It seems odd that I’m writing this blog a year to date after I returned from Cuba and just after my trip to Greece this year, where I was for the same amount of time—another southern country facing economic collapse due to being punished (by the EU). So this feels like the right time to blog about Cuba.
My dad (or Zayde as he is called by his grandaughter) took me to Cuba for a special birthday. We went to Havana (Habana), as well as the western end of the island to Las Terrazas and Viñales — in 8 days on an educational tour This is the end of our journey and we are still smiling!
This is me with a woman literacy tutor mannequin from the campaign of 1961, at the (UNESCO supported) Museum of Literacy in a western suburb of Habana. Girls, younger than 16 left the city, with permission of their families and moved to the countryside to teach literacy to mostly rural women by lantern at night and work alongside them in the day in the fields. All participants in the campaign proved their literacy abilities by writing a letter to Fidel Castro. One of these teachers was the center director who shared her personal experiences during this heroic year. See the documentary Maestra and the trailer which is about this massive campaign to educate women by women. The museum doesn’t just pay homage to this period but is a vibrant centre supporting literacy activities in Cuba’s schools as well as many countries. Cuba has attained one of the highest literacy rates in the world and has an activist orientation to education. Freirean curriculum is taught at a young age. From pre-school to university, education is free and accessible, continuing informally and formally through distance learning centers.
Throughout my career, I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. Recently, I wrote a book focused on women and deskilling, with one participant a Cuban immigrant, perhaps the most highly educated of the sample. Although she had a master’s degree, teaching at a university and speaking fluent English, she was a caregiver in a British nursing home. While there has been a lot of attention on deskilling in Cuba, for example by Yoanni Sanchez in her blog and book, Cuba Real, the deskilling outside of Cuba is considerably as real.
Cuban women are some of the most highly educated women in the world and very well integrated into the workforce due to laws and mores and Cuba’s history of gender equality through Fidel Castro and Vilma Espin’s work as well as others (although this doesn’t rule out sexism, see for example the work of Marta Nunez). Also health and well-being of mothers and children are priorities. Cuba is one of the top 20 nations achieving progress towards the Millenium Development Goals. See for example a recent 2013 report, called, Women’s Work.
Why go to Cuba when I could read about it? All my life I’ve been oriented to Cuba.
My father dressed as Castro on Halloween and it was a long-standing joke in the family. My cousin Brian has a blog on freedom of expression (unrelated to Cuba), called, The Cuban Revolution. I also met Cuban-Americans, like a friend in grade school, Mercedes, due to my last name. Then as an adult I became interested in adult literacy and education, for which Cuba is renown (hence me and the literacy teacher up top). Also an educator, my dad wanted to come and was so generous to bring me here. We located what looked to be (on the internet) a reputable Canadian tour company (none of us had ever been on a tour or did a long, long time ago). The tour focused on education but not just schools, all kinds, and was a good general introduction to Cuba itself. Although the law was relaxed in 2011, you still needed a visa and getting ours was a trip. In 2012 US citizens could get 3 kinds. One is educational (for university folks), the other is ‘research’ (for those who are teachers) and for those bringing children (religious). Guess what visa we got? This meant we had to join a temple and visit some temples/churches while we were there.
This proved to be interesting and set us on another journey to learn more about my dad’s cousin Sarita who was Cuban-born and since moved to the U.S., living with my father as a teen. So the educational tour also became a “Juban” adventure! Here is my dad, Sarita, and my uncle Norty.
Ruth Behar an anthropologist, who has researched her own Juban family history was a helpful guide to me, giving me ideas about which synogogues to visit. Her book on Cuban jewry, An Island Called Home was especially moving and helped identify people we met.
We entered Cuba through Cancun, party zone central. But through a friend, we found a more local restaurant that night and Ciela (or BC as she is fondly known) played in a playground in the old town square w/ other Mexican kids and their families which turned out to be a template for our Cuban trip (to do local things).
The logistics of getting to Cuba were difficult–see Ciela climbing into stroller:. But the worst part was the airplane from Cancun to Cuba. It left at 1.30 a.m. and we got in around 5 a.m. after waiting for our bags. In Cancun, before our takeoff, BC put a bead from the airport floor into her nose and we stood around trying to get her to sniffle it out, wondering if we’d ever really leave. Apart from that, the soviet airplane was divided into two classes—one for those who needed extra help and were disabled and the other, for the rest of us. What a refreshing beginning this was.
The tour had 13 people including BC, and nearly all were teachers. But there was also a retired social worker, a planner, and a novelist. One music teacher was Venezuelan and an aficionado of Cuban music so we followed her around to see bands.
We were a pretty diverse group and of all ages although everyone lived in the U.S. On our time off we ate in Paladars (homes turned into restaurants), saw concerts and went to schools as well as mulled over burning questions. Four were Spanish-speakers, which increased our learning and opportunities to connect with Cubanos. In one instance, Henry, after speaking to a teacher who left for the day, climbed over a gate to place some gifts for a school that was closed due to the summer break.
After sleeping a few hours after we entered Habana we went to a community center for boys and girls (Casas de los ninos and ninas), where we met the teacher/director, her staff and kids who are participants in this program and their families. This program offers informal learning and support for these kids with various social services that play an important role in a densely packed neighborhood where housing and space are at a premium. Here one family played music for us and sang local favorites. It felt like a genuine interaction and definitely off the tourist map. The director talked about the basic values of developing respect among one another as if we were all still in the 1960s. There was nothing said about making children more economically viable actors in today’s globally competitive society, as we hear so often in the U.S. and in other countries—as if that is the most important aspect of personhood.
One day we went to a senior and day care center. That day we unknowingly walked in to a board meeting taking place where about 300 seniors were voting. The tour guide wasn’t prepared for this. Upon learning that we were from Los Estados Unidos, they warmly welcomed us with a long applause, shocking and deeply touching us, knowing how badly and long they’d been treated by the U.S.
We also soon realized that elders clearly were not warehoused in Cuba (senior homes do exist) but given an active role in society. Upstairs was a daycare center where kids ate nutritious meals and had lots of activities and were taught by college-educated teachers and a director. I think U.S. policymakers could learn a lot from how Cubans treat both the very young and the old. We learned too, that pregnant women receive 20 prenatal visits and 26 visits from nurses/support workers upon giving birth. Say again?! Then we went to the Museum of Literacy.
Back to Habana, decaying elegance is how I’d describe the central part with its many classical buildings and broken down streets. The hotel we stayed in was in the center and where we witnessed people in parks and in activity at all hours of the evening and night due to the intolerable heat (even Cubanos complained), so it was not a time to be running around in the middle of the day. Of course we went to the National Museum and saw Abel Barroso’s pinball machines which were so beautiful but walking the streets was the most enjoyable. We ate ice cream from local vendors, brought BC to a favorite playground, drank sugarcane and tamarind juice, and fell in love with the creative ways that people lived and worked.
There were no advertisements only revolutionary graffiti which backgrounded the old chevies that cruised by us.
The Malecon was important to the kids who jumped off of the rocks and for getting a breeze. We often walked by streets with people playing or in people’s homes who were painting. We took a salsa class, but as you see there are no photos (cough cough) and we did see Alexander Abreu an amazing Cuban musician.
We also went to the suburbs and countryside : We drove into a Havana suburb where we visited an organic farm that was set up as a cooperative where the average age of the farmers was 60 (due in part to the level of commitment needed and the fact that the workforce is highly professionalized). After that, an hour and a half to Las Terrazas, where we visited an eco-village, hearing some excellent folk music, swam, and enjoyed the scenery. And then finally another hour and a half to Vinales where we visited tobacco and coffee farms, and caves where slaves escaped to and hid. And of course, more music, even here. Art and music and politics were all combined and everywhere.
We visited one artist’s studio, Jose Fuster, who is infusing art into an entire community in a vibrant way that is both surreal and valuable. He is Cuba’s Gaudi! While the art and music does not compensate for the devastating economic blockade that has affected everyone, it does show the resilience of the Cuban people to survive.
We had an excellent lecture from Professor Marta Nunez at the U. of Havana on gender issues and education. We discussed privatization, Cuba’s political future, experiments in education, the effects of the blockade, emigration, and Cubano’s attitudes on social and economic issues especially women’s rights and their position in Cuban society as well as racism. Since 2010, with Raul Castro’s takeover, there is now some heavily taxed private property and small businesses. Although all income levels are very low across the spectrum—$25 or so a month of Cuban dollars no children go to bed hungry. They have ration booklets and many people survive on this and the black market and from remittances from emigres. Cuba seems perched on a cusp of change.
This wooden lattice holding up a building seemed like a good metaphor of resilence, amidst difficulty. While we saw some Cubanos with personal luxury items, the construction materials etc..to fix building and streets was obviously lacking We didn’t see too many mobile phones but people do have them nonetheless. We discovered the Internet is only accessible to about 5% of the population and is heavily censored and extremely slow although they are trying to build a cable from Venezuela. A few of us used it and then gave up after the 6 CUC cost per session. This artist, Salvadore, definitely captured the irony between change and continuity with his telephone—we also went to his studio.
We stayed in government run hotels so all of the revenue from us went back into the pool making us constantly aware of our presence and our efforts to support the Cubans in whatever ways we could. We also brought with us medicine and health care, school supplies and other gifts. We were also conscious about eating food that was not easily available to many Cubanos especially meat (we didn’t have much of this either, mostly fish, pork and chicken—and no the food is not spicy). It didn’t help when we saw what food like noodles cost and how they were sold. We did have what many Cubanos drink. Our milk was powdered and BC rejected it at first. Also our fruit was canned aside from some delicious mangos and we had rice from China for lunches and dinners. Food appears to be closely monitored—you couldn’t go to a grocery store and choose something off of the shelf. It was all encased. Large-scale agriculture seemed out of the question with the lack of resources and the dependence on the the Soviet Union was no more. Those who worked in the tourist industy, like our guide, was a former teacher and saw her job as offering perks, especially the tips she received. Everywhere we went we tipped. Toilet paper was in sharp demand, so we tipped for that at all bathrooms, including restaurants.
Tires and other car parts, that we saw at the airport were also in sharp demand…
During our last days we visited two Cuban synogogues. At the grand El Patronato, we met Salomon the schnorrer (Yiddish for ‘freeloader, moocher, beggar’), as Ruth Behar describes him, and also, ‘smart and cunning, and he’s capable of being very charming.’ Ozias made quick friends with him! In the reception room, there were pics of Fidel Castro with members and letters and photos from Steven Spielberg who came there.
The other temple, Centro Sefardi, was also conservative, but more low key and very comfortable. Everyone there greeted us and welcomed us to their Saturday morning service with about 20 people and a woman rabbi or kantor. We couldn’t stay long because BC started crying a lot. Both synogogues were in the Vedado district.
Afterwards, we went to a farmers market to sample the fruits. They sold poultry and fish too. Then we headed for the airport. Although we still don’t know the exact origin of our last name, ‘Cuban,’ we do now know that my grandfather changed it first from Chibinsky (at Ellis Island) to Cubin and finally to Cuban when he was naturalized (became a citizen). Sarita thought that maybe it was because he wanted a less Jewish sounding name since he had a difficult business and needed any break he could. This Cuba trip has started me on a journey to get to know Sarita and her life in Cuba. We’ve even been talking about returning to Cuba together with her daughter in cooler months than July. Being my dad’s cousin the trip and Sarita has made me feel that I truly have a little bit of Cuban in me. It was hard to say goodbye but we hope to return again.