Death of Fidel. Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro died yesterday, on November 25, 2016, after 57 years of autocratic rule. His revolution against capitalism began with the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1959. To quote Fidel, “The revolution is a dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters.” Let’s see how that quote plays out in front of my own indoctrinated eyes, seeped in democratic rhetoric and tradition.
Been there. I am fresh from a first trip to Cuba three weeks ago in early November 2016. Forced to (legally) visit Cuba on a “person-to-person” visa for the purpose of Social, Education and Historical reasons, I traveled with a large group of 38, led by a Cuban tour guide, who was well-indoctrinated in his communist party’s line. I must admit that I saw some absolutely amazing historical sites such as the UNESCO Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s former house, old Catholic Churches from 1777, perfume ‘factories’, the cemetery (2.2 million buried), artist studios (Fuster), historical walks, visits to the Plaza de la Revolucion, live Salsa music, museums, and literally hundreds of Cuban propaganda papered across the city of La Habana (ranging from posters to building-sized faces of Fidel and his cronies.) The trip was only 3.5 days long. I saw real culture in the happy people, who lived with very little means. I stayed in a ‘“casita” with owners who simply loved to talk and held no ill-will about the past 57 years under the Castro regime and the effects of the US embargo against Cuba. In fact, so many Cubans are too young to know life in any other iteration.
Crumbling infrastructure. From the moment we stepped off the bus to meet our ‘house-mother’ of the casita, the crumbling infrastructure was an impediment. It was impossible to drag a suitcase over the crumbling sidewalks. Side roads boasted enormous potholes around which vehicles and pedestrians weaved. Old Havana and its nearby Vedado neighborhood (with a slum in between and multiple Soviet architectural monstrosities punctuating the skyline) boast gorgeous Spanish colonial-style architecture that is literally falling from the facades to the sidewalk and caving in from the roofs and floors, due to neglect, humidity, age, and hurricanes. Facades of once-pretentious private homes sat in crumbling piles at my feet. Our hosts provided hospitality with not a clue as to a model a hotel might look like (i.e. no soap, bed legs that collapsed, power outages, water every other day). Not once did I see a baby in a stroller. Could this be due to the poor infrastructure? The unavailability of strollers? The choking smog from the ubiquitous 50s Chevrolets? Fidel’s regime (most there don’t call him Castro, but Fidel) is fiercely proud and will not allow Havana to be re-built or re-colonized by outside investment. People there don’t own their homes, but don’t want to be displaced by renovations, so even if offered, the occupants deny the opportunity. Despite the recent gargantuan efforts to restore around 4,000 buildings in Old Havana, the best we saw were upgraded facades, with crumbing alleys and interiors. We walked into courtyards behind them to witness the devastating condition of the buildings. Terraces had fallen, stones littered the courtyards, catwalks connected rooms (through fallen floors and ceilings), and electrical wires were strung all across the exterior of buildings. Many windows lacked glass and any protection from the elements (mosquitos, rain, hurricanes). These are especially desperate times for an UNESCO World Heritage site.
Media. There is little news other than two state-run grainy TV channels, the weekly multilingual newspaper (propaganda) La Granma and a handful of other papers (none of which I saw for sale or saw anyone reading). Satellite dishes are prohibited and punished by ten years in prison for possessing one. Foreign multimedia (especially US) is prohibited, although exchanged on the black market. So, even while having healthy conversations with our tour guides about politics (not with people on the street, however – for fear of repercussion), I had to consider the lack of good information that our guides actually had access to. A brief discussion is cited here. One guide, Edel asks, “You have democracy, right? You can vote? You have a voice? You can travel? ” All good, so far. “Then explain me this,” he continues. “Why you cannot travel to Cuba for 57 years? Your OWN government prohibit you from doing this.” Pregnant pause. I quickly realize that this indoctrination subject goes both ways. He continued with the argument that while US citizens pay for healthcare and school. “In Cuba, the government GIVE us education and food.” Yes, the ration cards. I forgot to mention the ration cards. I saw a ration card up close and personally visited a ration depot to see how it worked. Six eggs a month per person, ½ pound chicken, 1.5 lb fish, 8 lbs rice, among other very basic things, yet milk ONLY for children six and under and those who are pregnant. If you are hungry and kill a cow, you will serve 30 years in prison. Personal items such as soap and sanitary napkins? Maybe, if available. This situation became deplorable in 1990 when the Soviet Union crumbled and withdrew their $3 million/day stipend to buoy Cuba. Once cigarettes and birthday cakes were rationed, but from 1990 on, commodities in Cuba could not be procured without bribery or trade. Fidel called this the ‘Special Period’. Cubans must tighten their belts and move forward! Most others would call it severe deprivation by Communism. Or, if you held the Communist party line, it was all about the decades’ old US trade embargo or otherwise known as the “El Bloqueo”.
Seen here. What books are available for purchase.
The Cuban privilege. I lived it – even just for a few days. (Although, I clearly enjoyed a better protein diet than the average Cuban.) Our tour guide told us how privileged the Cubans are to have free education and free health care. The best in the world! “God forbid that you need to visit a hospital while you are here. But my friends, if you do, you will see that you are in excellent hands! There will be no paperwork, no bills, and you will receive the best health care in the world.” I was inclined to believe it. After all, I had heard that Cuba trained teachers and doctors and shipped these Cuban experts to many other countries in need. I later learned that this was more like a trade-deal, so that Cuba could procure the goods they needed in exchange. Seen here, the best breakfast one can “procure” at the casita. Pink mayonnaise on bread, canned green beans, undressed cabbage, one egg and fried stuff which I can only describe in person. If you’re hungry and you don’t know when you’ll eat next, you’ll eat it. I did (except for the mayonnaise).
Access to goods. I was well warned in Miami that if I went only to Havana, I would NOT see the real Cuba. Apparently, outside the city there is virtually no access to goods and the people live in extreme poverty. “Havaianas have it good,” one Uber driver told me. “Go outside Havana to see the REAL Cuba.” Yet in Havana there were no markets, no pharmacies, no stores, no electronics – nothing to buy except what the government stores sold, or was privately available – such as items that were ancient and procured by private means, like a 30 year-old blender sitting on an open neighborhood window, obviously for sale. Internet access is almost nihl to Cubans. Apparently, 90% of Cubans do not even know that the internet exists. They posed for pictures, but no one had a ‘smart’ phone or cell phone, and I doubt they knew its potential. While I went completely off the grid for the 3.5 days I was in Cuba, I did see a few ‘hot spots’ where Cuban teens gathered on the sidewalk engrossed in phones of some iteration (presumably from relatives in the US) to connect for $2/hr to the internet (Facebook). Keep in mind that the average Cuban monthly income is $18. I think there are some cutting-edge, entrepreneurial businesses (such as the casitas and tour agencies) that are gleaning internet access in some way (via satellite?), but the exposure is very, very minimal. I tried to look up the website to Ekelsontours.com (Edel’s company) and reached a dead end.
Education. Cuba boasts of its free educational system for all. I am educator who has visited schools in rural parts of Colombia and Mexico, making connections between children across the globe. I dreamed of making even the slightest connection between the students in Vermont with whom I work and a school in Cuba. I requested a school visit to be included in our itinerary. After all, the people-to-people Visa is about culture, education and history on a scheduled tour! Months after my inquiry (waiting up until 4 days prior to the trip), the Cuban Ministry of Education ultimately denied the request to visit a school. They did not like the idea of my bringing a letter from students in the USA. Or, they just couldn’t fathom pulling together a visit that would be fitting to their image of world-class education. It’s a fact that the regime tries to control access to information from the outside world.
Yet on day one in Old Havana the opportunity presented itself. My friend noticed that we were walking right by a school and offered to take my picture in front of the entrance. The doors were wide open and the custodial staff encouraged me to step in. I leapt at the opportunity, even while the tour marched on down the cobblestone streets. I was led to the doorway of a 2nd grade classroom. About 25 children dressed in uniforms were lined up at wooden desks facing the chalkboard, two to a desk. There were posters of Fidel and Che on the wall overlooking the pupils. Natural light filtered through the windows. Two students recited a verb conjugation at the front of the class, and then the rest of the pupils answered in unison. It was a throwback scene from the 1950s. I saw no technology in the classroom, except an old TV on a cart (which I later understood to be used for VCR tapes). Next to the classroom sat the director, a dark-skinned woman in her 40s, dressed in a professional suit. She smiled at me from behind an enormous wooden desk with a few papers on it. There was no telephone, no computer, not a stitch of technology in her office. I introduced myself briefly, left a few small gifts for the class (pink eraser tops and manual sharpeners), and excused myself to sprint back to the tour. My heart felt big. I actually saw the inside of a Cuban elementary school.
Our tour guide, Manuel, boasts about the education in Cuba. “In Cuba, we are nearly 100% literate!” I must admit that this is a very impressive statistic, placing Cuba among the top 10 of the most literate countries in the world. Manuel did explain that the textbooks at school were regurgitated year after year, and that it was likely that the same group of textbooks had been used by his mother, 20 years prior. The same textbooks. He said this in the context of how important it was to care for their books, and that if they lose a textbook, they stand to pay 15 cents to replace it (a small fortune). Where’s the innovation, inquiry, and access to information that contribute to the complete education of a learner? As an technology educator, the idea of learning from one or two sources alone (dated textbooks and content from the teacher) is abhorrent. The Castro administration seeks to strictly limit and control its citizens’ access to information. The indoctrination of the Castro regime seeks to plant pride in the hearts of Cubans by telling them that they are receiving the absolute best education has to offer, but they simply have no means to compare or to know that they are dealt only a few cards in the deck. I highly doubt that graduating students have the skills, resources and experience to compete on a global level in today’s connected society.
Hospitals. On the flight back to Miami, I sat next to Miguel, a young Cuban man in his 20s. He was clearly upset, and breathing deeply. I inquired if he was okay. He explained his worry about his mother back in a hospital in Cuba with an unknown abdominal malady. He was extremely concerned about her prognosis and the two-week wait for abdominal surgery. He showed me the following pictures of her shared hospital room and bathroom. Cutting-edge? I think not. Let’s consider the obvious. Where is the advanced technology? Why is there mold and peeling paint in the bathrooms? Unsanitary! When is a toilet seat an optional accessory, especially for the infirm? Miguel told me that Cubans do not have any choice of toilet seats whatsoever.
Paint peeling from the walls. Bring your own blankets and fan. Where is the advanced medicine?
I asked Miguel if he was happy with his life in the USA. His face lit up and he said, “Yes! Little Havana is just like Havana, but with FOOD! … (pause) and jobs … (pause) and a future.”
Miguel went on to send me photos of their “Walmart in Cuba” (aka government stores). Even if one has money, there’s little to procure. The shelves of the stores are bare, except for rice and more rice, and a single string of sausages. Another image shows a plethora of unlabeled detergent (?) and corridors of empty shelves. I had known this to be an issue in Cuba, having read three books prior to my visit. Our luggage was limited to 20lbs. Yes, 20 lbs., including the suitcase. So, there was no way to bring in goods. Besides, we were warned that any gifts we chose to bring would be taxed by the Cuban government. So, the tiny gifts I brought to the school and to my casita had all been removed from packaging, except the Ziploc baggies, which were received with astonishment. I also left a few hotel soaps, sanitary napkins, shampoos, hair clips and ties, as well as the hand towels I had brought with me.
If you only need unlabeled detergent, one string of sausage or rice. Otherwise empty shelves.
Surviving Cuban Life = Situated Learning. This is a tongue-in-cheek comparison to learning styles I have studied in my Educational Technology class this fall. Situated Learning is “learning by doing” and the theory is that “realistic and complex problems allow learners to learn to think and practice like experts in the field.” It’s an ironic, but real daily practice on the isolated Caribbean island of Cuba. Daily life in Cuba is difficult. The lack of resources in Cuba has created an industrious, enterprising and resourceful population who can hack everyday materials to modify and repair the tools they have (circa 1959). Procuring what an individual needs to survive and maintain is a full-time job. Car parts are simply unavailable, yet Cubans manage to rework other materials to maintain old Russian and US cars that are often more than 50 years old. The rations that the government gives each Cuban falls short of covering their basic needs. However, there is an active black market for procuring meats, vegetables, personal items, and clothing. The tourist dollars (including the $US which is now legal to hold) provide a crucial income to Cubans who do not make enough money to survive. Most people hold two or more jobs in order to support themselves. Those who have the means, hire a posse of staff members whose job it is to upkeep the property and procure the goods needed to run the household.
The casita where I stayed (on a pullout couch with a collapse-able leg at will…) was a signature of Spanish colonial architecture. It was well-kept and tended, 24 hours/day.
The Real Story from Exiles. My most interesting discussions were with the exiled Cuban Uber drivers in Little Havana (Miami) prior to my trip to the island. Unlike Cubans on the island (who fear speaking out), those living in Little Havana have a LOT to say about the sacrifice and suffering of the Cuban people. In 1959, Fidel’s regime took possession of everything and claimed it as property of the state. If you owned a house – it’s now property of the state. If you had a business – it’s now government owned. If you had money in the bank – it’s been confiscated. Every Cuban was given 200 pesos each to start a new life. Another quote by Fidel, “The revenues of Cuban state-run companies are used exclusively for the benefit of the people, to whom they belong.” And yet, the Cuban people have NOTHING except what is communal today, and those few who are allowed to do small enterprise authorized by the state. See the photo of the lady with the cigar (note her laminated ‘permiso’).
The first picture shows school children seeing their photo for the first time on a traveler’s Smart Phone. The photo on the right shows school children taking a walk. Note the boy wearing one sneaker and one flip flop.
A Cuban Uber driver, Edemberto had this story to tell over the 14-minute ride. “My father was trained as a mechanical engineer. He was sent to Mexico a few times for extended-work projects, and then returned back to Cuba. He was then sent to Canada for another job. While there, he met up with the cousin of a friend. She took him on a ride which led to a rural area. At one point, she screamed, “Get out of the car, run, run, over there!” In the distance he could see a figure and ran toward it. It was his uncle, standing inside the border within the US. The father had no idea that this plan had been made for him. Now he was in the United States filing for exile status. A year later, established with a job and an apartment in the US, he saved and saved and saved his money so that he could send for his wife and son from Cuba. His wife made applications for permission to emigrate to the US, but got denied year after year. Apparently one can make only one request per year. Soon, the son, Edemberto would become 18 and be forced to serve two years in Cuban military service. In a desperate move, the father managed to find “human smugglers” who would be willing to get his family to Mexico for $12,000 each. BUT, the only way to do this was to divorce his wife. She then married a Mexican, obtained the paperwork for her and her son, Edemberto, to go to Mexico. They were in Mexico for two weeks, travelled north by bus to the US border, jumped out and ran with their hands up and yelled, “Wait! We are exiles from Cuba”. They had no idea why this strategy would work, but it did. The mom and son were whisked off to a debriefing holding cell for 48 hours with no sleep and little food. They were then sent to the east coast to be united with family. His parents later re-married. This is a desperate, but poignant story that exemplifies the suffering and sacrifice the Cuban people have endured since 1959.
Celebrations in the street. I am not at all surprised that Cubans in Little Havana are celebrating the death of Fidel. It symbolizes the opportunity for change to come to Cuba and hope for a better future. I have heard dozens of people quoted saying, “I wish my grandpa had lived long enough to experience this moment.”
Link to Anne’s Havana Photos (2016)
Parts Unknown – Cuba. By Anthony Bourdain (2015)
New York Times – The Story of Fidel Castro and Cuba. (26 Nov 2016)
Living Inside the Revolution – An Irish Woman in Cuba, by Karen McCartney (2012)
Cuba Diaries, by Isadora Tattlin (2003)
Countries with the Highest Literacy Rates (2016)