Fresh Ideas: Fidel, Barack, Mick and me
April 6, 2016
"You'll leave Cuba with more questions than you had when you arrived." This was the first thing our Cuban guide Felix said to our tour group after meeting us at Holguin Airport on March 15.
He was right. A big reason for that was provided a week later in Havana by our second guide, Viviana. When we asked our first question, she furrowed her brow, paused for a moment, then responded, "It's complicated," for the first of many times.
I was in Cuba for a two-week guided tour that traveled by bus and ship, visiting seven communities. Until 2014, it was illegal for most Americans to travel there, unlike citizens of any other country who've always gone there freely. For now, U.S. citizens need to have a specific purpose for their visit, and most do a People-to-People trip designed to introduce us to Cubans in as many situations as can be crammed into each day.
We visited a cigar factory; rode in old American convertibles; heard music (and sometimes danced) almost everywhere; saw gorgeous modern art in the national museum, community projects, and galleries in every city; ate delicious meals in privately owned restaurants; watched a world-class dance performance; played dominos; and visited a neighborhood medical clinic. We visited the sanctuary of their national saint — religious practice is no longer outlawed and Pope Francis played a role in the current thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.
We learned about the national literacy campaign of the early days of the revolution when people who could read, like Viviana's father, went out to the countryside to teach reading to all. Cuba has an almost 100 percent literacy rate, with free education through all levels and high teacher-to-student ratios. It's ironic there's little to read due to government censorship and no money for books. Salaries are low ($25 per month on average), so many educated people choose or are ordered to work in tourism, where they earn tips. The Cuban people are innovative, and most find additional sources of revenue to supplement their government jobs.
Health care is free and available in neighborhood clinics and local hospitals. Cuba has a much higher ratio of doctors and dentists to the population than the U.S., its infant mortality rate is lower, and Cuba has excellent medical schools that train doctors from around the world. They are leaders of biomedical research, but often can't obtain needed medicines due to the U.S.-enforced embargo against trade, which restricts the flow of goods from any country conducting business in the American dollar. Every country in the United Nations except the U.S. and Israel favors lifting the embargo.
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The overwhelming message I heard from the other 19 people in our group is how much they liked and admired the Cuban people. They show "the triumph of the human spirit" as they live creative, decent lives despite the kind of poverty seen in many developing countries, and a repressive government.
As for Barack and Mick: our president, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Rolling Stones were in Havana when we were. While we never saw them except on Cuban television, we felt their presence and the excitement of the people celebrating Cuban-American friendship and the possible long-hoped-for lifting of the embargo.
There was one thing that wasn't complicated, the message of the Cuban people: Please, we want to be friends. This March, they gained 20 new ones; no question about it.
Kathy Schwerin is a mostly-retired psychotherapist; she blogs at amindfulbreath.com.