Cuba has always been a mysterious and fascinating place for Lincoln Park Councilman Elliott Zelenak.
mbers seeing Cuba as a child, flying tens of thousands of feet above the 42,426-square-mile Caribbean island while on a family vacation.
“I saw it from the airplane going to Jamaica and thought it was cool; I wondered why we couldn’t land there,” recalled 20-year-old Zelenak, the city’s youngest elected government official. “Due to the decades-old embargo, getting a glimpse of daily life in Cuba has been really difficult. … Before, we weren’t allowed to visit, and in the global world we live in, it’s hard to learn about a culture and not be able to see it for yourself.”
Later this month, Zelenak will finally make the journey to Cuba to experience it firsthand, spending two weeks in Santiago de Cuba and one week in Havana — the island’s two largest cities. The Wayne State University junior, majoring in political science, will travel there through a study-abroad program to get a look at Cubans’ way of life and the political scene that exists after the revolution of the late 1950s and now 55 years of commercial, economic and financial barricades stemming from U.S.-imposed embargos.
He said he plans to bring back an understanding of how Cuba can learn from Michigan government models and vice versa.
“Relations with Cuba are changing daily, and in a relatively short amount of time, all current restrictions will be set aside and the past decisions that plague them will be gone,” Zelenak said. “We’ll be able to learn from them and they from us. I hope Cuba will be able to look at cities like Lincoln Park and view our achievements and make well-informed decisions to help them in the future.”
When it comes to the trading of ideas, Zelenak said, he finds the Cuban people’s focus on the whole, rather than the individual, particularly interesting. One example of the success that stems from the culture’s sense of togetherness, he said, is the Cuban Literacy Campaign that virtually eliminated illiteracy after the Cuban Revolution through a yearlong volunteer effort.
Zelenak said he believes that same sense of togetherness can be applied by Lincoln Park residents to address the city’s most pressing issues, such as blight, development and public image.
“Cubans have always viewed working together as important,” Zelenak said, noting that it’s not about getting Lincoln Park residents to join a particular cause, but to get involved in what they feel most passionate about.
“It’s really about how we can get people out there and working together for the greater good of the community. Our low voter turnout shows that people aren’t very active and that has a bigger effect than most people realize.”
Volunteerism in any community is important, he said, because it brings together a community of people, who may or may not be alike. Zelenak said he believes citizen activism has the potential to be a solution for Lincoln Park as it transitions out of state-mandated emergency management in the next year.
“There’s still a lot of improvement we need, but can’t really afford, so volunteering will help until we get back to where we need to be,” he added.
Lincoln Park Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said he is glad to see a councilman embark on such an experience and how it will shape his leadership skills.
“Elected officials often draw upon their personal experiences to make them better leaders,” Coulter said. “This will be a great experience for him, and it will be interesting to see what new ideas he brings back.”
Zelenak’s three-year term on the Lincoln Park City Council ends in 2016. He said he plans to pursue a career in politics and hopes to use his cultural immersion experience with Cuban citizens to learn how to better connect with constituents at home.
“There is something to be learned from the successes and failures of a revolutionary government,” he said. “The Cuban Revolution was a culmination of people’s grievances and history of suffering. It shows me how important it is to connect with the people and their needs in order to represent them.”
Mayor Tom Karnes said Zelenak’s trip will be an opportunity of a lifetime, being among the first people to visit Cuba after relations with the United States are normalized.
“There’s been many positive things he’s done for the city, becoming the youngest councilman,” Karnes said. “He’s an ambassador for Lincoln Park and this is a heck of an opportunity for him. And, if he happens to bring back some cigars, that would be all right, too.”
Jessica Strachan, The News-Herald: The Voice of Downriver
June 4, 2015