I did not know much about Cuba; in fact, I never really thought about it until I had an opportunity to go there as a U.S. Delegate in 2000. Prior to leaving, I did research into Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution — fascinating stuff!
I did not know, for example, that Che Guevara was a medical doctor who suffered from severe asthmatic attacks. Fidel Castro came from a land-owning family and studied to be a lawyer. Cuba had been marked by political upheaval for about 75 years prior to the Cuban Revolution. The final insult came with the Batista dictatorship, which was fully supported by the U.S. government and U.S. companies, who owned large amounts of land, industries, and other resources in Cuba.
Poverty was widespread among Cuban workers. The Batista government tortured and murdered huge numbers of Cuban citizens. A wide gap existed between rich and poor. Political elections were rigged to favor Batista and his cohorts.
Fidel Castro was a charismatic young man who became a major critic of the Batista government. He led a successful military campaign, along with Che Guevara and other guerilla fighters, which ultimately forced Batista and his supporters to flee the country.
With the Agrarian Reform Act, agricultural tracts were seized and divided up among the peasants who had worked the land and suffered great deprivations at the hands of large companies and land owners.
In retaliation, the U.S. government imposed an immediate economic blockade against Cuba. The blockade has been successfully kept in place for decades at the behest of Cuban-Americans living in the U.S., right-wing conservatives, and companies such as the Bacardi Rum Company.
Over 4,000 people attended the 5-day conference, representing more than 115 countries around the world.
The first two days were devoted to speeches by government officials who explained the blockade, how it was hurting the Cuban economy, and what steps were being taken to adapt to the continued sanctions.
The next two days involved participation in various committees and listening to speeches by delegates.
One afternoon, we were encouraged to visit various medical and educational facilities. I chose to tour the Latin American School of Medical Sciences. In the evening, we were treated to cultural events and a neighborhood block party.
On the last day, we participated in an outdoor rally attended by Fidel Castro. Speeches by delegates and performances by Cuban artists were featured. That evening, we attended a five-hour speech given in person by Fidel Castro.
He explained how loans by the IMF and the World Bank impose harsh conditions on Third World countries,which gives power over these countries to larger, prosperous countries like the United States. He adamantly reinforced that Cuba and the Cuban people would not bow down to these conditions. They would prefer to remain poor and continue to fight the blockade rather than give up their independence to a foreign power. Although the speech was long and tedious, quoting lots of statistics, the information he gave was very valuable.
We were told we could not leave Cuba the next day, so some of us participated in various tours. Some people drove out to the countryside to visit the Che Guevara Memorial and to investigate the agricultural industry. Others chose to visit a cigar factory. I went with some others to Old Havana to explore the Museum of the Revolution and the Floridito Bar, where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out. We also saw the beautiful old Bacardi Rum building, which is now used for other purposes.
We were never restricted from going anywhere or talking to anyone. The only limitation was language, since most Havanans do not speak English, and most delegates did not speak Spanish.
It was fascinating to be part of such a multi-cultural experience. There were many people from Latin America and Africa. Many delegates came from India and Bangladesh. Six hundred Americans participated in the event. My group donated a large supply of antibiotics, antifungals, and medical journals. Quite a large number of Canadians were present, as well as a few people from Australia and Great Britain. One delegate from Israel spoke about the atrocities being committed by his country against Palestine. About ten Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon represented Palestine and received great rounds of applause. Other delegates came from Italy, Germany, Spain, Norway, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iran.
Delegates represented all adult ages and socioeconomic groups. There were laborers, students, ministers, teachers, doctors, nurses, and retired folks. Disabled people included a 91-year old gentleman, a blind man who brought his seeing-eye dog, a man bound to a wheelchair, and a young man who could only communicate through sign language.
We were all required to wear special badges and could not attend events without showing them. These badges also identified us to the general population as participants in the conference. People would stop us on the streets and thank us. Children would cheer us and clap their hands. We were always treated like VIPs.
Delegates visited the homes of local Cubans and were hosted for dinner and lodging. One American girl lived with a family for three days.
During the conference, delegates were provided with transistor radios and earphones which could be set to receive the English translation.
Transportation and lodging were provided by the Cuban government, but delegates were free to walk around Havana at any time of the day or night. Although there were scores of police, most of them only carried a night stick. They did not hassle delegates. Their main function was to provide security and control the flow of traffic.
My delegation stayed at the beautifully-restored Copacabana Hotel, which was a famous luxury hotel and yacht club prior to the Cuban Revolution. It was also one of the hotels controlled by the Sicilian Mafia, which was kicked out of Cuba by Fidel Castro after the Revolution.
Local Cubans were very open about their poverty and devotion to Fidel Castro. In their minds, the Cuban Revolution is on-going. They are very proud of what they have accomplished under difficult conditions. They reiterated over and over again that they would defend Cuba to the death.
There was a great deal of hatred expressed among delegates and by Cubans themselves toward the U.S. government, and the presidential election of 2000 became a hot topic when the possibility of election fraud came up. We watched the news coverage daily on CNN.
The Cubans have created a very stable society based on solidarity and mutual cooperation. The basic unit is the family. Families are assigned to neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are assigned to a district. Each district boasts a health clinic, schools, senior center, and police force. A committee elected by the people oversees the district. Committee members ensure that children are vaccinated, seniors are cared for, and families receive adequate housing and food.
Food is rationed, with pregnant and nursing women, children, and senior citizens required to receive an adequate amount of calories everyday. There is a ratio of one doctor to 170 residents. In the schools, classroom size is limited to 10-20 students.
Education and healthcare are free. 85% of Cubans own their own home, and there is no property tax. Rents are kept very low. The prices on basic commodities are kept at 1960s prices. The average wages are ten to thirty American dollars per month, and there is no income tax.
Travel is limited by a shortage of oil and gasoline. Tourists from Canada and Germany are commonplace.
November 20, 2000
Dawn Pisturino, RN
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