Read on to see the Special Report Back and Reflections on Cuba by Ollie Quinto. She has been a member of AF3IRM's NY/NJ Chapter since 2002. She went to Cuba from May 9th to May 15th as part of an independent research study program at Rutgers School Law-Newark.
A group of us students stayed overnight at the airport in Miami and waited for our flight to Havana until 11:30 AM the next morning. Being at the airport for almost 12 hours, I observed all those who were also flying to Cuba - mostly families, with huge bundles wrapped in green packaging and they were labeled food or clothes. Then there were the TVs, big flat screen ones which every other person had tightly packed.
Once we touched down on the airport in Havana, chaos ensuedas all these people collected their huge packages with the anticipation of sharing them with their loved ones. I wondered how all this infusion of American products – particularly the big TVs – are received by authorities in Cuba. I read that families were only recently able to import these things to this country, which according to our tour guide only had 5 TV channels. How were all these products of American consumerism – symbols of the hard work and the love that these people had for those back home – going to change this country which for all intents and purposes was still trying to defend itself from what it considers a corrupting influence?
But the Cuba émigrés reminded me of the Filipino migrants who come home every year to the Philippines, to bring the same kind of things to their families. It is a way to buy yourself into the middle class, a way to affirm that you and your family have been able to climb your way out of hardship. It is both a comforting ritual and a moment of pride for all immigrants to come home with gifts from the United States, where everything “great” is made.
When we first come out of the airport and into the blazing Caribbean sun, I thought it ironic that the first sign that these immigrants are greeted with as they load themselves with the product of the Capitalist North is a large billboard of Che Guevara, asking people to fight the revolution with pure of heart. But in the picture – as he gazes out amongst the tourists and the immigrants coming home to Cuba – Che almost looks resigned, as if he knows the revolution that he was asking for is a futile fight in the face of a 52-inch Flat screen Sony.
We boarded the bus and met our tour guide, Joel, who quickly launched to a historical patter about Cuba. Cuba was a beautiful country as I gazed out onto the window. Here and there you saw farms and animals grazing, typical of island life. And you start noticing the billboards. There are no advertisements here, said Joel, just billboards about the revolution and its heroes. Che was the popular one, with Fidel a distant second. I wondered why that is and thought maybe it’s because Che – dying young – is a romantic figure; unlike Fidel, he has never been tarnished by actual government. To many, he will always still be the shining revolutionary.
We then drove thru Old Havana. The architecture of this place astounded me. It reminded me very much of New Orleans, some areas looked like it was as hard hit by Katrina. There were buildings that looked centuries old and should be inhabitable, but we saw people living in these dilapidated conditions. I later found out that unlike what we had assumed, these people living in these old buildings probably inherited these homes. They didn’t want to leave them even despite of their condition because the government is undertaking a massive renovation project of Old Havana, restoring building by building. So these people have decided to hunker down because they know one day it will be their turn to have their house fixed and then they will be in the middle of a vibrant city, in the center of the action. Joel claimed that Havana was a city built only for a million people but today – if one includes the tourists – Havana hosts about three to four million people, so the city has to do a lot of updating to keep up with this need. Joel also mentioned that 80% of Cubans own their own homes, but the problem is upkeep. People cannot afford to improve their homes but at the same time – especially in Old Havana – the government does not want to raze the buildings because it would “destroy the soul of the city.”
Americans in Havana
We end up in what was apparently one of Havana’s finest restaurants. The food prices astounded me –they were the same price of a restaurant in New York City. I thought I would be saving money here but that was the day I learned about the binary monetary system of the country. We as tourists would never learn how to live – or pay for prices – the way the locals do because we were relegated only to the currency of the CUC. $1 U.S. equaled only .80 CUC and I thought it ironic that Cuba would of course not be undermined by the power of the U.S. dollar. The other surprising thing I learned that first day was that there were no toilet seats – even in this classy restaurant, toilet seats were a luxury. This is something I learned is true to many public accommodations throughout the country. I never did get an answer as to why this was, was it part of the embargo? Lunch also gave me my first glimpse on a recurring theme on this trip: the Cuban Pride of self-sufficiency. They did not have Coca-Cola, but what they did have was their own cola “Tu Kola” i.e. “Your Cola” – the people’s cola. It tasted pretty much the same, with just a little kick of revolution.
We had the afternoon and evening to ourselves. A group of us explored the Hotel Nacional on our first night, the famed Havana hotel where gamblers and mobsters and celebrities used to party in the old glamour days of the country, when – according to Joel – Havana had a million people and 25,000 prostitutes. Drank our first mojito on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting on wicker chairs on top of a green lawn and as I sat there and saw the European tourists come out of their rooms in their white linen strolling the grounds – which came complete with a peacock – I felt I was pulled back in time to the days of the Colony and wondered if these European tourists feel right at home here. As a person of color who came from a colonized country, this scene was an ironic one for me.
We arrive at The CubanInstitute of Friendship with the Peoples(ICAP) which was headquartered In a 1940s mansion which Joel claims symbolizes the Cuban bourgeoisie. The house was owned by a couple who lived there with 37 servants and it was their summer mansion in the city. Joel mentioned that this neighborhood for the rich was for a long time exclusive only to white Cubans and not welcoming to Black or mulattos, such as the former President Batista. We are welcomed by ICAP representatives who told us that the organization was started in the 1960s right after the revolution so as to spread information about the event to all other people. From the beginning, ICAP helped coordinate the International Brigades which came from around the world to support Cuba through aid in agriculture, construction and other parts of the economy. Now they continue to facilitate visits and exchanges between friendship organizations. The Institute organizes delegations for international groups to visit Cuba. The Casa de la Amistad, or Friendship House, run by ICAP, organizes social and cultural events and exchanges. ICAP also receives and distributes humanitarian aid from international solidarity groups.There are 200 such ICAP organizations around the world. Then we were shown a documentary about the Cuban 5.
The Cuban Five
The Cuban Fiveare Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino Salazar, Rene González Sehwerert, Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez and Fernando González Llort. They are sons, husbands, brothers, poets, pilots, college graduates and artists. Three of the Cuban Five were born in Cuba and two were born in the United States. Also three of them fought in Angola, during the war against apartheid. They are currently serving long prison sentences in the United States for espionage. The Cuban Five were sent by the Castro government to infiltrate the Cuban exile population in Miami, after a series of bombings in Havana in the 90s which disrupted the tourism industry and the much needed cash infusion from such a business. The Cuban Five at first cooperated with the CIA but then they were arrested and tried and convicted in Miami, Florida, where a fair trial was allegedly impossible to be gotten. Most of them received life sentences. Today, in the U.S., there is a national committee for the Cuban Five and an international committee which seeks to publicize about their plight and return them to Cuba. Their posters are everywhere in Havana. ICAP representatives then went on to claim that these Cuban counter reactionary forces in Miami are actually a business. They make a lot of money from the US government to keep up their resistance against the Cuban government and operate their own propaganda machine such as Radio Marti. The ICAP representatives also emphasized the need to lift the embargo, arguing that lifting it would create a boom of industry between the U.S. and Cuba.
We then went on to attend the annual International Gender Rights Conference in Havana, where many academics throughout the world were presenting their papers, including Americans. We met two professors of law: one from John Jay College and another from Touro Law School. The first session we attended was regarding the criminalization of homophobia in the European Union. One speaker mentioned that “to use the court to enforce discriminatory laws is like having wolves guard sheep.”
The next speaker we heard from was a professor of gender studies and psychology in the University of Havana who spoke about the fascinating topic of masculinity in Latin America. He claims that he found it ironic that feminist conferences never talk about the big elephant in the room – which is hegemonic masculinity. It is one of the social constructs that patriarchy is based on and without its destruction; there can be no real equality between the sexes as discrimination against women will continue unabated. To discuss this concept, he used a very popular Cuban song called Chupi Chupi which has now become very popular in Miami. The song is about anal and oral sex and is degrading towards women. He lamented about the fact that it came from Cuba as it promulgated discrimination against women. He queried whether the Cuban government should use its censorship powers to stop images and songs such as this from being distributed via cultural avenues. This would be easy for the government to do because the state owns all the TV and radio stations (5 for the former and 127 for the latter). But in the end he claimed that the real weapon to use to counter such poisonous ideas is to educate the youth. He then showed an amazing and humorous video his university students made to counter homophobia on campus and argued that student can make similar messages to counter “machismo” in the country. He ended his presentation by urging the participants to be active in countering the Hegemonic masculinity because “silence leads to nothing useful.”
Women’s Rights Movements
The second session we attended discussed various women rights movements going on around the world. One speaker presented on the Adelistas in Mexico who are organizing to protest the privatization of oil in that country. A Black American law professor from John Jay discussed the laws of concubinage in the United States which subjected black women from the time of slaver to unfair practices in the criminal justice system, telling the story of Ruby McCollum. Then there was a presentation about the number of women in Cuban politics and government (Parliament is made up of about 43% women) and a rousing debate about Constitutional change in Cuba to include more feminist ideals.
Finally we attended the closing remarks presented by Dr. Alavarez, who is a member of the Cuban Federation of Women. She said that Cuba has had 52 years of revolution and the Federation of Cuban Women had a leading role to plan for equality. Its emphasis is to gain autonomy for the Cuban woman, the ability for a woman to gain their personal interest and be their main promoters of growth, self-fulfillment and to defend herself from being the object of oppression and dominance. She emphasized the role of education in reaching these goals and claimed that 60% of university graduates in Cuba are women. She emphasized the need to open traditional male branches of profession to women, such as in agriculture, construction, fishing and mining. These ideas intrigue me as we have a similar movement in the United States because of job shortages here. Dr. Alvarez also touted the great strides that the Cuban health system has gained for women including higher life expectancies (80+ for Cuban women), lower maternal death rates and increased family planning.
We started our day with a tour of the University of Havana with two student guides, who are communications majors. Founded in 1728, the University of Havana is the oldest university in Cuba, and one of the first to be founded in the Americas. Originally a religious institution, today the University of Havana has 15 faculties (colleges) at its Havana campus. Before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, students joined different organizations, aligning themselves directly or indirectly with some political party. The strongest of all these organizations was the FEU (Federación Estudiantíl Universitaria or University students federation) created by, Julio Antonio Mella, a co-founder of the Cuban Communist Party in the 1920s. After Batista began his corrupt regime, FEU Students led by Jose Antonio Echeverria, attempted to assassinate Batista in an armed assault at the Cuban Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957. Batista managed to escape, and many students died in retaliation. Batista closed the university but Castro re-opened the university in 1959. Ironically enough the Castro regime prohibited student demonstrations and political affiliations and events unless they were government sponsored. So, when I asked the students whether there were political organizations on the campus or critical magazines and newspapers written by students, they looked aghast and said no. I found this ironic as there was a tank in the middle of campus commemorating those students who gave their lives to the revolution.
There are 24 universities in Cuba. Education is free from elementary to even the pursuit of doctorate degrees. The state does not allow students to work while studying because it believes that studying is the student’s job. Law school in Cuba takes about five years and it is free. The students then discussed the various testing that high school students need to take in order to place in the universities or the technical schools. Cuban universities also broadcast their lessons on TV so that those students in far flung provinces can also learn long-distance. In return for being provided a free education, all Cuban graduates must give two years after graduation in service to the state.
Union of Juris
Next we had lunch at the Friendship House and I dined with Marco, who was a Cuban lawyer who we met at the Gender Conference and who accompanied us on the trip. He was a diplomat who lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx for a few years and spent a lot of time in Washington Heights.
We went to the Union of Jurists headquarters to meet with a man who was a judge, a member of the Communist party and once fought in the Revolution. He began by saying that the Cuban legal system was divided into three administrative levels: national, provincial and municipality. He then went on to discuss Cuba history, saying that they refer to three themes: 1) Colona stage from 1492-1898. Here under Spanish Colonial rule, continental law was predomininant in the island and he discussed the Spanish American war. 2) Neocolonial period – which incorporated the provisions of the Platt Amendment on Cuba 3) Cuban Revolution of 1959-present. He claimed that Cuba is a “project” and admitted that “we are doing good and bad things with the Cuban [experiment].” He then went on to discuss Cuban politics, claiming there is no president per se of Cuba. There is an election every five years of the National Assembly of People (made up of 614 members, one representative per 10,000 inhabitants) which then vote for a Council of States. The latter group I made up of a President, five Vice-Presidents, a Secretary and 23 others. The President of the Council is also president of the government and represents the Cuban state. I thought the judge’s talk was very revealing of the Cuban mentality and identity. He mentioned that Cuba is “under siege” and even though they have done good things and bad things with their revolution, that it was “our revolution and we did it…we will forge our own path ourselves with our own heads.” A heated discussion erupted between our host and some of our students regarding the political repression in Cuba. The students accused the judge of not recognizing there was political repression and there was fear from people to discuss their opposition to the government. They also emphasized the so-called lack of individual freedom in the country, especially in the context of leaving the country. I felt that they were missing the point of the man’s presentation. As a person of color from a former colonized country with a similar history to Cuba, I understood the fierce pride that our host was trying to get across to us. The Philippines had an aborted revolution and we were never able to forge our own destiny without Spanish and then American interference and rule. Our own Communist movement – which was also home-grown – was cut off immediately and was never allowed to yield power despite a long-standing war. Cuba was able to do this. And what I think my colleagues are missing is that revolutions are bloody affairs. They are never neat and clean. People will die, some will be killed and others will give their life. But what price is good enough to pay for freedom? Cuba – and its revolutionaries – has different concepts of freedom and choice. For many cultures, for example, individual choice is not considered a virtue. In some cultures it is disruptive of democracy and the public good. However as Americans we are acculturated to believe that freedom and democracy only rest on the idea of choice. I submit that such real freedom of choice is really not possible ether under a politically repressive regime like Cuba or under a Capitalist one such as the one in the United States. I wondered how the great Cuban experiment will live on now that the revolution generation is dying out and replaced with a generation that only know these figures in history books and propaganda. How committed will the future generations of Cuba will be to their revolution?
Committee to Defend Revolution
We seemingly got our answer later that night when we visited a neighborhood Committee to Defend the Revolution (CDR). CDR’s are essentially neighborhood associations founded by Fidel Castro to act as a neighborhood watch. Out of Cuba’s 11 million people, 8 million are volunteer members of CDRs. Although they serve various functions in the neighborhood – providing social services and hosting public events such as vaccination campaigns, blood banks, recycling, practicing evacuations for hurricanes – they have also in the past been used for more nefarious reasons such as ferreting out homosexuals (that being a crime in Cuba till the 70s) and those that were not ideologically “pure” enough for the Communist government. Indeed, the organizations are described as the "eyes and ears of the Revolution", exist to promote social welfare and report on "counter-revolutionary" activity. The slogan of the CDR is, "¡En cada barrio, Revolución!" ("In every neighborhood, Revolution!"). Elizardo Sanchez, a Cuban dissident, described the CDR as "a tool for the systematic and mass violation of human rights, for ideological and repressive discrimination. They assist the police and the secret service." CDR supporters however claim that the CDR exists to defend the revolution from criminals or counterrevolutionaries. We were greeted by the entire neighborhood with an orchestra of students playing guitars. They played Guantanamera for us and had laid out a feast of food. We in turn gave them our supplies for the children, including vitamins. We were able to speak to many of the children who told us that they loved learning English and were familiar with all kinds of American celebrities and loved the music. Very few people spoke English but those of us non-Spanish speakers was provided an opportunity to practice our language skills. There was more music and dancing. I was able to speak with a social worker who was shocked to hear about the cost of healthcare in the United States and asked me questions about the US economy and how we help those who are unemployed. All in all I felt this was a more effective propaganda tool than meeting with the judge or listening to our official state tour guide. Many of the other students felt the same. Interestingly enough, later on that night, when we met some international students and a few more Cuban professionals, I told one of them that I had enjoyed the meeting the CDR members. He looked at me skeptically and asked me what I enjoyed about it. Although he did not go into details, I sensed that there is a wide divide among those who really believe in the more militant principles of the Cuban revolution and those intellectual elites who are merely existing in the system. Which group will hold Cuba’s future in their hands?
We started our day meeting with three law professors in Havana. Two of them were extremely young by American standards. After a brief introduction to the Cuban law school system, which included some discussion about some of the electives a law student can take, they took questions from the audience about the Cuban legal system. Much of the discussion centered around the differences between the American criminal justice system and the Cuban one. They also said that after graduation, as part of their service, many law school students work in prosecutor’s offices, work for judges, for banks and other governmental ministries and municipal courts. There were no law journals per se but there are distinguished university magazines where law students and academics can publish their research. One surprising thing they revealed was that people can be judges right after graduation from law school, which shocked some of us and we discussed whether such a system – as compared to the United States – would indeed be beneficial. One of the most astounding things about the Cuban legal system is that there is no jury. Instead, courts have usually in the municipality level, have a judge and then two no-professional judges to render the verdict. These non-professional judges are lay people that are nominated by their workplace to serve in the courts based on their “good reputation.” I was intrigued by this idea as it almost functioned like a jury. All voting is done in secret. The professors also discussed the constitutional guarantees to a lawyer for poor defendants (there are private attorneys in Cuba), the remedy for no-payment of child support (garnishment of wages, o jail time for those who cannot pay), rape as a moral crime and although it is quite difficult and rare, Cubans may work for international firms. They also mentioned that now in University of Havana law school, a new course has been added to learn the American legal system and it has been popular.
In the afternoon, we took a tour of Muraleando, a community art development project in a neighborhood in Havana. Started by artists Manuel (Manolo) Díaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirch Paz, the project started out to teach art to the resident children but has grown to be more than that. Indeed the whole neighborhood became the canvas to the artistic residents. They began to paint their homes and their neighbor’s homes with beautiful murals and collages to beautify the neighborhood. They cleared trashed land and built sculptures. They converted an old and abandoned water tank into their artist gallery where they have classes for the children and the elderly who make arts and crafts. They also have musicians teaching the artist. One of them was our guide that day. He was a rapper from the neighborhood who was orphaned from a very young age and got in trouble with the law. He was jailed for a few years and when he came back to his old neighborhood, he joined the art project to teach children how to rap. He spoke perfect English and he performed two songs for our group. One of them talked about his pride for being Cuban and the other talked about his struggles as a former convict. Then we met some of the other artists residents and discussed their artworks while browsing their work in the building. I actually found this interaction more fulfilling as the sentiments here did not feel staged as I thought they were during the CDR meeting. The people seemed more relax and took pride in the fact t hat this community art project was from the people of the neighborhood and not initiated by the government. Apparently their model has now spread to other neighborhoods in Havana.
Sports and Sex Tourism
The night ended with a trip to the Latin American Stadium to watch a baseball game between Los Industriales – Havana’s hometown team akin to the Yankees – and another Eastern major league team for the Eastern championship. The fans were fervent and the atmosphere was electric as baseball is one of the country’s favorite sports. The other is boxing. However, the evening was marred by the sign of prostitution around the stadium. Some of whom were very young girls. This despite the fact that the police and military were out in full force for the game and that prostitution is supposed to be illegal in Cuba. According to our guide, prostitution was actually a much bigger problem in the 90s but that the government has worked to decrease the number particularly after the AIDS crisis. This is definitely one big worry for the Cuban government if the embargo is ever lifted and commercial tourism grows in Cuba. Cuba used to be a large sex tourism destination for many foreigners and the government does not want to repeat such enterprise.
Today, Joel took us to a walking tour of Old Havana. We started at Assisi Square and Joel told us about the various histories of the buildings as we walked along the cobblestone streets of Havana Vieja. We were also able to observe a Catholic Mass going on in one of Havana’s oldest cathedrals. There were quite a few number of people there and I was surprised that unlike China, Cuba allows Catholics to practice freely in the open. Indeed the Pope had recently come to visit Cuba just a few months before and 50,000 people showed up to see home – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – in Revolutionary Square.
Next we had a tour of the Presidential Palace, now known as the Museum of the Revolution. Here is where students stormed the palace to kill President Batista. The bullet holes of the assault are still visible on the marbled walls. Batista, who was in his office, was able to escape thru a secret door. We went to his office and it represented the corruptness of his regime as his office was gilded by gold, including the iconic gold telephone that was presented to Batista in the movie Godfather III. We then explored the conference room where Che Guevara and the Castro brothers along with the early revolutionaries used to meet to plan governmental affairs. I found this particularly moving as I have always been an admirer of Guevara’s philosophy. Then we came to the presentation of the museum. I found it astounding that a government would use words like “class struggle” “proletariat” and “revolution vanguards” in its official statements throughout the building. Such vocabulary is not found in ordinary American political discourse, which I lament as a sign that maybe our civic education in the United States pales in comparison to the Cubans.
Another item I found interesting in the museum was the highlight regarding the role of women in the revolution. There were pictures of Celia Sanchez and Vilma Espin in military fatigues and a description about their roles in the revolution and post revolutionary governments, including roles in warfare. I also read somewhere that the Federation of Cuban Women was also one of the most powerful governmental bodies on the island and this led me to query whether a post-Castro Cuba will be led by a female? However, reading and reflecting on the historical artifacts of the revolution, I could not help but admire the task that was accomplished and attempted by all these young revolutionaries. Many of them were young people, only in their 20s and 30s, who sat around and planned and organized and was able to bring down not only a corrupt government and its dictator but also end an imperialist system. One could argue whether American involvement in Cuba would be a good thing or bad thing and one could argue whether the mistakes made by the Castro government was worth the sacrifice of freedom and life for its people, but one cannot argue that such an undertaking in the first place was massive and admire the ego or gumption it took to even challenge it. These revolutionaries’ attempts represented a complete overhaul of a political order that was accepted everywhere else in the world. And they have clearly paid a price. Whether the Cuban “experiment” is successful or not is I think still in question. They have never had an equal playing field to really try to make their revolution successful. I wonder if their people will have the patience to continue?
Sex Education and Reproductive Health
We first went back to the ICAP headquarters to meet with a representative of CENESEX, The National Center for Sex Education. CENESEXis a government-funded body in Cuba which advocates for the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and transgender communities and also plays a primary role in education concerning contraception and AIDS. The head of the center is Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro. The center pushed for a law that provided transgendered persons with free sex reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy in addition to granting them new legal identification documents with their changed gender. These medical procedures are done in Cuba without charge. The law was passed in June, 2008.
One of the most interesting things we discussed was contraception and whether the Catholic Church had any influence on reproductive health on the country. Our host explained that unlike other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church is not a strong influence in Cuba society, which is why reproductive health in Cuba is very liberal. For example, although they teach abstinence as part of sexual education, Cubans are very practical and have distributed condoms in the open all throughout the country. One can get condoms anywhere in Cuba for free including restaurants. Then there was a great academic discussion about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity and how the differences affect legal and societal development. Our host also maintained that although “hate crimes” against homosexuals are rare in Cuba now, there is still discrimination. Indeed, he mentioned, “to ignore is also to discriminate.” He also touched upon Cuba’s AIDS crisis in the 1990s – when prostitution was also at its height - and mentioned that back then there was the tragedy where some people would infect themselves on purpose because the economy was really bad and they found that if they were sick of AIDS they and their families would be taken care of. He also mentioned that same sex prostitution is a problem and was caused by both domestic forces and the tourists who come to the island.
In the afternoon, I was able to meet up with Marco, the Cuban lawyer whom we met at the Gender Conference, and his daughter, Havana’s top prosecutor – similar to a District Attorney. They were both very gracious and patiently explained to me further aspects of the Cuban legal system (the bail system, presentations at Court, the complaint process, etc). We talked about whether ex-convicts in Cuba faced discrimination after release. They said no although they may not be allowed to work in jobs such as the police or the military. They were shocked to discover that ex-prisoners in the United States lose the right to vote and other public benefits. They claimed that this was inhumane and wondered how we managed to include them back to society if we punished them even beyond their sentences. We also talked about racial discrimination in the United States particularly in the Criminal justice system.
Then, Marco took me to a walking tour of “real” Havana, where people lived and worked outside of the tourist areas. He took me to the municipal court in Havana which to my surprise was a modern office. We talked about the Cuban and Philippine revolutions. He was appalled when I told him that the Philippines health sector has almost collapsed because unlike Cuba, we have exported all our nurses and doctors and they do not come back. The Philippines I explained has long been dependent on remittances from its migrants all over the world as part of its GDP and now we are also exporting our teachers, which has dire consequences to the education system in the country. Marco claimed this is what Cubans fear if they open themselves up to the world, particularly to the United States: the destruction not only of the Cuban economy, but of the Cuban values and identity they have culled for themselves during the revolution. He was genuinely saddened about how difficult it was to communicate this sentiment to Americans, who just doesn’t seem to understand the Cuban “project” in its big picture, choosing instead to just focus on Fidel as a cartoon villain. It was the most nuanced conversation I had about Cuba in my entire time there.
Back to the U.S.
Fortunately or unfortunately, some of us in our delegation were able to use the Cuba health system as some of us got sick during the trip. After speaking to colleagues, we all found the process highly effective and efficient – unlike the socialist nightmare that those in American warn us about if we have universal healthcare. Unlike the trip to go to Cuba, our departure was uneventful and not delayed. We merely had to pay our $25 CUCs to leave the country and we were on our way. We went thru Customs without any incident. I did have an interesting exchange however with the U.S. agent who inspected my passport upon entry. He was a Miami Cuban and once he found out where I had come from, he asked me why did I go to Cuba. I explained to him the purpose of our legal comparative study and research and he laughed and said, “Why do you need to study it? It’s simple. Here Cubans are free. Over there, they are not.” It represented once again the huge political divide between the Cuban exiled community and some of those that remained in Cuba. The political vitriol between these two camps will still seemingly control the destiny of the country. I wondered, once again, how this would change if – as Obama and Raul Castro promises – more liberalization in the country will begin and more easement of the embargo will be allowed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this trip because it provided me with an opportunity to get a glimpse of a country that has long been casted as a foe to the United States. Although we barely scratched the surface and toured the country through an official haze of Cuban state authority, it was extremely fascinating to study a country whose very existence has proven that there are alternative political and economic value systems than those offered by the American model. Although political dissident rights have a long way to go to fulfill human rights standards, the Cuban legal system in other aspects has accomplished a great deal. Their legal protections of minorities – including sexual and racial minorities and their developments in gender law – have at times seemed more liberal than those in the United States. I admire how they have placed education and health beyond economic commodities and enshrined them as basic human rights and raised a generation who also believe these values to be true (although admittedly there are still huge problems in these areas, particularly in education . Salaries of teachers for example are extremely low and many have left the profession to go into tourism to make more money. Also there is the problem regarding the bankrupting of the state. Raul Castro for example has announced that the public sector will be cutting almost 500,000 jobs so that the economy must be able to absorb these job losses in the private industry). It remains to be seen whether the economic liberalization that it promises its people to undergo – and as Cuba rejoins the international community - will buttress these values or chip away at them. One of the presenters remarked that unlike what Americans think Cuba will not follow the Chinese way of economic liberalization, that what they will do will be uniquely Cuban – just as they have always done in the past. It will be interesting to note what future Cubans will hold onto from their revolution and what they will cast aside.