at the same time teach them about working class unity, it’s part of the democracy and the self-determination that’s inherent in socialism. 

When we first started door knocking a long time ago, we were like, ‘Oh, gosh, who knows what people are gonna say when they see our shirts?’ But most people were like, ‘Oh, you care? Well, cool. Nobody, Democrats, Republicans, council, they don’t ever knock on our doors.’ We’ve had really positive responses from the community.

Schulz:  So it sounds like your action, your group is very locally minded, or at least you’re acting very locally. So how does that translate into an international trip?

Tensley: We are part of the Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Committee, they also send a youth brigade for May Day, which is one of the most important holidays in Cuba. It’s a solidarity committee, we’re able to bring material goods, like building equipment and medicine, things like that. Alice Walker, who wrote ‘The Color Purple,’ paid for a shipping container to bring, I think it was something like 40,000 pounds of construction material that we helped deliver. 

During the day, we were traveling around and going to the spots, but at nighttime, after the tours, and visiting is over, we can go do whatever we want. I just went out and talked to every stranger I could talk to and ask them as many questions as I could. The Cuban people want us to see what it’s like, the effects of the blockade, and how that impacts their lives on a day-to-day basis, and then bring those stories back home. We only hear one side, and it’s heavily, heavily edited. To be able to come back and tell people about, ‘This is what I saw firsthand.’ That’s kind of what they wanted from us.

Schulz: You mentioned earlier that people are struggling because of the blockade, because of the embargo. Materially, what did they tell you about how that is affecting them in their day-to-day life?

Tensley: It’s really super plain to see. When I first got to Cuba I was staying in a hotel. When I looked out the window, every building that I can see had rain barrels on top of it, because they catch their rain, and then they filter it and they use that for water. Because they don’t have the plumbing pumps, just the pumps to pump water to move it so they have to use gravity. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed, that was basically Cuba’s trading partner and they kind of stopped there. They’ve just been repairing things ever since because the United States embargo, you know, won’t allow trade to happen. Just walking around Havana, most of the buildings looked like they were ready to to fall over. There’s exposed rebar, concrete was cracked. And in all these places, people are still living in these buildings. We brought in ibuprofen, stuff that simple. But they can’t trade for a large amount. They can’t make their own ibuprofen, they can’t trade for anybody else’s ibuprofen. And that’s just something that we take for granted. 

Every day it was something else. And by the end of a couple of days, you see, ‘Oh my god, this has piled up so much on these people’ who continue to live and laugh and smile, and these people were out having a good time. But, at the same time, I really struggle with the day-to-day things that we take for granted. That was one of the messages they wanted us to bring back. Yeah, they’re gonna keep on resisting, they’re not gonna let the United States just make the whole goal of the embargo is to make life unbearable for the Cuban people. So they overthrow the government.

Schulz: Did you see any parallels or did anything strike you as kind of similar to what you’ve seen here?

Tensley: Well, I worked for maybe two and a half years in West Virginia as a paramedic. There are so many neighborhoods that I went into that had the same level of material goods that the Cuban people had. When I was in Cuba, it was almost hard for me to notice how much material they lacked, like how rundown things were, because I am used to living in Martinsburg, and I’m used to seeing what poor people live like, and what oppressed people live like. I was like, ‘Well, yeah, this isn’t too different.’ It looks the same on the surface, but when you start to look at it a little bit deeper, I can see how people can go to Cuba and feel bad for those people. But after spending a couple of days there, I felt worse for us, because we have the ability to solve these problems, and they do not get solved because the people are not in charge. 

That’s what socialism really offers. It brings people together, that makes people strong. And when we’re strong, we can take care of each other. Cuba is this place where they have none of the material goods that we have, but they’re so much stronger than we are as a people, they’re healthier. They live longer, infant mortality rates are lower, mother’s mortality rate is lower, just a better place, healthier place to be. Compare that to the richest country on planet Earth and look at our statistics. There’s no argument there. 

Socialism, that’s the answer. I don’t want people to be scared of whatever they heard on the news. I want them to find actual organizers in their communities and their neighborhoods, talk to them, ask them questions, learn from them, and then learn how we can work together to forge a better path forward.