A small group of 32 Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba Aug. 11 for the first time in almost 10 years. My husband Jim and I were fortunate to be among this inaugural group, which traveled under a special license issued to Insight Cuba.
Because of this difficulty in traveling to one of our closest neighbors, Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans.
We first traveled to Cuba in 2001 and we were very interested in seeing what changes had taken place. It is apparent that in the past 10 years there has been an incredible increase in free enterprise. There are private businesses, taxis, restaurants, shops, market places, tourist businesses and lots of advertising and signage that didn’t exist before.
One thing that has not changed is the spirit of the Cuban people.
They are very warm, open, and want to talk to Americans to practice their English and exchange information about our two countries. They are very proud of their country and their accomplishments, while at the same time they openly discuss their problems and challenges.
The U.S. persistence in continuing the embargo, which hurts the individual at the most basic and personal level, baffles them. American TV, movies, CNN, and other foreign media are available and keep them current in world affairs. Interaction with tourists from Europe, Canada and other countries provide them with a lot of cultural and economic information.
When you talk to the people you realize that they are not so different from you and me. I heard over and over that their children are the most sacred thing to them. They want the same things for their children that we want for ours. They want to keep their social programs such as free health care and education, secure housing and jobs, but they also want more job opportunities and free enterprise.
One of the highlights of our trip included a visit to the Museum of Literacy. In 1960 Cuba had more than 1 million illiterate people, mostly people living in rural and mountainous areas and poor people in the cities. Now Cuba’s literacy rate is 99 percent and ranks No. 2 in the world.
We also visited a maternity home for women with high-risk pregnancies who live in isolated areas or far from a hospital. These homes are close to medical centers and provide medical monitoring until birth.
One evening we were invited to a neighborhood meeting and block party. About 100 people of all ages attended. This was a very warm, friendly and safe environment in an obviously very poor neighborhood. It took place outdoors in the dirt lane between two rows of small houses. Even though the people are poor they had a pot luck, rum and soft drinks, music and dancing.
I talked to a young man in the third year of his university studies in industrial engineering. He told me that he was so appreciative of the free educational system in Cuba because he knows it is not like that in all countries. He said he would not be able to go to the university if it was not free.
We learned that many problems are solved at the neighborhood level. There is a strong emphasis on community; the family doctor lives in the neighborhood, and the teacher, social worker and the entire neighborhood get together to lend support and solve local community and family problems.
Cuba is an interesting and safe place, the people are friendly and it’s always nice to know our neighbors.