HAVANA – My first trip to Cuba coincided with the 49th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, July 26. The revolution ended with national liberation in 1959. With only two weeks of planning, my sister and I left for Cuba and a peak life experience. My nephew, a college professor who teaches Latin American and African Studies, invited us to share the hospitality of his adopted family in Havana. I learned so much about the politics, history, culture, geography and economics of Cuba, the largest Caribbean island and its 11 million people in 14 provinces.
Our hosts live in a beautiful 16-story apartment building probably built around 1950 for the affluent. Looking out the window I could see the capital, the largest Cuban city with over 2 million people. A mile away is the ocean with a cool breeze always blowing. No wonder tourism is now Cuba’s #1 industry. Sugar is now the second largest, with tobacco third.
Because of the U.S. embargo, Cubans suffer great scarcity of goods. Any ship that stops at a Cuban port is prohibited from stopping at a U.S. port for 6 months. According to international law, the U.S. embargo is illegal.
Our hosts, as well as all Cubans, have learned to recycle, share, sacrifice, change their diets and lifestyles to not only survive, but to help their country develop. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist countries, Cuba suffered a great economic crisis. More than 80 percent of its trade was with these countries.
In 1994, 75 percent of Cuba’s imports were gone, leaving huge shortages of medicines, medical equipment, machinery, paper goods, hardware, fertilizers, animal feed and food products. Cuba was forced to join the worldwide capitalist economic system of trade, which keeps developing countries in an unfavorable position of unequal exchange.
But in spite of it all, Cuba has experienced a sustained economic recovery without giving up the basic gains of the revolution: free universal healthcare, free education from pre-school to university, social security, the right to a job and to a home.
Dinner with our hosts was always a special occasion with stimulating conversation. My nephew and a guest from Puerto Rico were our translators. Our hosts told us the government owns the land on which the apartment house stands and is responsible for the outside maintenance such as the roof and painting. The occupants own their own apartments and are responsible for all the repairs and maintenance. There is an elected council that manages the building.
One of our hosts is the president of that group. Our other host is a history professor at the University of Havana. His salary is around $25 a month. We ask him how he can survive. He said his rent is free, health care is free, his utilities are a few pesos a month. Cultural events such as movies, theater, concerts and sports events are free. Food and clothing are not expensive, but are in limited supply. Friends and relatives bring things from abroad. This is what happens in all the Caribbean islands, I remind myself.
One of our hosts has a relatively new government car. Gasoline is rationed and when his allotment is used up, he takes the bus.
Transportation is a big problem because of the short supply of vehicles and parts. All buses are filled to capacity all the time. The cost to ride the bus is nominal.
Our meals were filling, nutritious and beautifully served. Our hosts went out of their way to serve us foods we would like. Black beans and rice is the national dish and we enjoyed this prepared in different ways. We had potatoes daily – fried, mashed, baked or boiled; varieties of green beans, sliced cucumbers and other vegetables. Our meat was chicken or fish, but there was beef and pork served at one meal. Cubans were forced to cut back on their consumption of meat and their health has improved.
One day my sister and I went to the neighborhood outdoor market. My sister with her cane and I with my straw hat attracted lots of attention as we looked around and made our purchases. “Who are these grandmothers and where are they from?” asked one of the vendors.
We bought lots of fruit and vegetables for less than $2. On the way back I noticed how people were dressed, similarly to those back home in Philadelphia. Our 12-year-old companion had on a colorful T-shirt with her navel exposed, capris and flip-flops.
The streets are so clean – no trash anywhere. Laundry is blowing in the breeze on many apartment building porches. Old Spanish mansions are in need of paint and repairs, yet their architecture and ironwork still remain beautiful. They have been converted into government offices, health centers, day care centers and a retirement home.
Spain just initiated an “Adopt A Cuban Block” program to help Cuba renovate Havana. In almost every block there is one renovated building painted colorfully. In a discussion of the neighborhood that night our hosts are shocked to learn that Philadelphia has 26,000 abandoned houses unfit for human habitation.
During our 11-day visit we did many things that I look forward to sharing with People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo readers.
Rosita Johnson is a member of the PWW/Mundo Editorial Board and a frequent contributor from Philadelphia. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org