Filmmaker Catherine Murphy

The filmmaker and adjunct professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs talks about the history of cultural overlap between the U.S. and the nation of Cuba.

Catherine Murphy is a San Francisco-based filmmaker who has spent much of the last 10 years working in Latin America. She is founder & director of The Literacy Project, a multi-media documentary project on adult literacy in the Americas. As an independent producer, Murphy's work has largely focused on social documentaries. She has field produced films like Saul Landau's Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?, and Eugene Corr's From Ghost Town to Havana. She also served an archival researcher for Susanne Rostock's recent biography of Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song. Murphy served as senior staff producer at the TeleSur TV Washington bureau in 2006 and has produced content for PBS, TeleSur, Avila TV, Pacifica Radio National, WBAI and KPFA. In 2012, she directed the documentary short, Maestra, about the National Campaign for Literacy that swept through in Cuba in 1961.


Tavis: To begin our conversation about the island nation of Cuba, we’ll focus on placing this new chapter of U.S. and Cuba relations in historical context.

Pleased to be joined by Catherine Murphy, the founder and director of The Literacy Project and director of the 2012 documentary, “Maestra”, which told the story of the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign. Catherine, good to have you on this program.

Catherine Murphy: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

Tavis: I suspect I’ll ask Ann Louise the same question to start my conversation with her in a few minutes, but what’s your sense of all of this activity about and around the U.S.-Cuba relationship?

Murphy: Well, it’s very exciting. It’s a very exciting time. I think it’s an exciting and hopeful time for those of us who’ve been involved in the U.S.-Cuba realm in trying to build constructive bridges between the two countries.

Hearing both presidents make the historic announcement on December 17, 2014 that steps would be taken to reestablish normal diplomatic relations was a huge and wonderful step forward.

I’ve heard many people on both sides of the Florida straits say they didn’t expect to see this moment in their lives. You know, there’s a long road ahead, but this is a new day. It’s a new chapter.

Tavis: A two-part question, which I try not to do, but I think there’s some nuance here you can play with. Why do you think it took so long, and what does it say about us that it took so long?

Murphy: Good question, good question. You know, the U.S. owned a lot of the property on the island of Cuba up until 1959. Between 1902 and 1959, the U.S. had a major role in Cuba. Cuba’s economy and politics was a major property holder, owned many key industries actually.

So when the Cuban Revolution happened on January 1, 1959, came to power January 1, 1959, it meant–and they really started the deep restructuring process of the power structure on the island and property holdings.

They nationalized U.S. properties, they carried out an extensive land reform act in which over 100,000 land lists, farmers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers and land list peasants got property titles over night. Well, that was expropriated from large land holders and some corporations, and many of those were from the United States.

So the U.S. saw its interests as being directly challenged by the new government and started to carry out sanctions against the island from that moment. There was also then quite a significant exodus from Cuba to the U.S., also to Madrid and to Mexico City and to Puerto Rico, but mostly to Miami.

100,000 people left the island in the first years, you know, ’59, ’60, ’61, and that was a very powerful group of people who have been the main voice in determining U.S.-Cuba relations ever since. And that’s really just starting to change now as the generations start to feel differently both on the island of Cuba–I was going to say in Havana and Miami.

And also, the Cuban and Cuban-American opinion is changing, but also the U.S. opinion is changing in general. I think there’s now, you know, a number of studies have shown that public opinion favors normalization of relations.

Tavis: Clearly, the politics on the island have changed. I mean, the most obvious change is that Fidel Castro is no longer running the government. His brother Raul is, as we all saw from those photos the other day. But how would you describe the change in the political structure on the island?

Murphy: Well, Raul Castro took power in 2010 and started to make some pretty significant changes right away. There’s a lot more changes that are coming and that need to come, but these were serious departures with policy of the past. So they started to legalize categories for self-employment or really started to open up the non-state sector.

They said they were going to lay off up to half a million people from the state sector. So the economy which had been so heavily dominated by the state is now really being flexibilized or there are significant reforms and significant opening in the non-state sector again.

And politically, you know, the tone with which Raul Castro is speaking is such a different tone that’s saying, you know, as he said in Panama in the meeting they had with President Obama and President Castro had with the press, he said everything is on the table for discussion. That is new. That’s a departure from the past.

Tavis: For whom has Cuba worked best since 1959? What group of people have most benefited?

Murphy: Certainly the revolution was set out to benefit the most marginalized and to benefit the dispossessed, to benefit poor and working Cuban people, to benefit rural people, to benefit Afro-Cubans in particular.

So the sectors of the society that were historically marginalized benefited in the early years from the economic changes that were made. Healthcare became free. Education became free through university, which it still is.

You know, the historically poor and marginalized benefited the most during the years of economic prosperity in Cuba. Prosperity is not the right word, but the years that they were moving their model forward.

Tavis: And then what happened?

Murphy: Well, they were also highly dependent on a trade relationship with the Soviet Union that was very beneficial to Cuba and allowed them to invest a lot of money in social sectors, in public health, in education, in infrastructure building, you know, more than most developing countries are able to do.

They really invested in people and they also were very dependent on the Soviet Union. 57% of the calories eaten on the island were brought in as direct imports from Soviet bloc countries by the late 80s.

So when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart, Cuba lost its main trading partner and they were sort of thrown into the sea of global capital with no tools to survive that and with an economic system geared toward trading in the international socialist economy, which no longer existed.

So that started a 20-year process of serious crisis, economic crisis, on the island that they called the Special Period in Cuba. It began, you know, 1989, ’90, ’91, and really, you know, continues up until the day of today.

Tavis: Speaking of continuing to today, what do you make of the fact that this little tiny island nation just miles off our border has survived all these years without us? I mean, in some ways thumbing their nose at us that close to our border and they have survived. What do you make of that?

Murphy: I think there are many explanations to that, but one is a very strong sense of patriotism, nationalism, a love of independence and sovereignty which is something they’d been fighting for since the colonial period under Spain.

They fought for 30 years to be free of Spain and they had a really incredibly philosophically strong independence movement in which they said freedom from colonialism, freedom from Spain, and the abolition of slavery had to go hand in hand.

And they had to be building a nation for all, a nation that was free and sovereign independent and that was based on principles of social justice. Jose Marti fought for that. The black general, Antonio Maceo fought for that. That was well laid out from, you know, 1868.

So when what we learn here is the Spanish-American War broke out which, from the Cuban perspective, really was the U.S. intervention in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain, we sort of claimed victory for them.

And there was a four-year military occupation and then what they call the birth of new republic, which was in 1902. But there was an amendment put on the constitution of the new nation saying that U.S. could intervene at any time that U.S. interests were threatened.

You know, over the next from then to 1959, there was a multiparty system with a lot of complications, a lot of corruption, a lot of graft, and then there were also moments of dictatorship.

So when the Cuban Revolution took power in 1959, again, after several years of fighting against the Bautista dictatorship, for many Cubans, that was like they had become independent. What they were really envisioning was something that had started almost 100 years before.

So they have paid a major price for wanting to be that independent and for wanting to create a different kind of social and economic and political system in the Americas. You know, I found–I started going to Cuba in 1992. I went for the first time in ’92.

I found that, for most Cubans, and there’s a diverse range of opinions on the island and ideologies and perspectives, but I found that most Cubans were willing to pay the economic price of, you know, the conflict with the U.S. to gain and keep what they saw as national independence.

Tavis: I got just a minute to go here. Speaking of paying prices, I suspect at the appropriate time for many reasons, they will welcome in U.S. business interests. Capitalism has a way of building, but it also has a way of destroying. I’ll leave it at that. What should they be worried about when these U.S. multinationals invade the island?

Murphy: Well, they want trade. They want engagement. They want a respectful, you know, coexistence of neighbors and they want trade and they need it. But they don’t want to lose the gains of the past.

So I think this how can they keep social inequality under control as much as possible to continue to open up the economy, but really make a major commitment to social justice, social equality, economic and racial equality? That is the challenge of the day.

Tavis: And finally, what would you guess right quick that Fidel Castro is thinking of all of this?

Murphy: I would imagine that he’s both very proud of his people for having withstood 50 years of all the sacrifices they had to make, that they held out, and Obama has called the U.S. embargo a failed policy.

So, you know, looking for a new day without Cuba having to sacrifice its independence or capitulate to a degree that they never wanted to do, I would imagine that he’s very proud of that.

And I also know Raul is pushing forward a lot of changes that Fidel Castro never supported, never wanted to. So I think he’s seeing the country moving forward in ways that he maybe didn’t want, but also seeing that this new day is dawning while he’s still alive.

Tavis: Catherine Murphy, thanks for your insights.

Murphy: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm