Cuba Libre

Posted on February 02, 2015

Cuba Libre


There were 11 of us as delegates on the eight-day trip to Cuba at the end of November 2014. We were part of a Witness for Peace (WFP) delegation to study the impact of the embargo, meet people face to face, and learn about Cuban culture. The trip was allowed through a U.S. policy modification that permitted authorized groups registered as educational organizations to visit Cuba through a “People to People” initiative. WFP is a nonprofit educational organization with a focus on justice issues related to Latin America. Its mission is “to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.”  Our group included academics, retirees, a jazz musician, and a poet. We met with people in many different contexts: university, arts, music, schools, microenterprise, and neighborhood community program initiatives.

U.S. Policy: At the time of our trip we had no idea that U.S. policy regarding Cuba would change in the next month, though there was general discussion on all sides about potential changes in Cuba and in US policy to Cuba. Cubans with whom we spoke talked about emerging small enterprise projects, increasing tourism from Europe and Canada, more access to the internet, and popularity of cell phones (though without access to the U.S.) The cultural attaché whom we met with at the U.S. mission in Cuba alluded to increasing areas of cooperation between the governments, including drug surveillance, disaster relief plans, and other activities, and said there was a general expectation that things were in flux between the governments, though she maintained the official US position at the time that Cuba had a repressive government and had US political prisoners that must be released before progress could be made in improving relations. Cuba is on a U.S. terrorist list, along with 3 or 4 other nations.

China, the largest communist nation is not on it. Neither is Saudi Arabia, the world’s most oppressive nation regarding women’s rights. They are major U.S. trading partners.  In a parallel universe, Cubans spoke to us of the US holding Cuban political prisoners who were arrested while investigating terrorist groups operating in the Cuban exile community in Miami.

The initial Cuban exodus that began in 1959 as the revolution succeeded, was dominated by wealthy Cubans who had strong economic ties the US related economy. A few years after that, they were followed by more middle class Cubans who might have initially supported the revolution but then became disillusioned with its impact, implementation, and repression of individual freedoms.

Cuban exiles do not go through United Nations processing to evaluate their refugee status claims, but are granted automatic legal status with refugee benefits by the U.S. if they are able to touch US soil. (In fact, the United Nations classifies most Cuban émigrés as economic migrants, not political refugees.)  The U.S. policy is nicknamed “the wet foot-dry foot policy.” The Cuban exile community of South Florida has been highly successful in its advocacy efforts for newly arriving Cuban exiles. The political clout of the exile community of South Florida is sometimes strong enough to carry a presidential election, and politicians usually court the exile community of this swing state. Recent surveys have suggested that a small majority of South Floridians of Cuban descent would favor lifting the economic embargo with Cuba. However, the political power structure is still dominated by earlier émigrés who maintain strong opposition to recognition of the Castro regime.

This narrative is written from a perspective preceding the December change of US policy toward Cuba when prisoners were released on both sides and the U.S. announced plans to recognize Cuba and upgrade its Cuba “Interest Office” or “Mission” to embassy status. The embargo is still in place. This report is based on our discussions with Cuban people and background reading. It is my own personal perspective.

Group Departure and Itinerary: Our airport departure from Miami was an epic event. As we went through multiple Homeland Security screenings, we were surrounded by hundreds of Cuban exiles who make the daily plane flights to the island, reaping the benefits of a relaxed policy for the exile community to visit home. They were laden with oversized luggage containing U.S. commodities they were taking as gifts to their families back in Cuba. Our flight became more complex with a six -our delay because one of the chartered planes was out of commission and the other plane needed to come back to pick up the rest of the travelers.

Except for two days at a small beachside village near the Bay of Pigs invasion, we stayed at the Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Community Center in Habana (This is how they spell the name of their capital city.) The MLK Center is sponsored by Habana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in a working class Afro-Cuban neighborhood. It is affiliated with the Cuban Council of Churches. The three story community center was built and organized adjacent to the church by its pastor and congregation in the mid-eighties, as an effort to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of justice and community. Its programs include hosting visiting groups in a hostel environment (read bunk beds in tiny rooms here), providing group meals, and offering community development programs.  Two other international groups from the U.S. were there at the same time as our group: an organic gardening/permaculture group, and a study abroad group that included Guilford College students whom my wife knew. The MLK Center provided other programs and services to the local community including free potable water for the neighborhood and exercise programs for the elderly.

Our group leaders included three MLK staff. “Rita” was trained as an agronomy engineer and had worked monitoring pesticide levels during the Soviet era but now felt led to serve as an educational guide, teaching groups about Cuban culture and justice issues through meetings with community projects.  “Polo” was our professional interpreter with a background in professional ballet, a highly skilled professional, adept at putting interviewees at ease and enabling them to share their stories with international visitors. “Chino” was our driver/mechanic who kept our bus running most of the time. He also occasionally brought along a “bus doctor” to assist our 1979 Thomas Built Bus built in Guilford County, NC, which had already seen its best years. Because there were signs in French inside the bus, we speculated that it had been bought by a school system in Canada. After it had outlived its safety requirements for school children, someone acquired it and donated it to the MLK Center in Habana. We only had to push start it once, a group esprit de corps building activity.

The Witness for Peace staff person in Cuba was a young Mexican-born U.S. citizen, Moravia de la O, who served as group facilitator. She is a graduate of University of California at Berkley with a concentration on trade and development practices in Latin America. Our U.S.-based organizer and group participant was Dr. Aldo Guevara, Professor of Latin American History at Worcester State University in Massachusetts and a specialist in revolutionary history in Latin America. (Aldo also persuaded four of his Worcester colleagues to join the delegation.)

Cuba Libre, What’s in a Name: “Cuba Libre” is a complex term. It translates as “Free Cuba.” It was supposedly a battle cry of the revolutionaries who revolted against the Spanish domination in the late 1800’s and might have been a battle cry of the revolutionaries overthrowing the Batista regime in mid twentieth century as well. It is a popular expression and is also the name of the national beverage of Cuba: a combination of rum, lime, and cola drink on ice. It is known as rum and coke in the US, and it was made popular here by the 1940’s song, “Rum and Coca-Cola.” (One rumor is that Teddy Roosevelt invented this rum drink when fighting in Cuba, but historians challenge that claim.)   Cubans consume Cuba Libre as one could expect in a group committed to community enjoyment and solidarity together with alcohol. It has traditionally bridged political and religious divides.

A wrinkle of U.S.-Cuba politics is who has the best rum. Bacardi was originally considered the premier Cuban rum and very popular with US tourists. The Bacardi family fled Cuba in the early sixties when the revolutionary forces seized lands owned by corporations and families of the Batista regime. The Bacardis resettled in the US protectorate, Puerto Rico, and rebuilt their rum empire. The U.S. has re-embraced the rum and coke as marketed by the Bacardi family. Not so in Cuba! In Cuba it is said that the Bacardis did not take their recipe with them when they abandoned their country of origin. They only took their bank accounts. The national drink in Cuba remains Cuba Libre, the standard lime, cola drink (sometimes Coke from Mexico made with real sugar), and rum. However, the national rum of Cuba is now called “Havana Club.” State produced “Havana Club” comes in many shades, light to dark, and is what Cuba has on the shelves of its stores. Cubans tell us that a caretaker at the old Bacardi ranch did not flee, and he was the one with the rum recipe. That is now the recipe for “Havana Club.”


The expressed primary purpose of our trip was to study the impact of the embargo. This was to be a difficult assignment. Everything is quite complex.  For starters, Cubans do not call it an “embargo.” They call it a “blockade.” It is a blockade because other countries that do business with Cuba are also subject to US sanctions. If a freighter has docked at a Cuban port in the previous six months, it is prohibited from docking in a US port, thus discouraging many international freighters from shipping to Cuba. International banks from Europe and elsewhere have faced heavy fines through the US dominated international banking community if they provide working capital for Cuban investments.  In 2014 the largest bank in France was fined $9 billion by the US controlled International Banking Commission for trading with Cuba, and the Bank of Ireland was forced to stop doing business with Cuba, though they had broken no European laws. They had violated the US trade embargo by their business with Cuba.

The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 spells out U.S.-Cuban policy in extensive detail and is a comprehensive statement on the direction of US policy toward Cuba since the revolution in 1959.It built on the Toricelli Act of 1992 which prohibited food or medicines from being shipped to Cuba, and implicated any other nation that traded with Cuba, by expanding the embargo or other penalties to that nation. It effectively prevents banks or other nations from loaning capital funds to Cuba. In fact, our group was asked to bring medical supplies that could be donated to those in need, anything from children’s vitamins to wheel chairs to colostomy bags. While no other countries except Israel have an embargo against Cuba, nations who do trade with Cuba have to work around US sanctions.

Some Faculty and Student Viewpoints: Our Cuban “People to People” partners were eager to discuss the embargo. We spoke first with local university professors and students. They noted that this was a fifty year old policy, both nations were undergoing change, and the embargo would probably change too. However, it was not clear what was next.  Several expressed feelings about how hard the embargo was on their economy and them personally, but they were proud that they had stood up to the U.S. (the “Yanqui imperialist bullies”) and survived. Proud of their perseverance, they wondered why the U.S. was so harsh.  “We maintained our dignity,” a professor told us.

Another university professor spoke to us of the three colonial periods: the official Spanish colonial period which ended at the end of the nineteenth century with US intervention; the US era of the first half of the twentieth century, highlighted by the symbol of the gambling, the segregated casinos of the Batista regime, and the power of US sugar corporations; and thirdly, the Soviet era- the early sixties until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During the Soviet era, triggered by the US embargo, they had relied on the Soviet Union as their primary trading partner and had subscribed to the Soviet expectations, similar to the former US expectations, and the earlier Spanish colonial requirements. During the US/Batista era, approximately 90% of the commercial farm land was controlled or owned by US corporations, including 31 of the 34 sugar refineries in the country. After the revolution and growing economic ties with the Soviet Union, the Cuban revolutionary government was persuaded to continue putting almost all of its energy into growing sugar cane, and the Soviet Union would buy it all in exchange for other needed commodities. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba did not have a diversified economic base or sustainable agriculture for food sources.

Cuba survived the harsh economic period of the nineties, called the “Special Period,” when there were severe food and other commodities shortages.  The food supply was essentially cut in half during that time. Small gradual economic changes were made. Micro economic enterprises were opened up with government approval. Sustainable organic agriculture and urban gardens began to emerge. The process was slow because there is no outside capital to invest in neglected infrastructure. However, they had not caved to the US embargo.

Our discussions with university faculty and students brought out comments like: “In Cuba we have a right to education, to housing, health, and food…. A right to life, to bring back things removed by empires’ domains…. We are punished by the US for independence, for rights of people for our own industry…. As communists we are thought of as terrorists. We just want to be independent.”

As we talked with them about “freedom of information” they noted that they did have access to the internet at the universities though it was quite slow. An attempt to bring a high speed cable line from Venezuela, their primary Latin American trading partner, had bogged down for unknown reasons. They noted that government censorship lines were fluid and changing.

The country is now in flux. A university faculty member described to us three different visions for Cuba which were in competition.  One vision was a return to the strict centralized governmental control of the economy and more tightly managed systems that had evolved during the Soviet era. Another vision was to open things up completely to capitalism and US investments as in the Batista days. With this vision was the fear that Cuba would again become a hedonistic destination for US vacationers, enslaved to a world of casinos and coastal resorts for the rich and powerful. The third option, which he endorsed, was to allow small controlled investments that supported the strengths of the country: a premier health system, highest education level in the Caribbean basin, strong sense of community support and egalitarianism. This is coupled with the idealism of Che Guevara who believed that socialism could be maintained through a strong sense of compassion for one another, a sense of community commitment. And, Cuba is now moving into a new stage with development of ecotourism, mainly from Canada and Europe. In addition, more and more Latin American and other nations are willing to trade with Cuba and resist the US embargo/blockade.

We asked the group if they or their colleagues would prefer to live in the US. They chuckled and whispered. That is “The gold chain” effect one of them explained to us. At the university they joked about giving up their educational or medical careers and commitments so they could go to the US, get a job at Walmart, and buy a gold chain. Some people had done that. And now, with the relaxed visitation privileges, some of them had come back to show their friends their gold chains. However, our interviewees critiqued, those people had given up their commitment to make this a better world, in exchange for working at Walmart and buying a gold chain.  Some of them went on to say that they would like to visit the U.S., but they still wanted to support their country and their vision for a society with high standards for health and education where people supported each other, crime was minimal, and there was no homelessness.

They recognized that their own government had many challenges and was too authoritarian. However, it seemed clear that the government and the economy were changing, especially in the last couple of years. Now, the U.S.  is the scapegoat for all problems, and clearly the U.S. is defined as the enemy, the big bully, by the revolutionary government. Those who were critical of their government pointed out that if the embargo/blockade was gone, then their government could be held accountable for any problems in their society. For now, however, the U.S. still got the blame. Some did not know if their government could manage the transition or not. Now, everything that was wrong could easily be blamed on the US and its bully tactics. It would be worth seeing if their government could uphold the ideals while allowing private enterprise to grow.

Additional Viewpoints: In discussions with other groups, more opinions emerged. There is fear as to how the change will happen and how it would work. In their over fifty years as a revolutionary society, they have never had a transition from the regime of the Castros.  It would be a challenge. A guest house owner had reservations about lifting of the embargo. He feared that the ecological small microenterprise tourism industry enjoyed now by Canadians and Europeans would be swallowed up by a wave of U.S. visitors bringing investments in casinos and resorts, hedonism, drugs, prostitution.  There would be greater wealth disparities, a reinstatement of institutionalized racism, a loss of social commitment to the greater good.  The best and brightest would be drained away from service careers in medicine and education.

As I thought about the embargo, I thought about our bus, built in North Carolina, but reaching Cuba via Canada after many years. Most of the other busses I saw were new and came from China. I also learned that most of Cuba’s rice, a staple, also comes from China. I thought about how the Carolinas are major rice producers, but our farmers are restricted from trading with Cuba.

Though most people do not have private vehicles, the 1950’s US cars were abundant in Havana. I wondered how the Cubans kept their old US cars operating and heard that they made all of their own replacement parts now. As the economy grows, there are more newer cars on the roads in Cuba now, almost all from Asia. The U.S. auto market is not part of the Cuba transportation equation.


The Martin Luther King Center was probably not indicative of the whole island, but it was an intriguing window.  Located at the intersection of several streets in a working class neighborhood in Habana, there was a small park directly across the street. It was usually crowded with people waiting for the parade of busses that passed regularly.  Across the street was a building marked “cafeteria,” and it served light meals and drinks from a service counter. A couple of us went there with a university professor and learned that a soft drink cost him the equivalent of a quarter of a day’s salary. He made $19 a week as a university professor.

The neighborhood was older Spanish style houses in various states of repair. There had not been much home building since the revolution. People were provided with free housing by the government and could occupy an empty house and register it. They could not sell the house but could obtain government permission to trade it with someone else for a different house.

There was a steady stream of neighborhood residents into the MLK center to fill their water jugs. Though water was available through the city water system, it was not potable. I don’t know how other neighborhoods obtained drinking water or what steps were underway to improve the water system.

A highlight for our group was participating in the senior citizen exercise program. There were about 40 participants from the neighborhood and church, and at least two were over a hundred years old. The leader, a dance instructor at the university, was excellent in leading a senior citizen exercise program. As a participant in a senior citizen exercise program, I speak from personal experience on this point. Everyone was included in the program activities at whatever their physical or cognitive levels were. One millennial participant who was unable to get to a standing position from his chair, would be regularly hauled up by other participants for standing and walking activities. There was lots of affirmation for all. At one point we were paired up between neighborhood participants and group visitors to develop skits demonstrating activities that the rest of the participants tried to guess. Many cultural and linguistic challenges on this one, but we all had fun. The class ended with a cheery Conga line for everyone, including those who couldn’t walk on their own clutching tightly to their neighbors.

We did visit other neighborhood community centers that included art groups, music groups, and community gathering and socializing places. They were not part of the MLK Center network, but much of the same spirit of mutual support seemed self-evident at other community gatherings.

Religion: Protestants, Catholics, and Santeria

The Ebenezer Baptist church was active with youth groups, Bible studies, music programs and regular worship services. One would not know this was a “communist country” from observing events at the MLK center. It was the only place where we participated in a religious service. We were told that the country was experiencing some renaissance in evangelical religion. I think they meant “protestant” when they described churches to us as evangelical. Our Witness for Peace leader told me that there was a Quaker minister who worked part time at the MLK center. Though we tried to meet, I never met her because our paths never crossed.

We visited no Catholic churches, and I do not have first-hand knowledge as to how active they are now. We did see the cathedral in central Habana, but it is now a museum. We also saw a magnificent building in old Habana that is now an elegant hotel.  It had been a monastery which had been converted into this very upscale hotel.  Our guides told us that there had been a dramatic decline in Catholicism after the revolution. The Catholic Church had been seen as an instrument of the Batista regime and home to the “haves.” Apparently liberation theology had not reached the shores of the island nation prior to the revolution. Some told us that after the revolution there was a stigma associated with those who were religious-meaning active Catholics, I think.  It implied that they had not fully embraced the revolution and its vision of a new world. That stigma may be fading now. At one point the revolutionary government declared itself as an atheist country in its constitution. The constitution was later revised to describe the country as secular. (With Pope Francis orchestrating the recent breakthrough in US/Cuba relations, it will be intriguing to see what happens with the Catholic Church there.)

We spent a compelling afternoon in a neighborhood of Habana that had become an ongoing Santeria epicenter. Santeria is an outgrowth of traditional African religious traditions, combined with Catholicism and dramatic art and dance. A local artist had helped transform the neighborhood with Santeria inspired art. Visualize surrealistic images of gods and demons plus revolutionary themes, expressed in bright and dramatic imagery. A dance and music presentation was performed on the street for interested viewers. We were pulled into dances and drum performances led by performers acting out traditional gods and goddesses themes. There was also an art gallery, CD’s, and a gourmet restaurant. This all operated outside the government and with no governmental intervention.

Arts and Music

Arts and music permeate the culture on all levels and is an obvious source of cultural and national pride. The revolution institutionalized the arts through its university and neighborhood programs. We visited the National University of the Arts, partly a new, modern, architecturally avant-garde campus and partly a reconfiguration of the old country club for the elites of the Batista era. We saw students of the performing arts, painters and sculptors. Cuban artisans are known around the world (except the U.S.)

We visited one neighborhood where an artistic resident had decorated his garden wall with broken mosaic tiles. That artistic resident then helped interested neighbors to join in.  Giant mosaic sculptures began erupting along the edge of the street and tops of houses transforming the neighborhood into a wonderland of flowers and sea creatures made of broken tiles.

Our group went to several clubs and gatherings which included art and music, and we were instructed in traditional Latin American dances. We were not all good students but were all encouraged to participate. Some of our group joined in on keyboards, guitars, and percussion instruments. That was a hit. When we stayed at guest houses on the beach in a small village, we were invited to join an activity with an afterschool art group that a neighborhood resident had organized for children. The children made paper flowers for us and parents prepared sweets. Other neighbors joined in.  A musical group performed. It was Thanksgiving Day (not a Cuban holiday) and our group transitioned back to another beach house where the owners had arranged a Thanksgiving pig roast for us as the sun set on the bay.

We visited a regional arts institute where young people competed to be on the performing arts agenda for the annual celebration of the defeat of the imperialist invaders and their Cuban émigré mercenaries at the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs).  Young people selected from around the country practice for months with professionals for the big performance in April, some of the professional instructors coming from other countries in Latin America and Europe.  The students performed some of their proposed repertoires for us. A highlight was when the jazz musician from our delegation joined the music group for an impromptu jazz performance.

(Later we actually visited the museum documenting the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was comprised of historical recollections, video clips, plus recovered US weapons, parts of airplanes, and monuments honoring the brave fallen war dead who defended the new Cuba from the invaders. )

Education and Health

The new revolutionary government of 1959 had education, health, and housing as their priorities. Cuba is now known internationally for its outstanding literacy rates and health standards. Homelessness is not part of the Cuban culture. Part of the commitment of the revolution was to teach everyone to read. Batista had privatized education. Marginalized populations of the country, especially the rural poor, had become functionally illiterate during his reign of power.  Shortly after Castro took power, he launched the “Year of Education” to bring literacy to the poor rural areas. People as young as twelve and as old as eighty, over 200,000 people, were recruited to go and teach others to read. The plan was that they would live with the rural families and work the farms with them during the day and then teach them to read at night.  The symbol of the movement was a gas lantern since many of the areas did not have electricity at that time. It became a two way learning event as the urban educated learned about the agricultural foundations of their country. A recent study by UNESCO showed that illiteracy had been eradicated and Cuban students performed better than all other thirteen Latin American nations in the study. Universities have been built in every province and all children are expected to attend school. If a child is habitually absent from school without reason, the parent could be incarcerated for neglect.

Our group visited and observed in two schools, an elementary and a middle school. Though instruction was in Spanish and we could not follow, the students seemed happy and supported. Teaching staff were adamant in their commitment to education. They seemed confused by our questions about how to deal with special needs. In my understanding, they seemed to consider all children as having special needs. If they could not reach a child, the assumption was that the teacher had not yet figured out the best educational approach for that child. School is free from kindergarten through university. Students compete on placement tests and are eventually steered into programs that best suit their skills, interests, and community needs. The brightest and best students advanced to the most prestigious universities and vocational tracks, especially medicine, education, technical skills (such as agronomy), and research. International students also come to study in the Cuban medical schools.

The health system and its accompanying national health care service competes with the best of the first world. Everyone is entitled to free medical care.  The emphasis is on prevention. Cuba now has one of the highest longevity rates in Latin America, around 78 years.  The country scores highly on many health indicators. Cuban medical systems are sophisticated, and there is 1 family practitioner for every 600 people (compared to 1 to 3200 in the US). Our group visited a local community health center and visited the doctor on duty at the time. She was young, and this was part of her residency. When she is not on duty at the community health center, she is still on call if needed. When we visited there was one patient there under observation and a second one came in for consultation. If there are serious medical issues, they are sent on to a regional hospital.

Cuban doctors are one of the country’s major assets and financial resources. About 30,000 Cuban doctors serve in other countries at the request of those governments. Those countries pay Cuba about $3000 monthly for their services. (It was reported that the doctors receive about $1000 monthly for their overseas services with the balance going into the national economy.) While we were there, it was reported that about 30 Cuban doctors are in West Africa helping to address the Ebola virus. Because of the US embargo, Cuba does not have access to some of the pharmaceuticals that have been developed in recent years. In an ironic way, it has boosted Cuba’s medical research as they look for alternative treatments. Overall the approach is a combination of modern and traditional alternative medicines framed in a context of strong preventive measures, exercise, and diet.


The people of Cuba have a unique ethnic history. Most of the indigenous population was killed off with the arrival of the initial Spanish colonists through war, enslavement, and disease. However, some of the original Taino cultural and linguistic traditions continued. The colonists imported over a million Africans as slaves over the next century to work the emerging sugar plantations. As the slave trade ended, Cuban planters imported over 100,000 Chinese as indentured servants who worked in slave-like conditions. Additional farm workers were imported from Haiti and Jamaica. Additional refugees came to Cuba in the first half of the twentieth century fleeing European wars.  Some anthropologists have noted the unique mixed population of Cuba, made of many different ethnic heritages in transition. The colonial and Batista era economic system was built in part on a US model of racial segregation as justification for discrimination. However, over half of the Cuban population has at least some African heritage. Part of the Cuban revolution was built on the elimination of the racism and segregation of the Batista regime policies. The initial wave of those fleeing the country after the revolution were white and upper class. The liberated rural poor campesinos were dark skinned. However, these categories are truly artificial constructs. Castro was from a middle class Spanish immigrant family, and Batista was known to be of mixed race, mulatto.

Now, part of the national rhetoric speaks of the dangers of the institutionalized racism of the US. Our group visited the national museum of Afro Cuban history. It documented the evils of slavery, the courage of the Africans who were brought to Cuba (and the rest of Latin America), and their contributions to the cultural history of the island nation. The museum’s educational program was framed as part of “our history” as a Cuban nation. It was designed so that everyone could take pride in their country’s triumph in overcoming racism.

As microenterprise is now developing in Cuba, we heard some fears expressed that Cubans of white heritage may move ahead of their darker skinned counterparts because they have more family members in the US who send remittances home that can be used for investment. That is coupled with the fear that a major shift toward US tourism after the embargo is gone, may divide their country if US visitors prefer doing business with white skinned people.

Tourism and Microenterprise

Following the “Special Period” of the nineties and its accompanying economic disaster, the Castro regime began allowing more micro-tourism, targeting a European and Canadian market. It is regulated but not prevented, and it is a growing market. Habana supposedly has developed several high end hotels for tourism now (though we did not see them). The area of the Bay of Pigs/Bahia do Cochinos has also developed small bed and breakfast places along the beaches with ecotourism themes. Much of that area is under national protection as a wildlife sanctuary, and it is not expected to develop into a high-end tourism area. However, other parts of the country have that potential.

We were able to visit privately owned businesses in Habana, mostly small and family run- clubs and restaurants. They struggle with funds for capital investments and the ongoing shortages of commodities that are restricted by the embargo.  Educators we talked with expressed fear that professionals would leave their fields and their professional commitments in order to earn a more manageable wage in the tourism industry. They hoped there would be ways that wages could increase enough to insure that the well trained people would continue their commitments to the visionary ideals of the country.

While we were there, a U.S. ship docked, the “Semester at Sea Program” where students spend a semester on a ship taking classes there and visiting different ports. Some of our group saw many of the 600 U.S. college students one night, dancing in old Habana. It was a purview of what we would bring to a new relationship between the two countries.


  • Both the US and Cuban governments engage in cold war posturing and use the historic tensions to energize their own historic bases. However, traditional postures are now outdated.
  • The definition of “freedom” illustrates some of the main contentions between the two governments. Cuba defines freedom largely in the context of freedom for health and wellness, education, housing resources, and freedom from racial oppression. The US defines freedom largely in the context of personal economic choices with particular attention to business development, self-expression, and electronic information dissemination.
  • The embargo does hurt economic development in Cuba, but it also has unexpected repercussions. It has contributed to an international perception of their “bully northern neighbor,” and many countries develop ways to work around the embargo. Cuba’s perseverance is a source of pride for the nation. The U.S. embargo has also contributed to the development of unique resources in fields like medicine.
  • The professional class worries as to how the transition will play out and what their commitment should be in a new social order. Will they continue on paths of service or will the country’s best educated be pulled into the business/capitalist sector as it grows?
  • The government is experimenting with how much individual freedom it can allow without destroying intent of the revolution. The experiment is tempered by the fear of US take over and domination if social controls are loosened too much.
  • There remains a strong commitment to revolutionary values of egalitarianism that is embraced even by those who want more economic development.
  • Cuba’s extraordinary advances in health and education put it in competition with first world countries on these measures.
  • Cuba is beginning to make advances in organic and sustainable farming as it strives to address its needs for food security. It is moving ahead of first world countries in organic farming and elimination of pesticide poisoning.
  • Arts and music are important in self-expression and cultural pride. The arts have been subject to strong government support and to its censorship, but there is now growing tolerance of artistic expression and governmental criticism within the arts as well.
  • The people of Cuba are friendly and hospitable to people in the US on a people to people basis. Many have ongoing contact with émigré families in the US and are eager to visit when restrictions are lifted.
  • The economic system is changing and it is unclear how the new system is going to develop. There is no precedent for what the country will be like or how the transition will occur.
  • Cuba has tremendous influence in Latin America as a nation that has succeeded in standing up to US imperialism. It has grown in its regional and world influence in spite of US resistance. While Cubans are worried about the changes ahead, some also carry a vision of Cuba as a model for a new world order with greater autonomy for developing countries.


Much has been written on Cuba and its relationship with the United States, and much of that is polemical. Witness for Peace recommendations for background reading included three recently published books by social scientists who tried not to fall into a simple pro or anti-Cuba perspective.  They are:

Chomsky, Evita. (2011.) A History of the Cuban Revolution.  Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. A professor of History and Latin American Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, Chomsky strives for a critical assessment balanced between the capitalist and communist analyses of the island nation.

Farber, Samuel. (2011.) Cuba: Since the Revolution of 1959, A Critical Assessment. Haymarket Books: Chicago, Il. Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brooklyn College, CUNY, Farber was born in Cuba and received his Ph.D. from UC Berkley. He identifies as a Marxist who is critical of the top down authoritarianism of the Castro regime.

Sweig, Julia E. (2009.) Cuba: What Everyone Wants to Know.  Oxford University Press: NY. A Senior Fellow of Latin American Studies with the Council of Foreign Relations, Sweig uses a question/answer style format based on her own extensive interviews with Fidel Castro and contextual assessment.

PHOTO ESSAY: (These photos are used with permission of Ron Byers and Judy Harvey, participants in November, 2014, Witness for Peace- People to People delegation to Cuba)

Internationally acclaimed School of Art and Dance
Witness for Peace bus in line behind other tourist buses on Havana waterfront
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Old Havana now under renovation through UNESCO grant
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Old Havana now under renovation through UNESCO grant
Santeria concert in Havana neighborhood
Poster celebrating fifty years since revolution. Translation: “The dignity of a people is more than the strength of an empire.” Commentary on Cuba’s ability to stand up to U.S. Imperialism.
Children’s art projects being displayed at a neighborhood gathering

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