Reflecting on a Recent TRIP Course to Socialist Cuba

Because the blockade impedes Cuba from importing certain “modern” products, a common misconception is that Cuba is an underdeveloped country. In reality, it has produced extensive education and healthcare systems that function at advanced levels, and unlike in some so-called developed countries, the services are free and accessible to all.

By Hannah Noyes for The College Voice – Connecticut College’s Independent Student Newspaper, April 5, 2018

Associate Professor of History Leo Garofalo’s Modern Latin American History class arrived in Cuba with fluttering nerves and heightened anticipation, wondering how the experience would unfold. Our itinerary was jam-packed and translated into busy days, allowing the exhilaration of being in a new country to overcome our fatigue. No time was wasted as we transitioned smoothly from the airport to the barrio of Marianao, located twenty minutes outside of downtown Havana, where we were welcomed by multiple smiling families. It was incredibly humbling to be received so warmly and readily by our host families; there was a flurry of excitement as we made introductions and parted ways to our respective homes. Living with Cuban families was an integral part of this educational experience; participating in homestays promoted awareness within our group of our position as educational tourists in comparison to theirs as residents. We were able to make unique connections that allowed for a deeper understanding of Cuba’s social, political, and economic past and present. Many of the homes contained multi-generational families, illustrating the prominence of tight-knit communities and families in Marianao.

Our class was hosted by the Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM), and what they told us was spot-on: when you live with a host family they consider you to be one of their own “children,” an act of inclusivity that fostered a relationship with our hosts and Marianao in a remarkably short amount of time.

On our first day, we participated in an exercise where the goal was to “get to know Marianao.” This activity entailed going out into Marianao in two groups without our professor or host families. Being placed outside of our comfort zones in this manner reminded us of our position as tourists; we felt that we stuck out like a sore thumb. The tasks put forth by the program encouraged independence and pushed us to take responsibility for our role as foreign students experiencing Cuba for the first time. Our knowledge of the area was limited, but by engaging with Cubans, we were able to navigate the bustling streets of Marianao. We overcame our nerves and asked for directions in order to complete our assignment of seeking out specific landmarks, differentiating between private and state-owned business, locating certain hospitals, and counting all of the schools we saw. “Getting to know Marianao” was a constructive practice of placing ourselves in situations where familiarity and comfort were not afforded to us.

By exploring the city, our class learned that Mariano’s  health sector is strong and includes four hospitals, four clinics, and three dentist clinics. My classmates visited a primary healthcare center in Marianao, and we were blown away by its services. Doctors and healthcare providers visit families individually, utilizing a classification system to determine how often a home must be visited in a year. Doctors live within communities, often above their offices, as a result of a system created by Fidel Castro wherein the government pays for these services instead of the citizens. Education and healthcare are free for all Cubans. Consultations, tests, vaccinations, birth control, and admittance to hospitals for surgeries or transplants are all free to patients. My classmates and I listened with incredulous expressions on our faces. Our questions continually prompted the healthcare provider to repeat herself; “sí, todo es gratis.”

After observing the multiple schools within Marianao, we learned of the municipality’s  tremendous educational capability. The Ciudad Libertad school complex receives over 55,000 students, includes primary and secondary school, technical school, art school, and the National Museum of the Literacy Campaign. We were able to get an idea of the size and capacity of Ciudad Libertad when we visited the museum on one of our last days.

El Museo de la Alfabetización (the Literacy [Campaign] Museum) is a few minutes’ drive from Marianao and is the only one in existence. One of the goals of the Cuban Revolution was to eradicate illiteracy in Cuba. The campaign to achieve literacy (Comisión Nacional de Alfabetización) was launched in 1961 after Fidel achieved victory in 1959. Over one million Cubans were illiterate at this time, with the highest percentage residing in the countryside. The agents of this campaign were younger students who left the comfort of their homes, worked alongside farmers during the day, and taught them at night. There was a very protective family culture at this point in Cuba’s history, and many families were reluctant to let their children participate. Nevertheless, the intense pull of solidarity brought over 100,000 Cuban youth and thousands of professors to join the campaign to fulfill the task put forth by Fidel. In one year, 20% of illiteracy had been eliminated. Advocates for literacy in other Latin American countries including Argentina, México, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have pursued their own literacy campaigns, largely inspired and sometimes supplemented by  Cuba’s, and experiencing varying levels of success.

Between our visit to the primary school and the time spent in this museum, I could sense the pride surrounding the achievement of the literacy campaigns, which seems to translate into a current national dedication to education.

Upon returning to Marianao, I discussed Cuba’s education and healthcare with my host mother Luisa. She reiterated that both services are free, but added that the government only provides necessary resources to the Cuban people which do not extend to the supplies and equipment needed within schools and hospitals. These items are not always available, up-to-date, or functional. The effects of the embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States can be seen in this instance. Every single person we spoke to referred to it as “el bloqueo,” or the blockade, placing more emphasis on the role it plays in impacting the lives of Cubans.

Because the blockade impedes Cuba from importing certain “modern” products, a common misconception is that Cuba is an underdeveloped country. In reality, it has produced extensive education and healthcare systems that function at advanced levels, and unlike in some so-called developed countries, the services are free and accessible to all. Goals of the socialist revolution were directed towards “remaking society” by strengthening health and education with efforts such as vaccination and literacy campaigns. We saw countless schools, clinics, and research centers as we were driving to and from Marianao. We visited two farms and gained greater insight into the green revolution; Cuba banned the use of chemical products, and instead uses biological products as natural repellents. Every plant on the farm has a purpose, whether it be medicinal, for consumption, fertilizer, repelling insects, or providing shade to other crops.

I am grateful to the people in Marianao for playing an active role in our education by helping us to understand our position as students from the United States within Cuba’s social, political, and economic context. This level of connectivity has left a significant impression on my history class, and though it was brief, I must stress how meaningful and inspiring it was to experience Cuba.

These advances might be difficult to recognize, especially because anti-communist propaganda abounds in the United States, where images of Cuba as a dirty country in disrepair seek to hide the impressive social and political progress the nation has made since the Cuban Revolution. Many buildings in Cuba have been standing since the colonial period, simultaneously displaying the beautiful architecture of another time, gradual deterioration due to economic restriction, and living evidence of colonization. The misunderstandings surrounding Cuba’s social, structural, and economic achievements often hide the intelligence and innovation that exists on this island. With taxi drivers skilled at navigating narrow streets and vehicles surviving since the 1950s, history meets contemporary life, setting a complex, fascinating scene for the activity of our class’s trip. I am grateful to the people in Marianao for playing an active role in our education by helping us to understand our position as students from the United States within Cuba’s social, political, and economic context. This level of connectivity has left a significant impression on my history class, and though it was brief, I must stress how meaningful and inspiring it was to experience Cuba.

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