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Posted January 22, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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Julia Marsh | Cape Cod Chronicle

Chatham resident Julia Marsh, a junior at Colorado College, spent the past four months studying at the University of Havana.  A former Chronicle intern, she filed this report based on her experiences.

The front cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba reads, “Hand-rolled cigars, fabulous cars and thatched roofed bars.”  The guidebook tries to capture a country with one of the richest and most tumultuous histories with a three-phrased catchy slogan.  After four months of living in the city of Havana and attending the University of Havana, I began to see a less picturesque culture, one beyond smiling brides leaning out of 1950s Fords.

I have a tendency to idealize Cuba when I am describing my experience to others, and I realize how the hard times are easy to forget.  Strong desires of returning home, to my friends, my family and all that is comfortable to me often prevented me from living the nitty-gritty life of the decaying Havana streets.  The lingering taste of sweet mangoes bought on street corners for 10 cents sometimes overwhelm the times when I was crammed on a bus with 90 Cubans, sweating, legs aching, trying to guard my bag against pick-pockets.

One of the most important questions that I tried to keep in mind throughout my semester in Havana was something a friend from home e-mailed me after I had described the hassles of daily life in Cuba. “Does the beauty beat out the hard?”  And although I can’t answer the question, “What really goes on in Cuba ?” I feel strongly about Cuba as a country that can tell a story if you know how to listen

Yes, Cuba is drinks made with rum called “mojitos,” but it is also a woman placing her sleeping babies on my lap during a crowded bus ride. It’s salsa dancing and Hemmingway’s inspiration for “The Old Man and the Sea.” It’s the tobacco farmer and his wife inviting us into their home for hand-rolled cigars, slices of coconut and fresh grapefruit juice. 

        In Cuba necessity demands simplicity.  People in the city are resorting to urban organic farming because the “dessert economy” from the colonial agriculture system of sugar and tobacco, which rot your teeth and liver, have left the people hungry.  I often felt like there was nothing to eat in the entire city of Havana except pork grinds. I got used to waiters at restaurants telling me “there isn’t any” or “we just ran out.”

Despite the simplicity of day-to-day life, the mechanics of Cuban society are very difficult to decipher.  How does Cuba tick?  I don’t know.  But I will always remember the nature of the Cuban people, their willingness to help, dexterity and versatility in their professions and in the arts, the fact that billboards with advertisements that you would see in almost any capitalist country are replaced with declarations such as: Luchar es vivir, renunciar es morir To fight is to live, to give up is to die.”

After living for four months in Cuba I would say that the country couldn’t be defined as strictly communist or socialist, especially since the bulk of the economy is supported by tourism and remittances (money sent from Cuban relatives living in the U.S. ).  I have seen the hypocrisy within the system where the society separates tourism from its people; Cubans are not allowed into their own hotels, restaurants and clubs, and many police officers treat visiting Americans better than their own people.  A friend of mine in the program left still pondering the question, ” Cuba libre?” or “a free Cuba ?”  He vividly recalls how it felt to drive through a poor residential neighborhood in a huge Mercedes tour bus one day and then sit in a fifth year University of Havana film class and discuss a recent documentary with six other Cuban students and a Cuban professor. Students receive a free quality education from pre-school through the university and graduate or medical school.  And this highly efficient system of socialized education has led to a countrywide literacy rate of 97 percent.

Though some United States immigration officials are under the impression that we are “at war” with Cuba, I am not sure if they know how successful the socialized health care system has been at covering the basic needs of the entire Cuban population.  No matter what the circumstance, anyone can get a transplant and walk out of the hospital free and clear, without worrying about insurance or the cost.

One of the last weeks I was in Havana I attended a holiday party thrown by the ambassador at the American consulate who had seen Havana from the window of his chauffer driven BMW but had never walked the streets of a residential neighborhood.  The next day I heard Fidel Castro speak for five and a half hours, marveling at his endurance, charisma, and sense of humor.  I could barely believe that there was not one armed security guard in the auditorium while I nodded my head in agreement to Castro’s opinion that in old age it is vital to exercise the mind and that “the secret of a revolution lies in consensus.”  Then again, from the majority of my conversations with Cubans, I would say that no such consensus exists. 

The government once said that the arts are the arm of the revolution.  Each day in Havana, the arts are represented, accessible and valued highly.  From student art exhibits showcasing sculptures made from old coffee makers at the University of Havana, to world-class installation art by artists from all over the world featured at the 8th Biennial held from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1 in Havana.

The U.S. blockade of Cuba in my mind serves a backward purpose.  It was a common topic of discussion among concerned Cubans and myself as well as the focus of protests and speeches at the University.  From what I experienced, the travel ban and trade ban does not work against the government but hurts the people; it hurts children with leukemia who cannot get drugs manufactured solely by U.S. pharmaceutical companies; it keeps milk, cereal and tampons off the bare shelves at the few stores, which are unable to provide things we consider necessities.

The word “esperar” in Spanish means both to wait and to hope.  The double definition of this word is appropriate for Cuba.  People must wait in lines in order to live.  Throughout the course of any given day, you will wait sometimes two hours to get on the bus, to receive your monthly rations of beans and rice, or to get your broken glasses fixed.  And after all of that waiting, there is no guarantee that what you were waiting for will be available; perhaps the bus broke down or ran out of gas, or the electricity goes out in the city as it often does.  In this sense you are hoping while you are waiting.  To deal with this Cubans have designed an efficient “ltimo system” to hold their places in all of the lines of their daily lives.  They have a unique pace of life that demands patience without any guarantees. For Cubans, what we consider down time or leisurely activities occur every day, weekday, holiday, whenever you will see Cubans sitting around playing dominoes or chess, drinking rum and simply watching life go by.

        Hopefully I have given a glimpse into the cloud of mystery and intrigue that surround this hot little island 90 miles of Florida ‘s coast.  Recommendations for learning more if I have sparked an interest?  Watch films and documentaries, read books and travel guides, but the best way to understand Cuba for yourself is to travel there, with an open mind and without expectations.

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