On Feb. 16, I heard that American airline companies, including United and Jet Blue, will soon be flying to from the US to Cuba! This is big news for both Americans and Cubans. This island just 90 miles from Florida, rich in history and culture but relatively off limits for more than 60 years, will now be easy to reach. Travel restrictions imposed by the US have been loosened, although travelers still need to go with an approved company, such as Soltura Travel, which provides the necessary itinerary of cultural and educational activities. After spending 11 days in Cuba last November, I highly recommend that you go. If you engage with the local people, you’ll come away with new friends and, perhaps, new perspectives.
Many Americans can still remember the events leading up to our break in relations with Cuba and the tensions afterward. We’ve heard about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many of us know Cubans who fled at the time of the revolution. What we can now learn for ourselves firsthand is how the revolution changed Cuba. Up until the 1950s, the US and Cuba had close ties. United Fruit Company controlled sugar and fruit production with an iron fist, and the Mafia ran hotels and casinos on Cuba’s lovely beaches. For decades, Cuba’s presidents were weak and corrupt. While there was a wealthy upper class of Cubans, most of the people lived in grinding poverty. The literacy rate hovered around 45%.
Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and their guerrilla fighters claimed victory for the Revolution in 1959. Batista, the pro-US Cuban president, fled the country, along with many in the upper class. When Fidel took power, he nationalized foreign assets, hiked taxes on US imports and negotiated trade deals with the Soviet Union. The US responded with a strict embargo on trade, which the Cuban government estimates has cost it $1.26 trillion over the years. Today the embargo has been relaxed somewhat—Cubans can receive money from the US, for example—but much more needs to happen. As is always the case with trade sanctions, the Cuban people have paid the price.
However, the Revolution improved life for the average Cuban in many ways. Older Cubans who lived through this time seem to be fiercely proud of its achievements, though that’s harder to say about younger people who don’t remember the old days and may be more aware of what they don’t have. A young thirty-something man we talked with told us his parents barely finished third grade, but he has a master’s degree and a good job. “I’m grateful, but I’m not blind,” he remarked. While there is no advertising of products or companies in Cuba, billboards extolling revolutionary leaders and socialism dot the highways. Revolutionary memorabilia and posters are for sale everywhere.
One of the first things Fidel did after seizing power was to send out Literacy Brigades, groups of young people who spread out in the countryside to teach people to read. Within two years, the literacy rate soared to 99%, where it has remained ever since. (See Jonathan Kozol’s book, Children of the Revolution for this story). Today, Cuba provides free education to all citizens through university. After the age of 14, students move from high school to pre-university study, where they learn a skill that will provide them a job or prepare them for university. If they pass an exam, they can continue on to 4-5 years of university education at government expense.
Proof that Cuba’s educational system works can be seen in the fact that its number one source of revenue comes from the export of its professional people, especially doctors. They are sent to Venezuela (in exchange for oil in a deal with Hugo Chavez) and other South and Latin American countries and Africa to work. The Cuban government receives $10,000 per month for each doctor, for example, $400 of which is paid to the doctor. This is 10 times as much as their $42 a month salary in Cuba, and yet they can be placed in isolated or dangerous places in these other countries, far from loved ones.
Meanwhile those doctors who remain in Cuba accomplish amazing things with very little, and health care is free. The life expectancy is now 78.45 years, up with the top 25 nations of the world and only .4 years behind the US. We visited a doctor’s clinic one afternoon and, amidst ragged paper files, worn cabinets and bottles of disinfectant, we learned that they’ve done this mostly through attention, prevention and heroic effort. Each neighborhood clinic has two doctors who treat about 950 patients by making 3 house calls every morning and returning to the clinic in the afternoon. Pregnant women are seen once a week, and all children are vaccinated in their first year. Sex education is good enough that STDs are not a huge problem, but hypertension, diabetes and lung cancer are. Birth control is widely used, keeping the birth rate at about 1.7. Surgery and even heart transplants are performed at hospitals in Havana (with a long wait for non-emergency cases), but because of the economic embargo, many drugs can be hard to come by. And Dr. Carlos looked very tired the day we visited.
Having free education and health care makes it more possible to live on the average income of $25-30 a month, of course. Cubans are also provided with monthly rations of basic food items: rice, sugar, oil, beans, milk, coffee, and salt. Live government-subsidized entertainment, often with lavish costumes and choreography and beloved celebrities, is nearly free for Cubans, and most people seem to have a TV. Cubans look healthy, their cities are clean, parks are abundant, music and art flourish, tropical beauty lies everywhere. However, there is still little access to the Internet and the information it brings, consumer goods are limited, cars are prohibitively expensive—Cuba has not yet joined the 21st century. Its human rights record also remains troubling.
Many Cubans are still eager to leave, and since Raul took power in 2011, they can travel outside the country. When we were there, newspapers were writing about how a thousand Cubans were waiting at the American embassy in Ecuador to receive visas to enter the US. Under the Johnson administration, a policy called “wet foot/dry foot” was implemented, allowing legal entry and a path to citizenship within a year to any Cuban setting foot on US soil. With new relations between the two countries and the US push for immigration reform, those Cubans wanting to leave believe they must get there soon.
- Students loans and the cost of a university education have become big issues in the US election this year. What are the arguments in favor of and against a free university and/or community college education?
- What are the arguments for and against economic sanctions? Do economic sanctions work?