Trip to Cuba was Enlightening

As the Obama administration moves to widen relations with Cuba, more Americans are visiting the island nation under the existing restrictive travel rules. Tarrytown resident Maddy Simon describes her visit in this article.

|  by Maddy Simon  |

I visited Cuba for one week earlier this year with a group of 49 adults and children. Our trip was organized by The Center For Cuban Studies which had received a license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury for an educational journey. The Center had to submit an itinerary of planned visits to the U.S. government to justify receiving the permit.

All of our time was spent in Havana, the capitol, and largest province with a population accounting for more than two million of Cuba’s total population of 11 million.  Everywhere we went we were treated very well and welcomed warmly. There we witnessed a marked emphasis on encouraging tourism to help the Cuban economy.

We found that many basic products such as rice, sugar, cooking oil, eggs, and beans are heavily subsidized by the government and rationed monthly.  The rationing for every family began when the Soviet Union, upon its collapse in the early 1990’s, ended most of its trade with Cuba. The government began a campaign of urban organic farming using unoccupied areas of Havana and other urban areas. We visited one organic farm that sells to the surrounding community and has six crops a year because of the good climate and fertile ground.

When the Soviet Union pulled out, it left behind many unfinished hotel buildings and residential housing. The Cuban government took over the building of hotels to encourage tourism and eased the restrictions on the private building of homes as well as the ability to own them. Housing in Cuba is certainly not up to the standards of middle-class Americans. Many homes are in disrepair, with mold left to grow on the outside walls because of the humid temperature. The streets are narrow, poorly paved and difficult to traverse due to extensive construction.

The two aspects of Cuban society that I was most impressed with are the accomplishments in health and literacy. Everyone I spoke to, from a casual person in the street to any official, is extremely proud of their medical system and their accomplishments in education with emphasis on the development of the potential of each child.

At the end of the Cuban revolution, there was a large exodus of the well-to-do, middle-class and what has been called the ”brain drain” of trained professionals in every field. Half of all 6,000 Cuban doctors left by the early ‘60s. The government undertook a campaign to train large numbers of doctors, and by the ’80s, Cuba had the largest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world.  Health services are free from the most basic check-up to advanced surgical procedures. Today, life expectancy in Cuban is higher than in the U.S.

My group visited a polyclinic that was housed in a storefront, with several examining rooms behind the reception room, in the middle of the community it served. We met with the doctor, a woman, who has been there for 27 years. She was in charge of 300 families and showed us the records she keeps on each family. Every family member sees her four times a year; three times at the clinic and when she makes her yearly home visit. If there is any illness that requires a specialist, she and the patient go to that specialist for a visit together. We went from the clinic to a hospital within walking distance and saw several examining rooms with equipment that was outdated and overused. Unfortunately, the embargo imposed by the U.S. has created a lack of the latest equipment, although the medical professionals are well trained, and they make do with what they have. There is also a lack of pharmaceutical products due to the embargo.

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