Robin Bee: Letter from Cuba

Posted on 24. Feb, 2003 by in Updates


MY EXPERIENCES: I was on Global Exchange’s Cuba! Language and Culture trip, for 4 weeks from Jan 4th- Feb 1st. I was in Spanish class every weekday at the University of Havana from 9 am – 12:30 pm. It was really tough! We were learning about grammar, totally in Spanish. I never did well with grammar in English. I needed about 2 hours for homework most days. Never again!! In the afternoons and evenings there were numerous group events and presentations to partake in. There were 34 of us in the group for the first 2 weeks (half were taking African dance classes) and then there were 6 of us left, still taking our Spanish classes. I went to almost every planned event, as learning about the country and its people was the reason I went. Many times I was the only one there. I went to a local beach with the group once, during one of the 5 warm days we experienced on the whole trip. We got lucky that day! I got to speak with a lot of people on the street, by collecting the hotel soaps, shampoo and other goodies and offering them to whoever asked for soap (a very common request), as well as spend a bunch of time with quite a few families and singles who were friends of people in the US. I recommend this method. Delivering gifts to them was my opportunity to get started. I also found a couple of friends all by myself, at school. Of course, there were 2-3 people in the larger group that I hit it off with as well, but they all left after 2 weeks. Bummer. My Dad was in town for 6 days during week number 3, so we explored museums and cigar factories and ate Chinese and Italian and chocolate cake a lot. He joined us for one of the movie events too. During the last 2 weeks, my Dad was the only person I was able to speak English with. The Language School group had a nice guy named Javier as our guide, but unfortunately, Javier does not speak or understand much more than the most basic English. So I was quite frustrated those last two weeks because I didn’t learn much of anything useful about anything I was interested in. There had been another guide for the larger “dancing” group, who went to events with us and spoke and translated beautifully, but he left when they left. By the way, the food available in Cuba leaves a lot to be desired. We had a buffet at the hotel every night for the first 2 weeks, and there was usually something to satisfy, each night. Mostly though, what you get at every restaurant is fried chicken or fish, plain white rice, black beans if you’re lucky, boiled potatoes or french fries, a tiny bit of white cabbage, tiny slices of cucumber and a couple unripe slices of tomato. I think I actually found real veggies about 5 times total, but I had to work for them. After everyone left, things got really iffy for dinner at the hotel. All we were allowed to order was leftovers from the reg menu. I started eating out with friends and family. At least there was the possibility of choices.

THE ECONOMY: From approx. 1961’ until 1989’, Cuba exported 85% of its foreign trade to the Soviet Union. That included Honey, Marble, Sugar, Fruits, Fish, and Vegetables. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989’, they had to re-invent their whole way of life, because nobody had ever successfully transitioned from depending on high technology, to not having any technology, fuel, spare parts, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. There was nobody to learn from. About every two years after that, the economists and scientists in Cuba would try out new ideas for the ones that were not working. They were forced to look at unorthodox methods of growing food without chemicals or machinery, and forced to look at every problem that come up, differently. Part of the problem was that the Russian technology they HAD been using was not compatible with any other technology, even if they could get it. They had to start from scratch, with no money. Mario, our economist, says it was very hard on everybody, but he thinks it was worth it. They still depend on exports, but they sell to many more countries now. The one big drawback is that they are still trapped in depending on sugar as a major export, at a time that the world is in a glut of sugar. Mario thinks that when the embargo is lifted, they could do very well by selling organically grown vegetable and fruits to the US and Europe, IF, Cuba can keep the pesticides and fertilizers out of the system permanently. Also, there is no genetically engineered food grown on the island yet. I agree that this could be a real blessing in terms of export if they can pull it off. And Cubans don’t even like vegetables, so they wouldn’t even miss them.

HEALTH CARE: By 1993’, the population was developing 2 major health problems, one, called Cuban Neuropathy – an optic and peripheral vision manifestation from not eating a complete diet, and TB also increased dramatically at this time. In 1995’, the government began a complete renewal of the health system, including: more primary health care; better hospital services; biomedical and diagnosis. A major emphasis was put on Mothers & infants. Mothers to be, get extra food rations & checkups while pregnant. After the birth, the baby gets a full food ration, including milk. For one more year, the mother gets her full salary as well, so she can spend as much time at home with junior, as possible. Milk is included with the childs ration until it reaches 7 years of age. Nobody else gets milk as part of their monthly food ration. People can buy milk in the dollar stores if they want to, but it is expensive and hard to find. Cuba has communicable disease, senior citizen, and psychological programs, as well as programs for mentally and physically disabled citizens. All are free. Retirees receive free rent and a place to live until they die. If they need special housing, it is available at no charge. There are at present, 14,444 beds available in elderly homes nationwide, but most prefer to stay at home with family if they have one. Because birth control is available to all, most families have only one or two children now. The population is growing at only about 0.3% annually, and 14% are aged 60 years or more. Heart Disease is the #1 killer in Cuba. Cancer is #2, Cerebral Vascular diseases are #3. Flu & pneumonia are #4, and Accidents are #5. This covers 80% of total deaths. Peripheral blood vessel diseases are #6, Emphysema is #7, Suicide is #8, Diabetes is #9, and Cirrhosis of the liver is #10. You might notice that these are all “rich countries” diseases. Aids is a heterosexual problem in Cuba, with only 0.5% of people infected. Infected Aids patients have the option of staying in govt sanatoriums or being treated at home. They are working on a vaccine, and they do manufacture anti-virals, with no patent rights attached. Generally, each province has the same medical treatment facilities available to all. Both TB & Cuban Neuropathy have not been a problem for a few years. The country has an intensive biomedicals research & development program, and sells vaccines and anti-virals around the world. (While I was there, the police had a huge roundup of suspected drug dealers and users across the country, all in one day. I don’t think they got a lot of people but I do think it was sending a message – to prevent the tourist industry and extranjeros from becoming a target for the dealers.) There is a Family Practitioner in every neighborhood throughout the country – each makes house calls as well as runs a clinic. These people are the first line of education about all the health programs being promoted by the govt – for instance: eating healthier diets, cessation of smoking, promoting exercise for the elderly, etc (I saw elders in chi gong classes in a park every day on the way to school). Their job is essentially to head off societal and health problems before they get out of hand. They also keep track of family dynamics that could be a problem in the future, such as violence, drunkenness, or other abuse. There are programs that the perpetrators can go into to help them feel better about whatever is bothering them. There is also counseling for the families of these people.

THE DOLLAR DISPARITY: The average salary of Cubans (NOT in the dollar economy) is about 200 pesos a month. At 26 pesos to the dollar, that comes to less than $8.00 a month. Granted, everybody gets a food ration, which includes between 6-8 eggs per month, rents are probably less that a dollar a month, free health care and free education for as far as they want to go. Even so, $8.00 is not very much to live on, especially when there is nothing to buy in the peso stores, literally. As an example: Our bus driver works in the tourist industry, but still is paid in pesos and makes 230 pesos a month. The perk for him is that because he takes good care of his bus and us, most of us will give him a tip at the end of the trip. So he probably makes an extra $75-$100 dollars for 10 to 15 days work with 15 people. This is why so many Cubans with degrees are driving horse carriages, taxis, teaching foreigners yoga, or just out on the street trying to sell us tourists something, anything! My take on it is that Fidel has opened the Genies bottle with the tourist industry, and it is getting out of hand. There certainly is a great disparity between the haves and the have-nots already. I saw many Cubans with brand new cars, even BMW’s and Toyotas. I saw these people in the bars and clubs and Dollar Stores, buying very expensive (by Cuban standards) drinks, clothes, and appliances. The situation was completely different in the countryside, except, where the hotels and other tourist related stuff was. Apparently, someone in the US sends huge amounts of used clothing to Cuba, but then the govt puts them is department stores and sells them for probably ½ of what we would pay fro them if new. A T-shirt might go for $10, a simple cotton dress for $30, etc. Nobody that I met can afford to buy them. And of course, they must be purchased with Dollars. Doesn’t seem quite right to me.

GENDER & RACISM: The law in Cuba says that women have the same rights as men. But Machismo is still strong. In 1959’, immediately after the Revolution, the govt started programs to alter gender and racial inequities. Women now receive the same pay as men for the same work. 65% of professionals are now women. The races are very mixed in Cuba and racism is not evident, BUT, there are still some problems. They have found that Cubans who come from homes with little or no support system, may not continue with schooling, and subsequently, end up in low paying menial jobs (it’s all relative, right) in later life. A majority of these people tend to be black or mulatto. This also correlates to the fact that whites (of Spanish descent) tend to receive more of a helping hand from the Miami Cubans, in the form of money and gifts. This can help maintain a support system that can sustain them through the harder times. This racism is not overt, but it is present, none the less. All of the apartments and homes of black Cubans that I visited (except one, with unusual circumstances) were very small and in buildings that seemed that they would fall down while I was there. There were always many people coming and going, and it was difficult to tell who lived there and who did not. The apts of 2 whites I visited were in much nicer buildings and only one person lived in each one, after the parent had died. They also had big new color TVs and clothes washing machines, and portable radios and other electronic gizmos. They also ate meat on a regular basis, which is very expensive in Cuba. They generally appeared to be better off, one even had a poodle, and she complained about how expensive dog food was. Each and every one of these apts needed paint! The govt really has leveled the playing field, in this one respect! A side note: My experience was that the more “stuff” someone had, the more they complained about how bad things were for them.

EDUCATION: I was on my own, in Spanish, at this presentation, so I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked. If students live too far from a school of higher learning to get there easily, the govt has a scholarship program for them – all expenses paid. Until 1986’, the govt had hoped they could get all children into pre-schools. It proved to be too expensive, so in 1990’ they began a program to teach stay at home parents to “Educate your Child”. The parent had to complete a course, and then had follow-up throughout the period they were teaching their child, to make sure the child was not lacking in preparation for primary school. Once in primary, 1 teacher teaches all the courses, from 1st through 4th grade. In 5th + 6th, they have 2 teachers: 1 for Humanities and the Arts, and 1 for Math, Sciences and Physical Education. For 7th – 9th grades, they are trying a new program of 1 teacher teaching everything for each grade. It’s a lot more work for the teachers because they must go back to school again so they become proficient in all the courses before they begin teaching this program. There seems to be a lot of interest in it, though! At this point, about 50% of students go on to High School, and about 50% go on to Technical Schools. 10th – 12th grade is the usual courses with separate teachers.The two women who gave the presentation were experts in Education Research in the govt. I found out that they both were asked as teenagers to be part of the “Brigadistas”, thousands of young people who were trained for one year, to go out into remote villages in the mountains to teach both young and old Cubans how to read and write, and to learn about their history and their Revolution. For one year, possibly in 1962’, while the govt was refurbishing army bases and other buildings around the country, for schools, the Brigadistas lived in the huts of the people they were teaching. They both are very proud of what they were a part of, and said that this was the most exciting thing they have ever done! Their faces were beaming. (Every govt official or representative we met was very proud of the accomplishments made since the Revolution.)

LAS TERRAZAS: We drove about 1 hour SW from Havana into Pinar del Rio Province to visit a 25,000 hectare govt project started in 1968’. The weather here was humid and quite a bit warmer that in Havana. In the late 1700’s, a French family settled the area to grow arabica coffee. At that time, most of the tree cover was cut down except what was needed to shade the coffee plants. Buena Vista Plantation is the only restored coffee plantation in Western Cuba. For whatever reason, they decided to grow the coffee on top of the mountains instead of the usual river valleys, where the water was. Because of this, the costs of buying and maintaining the many extra slaves necessary to get the water to the coffee, etc, eventually bankrupted the family. By the 1850’s, the family packed up and left. At that point, Cubans, and then the Americans came in and cut down the rest of the trees. A main focus of Las Terrazas has been reforestation, as well as restoration of the plantation for export purposes. On the hillsides at the bottom of the mountains the govt has built villages of 3 story pre-fab apartment buildings for “coffee farmers” to live in. Many have been there since 1968 and are now retired. Most of the residents were volunteers from the cities with no previous experience as farmers. A number of artists and handicraft makers also are allowed to make and sell to tourists, with a reduced govt cut of the action. The setting was very pleasant, with lakes and ponds, ball fields, a nice hotel in the trees with a view of the whole place. About 1000 people live in Las Terrazas. Greywater systems are used to handle much of the sewage needs, and each apt has a nice view of the surrounding countryside and 3-4 rooms, quite a luxury compared to what people have in the cities. Before the Revolution there was maybe 11% left of the original forest cover in the country. Now there is about 23%, and the work continues.

CITY PLANNING: We went to visit a scale model (Maqueta) of the city of Havana. Second largest in the world, we were told. It is used by architects and city planners to actually place models of proposed new or remodeled buildings into place, then there are meetings of reps from applicable jurisdictions to discuss the pros and cons, before they get OK’d by city planning. It was very cool!

MORE OF THE TRIP: We saw 3 movies as part of the tour. All were fabulous! One of them, the documentary Fidel, by Estela Bravo, is playing around the country right now at small arty theaters. Go see it if you can, I highly recommend it! Another, was Miel Para Ochun (Honey for Ochun), a story dealing with the Cubans who left and now are coming back to find family left behind. Very powerful! The 3rd one was La Vida es Silbar (Life’s a Whistle), about the confusion of many Cubans about what their lives are all about. A 4th movie, La Ultima Cena was cancelled at the last minute. Many of the events during the last 2 weeks were cancelled at the last minute. Overall, I’m really glad I went, but I probably won’t try Global Exchange again if I go back to visit. The best part was meeting Yvonne’s friend Magdalena (a grandmother), and hanging out with Juan Carlos a few times. One of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. He’s all heart and soul.

In solidarity against retaliation and senseless aggression,

Robin Bee

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One Response to “Robin Bee: Letter from Cuba”

  1. Robin Bloomgarden

    02. Sep, 2009

    Jeeze, I do go on!

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