Cuba: What I Learned from My Trip Last Week
My visit to Cuba last week was riveting. My thoughts and emotions are still swirling in a frenzy trying to make sense of this ideologically and historically complicated place. I fell in love with the beautiful and resilient people. I became entranced with the architecture of the early 1900s. And I was quite amused by all the American 1950s vintage cars I saw everywhere.
Cuba’s almost mystical allure and charm, along with its famous and infamous leaders, and its five decade arm-wrestle with the United States engenders an impassioned and often angry debate. I will keep my remarks without political commentary. But I do want to describe what I saw and experienced during my visit. I hope it will give you a glimpse of the beauty of Cuba and its people.
A Spanish colony until 1898, Cuba was administered by the United States until 1902 and then given full autonomy as a republic. Until 1958 successive governments struggled to establish a stable political system. In the 1950s it was a hub for US vacationers, gamblers, the rich, and a country with an ever increasing influence of organized crime and mafioso families. As a result, a large poor and discontented subclass was increasingly ready for a change. These conditions set the stage for a socialist (and later communist) revolution.
Billboards, signs, and graffiti depicting Che Guevara (the Argentinian doctor-turned-freedom-fighter of the Cuban revolution) and Fidel Castro were everywhere along the highways, as well as official and non-official buildings.
As part of a 19-member healthcare delegation of the People to People organization, we visited several doctors and healthcare professionals in clinics and medical schools. We also traveled to several cultural areas. Everyone we met was very cordial and very friendly—from our tour guide, to professionals, to government representatives, even local passersby. And regardless of where we found ourselves, everyone speaks of…
In 1958 the revolution removed Batista, the leader of Cuba for many years. Soon after, following the communist model, private property was almost completely abolished and confiscated. The government gave people a place to live and a job. And all private industry was nationalized. In other words, everyone worked for the government. Many, especially business owners, left for Miami and other areas of the United States. Now one million Cubans live in the United States. Eleven million live in Cuba.
In 1961 the CIA funded an invasion at the Bay of Pigs near Havana. This invasion was manned by Cuban dissidents. It failed. Last week I visited that area—the very beaches where the invasion took place. And I toured the museum that celebrates Cuba’s victory. I sat at the beach where some of the heavy fighting took place. It was surreal actually being there at the Bay of Bigs . Some in our group went for a swim in the bay. I just sat there and got lost in reflection, then picked up a small rock from the rocky beach and brought it back to put on my desk as a small piece of history.
In 1962 Cuba allowed the USSR to bring in long-range missiles to be pointed at the USA. Fearing a nuclear exchange, President Kennedy ordered a blockade that forced the USSR to withdraw the missiles. Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis was avoided. From 1963 until today very little has changed.
The government of Cuba celebrates La Revolucion and its achievements:
- Free healthcare. As a US family doctor, I believe there is a lot to be learned from Cuba’s healthcare system. They created a highly controlled and structured healthcare system that is mostly built on units of 120 families being served by one family doctor and a nurse. The doctor and nurse live in the same community as the families they serve—fascinating concept.
- Free education for all.
- Removal of open prostitution, corruption, and gambling that had marred the Batista regime.
- Helping the agrarian poor by educating them.
- Free residence.
Cuba’s challenges are many:
As many officials we met there will admit, the challenges facing Cuba are large. Here is what I see as the major ones…
- Very low salaries—very low. Doctors make the equivalent of $25 per month. We met a university professor who represented Cuba in different areas at the United Nations. After 40 years in her career, she has a “high” salary of $45 per month. We met an endocrinologist at a restaurant who left medicine and started singing with a band. When we came back to Miami, one of our waiters at a local restaurant was a Cuban doctor. He said he was sent by the Cuban government to work in Venezuela (a program of the Cuban government which sends healthcare professionals all over the world to both help and bring in income for the government). He made a getaway last year from Venezuela.
- The Cuban Communist Party is the only political party.
- No ability to own your own business. Although this is very slowly changing, all the restaurants and hotels we visited are government owned and operated.
- No foreign investments.
- Inability to purchase new homes due to lack of resources. Children live with parents even after they get married. As a result, divorce rates are over 60%.
- The people do not have much available to them. And most of what is available, they cannot afford. We went to a cafeteria where the locals go. There was one item on the menu: ham sandwich. We ordered it. It was bread and ham only. And every person is given a ration for food. Every month each person can get almost free rice, sugar and the like. Read more about Cuban rations here.
The government blames the United States for their woes. There is a travel ban in place by the United States for US citizens and also a blockade. If a ship lands in Cuba it cannot land in the US for six months.
The Beauty of the Cuban People
I love the Cuban people—the Cubanos.
I love their music.
I love their cigars and rum.
I love that even with the difficulties, the spirit of the Cubans still beats with passion.
I love their beaches and their old architecture. I especially loved Havana Harbor and St. Francis Square.
I love their Malecon – the enchanting Havanna seawall (featured photo).
I would love to live there one day for a few months.
And I dream of a time…
…when the Cuban spirit can be set free. When their socialist system can progress, and they can learn from Russia and China. When there is no animosity or acrimony with the United States.
…when we can travel freely. And when Cuban ingenuity, healthcare and education can be exported without reserve.
…when better leadership on both sides of the 90-mile divide between Cuba and the United States can make this happen.
In the words of José Martin, the most notable statesman of the Cuban republic (their Thomas Jefferson):
Mountains culminate in peaks and nations in men.
May both our nations raise great men and women to lead us to greater times of prosperity and friendship.
(To see some of my photos of Cuba click here)