HAMPTON FALLS - In late October, as the deciduous trees on the New Hampshire Seacoast were baring their branches and winter’s bitter chill was becoming more and more tangible in the autumn air, Louis Bornstein was en route to a tropical island still under communist rule to one of the most eye-opening experiences of his lifetime.
Mere days before Halloween, Bornstein - along with 19 others from across the United States - left the comforts of home behind and headed to Cuba.
An American citizen, Bornstein would normally be prohibited from traveling to Cuba as a result of the economic embargo imposed by the U.S. government in 1961. Inclusive in the financial prohibition (instated originally for national security concerns) is the spending of money by U.S. citizens for travel to Cuba. As such, a travel ban exists on the island for all non-licensed U.S. citizens.
However, the organization Bornstein was traveling with, Witness for Peace, was cleared to enter Cuba through a religious license, allowing the group to stay legally on the island for a total of eight days.
Witness for Peace, a Washington, D.C.-based, politically independent, grassroots organization, works to change U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. The organization also organizes trips to Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia, all of which are meant to further engage travelers in acts of justice and peace.
Bornstein, a licensed acupuncturist by trade who works and resides in Hampton Falls, learned of the organization through a friend, and that introduction helped him to spin a long-standing dream into a reality.
“I always wanted to see Cuba for what it was,” Bornstein said, “before multinational corporations took it over.”
He got his wish. Still, the trip lent itself to some feelings of culture shock for Bornstein, which he said he experienced both on Cuban and American soil.
“When we came back (to the U.S.), there was a culture shock of the abundance you see here versus the poverty you see there,” he said.
Still far more surprising to Bornstein was the inventiveness of the Cubans in the face of a grave lack of resources. What impressed Bornstein most, as a health professional, was Cuba’s affluent health-care system.
“They’ve put a lot of money into being innovative, and a lot of money into medicine,” he said.
According to Bornstein, Cuba has a universal health-care system that is three-tiered in its approach to wellness. There are the family doctors, hospitals, and natural health, or poly clinics. Hospitals are used more as a last resort in the case of emergencies, while the other two resources are more highly utilized, Bornstein said.
Patients are referred to the poly clinics, as Bornstein called them, by their family physician, and once there, the patient is interviewed by two physicians who consult with a specialist and come up with the best possible treatment plan (which would include varying modalities all working together holistically).
The poly clinic that Bornstein saw offered 30 different therapies, including psychotherapy. And seeing this health-care model stirred up some new dreams for Bornstein - those of starting his own poly clinic.
“What I deem as the most important part of trip, as far as acupuncture is concerned, is seeing how (the Cubans) have had to be really innovative with what they deem to be important medicine and how they deliver that medicine,” he said. “They’ve had to incorporate alternative medicine, which is not only effective, but incredibly cheap considering what one can do with acupressure or needles versus buying expensive Western drugs.”
According to Bornstein, physicians are trained for six years, during which time they have a rotation in natural medicine. Doctors in Cuba also make house calls, which Bornstein saw firsthand.
“During the tour, one of the girls got sick and fainted, and she hit her head,” he said. “A doctor showed up in 20 minutes to do a house call. Here, an ambulance would’ve shown up, but she would sit in a waiting room for hours.”
Cuba exceeded Bornstein’s expectations in other ways as well.
“My impression is that it would be a sort of a Third World country, but you go down there and the buildings are incredibly elegant, with Spanish architecture dating back to the 1800s,” he said.
And while Cubans haven’t imported American cars since the 1960s, Bornstein says you still see the natives driving classic Chevrolets and Buicks from the 1950s that have been kept up with beautiful paint jobs.
Still, automobiles aren’t that plentiful on the island, because gasoline is a limited resource there.
“As we got away from Havana, we’d see horses being used,” Bornstein said. “It’s pretty beautiful to see an intersection with cars, buses, and horse and buggies.”
In a country where, according to Bornstein, most citizens use bicycles and their own two feet as their primary means of transportation; where herbicides and pesticides are not used in farming; and where police don’t carry guns, he witnessed the shades of gray under Fidel Castro’s regime.
“These are interesting things happening in Cuba that you’d never hear about. Usually, talk is all one-sided - that (Cuba) is all bad, all communist, all dictated,” Bornstein said. “(But) the government is trying with the best means it has to help the people.”