One Week in Cuba

Before going on this VCU trip to study Adult Education in Cuba, most of what I knew about Cuba I had learned from negative depictions of the country on the American news, from Telex From Cuba–a novel I read that was a mostly-accurate depiction of the time period in which United Fruit flourished in the country–and from what I had learned in school about the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the plane first touched down, I thought it quite possible that Cuba would resemble the depictions I have heard of Communist China. I thought a government representative might meet us at the airport, accompanying us everywhere we went and telling us what we could and could not see and photograph. I expected to see a lot of police and for people to look and sound oppressed in all the obvious ways. Although the literature that I was given from API said that Cubans were very friendly and talkative with Americans, I harbored a belief that the people would be secretive and not forthcoming. I thought they would hate Americans and be angry at us as individuals coming into their country. I’ve traveled enough to know that a country is not always the way the American news depicts, but as I said above, I had little on which to base my assumptions.

When we got off the plane, I was struck immediately by how small the airport looked. I didn’t expect Chicago’s O’Hare, but I knew Havana was the capital and largest city for a country of eleven million people, so I thought the airport might be larger. After all, I had recently read that most every country other than the U.S. trades with Cuba and that tourism there is a prospering industry. The first Cuban with whom I spoke was the customs official, a man who went out of his way to be exceptionally nice. He asked me why I came to Cuba and thanked me, several times, for visiting. When he asked me if I wanted my passport stamped, I hesitated, although I knew I had a proper visa to enter the country, and he stamped it before I responded. In the end, this was the right choice, as I now have a stamp in my passport by which to fondly recall this trip.

Outside the airport, the first things that caught my eye were the old cars, which I expected, and a huge billboard that said “Revolucion Socialista.”


I wondered why it referred to Socialism. Wasn’t Cuba a Communist country? I’ve been to many socialist countries, and I’ve never seen signs celebrating the system, so this sign both fascinated and confused me–and it was the first of a handful of experiences in Cuba that challenged my thinking about what I knew regarding Cuba as a whole and specifically in terms of their form of government. I found all the discussions about Cuban education engaging and interesting, but during every conversation and lecture, I sensed there was an elephant in the room about which no one was speaking. We were in a communist country and no one was talking about it. Were others as curious about this as me? It didn’t seem any different than any other poor country I’ve visited, and I just couldn’t stop wondering what made Cuba a communist country?

* * *

I’m at El Centro De Estudios Matianos–an organization that does research into the life of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, revolutionary thinker, and developer of the respected Cuban education system–where we are attending a series of lectures by Cuban professors throughout the week we are spending in Cuba. I’ve been in Cuba only a few days, but I’ve seen plenty of signs much like the one above that boast pride in socialist values. Today we are attending a lecture by a woman who tells us she has been a professor of political science for 60 years. We are all seated in a room with about 25 chairs and a table with an old computer and projector at the front.


Although the professor  doesn’t speak English, she talks and our guide during the trip, who works for the institute,  repeats what she says in English. Much is lost in translation, literally, but I get the gist of what she tells us. She explains the history of Cuban education, much of which I’ve been reading about in a series of essays over the last couple weeks, describing how before Casto took office, a very high percentage of Cubans were illiterate. She explores how the movement she calls “Popular Education” swept the country, and how Castro rallied the people to participate in a massive literacy campaign. In fact, many thousands of Cubans aged 10-80, volunteered to participate in a little training before they were sent out all over Cuba to teach the illiterate to read and write. I’m very impressed to learn that this movement was so successful, that Cuba claims to have eradicated illiteracy. I’ve read that today, Cuban students score two standard deviations higher than students in other parts of Latin and South America.

Although I’m interested in what I learn about education, a question arises toward the end of this first lecture that fascinates me. Someone asks what it was like in Cuba after the Soviet Union fell. Good question! I know nothing about this. I remember the news around that time covering humanitarian aid given to Russia and to Czechlosovakia, but did we give any help to Cuba? I don’t know. The professor is very honest with us. She speaks with a sincerity that is obvious and true, telling us how the seven years following the fall of the Soviet Union brought starvation to Cuba. Another women who works at the institute chimes in, telling us how she was just a child but remembers having nothing to eat. Lacking the English to explain it, they both keep telling us how it was “a terrible, terrible time.” They say the change happened overnight. One day they had everything they needed shipped in from the Soviet Union on a regular basis, and the next day, they had nothing–no shipments, no food, no supplies–and would have nothing for many years.

Another question is asked that fascinates me: What did Cubans think about America during that time? The professor nods her head. She understands what we want to know. She tells us that Cubans don’t hold anything against us, and there seems like a big BUT is coming, but it never does. She tells us how badly Cubans want to repair relations with America and how most just don’t understand the grudge we hold against them. And then she launches into a story that I doubt I will ever forget. She tells us how her mother was dying and needed a pacemaker for her heart. Health care is free in Cuba, and she was set to have the operation. But then the company was sold to an American company, and all the sudden, her mother could no longer have the operation because they couldn’t obtain the device. Because America would not trade with Cuba, there was no way to purchase the pacemaker. Her mother died, and this could have been prevented. The professor has tears streaming down her face as she concludes the story. There is complete silence in the room. What do you say to that kind of senseless horror that could so easily be rectified but wasn’t? I feel like apologizing but that doesn’t make sense. What can I say? Nothing.

* * *

A day or two later: I’m eating dinner in a fancy restaurant–clearly just for tourists because one dinner here costs more than half of what a Cuban teacher earns each month–with my whole study abroad group and one of the young men who works at the Jose Marti institute.


The young man who works at the institute has just spent the day guiding us around the old city. He looks fashionable and hip in his blue jeans, white shirt and hat:




He happens to be seated next to me at the table and I’m hoping that we get to ask him some good questions. Mid-way through the meal, someone else sparks the conversation, asking him what Cubans think about Americans. Apparently we can’t get enough of this question–our guilt plaguing us throughout the whole week making us search for affirmation that we have personally done nothing wrong.

“We like America,” he says, and he proceeds to tell us how he doesn’t understand why America won’t resume relations with Cuba. And then he says what I’ve been hoping to get at. I want to know more about what makes Cuba a Communist country, and although I have no evidence for this feeling, I sense it’s a taboo question–but one this young man is willing to discuss it. I remember his exact words: ” I could understand if America just wouldn’t trade with communist countries, although I don’t see why they wouldn’t, but what I don’t understand is why America will trade with China and then when asked about Cuba, they say we don’t trade with communist countries.” His facial expression reinforces the sentiment in his voice: he looks totally confused and perplexed. “Why?” he asks. And that is precisely what I’m wondering, and it’s a very good (yet seemingly quite complex) question.  Why won’t we trade with this country? The cuban missile crisis was in 1962. It’s 50 years later, so why can’t we move on? In my opinion, America seems like an angry (and dangerous) old man holding a grudge that he just won’t let go.

* * *

I’m on a bus returning from the literacy museum. I’ve made friends with a teacher and guide who works at the institute, and she has accompanied us to this museum. She sits next to me on the bus, so I decide to ask her the burning question. I want to be subtle, so I try it this way: “I’ve been to many socialist countries in Europe, and they all seem just like this one. What makes Cuba different?” I think my question is clear, but either she doesn’t understand or she doesn’t want to talk about it so pretends not to understand. I try again, this time more direct: “What makes Cuba communist rather than socialist.” She looks at me: “Oh” she says. “I don’t know anything about that.” Ugh. There’s awkward silence. Does she really know nothing about this? Or are people not allowed to discuss this kind of stuff? I’ve been told that in communist countries people can’t criticize the government; however, our whole program at the institute–it’s called The Cuban Education System and it’s Challenges–relies on criticism of the government. Finally she speaks: “Someone else might disagree with me,” she says, “but I don’t think this is a communist country at all. If we were communist, all the people would have the same things, but we don’t. Some have more than others.” I nod my head, wanting to ask more but not sure if I’m being rude. I really don’t want to offend her. I say I’m sorry, intimating that I didn’t mean to offend. She replies that it’s okay, but still I feel like I’ve done something wrong, broken some unspoken rule.

* * *

We visited three museums in Cuba: the Jose Marti Memorial and Museum, the Literacy Museum and the Museum of the Revolution.  As everyone knows, the best museum experiences stem from great tour guides and knowledge of the exhibit. For the three visits to museums in Cuba, I had all of this!

The Jose Marti Memorial was fascinating, mostly because our guide there was awesome!

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This woman could make a pile of dirt seem fascinating. I wish I could have recorded some video so I could share the enthusiasm with which she spoke. She told us all about Jose Marti–I knew some from the readings we had completed and the lectures we had already attended–and gave interesting details of his whole life and work.

The Literacy Museum was also really interesting, especially since I had learned so much about the Cuban literacy movement already. Here, we saw some really interesting artifacts from the literacy movement time period, including an oil lamp that was used to teach people in rural areas without electricity to read. These people often worked all day and came home at night to practice their reading by the light of lamps like this one in the picture below:.

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They used books like one to teach people how to read and wrote notes like this one to Castro thanking him for the gift of literacy:


The Museum of the Revolution was housed in a dilapidated old building that I think was in the process of restoration, although it was hard to tell. Unlike the Jose Marti and Literacy Museums, this one was not climate-controlled. As Americans, we are so used to seeing artifacts that are protected behind infinite levels of security, so it’s surprising to see such important national treasures literally eroding away. A few pics from this museum:

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We also went to Hemingway’s house! My Masters degree is in English Literature, with an emphasis on early twentieth century american lit–so I’ve studied a LOT of Hemingway and love his writing. I was looking forward to this part of the trip the whole time I was there. Needless to say, I took a ridiculous number of photos at Hemingway’s house, and when I got home, these were the first I uploaded. To see a narrated version of the photos, all containing short labels and explanations, and a video of our fabulous tour guide explaining the history of his home, click HERE.


I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to cuba–with the exception of the food–but I spent the whole trip feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I always feel embarassed to be American when I travel internationally, so that is nothing new, but the flood of guilt and sympathy that I felt for Cubans throughout this whole trip is not something I normally experience traveling. Perhaps part of this is due to the study abroad experience; however, I think the vast majority of this feeling is a result of seeing how impoverished these people are and knowing that if they could just trade with America, a country only a 1/2 hour plane ride away, their whole lives would be improved so dramatically. Of course, I know that relations with America would come with a steep price politically and culturally, not to mention that American business men would tackle the ocean-front property that lines that whole country with a vengeance never before seen, and much of Cuban culture would be lost in the aftermath. That said, in my mostly uninformed opinion, in this case, I think the benefits–improved food and nutrition, access to the internet, a massive rise in the standard of living–far outweigh the costs.


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2 thoughts on “One Week in Cuba

  1. I love this country… envy your trip. I share in your feelings of shame about our national relationship with this country. I was amazed at the ability of the Cuban people to do so much with so little, with great pride. And to understand that I was not my country’s politics.

  2. You have been to Cuba, Joyce? It really is so amazing. I’m in Portland, but looking at these pictures right now reminds me 1) how amazing this country is, and 2) how lucky we are.

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