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CUBA | Saturday, 29 December 2007 | Views [1647] | Comments [1]

Transport for the whole family.

Transport for the whole family.

Laura writes:

Cuba has so far been an interesting place, just as I thought it would be all these years. The revolution is everywhere around us; on the billboards, in the music played on the streets, in the names of the hotels ("Habana Libre", "Sierra Maestra")and is part of the daily lives of the Cuban people, the majority being very proud of the revolution and what it has provided for them; not only is their system the closest thing there is to true democracy. Education is accessible and completely free from primary to university level for every Cuban. Health care is also completely free and available to all, including natural therapies which are used in hospitals and clinics throughout the country.

What we have seen, is a very different and unique society which we have not seen anywhere else we have been to, a real contrast to the obsessive, materialistic society we have got so used to and for Nigel and I, Cuba is a breath of fresh air. It is fantastic not to be bombarded by the comercial propaganda machine that we in other countries are constatly exposed to (no Mcdonalds signs here!). Instead, all the billboards we have seen carry important and significant messages that not only empower, but also encourage, educate and inform. They are words full of humanity and wisdom. It has also been very intersting not to see any homeless people on the streets (approximately 95% of Cubans own their own home)or starving children like we have seen in other countries, Fidel has definetly made sure of that! Another encouraging aspect of all this, is that the figures in areas such as health and education continue to improve rapidly.

The young people I have seen while in Cuba who have, like all other children and adults, benefited from this system, have voiced their complete belief in the revolution and in Fidel. It is also amazing to hear medical students as well as student teachers speak. To these people, their careers have a real purpose and place in the revolution and in Cuban society, especially in a country that has always placed so much importance in these two areas. When they speak, you definetely know that they are speaking straight from the heart. It has been inspirational to hear them and it is good to know that they do what they do with much love and devotion. These young adults have not choosen their career for the financial gain like in the capitalist world, but for what they can offer to others, not only in their own country but also to those living in less fortunate countries around the world. Here in Cuba, doctors are trained to give of themselves. Medical students that we met at one of the universities of medicine had already experienced the solidarity of Cuba. These students had come from poor backgrounds in countries such as Jamaica, the United States, Ecuador and Africa and had been given the opportunity to study for free. These kids told us that due to their economical situation, they did not have the chance to study back home. The only condition for receiving this free education here, was that when they finished their careers and returned home, they would offer free medical services to the poor.

Cuban doctors also go to poorer countries or wherever they are needed in solidarity, offering their assistance. These doctors do not receive an income for this work, only enough for living expenses. Operation "Milagros" is a very successful solidarity program run by Cuba which involves eye-surgery. They have treated 208,000 patients from 21 countries and through this surgery, returned eye sight to patients suffering from cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes and other diseases.

These people have been really inspirational to me. As the head chef of the camp (Cachito) said to me the other day; "We don't have much here in Cuba due to the U.S blockade, but the little we have (especially in the area of medicine and education) we share with those less fortunate than ourselves." After thanking Cachito for everything he and his staff were doing for us (cooking for hundreds of brigadistas at the camp), he again responded by saying that it is they who are very thankful for the support and friendship towards Cuba and that what they were doing for us, they did with much love (carino). He also said that it is friends like us who support Cuba, that gives them more motivation and strength to continue in their struggle. He also emphasised that if it wasn't for Fidel, they would have perished by now, that he is an exceptional man; one of a kind. When I told him that my family and I had always felt admiration for Cuba and everything it stood for, his eyes suddenly became teary. I will never forget this look. To me, his response spoke a thousand words and at that moment, I realised that my simple words had touched him deeply. His response felt like I had just praised his own child. Hearing Cachito and other Cuban people speak about Cuba in the 3 weeks that we were there, emphasised that these people carry their country, Fidel and the revolution very close to their hearts.

When I asked Cachito about the risk of the U.S invading Cuba, he responded by saying that they were very well prepared for it. That the U.S would never succeed in their plans to invade and put an end to what they have achieved here with so much sacrifice.

Another interesting aspect of our brigade, has been working with people who have fought along side Fidel in the Sierra Maestra such as the security officer on the camp where we are staying, as well as another man who was one of Fidel's body guards who helped us with the agricultural work on the citrus plantations. Meeting other combatants of the revolution and hearing their stories, has also been incredible. To hear about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro (heroes to Latin Americans) from the people who were there with them and knew them personally, was amazing to say the least, and for me a very emotional experience as well, after all, the struggle for justice, equality and human rights has always been a common thread in the whole of Latin America and it was these political ideals that I was brought up with myself. This brigade has emphasised my ideals and highlighted what is really worth fighting for in this world. This is also very clear to the great majority of Cubans who see the corruption, greed as well as the separation of those living in a capitalist society. They know very well what they have to do to survive as human beings and if it wasn't for their unity, perserverance, sacrifice, conviction, determination and love, they would not have survived for 49 years with such an unjust, criminal and ilegal blockade that has completely isolated them from the rest of the world. It is amazing to witness the power and determination of these people and to hear it in their voice.

While on the brigade, we had an intense 3 weeks with very little free time. This was the 25th aniversary of the Southern Cross Brigade and there were many celebratory events that we took part in. We were welcomed very warmly everywhere we went. Some of us (including me) were also interviewed for national television. We were also told that these brigades have been very important for Cuba, especially so during what they call "the special period" after the fall of the Soviet Union and east Germany, when the Cuban people were at crisis point. It was these brigades that brought over the essentials for their survival, such as food and medicines. They say that if it hadn't been for this, they may not have made it through that very, very difficult period.

It was during the special period that Cuba had no choice but to start becoming self suficient. The country became more focused on internal food production. In Cuba, self-suficiency simply means survival, with the blockade, they have no choice. Urban land that was once wasted, have become small organic farms where fruit and vegetables are grown to provide food for the local residents, and as Nigel and I observed, these farms are everywhere. In the city of Havana, 60% of its food is grown in these urban farms, feeding over two million residents and 95% of this food is organically grown. Most of these farms are state owned but there are others that are privately owned, however, even though those with privately run farms can pass it down to other family members, if these family members are not interested in using the land to produce food, the land will be given to someone else that will use it for this purpose. Some would say that this is lack of freedom, but in reality, it is survival, as they cannot depend on the outside world for their necessities. People here have it very clear (I have heard it time and time again during our 4 week stay) that they have to pull together and stay united for the good of all the population. It is definetely not a selfish attitude.

The work that we did while on the brigade involved agricultural work such as planting, pruning sick trees, trimming overgrown grass with machetes and construction work that only some people participated in. I would have liked to have participated in more volunteer work, as I felt that 7 days of it was not really enough in a 3 week stay and even more so considering that there were so many of us on the brigade (50 people), However, they did remind us that to them, it was more important that we learned about Cuba from the meetings and visits than the physical work we could carry out in such a short space of time. It was very important to the Cuban people that we took the message home about the truth in Cuba, especially considering there is so much misinformation and outright lies about this country.

We learned so much about Cuba while on this brigade, not only from meeting ordinary people, but also from the visits, lectures and meetings. These included meetings with leaders of the Council of Cuban Workers, meeting with a Cuban leader in the Ministry of Foreigh Affairs, also with the Young Communist League, Federation of University Students and Senior High School Students Federation. This particular meeting made me realise how young people in Cuba are given a voice, as well as much respect. These people (as young as 16 years of age) play an important role in their society and as soon as they are 16, can be elected for a place in parliment to represent other young people by voicing their concerns and proposing changes, and what they present in parliment is definetely not ignored. I was amazed by the maturity of these representatives. They were certainly well informed young people and knew exactly what they were talking about. I had not heard people of their age speak in such a mature and informed way before. We also met with the Federation of Cuban Women (yes, women have a voice too) and with the combatants of the Cuban revolution. We went to lectures which included Cuban culture, challenges of globalisation for Cuba and Cuban foreign policy. Other visits in Havana included a performance at the national ballet of Cuba for New Year's, as well as energy facilities, organic centers where food was grown, and an expo of the 25 years of the Southern Cross Brigade.

In Santiago de Cuba (where the revolution was born at approx. 900km from Havana), we visited Revolution Square, the cemetery of Santa Efigenia where many important figures are buried, including Jose Marti (one of Cuba's important national heroes), Moncada Garrison where Fidel Castro was imprisoned after the battle that he fought there on the 26th of July 1953. The vibes in this prison were definetely not pleasant, as this was a place where Batista's troops tortured and killed so many people. We also had a visit to Granjita Siboney, a small farm where Fidel and his men hid and planed the attack on the Moncada Garrison. The mens' blood stained uniforms as well as other items such as shoes and the arms that they used were on display.

While we were there, we also visited Santamaria school where amongst other things, they had a zoo and an organic farm that employed permaculture principles for students to grow food for their own consumption (as food production is given so much focus in Cuba, this, I guess, is the way they teach kids to grow food from an early age). At this school, we were also shown the Cuban history room which included amazing drawings done by the students. The standard of these drawings was incredible to say the least. Nigel and I could not understand how they could have been done by primary school students. Here at this school, I was again very moved by the way we were welcomed by the kids in appreciation of our solidarity with the Cuban people.

We also visited the province of Guantanamo where once more, we were greeted by primary and secondary students with banners of welcome to our brigade. A flower ceremony took place here in our presence, as well as poetry and speeches. While we were in Guantanamo province, we were taken to a spot where we had a view of the Guantanamo Navel base that is on Cuban soil that the U.S is occupying illegally for an indefenite period of time. It was disgusting to see how close the base really is to the Cuban population. It is believed by locals, that part of the reason that the U.S has choosen this navel base to hold prisoners illegally with the use of torture and other human right abuses, is to provoke Fidel Castro (rubbing it in his face). Before arriving, and while we were close to the navel base, we were told several times not to do anything that could upset the U.S and give them an excuse to use it against Cuba in some way. We did however display a banner in protest of the blockade against Cuba and the Cuban five that have been held illegally in Miami for the last 10 years without a proper hearing. Their only crime...attempting to protect Cuba from ongoing U.S organised terrorist attacks which they have had to endure for the last 49 years.

One of the visits that touched me the most, was the one to the Che Guevara memorial. Here the emotions I felt came flooding over me to the point that I could not stop the tears. This response surprised me, as I am not a person that can expose my emotions so easily in public (this trip has certainly challenged me in this respect!). I finally had the chance to pay my respects to this man that has always meant so much to me and to so many latin Americans. This memorial is where his remains were finally put to rest in 1994 after bringing them from Bolivia where he was betrayed by the peasants he was trying to liberate and was killed by the military after he was captured.

Santiago de Cuba, was one of the highlights of our trip. It is a very special province. It is where Fidel lived and where the revolution began. On the outskirts of the city, we were met by police excorts and for the next 4 to 5 days, we were escorted everywhere we went. This gave me the sense that we were in a sacred place, a city of real significance to the Cuban people and that our presence there was very much appreciated. It actually felt like a privilige to be there, especially knowing that our visit to Santiago, had been organised because it was the 25th anniversary of the brigade to Cuba. The last time the Southern Cross brigade had been there, was on the very first one in 1982. Apparently, this special treatment we received had two purposes, one to welcome us to this important historical place, and secondly, so that locals would find out about our brigade and our solidarity with the Cuban people. Television cameras and journalists also followed us to some of the places we visited to interview us.

Seeing the Sierra Maestra (the mountains that surround this city) where Fidel and his men lived and fought from, was quite a sight. I had never imagined that these mountains covered such a huge area, plus, after seeing these ranges, I finally understood why Fidel had choosen that place. It would have been incredibly difficult for Batista's troops to find them, not only due to its expansiveness, but also because of the very thick vegetation of this environment.

The families we stayed with during our time in Santiago de Cuba, were also very special. People from Santiago are well known for their kindness, friendliness and loving nature, and we were definetely witnesses to this. When we arrived here, we were greeted with cheering, clapping, enthusiasm and much love. Each family was holding up signs with our names on them, and as soon as we found our hosts, the hugs and kisses were abundant as if they had known us forever. These people took us in to their homes as if we were part of their family and we were very well looked after during our 5 day stay.

Something that stood out for us in Cuba was the transport system. It functions very differently. The old cars from the 50's and 60's are used as taxis for the locals. These are just private cars that double up as taxis for Cuban citizens only, and are very cheap with a set price. There are other more modern cars or new models that are the official taxis for tourists which cost much more. In Havana, there are also buses that are mainly used by locals, as well as modern excursion buses for tourists. Some trucks have also been converted for public transport (called "Camellos"), these look very interesting. Trucks that have not been converted into buses are seen in the outskirts of the city or in other provinces and stop to pick up people waiting patiently along the roads and highways. Horse and carts are another means of public transport. The reason why transport functions in this way, is because due to the U.S blockade on Cuba, there has always been a shortage of vehicles and therefore the cars and trucks have to be shared by all. While we were in Cuba, we were told that many new buses have recently been purchased from China and therefore this situation is now easing.

The negatives that we saw in Cuba, were mainly in relation to the blockade that Cubans have had to endure for the past 49 years. This has caused and is still causing a lot of damage in many ways. The shortages in food, medicines, maintanence materials for buildings (including plumbing and electrical), cars and other transport, fuels, machinery etc. is felt by everyone. We got very used to hearing "no, sorry, we have run out of that" or simply "no, that is not available". The shop windows and stores look barren, and it is common to see empty shelves in shops. Due to so much sacrifice for so long, there are people who have given up or simply think that the grass is greener on the other side and start idealising the capitalist world, however these people are a minority (1% of the population). From what we have seen, these people have a distorted view of what capitalist society is really like. These people (unlike the majority of Cubans), may not be aware of the many negatives of capitalism, such as the selfishness and the greed that results from such a money fixated society.

Even though the reliance on tourism has kept Cuba afloat (one billion dollars was made from the tourism sector last year), it has unfortunately also had negative influences on Cuba, even though nowhere near the to the extent that we have seen in other countries like Peru. Cuba has had no choice but to open its doors to tourism and with it comes positives as well as negatives.

In Cuba, the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. Cuba was not only inspirational politically and ideologically, but also in its uniqueness in many other ways. There is no other country that it can be compared with. Its isolation from the rest of the world due to the blockade has given this country its own flavour, opportunities, character and personality, its own feel.

Sitting on the wall along the malecon, I remember looking out to the ocean and reflecting while listening to the sound of the waves and looking at the beautiful colours of the sunset in the warm evening sun. I was finally on the island of Cuba that I had wanted to come to for so long. Now I was on the inside looking out, and not the other way around. I was actually experiencing it for my self and not from someone else's perspective. I was seeing it with my own eyes. Looking out to the ocean, I felt like I was very far from the rest of the world, although geographically it is not far at all. I had the sense of defiance (it is illegal to travel to Cuba from the United States). By being there, I felt like I was on the side of the Cuban people and their cause. With this thought, came a sense of pride, understanding and unity. Their cause had always been mine and now I was with like minded people who were the closest living example of how these ideals in reality can work. The people who came on this brigade from Australia and New Zealand were also very special and giving. I could not believe how alike we were. We had so much in common, but what tied us together the most, was our passion for Cuba and its people.

Tags: culture



I'm an American who visited Cuba a few weeks ago, and I agree with every single word you wrote! I love Cuba! You wrote really well and I love your story. My worldnomads name is "KiwiAoraki"


  Chris Farrell (KiwiAoraki) Dec 5, 2009 12:30 AM

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