Below is a guest post by my sister, Rose, who recently went to Cuba as part of an educational trip. I think you’ll enjoy her story and photos.
Our daughter, Sarah, mentioned that she was going on an educational trip to Cuba and said “Mom, do you want to go?” After only a seconds hesitation, I said “Yes.” These are my thoughts and observations.
Cuba is a country of friendly, colorful people who are quick to smile and help each other as well as foreigners, regardless of either their Spanish or Afro/Cuban descent.
The Cuban people have suffered greatly. A quick history:
Fidel Castro became leader by overthrowing the previous military dictator in 1959 to establish the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere. At this time, all of the “well to do” people left Cuba. Castro made the Soviet Union his closest ally and they provided much economic help. Cuba’s oil was refined in the USSR, then sent back. Cuba bought most of its fuel, built their factories and power plants with Russian parts and technology. 1979 brought the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba completely destroying their economy. 80% of Cuba’s imports and 80% of Cuba’s exports were with the Soviet Union. Food, medicine and oil imports nearly or totally stopped. Cubans will not say that people starved during that period but they say food was scarce. The truth is, many survived because of outside humanitarian efforts. The Cubans refer to this as the “Special Period” and speak of it often. Cuba’s transportation, industry and agriculture came to a halt. Food shortages, medicine and everything including electricity was no longer available. The power plants were built with Russian technology and parts. As they broke down, power became available only one hour a week in the cities. There was no electricity in the rural areas at that time. Even now solar batteries are provided to rural homes and farms by the government where power lines have not yet reached them.
Transportation in Cuba is still a major problem today. It includes ancient Soviet trucks outfitted with side racks, a canvas cover and wooden benches to move people. There are old buses in Havana. EVERYONE hitchhikes and many ride old style bicycles, small old motorcycles are popular, bicycles with attachments to taxi 2 or 3 people, horses and carts along with 1950’s American cars, small old square Russian cars and ancient school buses are the most used modes of transportation in Cuba today. Within the last year under Raul Castro‘s rule, Cubans are allowed to buy new cars. The problem is, most Cubans can not afford private transportation say nothing of a new car.
During the “Special Period” there was no fuel to run farm machinery, fertilizer or any other petroleum based products. Organic agriculture was mandated. We saw horses and oxen plowing the small tobacco and sugar cane fields. We did see an occasional elderly tractor. Cuba’s communist government controls almost everything including agricultural products and prices. Tobacco farmers receive their seedlings from the government. They must turn 90% of the tobacco produced along with the tobacco seed back to the government. The farmers joke is…90% for the government and 20% for the farmer. On a dairy farm, the farmer owns the cows, the government dictates the milk prices and despite the fact that the cows belong to the farmer, he would get 10 years in jail if he killed the cow because the Cuban government owns all beef. All country homes are very small with no more than 3 or 4 rooms and no second stories.
Much like the US, Cuba is trying to solve it’s problem with discrimination between Spanish/Cubans and Afro/Cubans. Afro/Cubans are descendants of slaves brought into the country to work on tobacco, sugarcane and coffee plantations.
As a communist country, the government has it’s fingers in everything pertaining to all aspects of Cuban life. In some cases, this is not all bad. Education is one example. All school children, whether city or very rural, receive the same level of and opportunity for education. Everyone with good grades and a desire, goes to college and it is paid for by the government. I suspect they have to maintain a good average to remain in college. Healthcare is also provided by the government. I did not ask how good the healthcare and availability of hospital services are. I can’t remember of seeing a hospital in Havana.
The Cuban government provides monthly rations at the local bodega, to each and every man, woman and child which includes; a certain amount of milk for every child under 7 years of age, rice, beans, 5 slices of bread, 5 eggs, sugar and oil for each person. Purchased groceries are also subsidized.
We met with several musicians to discuss their desire over the years to make social changes in Cuba. One gentleman discussed the changes and influences the rest of the world has had on Cuban music. He and others like him were considered “Moles” because they were part of the Cuban underground movement for change. He spoke, played and sang demonstrating the changes Elvis, The Beatles, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, 70’s 80’s and 90’s music had on traditional Cuban music. The point is, no matter what kind of restrictions and isolation tactics a government puts on it’s people, they will find a way learn about music, world affairs and politics outside of their small contained world.
There are a few high rises in Havana but most of the beautiful old buildings are crumbling. It appears that under Raul Castro’s rule, restoration has begun. Nothing was done to maintain or fix buildings, plumbing etc. under communist rule and before that the military regime. This is one of the saddest things about Cuba as a whole. We toured a School of Restoration in Havana. After high school, interested students attend this school, run by the government of course. After two weeks of working at the school, which is located in a building that would be condemned in the US today, they go out to do supervised work on public, state-owned, and government buildings. They learn to make molds to repair ornate plaster and busts, furniture and woodworking repair from scrounged pieces of wood and furniture, stained glass window repair which are abundant in the cities, and repair work on the beautiful wrought iron found everywhere in the Spanish influenced architecture. The city of Havana has many, many beautiful old buildings in dire need of repair.
This leads to the biggest problem Cuba faces today; the housing issue. If the government controls everything, as the population increases and almost no new housing is built, this leads to three or four generations living in two room apartments. The people own their apartments and the only way to get an apartment is if one generation dies which really does not help as there are still several other generations residing in that residence. This is not an occasional problem, this is the norm. There are people packed together in crumbling homes all over the Island of Cuba. There is an abundance of land on the outskirts of the cities but again transportation to work, school and shopping would be a problem.
When I remember Cuba, this is what comes to mind. Beautiful unique mountains, fields of sugar cane, small banana orchards, coconut palms, royal palms, tobacco fields, coffee beans plants, rich red soil, fishing villages, a mountain with a lone palm tree on the very top, old coffee plantations, flowers unique to the Caribbean, horse and carts sharing the road with cars and trucks, buses, bicycles and hitchhikers, huge ficus, mango and papaya trees, cute little lizards and light green frogs, tobacco drying barns, limestone mountains that have worn away exposing stalagmites and stalactites, beautiful sunsets, fresh pineapple, mojito’s and piña colada’s made with Havana Club rum, underground caves with a subterranean river running through it that housed Indians and later run away slaves, Bramante bulls, musk oxen with huge horns, 1940 and 1950 cars along with tiny three room homes, beautiful white sand beaches, the never ending Atlantic Ocean bordering the City of Havana and a population of friendly people.
I would love to see Cuba in 10 years. I picture Havana’s beautiful old buildings restored, new housing for young families, and farm communities moving into this century. Brazil is investing in a state of the art sea port in Mariel, Cuba. The hope is that all supplies to and from the Caribbean Islands will pass through this port as well as establishing ties with Latin America and Asia. Hopefully, this will improve the Cuban economy.
I will not say that Cubans are happy people but they are a society of people that are quick to smile despite the fact that they must work hard to scratch out a living under communist rule that they have no control over. My wish is that we could lift the embargo. We do not have to send them millions of dollars in aid, just buy their sugar from cane, tobacco, cigars, Havana Club rum (which is good stuff) and coffee. They are our neighbors. Cuba is only 90 miles from Miami. They truly are our neighbors.