In late May I attended one meeting of the Twin Cities Cuba Network at the invitation of a friend. I saw there an extremely diverse and active coalition of young people. Over half of them were University students representing campus groups like Africana Student Cultural Center; La Raza Student Cultural Center; the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgender and Their Friends; and the Progressive Student Organization. I was so impressed with the diversity of backgrounds and views in this coalition that I started attending the meetings and soon signed up to join them on the U.S.-Cuba Youth Exchange. I then began to educate myself about Cuba.
Through fund raising and a large grant from the University, 29 of us from Minnesota and a total of 144 others from 26 states arrived in Santiago de Cuba on July 26. We arrived at the airport to a huge welcome from the city of Santiago. We boarded buses and journeyed to the different neighborhoods where we stayed with local families. I lived with a beautiful family of four in an apartment. For four days they opened their home to me. Because I speak no Spanish our communication was difficult, but they got neighbors and friends to translate. I walked around and met the entire community. The week that we were in Santiago was the week of Carnival, which is a massive week-long party that involves the whole community. I spent long nights dancing and celebrating and long days traveling around the city and learning about the Cuban people, their history and the struggles they face today.
During the day, we visited famous sites from Cuba’s revolution. We also visited hospitals, factories, schools and religious centers. We learned that, despite all the worldwide economic pressure Cuba has faced because of the U.S. embargo, the government still has not shut down schools or hospitals. Medical care in Cuba is viewed as a right, not a privilege, so it is free and accessible to all.
Cuba has one of the most effective health and education systems in the world. Its infant mortality rate is lower than all but four countries in the world. And Cuba has a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent, which is better than the United States.
We spent two days in an agricultural camp in a rural town. We worked alongside Cubans in the fields. We had a formal dialogue with Cuban youth about issues such as the democratic process in Cuba, gay rights, racism, the embargo and the recent Helms-Burton law signed by Clinton. We learned about the reality of the embargo and the devastating economic effect it has had on the Cuban people: Interest rates for foreign loans are inflated; investment capital is lost due to U.S. intimidation through the recent Helms-Burton law; and sugar, Cuba’s main export, must be sold at ridiculously low prices.
These desperate economic problems have still not stifled the progress and independent spirit of the Cuban people. We learned this when we traveled to Guant namo Bay, home of the U.S. naval base. This base sits in the second largest harbor in Cuba. It is occupied against the wishes of the Cuban people. We traveled through the Cuban military installations on the border of this base and met with a general in the Cuban army. He summed up the independent will of the Cuban people in his speech when he said, “If anyone tries to invade Cuba we will fight for our independence with every means at our disposal, with machetes or our bare hands if necessary. If they succeed in taking this island all they will find is the dust of our soil stained with the blood of our people.”
In Guant namo we also met with a battalion of Cuban soldiers and saw how the revolution has affected the liberation of women in Cuban society. Women fight alongside men in all branches of service in Cuba. The first thing that was done after the triumph of the Cuban revolution was to abolish all discriminatory laws. Women were invited to participate in every aspect of Cuban society and a family code, which gave full rights to women, even with respect to housework, was adopted. Eighty-five percent of the women in Cuban society now belong to the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization that fights for women’s rights in all spheres of society. Women in Cuba enjoy more rights, freedoms and participation in government than women in the United States.
Likewise, the plight of the Afro-Cuban population in Cuba was dramatically changed by the revolution. Institutionalized racism was eliminated after the revolution so that Afro-Cubans, who now have full and equal access to jobs, education and health care, are no longer an economically oppressed class. In Santiago, which has a very large Afro-Cuban population, I was amazed at how relaxed and open race relations were. Ethnic groups are firmly integrated and no noticeable class distinction exists along ethnic lines.
I had heard a lot of rhetoric about the lack of democratic participation and human-rights abuses in Cuba. But from my point of view, the worst human rights violation has been the criminal and unjust blockade that has made it difficult for Cuba to stock its hospitals with medicine and its stores with things like milk for children. The real per capita gross national product in Cuba is the lowest of any country in Latin America because of the blockade; despite this, Cuba still leads Latin America in literacy, life expectancy, per capita daily calorie supply and other indicators according to the 1994 United Nations Human Development Report.
This small country of 11 million people situated 90 miles off the coast of the United States has been subject to the longest economic embargo in the history of the United States. I think it’s worthwhile for us to see how a country that small has managed to survive and thrive despite this pressure for the last 35 years and despite the lack of assistance from the former Soviet Union for the last five years.
I learned more in Cuba and from Cuba than I ever have from any single experience in my life. I learned at least as much on this trip about my own country as I did about Cuba. I urge all who have placed Cuba on their list of bad guys to educate themselves about this small but defiant country. Talk to one of the University students who went on this trip about their experience. Or better yet, see the truth about Cuba for yourself.
Paul Pederson is a senior majoring in Russian area studies.