Miami was home, from 1946 to 1966. During that time Cuba was as much a presence as the Everglades. Friends and family would stop over on their way to Cuba; their experiences, including my parents were glowingly positive. Following the revolution our next door neighbor’s house was rented by “Cuban refugee” factory owners. Their negative take on the revolution was somewhat offset by stories of my father who had met and enjoyed coffee with Castro pre-revolution. So, when Denise asked me for travel ideas, Cuba was on the short list. This was 2002 and thanks to the many Cuban “refugees” that prospered under the Dictator Fulgencio Batista our political system had been corrupted into imposing an economic embargo that actually made it illegal for an American citizen to visit the country.
Our solution was to go with Cross Cultural Solutions tour company that enjoyed an educational waver (which they subsequently lost under Bush). We added a couple of days to be on our own bringing our total in-country time to 17 days. Following are only some of the highlights of our visit.
A good example is Old Town Havana. The buildings have an elegant and even sensuous exterior but venture inside and the interiors show the ravages of poverty and neglect. Yet, the people residing inside have the dignity and pride of a resilient society. So it goes. Every achievement of the revolution seems to have a dark side.
Although Catholic churches are found throughout the island, the main religions, especially in the countryside, are Santeria and other inspired African-based spiritual systems. It is embraced by many non-Africans as it includes a number of Christian themes, beliefs and motifs. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Santeria et al never had an antagonistic relationship with the revolutionary state. We observed a number of Catholic churches which seemed to be utilized more by birds then humans.
While in Santa Clara we visited a hospital and a neighborhood clinic and the province's high school which is part of the unique Schools for the Arts National program. Both of these experiences provided a unique insight into the workings of the Revolution.
Our visit to the second largest city in Cuba was divided between exploring Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, the fortress protecting the harbor and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Memorial atop San Juan Hill commemorating Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough riders charge in 1898. The fortress was built to protect the city from pirates and the cavelry charge to burnish Roosevelt's political credentials as well as make certain the defeat of the Spanish in Cuba.
There is a high school in each province that is dedicated to developing teachers of the arts: music, dance, painting, theatre, etc. Graduates are obligated to return to their local towns and teach. These schools were created in 2001. The story we heard while visiting is that they came about because of Ellian Gonzalez.
On November 21, 1999 the boy was taken by his mother on a small boat to the United States. On the way she drown. Ellian was held by relatives in Miami who fought from returning him to his father in Cuba. One of the rationals for not returning him is that he would receive a subpar education due to lack of cultural amenities in the schools. This infuriated Castro who subsequently ordered the creation of these high schools. Apparently there was some truth to the allegations.
The Cuban medical system is one of the world's best; the United Nations World Health Organization has said that it is a model for the developing world. Medical care is completely free, and the Cuban Constitution mandates that there be one doctor for every 122 people. At this time they had achieved one doctor for every 140 people. Walk in clinics are located in every neighborhood staffed by a LIVE IN doctor and nurse. They are required to see each person in their district at least once a year. Pharmacies are also available. Denise gave us a chance to test out the system when she contacted an intestinal ailment sending me to a pharmacy. I neither look nor speak Cuban but they quickly dispensed several drugs and sent me on my way with out a single penny requested. We later visited them to express our gratitude - Denise had quickly recovered.
The downside, their poor economy was reflected in inadequate supplies, obsolete equipment (Denise had operated the exact X-ray equipment 25 years ago), very low salaries for even the doctors and nurses.
This is the Armored Train Monument where Che Guevara routed Batista's men. The battle became the final decisive military victory of the revolution.
Totally by a fluke we spent one night with Maria at her rooftop apartment in Old Havana along with her band. They had been engaged to put on a show for a group of California high school kids on their senior trip. You know, the typical kind of trip where you get on a yacht, sail through the Panama Canal and spend time in Cuba. About 4 of us from the Tour were able to get an invite. The show consisted of Maria introducing the students to unique Cuban musical instruments, demonstrating dance steps, and performing the best music we heard on the island with her 12 to 14 piece band; most of whom, if not all, were family.
The night was perfect and from our vantage we could view most of Old Havana. It doesn’t get any better then that!
The Song: Cuba que linda es Cuba, By Maria and La Azotea