The Cuban Institute of Friendship of the Peoples was located in a very beautiful outdoor setting surrounded by lush trees. The day was humid, but with an occasional pleasant breeze flowing gently past. An occasional stray kitten could be seen in the background as our host spoke with passion and great animation about the group’s history and goals. We arranged our chairs in a circle and enjoyed a conversation style exchange.
One of the main points that our host reiterated to us is the concept of “solidarity” and friendship between Cuba and the rest of the world. Since 1961, the blockade policy has existed leaving Cuba with few resources and with struggles to obtain materials and medications. Canada and Mexico refused to break relations with Cuba choosing to respect their own points of view about the blockade.
In the 1960s, Fidel Castro felt that there should be a way that the world could learn what was happening in Cuba and he had the idea to create a committee that was not communist, not political, but just in place to let the world know what was happening. On December 30th, 1960 the institute was born, described by our host as not to force anyone to think as a Cuban, but instead to encourage people to just come to Cuba, mingle and talk with the locals, and for each person to come to their own conclusions.
Our host went on to describe the 1st Brigade of Solidarity that happened in 1976 by the United States. These people were well aware of the possible consequences of high fines, jail time, and job loss, but they still came to help and show their solidarity with Cuba. She reiterated that the Cuban people do not forget the blockade, but they also remember the heroic gesture of the brigade which was eventually followed by brigades from all over the world including France, Japan, Australia, and Africa.
Parting thoughts with our host were the reminders of respect, truth, and solidarity. We must all respect each-other’s views even though we do not agree. We must continue to seek out truth through exchange with our fellow professionals. Lastly, although life is not always what you want it to be, remember the concept of solidarity, mutual support between countries, people, and friends. This beautiful round table exchange ended with hugs and smiles as our host wished us well for the duration of our stay.
The group continued on to visit a Nursing Home where none of us knew exactly what to expect. We all have our ideas from what we have seen in American nursing homes, but I still think we could not exactly feel prepared for our visit. Founded in 1944 by then President Bautista, the nursing home was intended to house Bautista’s mother and the mom’s of his officers. Now the home boasts of up to 6 wards, each ward on different floors, dedicated to the care of the elderly at different stages of health. For example, the top floor is for those with nutrition issues, another floor houses patients with Dementia who could care for themselves, patients with Dementia unable to care for themselves, and so on and so forth.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the stark white statue of a 95 year old woman who had passed away one month prior at the nursing home. This statue was of the greatly revered woman who had once been the nanny of one of the Cuban 5. Overall this nursing home currently houses 158 female citizens and only three male senior citizens. Four other men come for daycare and leave back to their families in the afternoons. Currently the oldest patient is 101 years old and remains completely independent, but most residents are in their 80s or 90s. Overall, only 27 female residents are able to participate in the activities that are offered daily.
Sadly, some residents have been living in this home for over 10 years. In Cuba, family is of great importance. Cubans believe in caring for their elderly at home. Unfortunately, as many Cubans have slowly migrated out of Cuba, the elderly are left with nobody to care for them in their old age. Hearing this, we all still did not know what to expect as we began our tour. Very striking were the beds located in very close proximity to each-other and housed between short concrete walls. Many that we passed had no drawers for belongings. The few belongings that I did notice were scarce such as a random pair of tennis shoes, or a pair of socks. I could not help but to feel that each resident’s identity had been stripped from them and that they had nothing of their old life. When we finally were able to see the residents, there were many who were smiling and excited to see us. One resident sang to us, and another blew us kisses from the many rows of orange lawn-chair looking seats that they sat in against all four walls. Rows and rows of nursing home residents in orange chairs, all with short hair and baggy clothes, all looking thin, lonely, and grateful for our visit to distract them from their daily routine. Yes, the nursing home may brag that they rarely have patient falls because their patients are rarely in bed except to sleep, but to what emotional toll does it take upon them sitting indoors, day after day, month after month, in those orange chairs? As we were leaving I captured a photo of one nurse washing their dishes, and I could see that each cup was engraved with a different person’s name. Perhaps this at least lends some sense of self to the dear residents that now have so little to call their own.
By: Emily Alexiadis and Laura Bittner
Federation of Cuban Women
Our fifth day in Havana included a visit to the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas). The organization was created in 1960 by Fidel Castro, with Vilma Espín serving as the organizations first president. She fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro in the revolution and was an outspoken supporter of gender equality in Cuba. Goals of the Federation include providing equal opportunities for women, protecting the sexual and reproductive rights of women, and mobilizing women into political and government work. The Federation is made up of thousands of grassroots organizations and nearly 90% of Cuban women over 14 years old are members. The Federation publishes two magazines to help communicate with its members: Mujeres and Muchacha (for younger women).
We met with two members of the Federation, one of whom is a nurse herself. They taught us that the Federation of Cuban Women played an important role during Cuba’s literacy campaign in 1960, which helped Cuba achieve one of the highest national literacy rates in the world. The organization helped pass laws ensuring equal social and property rights for women in the 1970s. The Federation was also very supportive of the government’s campaign to improve vaccination rates and public knowledge of health and hygiene.
When we met with representatives from the Federation we had the opportunity not only to learn about the work they have done for Cuban women, but also to ask questions to compare the lives of women in the United States versus Cuba. In Cuba they stress the idea that women and men have the same rights. The Federation has helped make huge advances for women’s equality including equal salaries with men, more integration of women into the workplace and schools alongside men, and universal access to reproductive health care including safe abortions. Abortion is also legal in the United States, but women who try to obtain such procedures are often subjected to harassment; Cuban women do not have this trouble. We were told that a culture of sexual violence against women is not pervasive in Cuba the way it is in the United States. They attribute this to Cuban women being empowered, and by raising Cuban girls with high self-esteem from a young age. While Cuba has made many advances for women, they still struggle in the same ways as the United States. A patriarchal culture still exists there, and just as women in the U.S. often receive negative portrayals in the media, members of the Federation admit there is similar work to be done to improve this imagery in Cuba as well. This visit helped us feel more connected to the Cuban people, knowing we have a shared struggle battling for women’s rights.
By: Laura Bittner
Plaza de la Revolución and Cannon Shot Ceremony
Our fifth day in Cuba was packed with not only educational visits to the IACP and the Cuban Women’s Federation, but we managed to fit in a few more turista activities as well. Between our visits we stopped by the Plaza de la Revolución, one of the most recognizable sites in Havana. The plaza is one of the largest city squares in the world and is famous for being the site of many political rallies. The main fixture in the square is one of the tallest points in the city, the memorial to José Martí, the national hero. José Martí was an essayist political activist, and poet who became a symbol for Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain through his writings and political activity. Opposite the memorial are the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Communication, which feature large facades of important deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution.
Camilo Cienfuegos, one of Fidel Castro’s top guerilla commanders, is on the Ministry of Communications with the quote Vas bien, Fidel (“You’re doing good, Fidel”). Che Guevara, the famous Marxist revolutionary, is featured on the Ministry of the Interior with the quote Hasta la Victoria Siempre (“Ever onward to victory”). Che Guevara’s visage can be seen all over Cuba. It was once a counterculture symbol of rebellion but has lost some of its meaning with prevalent use throughout popular culture.
After dark we were taken to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña for the cannon shot ceremony. Built by King Carlos III in 1774 to strengthen the city’s defenses, it is the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas. The fort never faced any attacks due to its impregnability, but it was used as a military prison and a site for executions. The nightly cannon ceremony is a popular tourist attraction in Havana. In the 18th century a cannon was shot to announce the opening of the gate at six o’clock in the morning and the closing of the gate at nine o’clock at night. To memorialize this tradition, young men dressed as 18th century soldiers fire a cannon over the bay at exactly nine o’clock each night. The ceremony includes quite a lot of pomp with a small parade with drums and lighting of lanterns. And even though the drum roll lets you know exactly when the cannon shot is about to happen, there were plenty of yelps of surprise when it was fired! More impressive than the ceremony, however, were the stunning views of Havana across the bay.