Roosevelt University’s Prof. Choca Talks About Opening Relations with Cuba, His Childhood There

Professor James Choca

CHICAGO–(ENEWSPF)–January 15, 2015.  Professor of Psychology James Choca, a native of Havana, Cuba, spoke last month after news broke that President Barack Obama would establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba and call on Congress to lift the 55-year-old trade embargo. Choca is 69 and left Cuba with his parents and five siblings in 1960, when he was 15.

Q. What did you think of the news?

A. I am very happy about it. I was surprised, but I did expect it eventually. The situation in Cuba can’t last. Cuba, right now, is a third-world country. Cubans think it’s because of the embargo, but I don’t think so. The problem is that it’s a dictatorship. The government doesn’t want anyone doing anything commercial because they’re afraid of losing power.

This is just the beginning. The embargo is not over, because Congress has to lift it. But I think both countries could benefit from seeing each other and seeing what the other is trying to do. I don’t think capitalism as we know it in the U.S. is the answer. But what they’re doing in Cuba, the communist dictatorship, isn’t working.

Q. Tell us about your childhood and leaving Cuba.

A. We lived in a house my father had built, six of us and our parents. My mom was a psychologist and my dad a psychiatrist. We left a year and a half after Castro took over. The rest of our extended family was either moving or had moved to the States. They objected to socialism and communism, but my dad was a very liberal person. Basically, he was a socialist, and he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the rest of the family. But he was also more Catholic than the pope. So when Castro announced he was taking over Catholic schools, that was it. In no time, we were in the States.

Q. What were your first years in the United States like?

A. It was hard. We were in Miami one year. That was easier because it was full of Cubans. During the year we were in Miami, I learned to read English. I couldn’t speak it, but I had to read the books in order to pass the courses at school. I opened the book, got the dictionary and started translating word by word.

We came to Chicago and ended up in Wilmette. It was senior year, and all the cliques were already formed. There were no other Latinos, except maybe one. It was just a terrible year. In order to pay tuition at my private high school, I took a job in a grocery store, and there, people were very friendly and nice to me. So when all my classmates were going to go off to college, my aim was to take a full-time job with the A&P. My mother, very wisely, had other plans and had applied on my behalf to colleges.

One of them was St. Benedict’s in Atchison, Kansas. My mom called them up and said, ‘Is he admitted?’ They said, ‘His forms aren’t complete…but sure.’ She came and told me, ‘You’ve been admitted to St. Benedict’s in Atchison, Kansas, and they start next week.’ She put together one of the duffel bags we brought from Cuba, full of my clothes and whatnot, and put me on a train with 20 bucks. My major was math, because I didn’t need to know a lot of English. It was all equations and symbols.

Q. Have you been back to Cuba since you left in 1960?

A. Once, in 2010. My son James was at Tufts University and needed a senior project. His professor found out that I was born in Cuba and that I had never gone back, and he said to James, ‘That’s your project. You have to take your father back. Take a camera and a notebook, and when you come back you write it up.’ So that’s what we did. In 2010, after being gone for 50 years, I went back to Cuba. It was very interesting. One of the nice things for me was that nothing has changed. We were in a hotel in the area where I grew up, and for many days we walked around without a map, and I would tell James, ‘OK, turn left here and you’re going to see this on your right…’ Havana has not changed. Even the cars are basically the same cars that were there in 1960 when I left.

Q. Why doesn’t Cuba’s economic system work?

A. My cousin who still lives there is an economist and a communist. Even he said, ‘We’re going to implode.’ The people who would be at the top of the pyramid here, the wealthy and educated, such as doctors, quit their professions to work in a hotel taking bags or drive a cab. Why? Because at the clinic, a doctor might make 720 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) a month, but taking my son and I to the airport made him 25 or 30 CUCs. So he can work fewer days and make more money in a month than he made as a doctor. They have free health care, but they wait very long to see a doctor. And sometimes the patient will pay a former doctor–maybe the cab driver–to see him or her. The whole country is all black markets.

Cuba’s experiment has failed because people don’t just want to work for the community. You want to earn something you can keep. They are loosening things up so you can start your own business, and that’s part of what my cousin the economist is doing; he’s helping people start their own businesses, with permission from the government.

Now, I’m not saying the United States is going in the right direction either. I’m a bit of a socialist myself, and I am very concerned about what is happening in this country. You have the one percent that controls all the wealth. And in order to run for any public office, you need millions and millions of dollars. Is this a democracy anymore? Cuba and the United States can learn a lot from each other.

Q. What would you like to happen for your native country?

A. I would like to see the kind of transformation that I saw in Spain. I go to Spain all the time. The first time was during the (Dictator Francisco) Franco era.  It was a third-world country. The phones didn’t work, they didn’t accept credit cards, the roads were two-lane and very few people could afford cars. Then Franco died, and King Juan Carlos took over, and very unexpectedly said, ‘I want people elected in real elections.’ He led Spain into democracy. About 10 years after he took power, I was there, and I was flabbergasted. It was a different country altogether, and look at it today. It will be more difficult in Cuba, because Spain at least had private property previously, but I’d like to see that transformation in Cuba.