The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Month: June 2015

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.

 

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While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?

 

History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Mexico: Searching for a Safe Future

Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

In September 2014, in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, first-year students from the teacher training college of Ayotzinapa came into conflict with the police, who fired on their bus. During the confrontation, forty-three of these students disappeared. The remains of only one of the students have been found.

Guerrero is known as one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Its inhabitants live under the constant pressure of poverty and fear. The following video by The New Yorker shows that the abduction of the students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School is part of a long-ignored history of insecurity and pain in Guerrero.


Note: this video contains some disturbing content and images.Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 10.51.20 AM

 

The abduction has shaken the world. Not only has it shown the violence against young innocents (in stark contrast to the common narrative of Mexico’s violence being enacted between drug cartels and national security forces only), it has also shown the striking complicity of the central government in brutality against ordinary citizens. The Mexican government’s claims that the students were murdered by drug-traffickers after being kidnapped by police, and their promises that municipal government officials will be tried have been greeted with scorn. Witness testimony suggests that, in addition to local police forces, military personnel from a nearby base were also present at the confrontation. But the government refuses to investigate the military. Many people in Mexico feel that this symbolizes the failure of the government to ensure the safety of its citizens and to take responsibility for the violence. For some, this seems to be proof that the federal government is deeply implicated in the violence.

 

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

Unsurprisingly, protests have broken out across Mexico. The cries of the protesters reflect various types of pain, anger at multiple injustices. There have been links made to the government’s violent suppression of student demonstrations in 1968, known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Proponents of greater autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous populations, such as the famous EZLN or Zapatista Army who led armed rebellions against the central government in the 1990s, have added cries for economic equality, land reform, and more local power. These people have joined together in common frustration at a government that has earned their deep mistrust. For most, the abductions signify yet another instance of state-sponsored violence, widespread impunity, and the failure of the government to perform the most basic terms of the social contract—to protect its people. In light of this, many have begun to question the legitimacy of the national government, and there have been calls for revolution.

 

A march in solidarity with Ayotzinapa. The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) fights for greater rights for indigenous communities and increased economic equality across Mexico. They have established thirty-two autonomous communities in Chiapas, where there have been documented improvements to gender equality and public health. Somos El Medio (CC BY 2.0)

 

Ultimately, the Ayotzinapa kidnapping has brought a history of tensions to a head. The Mexican people are asking what the future of their country can be. How can they secure their families and themselves from vast, unpunished violence? How will crime, corruption, and poverty be addressed? Can the central government, a body whose public support and citizen trust is corroding, play a part in creating this future? While international bodies like the UN have condemned how the Mexican government has handled the case, the U.S. government has been largely silent. Human rights organizations were outraged when U.S. President Obama did not mention the case during a meeting with Mexican President Peña Nieto in January 2015. This begs even more questions—what should Mexico’s relationship with the United States look like as the country moves forward? Can the U.S. government be trusted to partner in protecting the lives and interests of the Mexican people? What effects might this have on trade, foreign investment, and the lives of Mexican immigrants living across the U.S.-Mexico border?

These are the questions we ask students to grapple with in the latest edition of Between Two Worlds: Mexico at the Crossroads. Students learn about Mexican history from the Olmecs through Spanish colonization and the fight for independence, investigate the economic and political changes the country encountered after independence, and consider some of the challenges Mexico faces today. Students then examine three options for Mexico’s future in a role play. They use their knowledge of Mexico’s history and current challenges to present arguments about who is responsible for Mexico’s problems; how crime, violence, corruption, and inequality should be addressed; how the United States should be perceived; and what the role of the central government should be in building Mexico’s future. Finally, students design their own options for Mexico’s future, sharing their opinions on what Mexico’s policies and priorities should be. Learn more about the unit here.

Young People Take Action on Climate Change

“Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go. We cannot afford to be not heard.”

—Severn Suzuki, 1992

In 1992, thirteen-year-old Severn Suzuki spoke at the largest gathering of international leaders in history—the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—and she quickly became known as “the girl who silenced the world in five minutes.”  Her words helped put the issue of global climate change on the UN agenda.

The Earth Summit set in motion a series of international climate change conferences that continue to this day, with a major conference coming up this year. December 2015 is the deadline for international leaders to settle a new, binding international agreement on emissions reductions to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.

Now, more than twenty years after Severn Suzuki urged leaders from around the world to consider the importance of environmental issues, a new generation of young people is demanding that policy makers take action on climate change. In this video, fourteen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and his younger brother Itzcuauhtli share their perspectives on their work to build a global network of teens fighting for greener policies and why climate change matters. The two indigenous activists are youth leaders of the organization Earth Guardians.

Note: Teachers should preview this video in advance before showing it to their students. Some language may not be appropriate for the classroom.

Xiuhtezcatl and Itzcuauhtli’s work is inspiring—they are models for the power that young people can have in creating change both at a local and global scale. Xiuhtezcatl and Itzcuauhtli are not alone—young people around the world are pushing for their societies to make positive changes that will help protect the environment. In this new video from the Choices Program, climate change experts discuss some of the many ways young people can take action on climate change.

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For more videos on climate change from the Choices Program, click here.

Each of these videos would provide a great jumping off point for discussing climate change in the classroom. Because climate change is often talked about as having potentially catastrophic effects, thinking about it can feel overwhelming and hopeless. But these videos, without downplaying the seriousness of climate change, focus on how much we can do to combat climate change and emphasize tangible steps that individuals and societies can take. This approach is crucial to keeping students engaged with the issue.

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeChoices has a suite of new resources on climate change. We have recently released our unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice, which is available in both print and digital formats. One of the lessons in the unit asks students to work in groups to design their own NGO to address their top concerns about climate change. The students then create a visual or multimedia publicity tool for their organization.

In addition, we have a fresh collection of videos to complement the readings and lessons included in the unit. These videos feature leading climate change experts discussing why climate change matters; who is most responsible for and vulnerable to climate change; how individuals, local governments, NGOs, and international leaders are responding to climate change; and much more.

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