Travelers journal: Education, health care and culture in Cuba

July 26 marked the 49th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. On this, our first trip to Cuba, my sister and I celebrated this holiday by visiting Lugano to meet the parents of one of our hosts.

Lugano, a very old section of Havana, was settled by Spanish immigrants in the mid-1800s and Jamaican immigrants in the early 1900s. From the street the houses look small, but many have been enlarged by adding on rooms to the back of the house.

Our host’s family moved there 41 years ago, after the Revolution. His father is a retired factory worker and his mother has been a homemaker and community activist all her life. Their five sons have received outstanding educations in Cuba. The youngest son is a history professor, and the others are a physician, a graphics illustrator, an officer in the Cuban Coast Guards and a business manager.

Education has been the number one priority of the Cuban Revolution. Education in Cuba is free, from pre-school through the university. When the family learned that I was a retired teacher, they took me to the site of the new junior high school a few blocks away.

It is the talk of the neighborhood and will be a large modern building in this old, deteriorating area of the city.

City students attend high school in the countryside, where they live from Monday through Friday. The high schools have farms and raise their own food. Students work three hours a day on the farm or at the school. All costs are covered by the government.

Because of the summer vacation, I was unable to see any schools in operation. Last summer, all elementary school teachers were required to attend classes to improve their teaching skills, and this summer all junior high school teachers were required to do the same.

We walked by the elementary school, which was getting a coat of blue paint right over a section of decayed wood. “Why aren’t the workmen making repairs first?” I asked my companions. They told me the needed materials – lumber, nails, metal strips, etc. – are scarce, due to the U.S. blockade, and will not be available before school begins. The new school is the priority.

In 1959, over one million Cubans were illiterate and 600,000 children had no schools. During the Literacy Campaign of 1961-62, 100,000 students from the cities (the Conrado Benitez Brigades) volunteered to go to the rural areas to live with and teach adults to read and write. Over 130,000 workers also volunteered part time under the supervision of 3,500 certified teachers. The campaign resulted in over 700,000 adults learning to read and write by the end of 1962.

Thousands of schools were built during the 1960s. Now there is one teacher/professor for every 13 students. Today, continuing education also continues, with many classes conducted via television. I was inspired by the interest and support of education by the entire community.

Like education, health care has been a priority and an accomplishment of the Cuban Revolution. The brother and sister-in-law of our host are both physicians, one a cardiac specialist and the other a forensic specialist. Both were educated in Cuba. The government has sent them to seminars and classes in other countries to keep abreast of the knowledge and new techniques in their fields.

Cuba has a mortality rate equal to the average rate of the U.S. and half that of Washington, D.C. Life expectancy is now 75 years. Health care in Cuba is free to everyone. But because of the U.S. blockade, there is a shortage of medical equipment, supplies, medicines and surgical supplies.

Upon my arrival at the Jose Marti airport in Havana, I met a member of the IFCO/Pastors for Peace U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan. He was there in preparation of the 13th shipment of medical equipment, medicines and ambulances – donations from groups and individuals in the U.S. In the past, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has delivered 2,250 tons of desperately needed aid. The Ecumenical Distribution Committee inventories and distributes the aid, making sure it reaches the neediest in all parts of the island.

In spite of the hardships Cuba faces because of the U.S. blockade, it provides medical education to thousands of young people from 24 countries at the Latin American School of Sciences and Medicines. I met a professor at the school who told me that the foreign students spend about two years there before they can be accepted into the Medical School at the University of Havana. Presently there are 36 students from the United States, mostly African-American and Latino students who cannot afford to study in their own country.

Cuba also sends doctors to other countries to assist in setting up medical clinics and to help out in times of natural disasters. While at the Veradero Beach, I met an Afro-Cuban woman, a physician who now works in the Congo in a small hospital. She married a Congolese doctor and they live in the Congo with their children. The entire family was visiting Cuba and their relatives.

After a delicious banquet and much conversation with our host’s family, we headed for the National Theater of Havana to see the Spanish Ballet of Cuba perform two new works – a Flamenco Ballet and an Afro-Cuban Ballet. The large theater is an example of 19th century Spanish architecture with columns, intricate carvings and sculptures outside and inside, a marble stairway, paintings and red velvet-covered seats, which were recently renovated.

Spanish colonials lived lavishly and their influence on Cuban culture is deep but not all-encompassing. Cuban culture has also been influenced by African culture and North American (U.S.) culture in both the past and present.

Cuban citizens have a book that entitles them to attend cultural events free of charge. The audience enjoyed the program just as much as we did. President Fidel Castro attended the Ballet a few days later, we were told. At that time there was standing room only.

The Cuban people have shown great discipline, courage and fortitude as they made and continue to make great sacrifices to develop socialism in their country. Cuba is respected for its humanitarianism even by those who don’t believe in socialism. I found this out when talking to other tourists.

If the United States would lift its sanctions and end the blockade against Cuba, I think Cuba would flourish and its 11 million people could be a model of hope for the world.

Rosita Johnson is a member of the PWW/Mundo editorial board and can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net