I had the great fortune to visit Cuba as a US delegate of the American Public Health Association (APHA). I was struck by the beauty of the island, the warmth of the people and by the high sense of pride and adoration of heroes. Everywhere one turned you ran into an homage to Che, Jose and Camilo. Yes, all on a first name basis. Billboards exclaimed: “revolution is modesty” and “disinterest, altruism, solidarity and heroism” [“Revolucion es modestia” and “disinteres, altrusismo, solidaridad y heroism” ]. In the US we don’t tend to see too many overt Government propaganda billboards and when we do they tend to say “Army of One. Join the US Army to be all that you can be.”
I had the opportunity to attend public health events and visit public health schools and clinics (I’ll address those in a separate blog). I also got to attend cultural events such as a theatre production called “La Colmenita” (a UNICEF sponsored play performed by children); live music at the famous 1930 Club, and a Vegas-style production at the Tropicana! I wandered freely through the streets including the Malecon and the Prado (which very much reminded me of the Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain).
Throughout this adventure I experienced a wide range of emotions that stay with me till this day where I now have a much more nuanced appreciation and view of Cuba. The second you arrive at the Jose Marti Airport you see a fleet of the old cars that one so often associates with Cuba’s inability to move past the ‘50s era. I immediately started snapping photos thinking how cool it was to see these in person. By the end of my trip I snapped a few more photos of those vintage cars parked throughout the streets of Havana with a feeling of sadness knowing that change will come shortly to Cuba and that these cars will be sold off to the highest American bidder and with said sales the history of Cuba will be chipped away at.
I attended a UNICEF-sponsored play called La Colmenita which was primarily in Spanish although some of the musical productions were in English. The theatre was packed to the max. Besides the children’s family members, there were about 80 Americans in the audience. I believe I was one of 6 Americans in that audience with an understanding of Spanish. The children were very expressive and definitely honing their acting craft. Thus, those that did not understand Spanish could still be completely immersed in the moment. At the end of the production, everyone participated in a standing ovation. Everyone that is, except for me. I too had been caught up in the magnificence of the children’s performance. However, the play was one long anti-American rant regarding our treatment of the Cuban Five. At one point, we were even accused of poisoning their birds. The children went up and down the aisles of the theatre to hug audience members. I indeed hugged several of the kids because they were just so darn good and cute but I left feeling somewhat betrayed. It is as if this play put on by cute little children was a Trojan horse of sorts. Later that evening, I went out for a walk and came across a monument dedicated to “the 3000 Cuban terrorist victims”. I had no idea what this monument was about and was conflicted by how I still mourn 9/11 but had no idea what were the acts of terrorism that the Cubans had suffered through.
On one of my walks down the Prado, I came across many artists whose lives seemed to consist of covert sales of their artwork and their continued academic achievements. I came across one artist who showed me his identification card (there the cards state your profession). He was a sexologist who had a Ph.D in psychology and a master’s degree in sexuality (or something like that). He earned more money, by which to support his family, through the sale of his artwork as opposed through his vocation. He was not really a trained artist but seemed to have an aptitude for it (I happily have it hanging in my living room nicely framed). See, by selling his artwork he got paid in CUCs-which is the tourist currency (there are two currencies in Cuba: the CUC and the Peso). It was a very highly educated man whose whole family had several advanced academic degrees. He went from topic to topic seamlessly displaying an understanding of American politics; psychological research and rum production (of course I would engage in rum discussions). To me he was caught in this sad state of being. However, it was also a moment where I got to see how highly valued education and intellectualism was In Cuba; as opposed to this era of anti-intellectualism that we are experiencing currently in the United States.
My trip to Cuba entailed the simultaneous experience of conflicting emotions. Traveling to Cuba as an American, especially a public health practitioner, is its own version of shock and awe of the senses and mind and I cannot wait till I return! Which, according to the fortune teller I visited my last night in Cuba, I will do again very soon.