Last year, I spent ten days in Cuba. So, when President Obama recently announced an effort to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, I found that news very exciting. Full diplomatic relations will be a welcome policy in Cuba, but what Cubans really want to see is an end to the embargo.
Every day we were there, probably several times every day we were there, we heard the same message: everyone in Cuba can read and write and everyone has access to health care. And then they would ask us: Please end the embargo. Sometimes this message included a plea to release the remaining three of the five Cubans held in American prisons on charges of spying. (The three Cubans were released as part of a prisoner swap that helped set the stage for restoring full diplomatic relations.) Sometimes people merely wanted to be able to buy toilet paper.
Under the embargo, Americans and American companies are not allowed to do business in or with Cuba; foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies are also not allowed to trade with Cuba. To the average Cuban, the embargo means that they cannot get many of the items we expect to use in our daily lives — aspirin, band aids, toilet paper, etc. To Cuban businesses, the embargo means that they cannot get the parts (to keep their 1950s cars running, for
example) or the glass and other building materials they need to restore the historical buildings in old Havana. Nor can Cuban goods reach our country. We were only allowed to bring educational materials and works of art back to the U.S. — no rum and no cigars!
Because I went to Cuba as a member of an education delegation organized by Witness for Peace, I did not have the usual tourist visit. During our ten days, we visited the Ministry of Education, the Pedagogical Institute, the Literacy Museum, two elementary schools, the national ballet school, the Latin American Medical School, a fishery, a tobacco farmer, a Paolo Freire community center, the school for restoring historical buildings, a medical clinic and a pharmacy, and the studios/homes of several artists.
We also met with an historian, a group of local teachers, two practitioners of African-based religions (a Palero and a Babalawo), a journalist, and we went to a briefing at the U.S. Interests Section. In every instance, we had conversations about life in Cuba, we asked Cubans what they wanted for their country, we compared approaches to literacy, we learned about life in Cuba. If it sounds like an exhausting trip, it was.
My favorite afternoon was the visit to a Paolo Freire community center. The center is located in a suburb of Havana and has a day care center as well as programs for seniors. We spent an afternoon with some of the local seniors who were enrolled in the “Thursdays are for Grandparents” program. In Cuba, families often span several generations, they frequently live in the same house, and grandparents are often called upon to “help out.” The goal of this program is to make Thursdays “Grandparents Day,” a free day for grandparents to come to the center, socialize with friends, develop hobbies, and engage in a program designed to help them cope with their family situations. How, for example, can grandparents develop a good relationship with their grandchildren? How do they negotiate their role and their responsibilities in their extended family situation?
The program is actually a two year course and, upon completion, the seniors receive a certificate from a national university. Along the way, they develop new friendships, get to socialize on Thursdays, and find new activities of interest. As one of the participants told us, “We don’t have things to do in our suburb like people who live in Havana. In Havana, they have parks, and cafes, and swimming pools. We don’t have that, unless you count the big potholes in our streets as swimming pools.” Maybe I liked this visit so much because the people were not only friendly and energetic; they also had a sense of humor.
The participants were from many walks of life — retired government workers, a psychologist, a homemaker, some teachers, etc. They showed us their many art projects — paintings and colorful hand-made dolls covered the walls. And, they described their program for us. We broke into groups and had the opportunity to talk about life in Cuba, what they wanted for their country, what life was like for seniors in the U.S. Of course, they brought up the embargo. I felt connected to these people in ways that did not happen in other parts of the trip. These seniors, despite their day-to-day struggles, are working hard to make every Thursday their day, with some pretty remarkable results.
The embargo keeps many international companies out of Cuban ports for fear the United States, in retaliation, will ban them from U.S. ports. When we visited a local store with clothing, furniture, appliances, televisions, etc., we saw only very small displays in every category. It was definitely not a Walmart experience. Food is rationed; people have cards that are stamped when they purchase food. In other words, these seniors have every day difficulties to deal with that we don’t encounter in the United States. And yet we had much in common — our similar family experiences, our concern over the future lives of our children and grandchildren, and the choices we were making as we age.
Cuba is panoply of contradictions. One elementary school gave us musical presentations with strong political messages about the Cuban Five and the embargo; another elementary school sported Disney cardboard posters along the school walk; food is rationed, but we ate well, especially at the lunches hosted by various artists in their studios; few Americans are traveling in Cuba, but people from other countries, especially European countries, were everywhere, traveling in their sleek, modern, air-conditioned, made-in-China buses.
The afternoon with the seniors was only a small part of the trip, I have lots of other images — gorgeous, architecturally stunning buildings, block after block after block of former beauty, crumbling down; a few individual homes, some squares and small streets of restored buildings in old Havana so that one area, at least, felt like sitting in a plaza in Barcelona; children in school uniforms every where we went; children and parents meeting after school in that plaza and scurrying off to home; a big Havana restaurant with music and dancing; small country bars, also with music and dancing; pushing 1947 tractor out of the tobacco farmer’s muddy field; a large gathering with speakers and music and children dancing in front of the Pedagogy Institute to celebrate the birthday of José Martí, celebrated Cuban poet and national hero, author of some of the verses of Guantanamera; the beauty of meticulously restored American cars of the 1950s and the pride of their owners who were often provided our late-night taxi rides back to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center; the tall, Afro-Cuban minister of the church with the gay pride flag next to the Cuban flag; the small, rural town doctor who, exuding professionalism and pride, showed us her clinic; the Che Guevara photos at the town’s computer lab; the woman who was twelve years old when the revolution occurred and who went off to the countryside to teach people how to read and write and now is the director of the Literacy Museum.
The trip was filled with gorgeous images, and sad images, and a rare opportunity to glimpse Cuban culture and life — a far more lively and accessible place than what I had seen during visits to other communist countries long ago in the 1960s and 1980s. Cuba and its people seem to be on their way to a new chapter. The establishment of full diplomatic relations will be a welcome first step toward a better understanding between the two countries, and, maybe, a first step to lifting the embargo.
Sharon Thomas is the former mayor pro tem of Las Cruces and a retired professor from Michigan State University.