Program Stories

Members Reflect on Recent Trip to Cuba

The theme of the trip was 'The Revolution within the Revolution.'

A group of 21 Women Donors Network members and staff traveled together in December 2012 to Cuba in partnership with the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA). The purpose of the WDN delegation was to explore the dimensions of contemporary Cuba and experience what some call “The Revolution within the Revolution,” the journey taken by Cuban women — that is still underway — toward the goal of gender equality.

Many trip participants wrote up their reflections, which we share below, along with a series of beautiful photos taken by WDN member Jean Karotkin.

 

Cuba Values ‘We’ Over ‘I’: By Cristina Bordes

The trip to Cuba was amazing and indescribable. It is such a rich culture and a complex social experiment filled with paradoxes. It has left me with a lot to think about and reflect on. My favorite day was in Regla with the young group of Afro-Cuban hip-hop artists. The block party was filled with heart, community, and creativity. There is so much music and art in Cuba.  It highlighted for me how busy life has become, leaving a lack of time for creativity and connection.

A dinner conversation with one of our guests also stands out. She was discussing Cuba’s successes and failures. One of its successes she felt is a cultural value based in “we” rather than “I”.  I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately, in terms of how we solve world problems such as global warming and many of the other potential crises we face. How do we move as a culture and a species to a place where we consider the wellness of the whole over individual gain?  How do we create a healthy balance between the two? Being there also highlighted for me the successes and failures of our own government and the ways that we have gotten out of balance.

It seems like our policies and systems, whether capitalist or socialist, can only be as good we are. So how do we evolve?  On a lighter note, I loved travelling with this wonderful group of women, am so grateful for the opportunities WDN has brought into my life, and I love, love, love, that Cuban coffee!

Art abounds in Cuba, as artists are paid in tourist dollars which makes it a more lucrative career.

An Aging Society and Lack of Opportunity for Young People: By Josie Hadden

When we arrived our first night in Cuba at our hotel in Trinidad, I was conscious that the plaza on which the hotel was located was almost empty of people. In fact, it seemed I saw few people anywhere. As we explored Trinidad the next day I was again struck by how few people there seemed to be on the streets, aside from the occasional group of tourists. We moved on to Havana and even there it just didn’t have the crowded city feel I had expected.

During our visit, we learned that Cuba has lost a lot of its population as people left when they could to escape the rigid dictatorship and restrictive economy under Fidel Castro.  Further, the Cuban birth rate is only 1.4 babies per couple, below the replacement rate, with the result that the Cuban population is aging. The economy is mostly in quite bad condition. Cuba has a very high literacy rate. Younger people who enjoy free education through graduate school or specialized training graduate to a situation where there are few jobs for them. Many leave at the first opportunity that is available.

Now, under Raul Castro, there are signs of an opening up of the economy. He has made it possible for some to start small entrepreneurial businesses, while at the same time introducing the idea of paying taxes. Start-up capital is not readily available, so often it is remittances from relatives living off the island in Florida and other areas that are the source of funds. A young woman we met had just received a license to open a clothing store. Getting the license was the key first step, so she did not yet have a developed plan for how she would proceed.

Medicine and general healthcare are strong. There is a small and growing pharmaceutical industry.  Cigars are exported. Sugar cane is grown especially for the ethanol market in Brazil. The biomass from the cane is used for energy generation.  Most of the food for the population is imported. We did see some small organic food farms.  We were told that all food grown on the island is organic, because they cannot afford to import fertilizers.

Up until the time the USSR broke up, they had supported Cuba. When that support stopped, Cuba entered its “special period” of 10+ years when life was extremely difficult. Now the economic situation is better, as Cuba receives oil from Venezuela in exchange for medical personnel and supplies from Cuba.  Where Fidel is an ideologue, Raul Castro is seen as a pragmatist, which seems to bode well for Cuba. However, Raul is 82 and there is no generally understood succession plan in place.

And, of course, there is the whole topic of US and Cuban relations with the embargo as the elephant in the room as well as each side holding prisoners of the other and no trade or other resolution as yet.

All food grown in Cuba is organic, as there is no money available to import expensive chemical fertilizers.

 

A Trip With Meaning: By Carolyn Schuham

Imagine a trip where everything you do has meaning.

Where you meet and interact with amazing people in every walk of life, from the heads of government agencies to hip hoppers, artists, dancers, and important bloggers.  From Mariela Castro Espin, the head of the National Center for Sex Education, to the Bishop’s representative.

Where you are exquisitely taken care of by incredibly knowledgeable and competent guides, and, oh yes, delicious food and good hotels.   Then imagine sharing all that with a group of women that share your values, humor and sense of fun.  You have just imagined our trip to Cuba.

 

Donna and Margery Goldman with some of the amazing guides our members had on the trip.

 

 

A Lesson From Trinidad: By Anonymous

Trinidad is a colonial city – - a UNESCO “world heritage” site.

Our guide, Nancy Benitz, walked us through the narrow streets to plazas where museums, churches, and government agencies are located.  Nancy is a local architect, historian, and restoration specialist.  She notes that her agency is underfunded. The city faces infrastructure needs that the 2% tax share allocated to restoration efforts cannot begin to cover.  The opening of the Cuban economy to independent, individual entrepreneurs has restricted tax cash flow from small, room-to-let hotels and paladar restaurants in people’s homes. These Cuban-owned enterprises are now exempt from taxes, diminishing the State’s flow of revenue from tourism dollars here.

“No es facil” is a common expression in Cuba, meaning life isn’t easy.

 

In the plaza and on the streets, I feel tugs at my arm – beggars?  A woman strokes her arm at us. We later learn this is a request for soap.  Only, the “ask” is an opening bid to negotiate for products and money. Several women offer hand-made jewelry, strung sets of seeds.  An older woman offers me an out-of-print $3 bill with a picture of Che Guevara on it. A younger woman with two small children waits near an art gallery, half-heartedly approaching tourists. Later in the evening, barkers entreat us to eat at their paladar.

A few of us spent an hour of our free time at the Museum of the Bandits, which chronicles the Revolution and the counterinsurgents that fought against it here in Trinidad.  Students became the standing army.  The museum displays a piece of US airplane wreckage, a photo hall of revolutionary martyrs, and a hammock which says to us, “Che slept here.”  After our final tour guide explains the displays in her room, she offers us needle-worked textiles for sale. She is a government employee in a state-run museum. “I have to support myself,” she says.

Cuba’s economy is a form of market socialism, with new reforms allowing even more self-employment through private enterprise. There are many reasons for this liberalization:

  • To legitimize an underground economy that already exists;
  • To blunt the unemployment effect of State downsizing; and,
  • To provide an outlet for a well-educated but under-utilized population.

If private entrepreneurs pay for their annual licenses, they still will be entitled to a pension and maternity benefits.  Free health care, education, and basic food rations are provided to all Cuban citizens.

The question is, can Cuba continue its march towards free markets and retain its revolutionary ideals?

WDN member Carla Kleefeld documenting the trip.

 

Cuba Trip Was Life-Changing: By Carla Kleefeld

Thank you for WDN’s collaboration with The Center For Democracy In the Americas!  The trip was a life-changing and wonderfully rich adventure. It is time to reunite with Cuba.  I love the Cuban people and the ‘grand experiment’ that Cuba is.  Cuba’s ideals lead the country vs. its’ politics.

All Cubans have access to free health care and education, no matter the circumstances.  Sex change operations are fully paid for.  They celebrate a National Week against Homophobia led by the President’s daughter, who is a vocal advocate for gay rights. Abortions are performed in hospitals because Cubans know it is a health issue, not a religious one.  All women receive 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and no child goes hungry or homeless.  They are working on applying a gender lens to all classes and ages in school.

I found myself thinking…so, THIS is Socialism??

Every Cuban person knows what is happening in their country.  They know what they have shared together historically, politically, socially, and economically…they have endured together and many have chosen to stay in Cuba.  Cubans don’t spend their time on cell phones and computers; they spend their time together in the streets.  Several generations live together.  There is an integrated sense of community, solidarity, independence and fierceness of will.

One night we came back to our hotel room and found towels artfully shaped into a couple sitting on the bed with a cigar and hat.  Art and music are immersed in all things everywhere, day and night….

And, despite how badly (and unjustly) the US has treated Cuba for over 50 years, Cubans are gracious, generous, open and intelligent.

Viva Cuba!  Let’s end the illegal US. Embargo!

This sculpture garden is an instance of the rich cultural resources in Cuba.

 

Cuba Hasn’t Let Me Go: By Cynthia McCague

They say that if you spend a week in Cuba, you want to write a book; spend a month, you write an article–and after a year, you write a postcard!  What they mean is that the more you know, the more confusing and contradictory everything seems.  It’s a country that has brought literacy and medical care to everyone.  Where we could go anywhere and talk to anybody.

But at the same time, Cuba is a country that still imports 80% of the food, (since until recently there’s not been a focused program to increase agriculture).  Cubans mostly have no access to the internet and only can use email at work, and until a change next month, travel outside the country had to be approved by the government and one’s employer.   Many people make less than $20 a month, but taxi drivers who earn tourist tips are living a very comfortable life.  So much cognitive dissonance.  So many wonderful people.  The week with all my new best friends from WDN was simply unbelievable.

The WDN team and Center for Democracy in the Americas put together a full itinerary, filled with interesting meetings about the status of women, wonderful music and artists.    Cuba hasn’t let me go, days after our return — I’m planning two more trips next year.   And I am looking forward to WDN’s next trip.  I will sign up to go with these INCREDIBLE women – any time, anywhere.

The trip included plenty of opportunities for enjoying local arts and culture, such as this band.

 

Trip Sparks Memories, Ideas for Future Journeys: By Elaine Reuben

Two recollections bracket my memories of WDN/CDA’s Cuba journey: first, attending a bar mitzvah at Beth Shalom in Havana with Lisa Ndecky Llanos after we’d delivered medicines for the pharmacy there: a sweet experience and one not prepared for our group but to which we were welcome as visitors.

And second, the time on the bus, which presented special opportunities to get to know each other.  This, my third trip to Cuba, included flashes of memory and recognition of places previously visited as well as moments of noticing changes; all the rich presentations from those who spoke to us and regret there was not enough time fully to process what we were learning – or just to wander and explore. A week later I feel still full of “Cuba” and unfinished with her joys and issues, telling stories touristic and political to those who ask and some who don’t, pondering my next trip.

 

A City Frozen in Time: By Jean Karotkin

What a great group of women to be immersed in Cuba with. Our schedules were filled with lots of insight into the political issues as well as the cultural gifts of Cuba.  Never a boring moment, and even when we had time to ourselves, we never hesitated in wanting to explore on our own.  Cuba is so three-dimensional.  Although the city is in such disrepair, with buildings decaying both inside and out, the architecture will overwhelm you with its historical beauty. People live amongst the ruins with such dignity and perseverance. What appears to be decay on the exterior of residences, one walks inside to find great joy, warmth and love especially amongst the families we visited. Life continues despite the overwhelming obstacles. I could go on about this city frozen in time, but will allow others from my group to share their thoughts as well.

Many vehicles in Cuba predate the Revolution, and are kept going by ingenious mechanics (and prayers!).

 

A Time for Deeper Connections: By Lenore Hanisch

When I think back through the week, the clearest moments were the opportunities to eat w/other WDN members in a small group situation.  Each of these moments were special because they were organic and offered a chance for conversation at a table where we could all see and hear each other.  Since many of our meals happened at very large tables (not a criticism; just fact), this made these small group moments intimate…a place for getting to know each other, reflecting about our experiences and discussing topics relevant to the trip.  My hope for having these kinds of moments is one of the major reasons I signed up for going to Cuba…I really wanted an opportunity to interact w/other members in our community in a way that lent itself to getting to know another WDN members through experiential learning.  And, while I get a lot of that on the WDN board, I haven’t had much of a chance (due to my own constraints) to do that with other parts of WDN’s membership.  Thank you WDN & CDA; learning in Cuba with other WDN members rocked! Below are two of my favorite small-group moments from this trip.

A group of us ate dinner with Sarah Stephens and Peter Kornbluh at a paladar in Old Havana.  Over the AMAZING chickpea appetizer and Cuban paella that we shared, we were able to ask Sara and Peter A LOT of questions regarding our briefing by two family members of the Cuban Five earlier that afternoon. This intense discussion added more angles and facets to an already complex scenario, especially since some of us at the table, like myself, had no idea about the Cuban Five before this trip. And, it gave us the opportunity to bounce ideas off of Sara and Peter and each other for possibilities on how to incorporate our new understanding into action beyond WDN’s Cuba visit.

 

A billboard proclaims that the Cuban 5 – Cuban men currently imprisoned in the US for spying – will return.


This small group learning lottery was something each of us at the table referred to constantly in the following four days of the trip as we attempted to share it with other WDNers and piece together the many facets of Cuba into something we could digest. Mulling and mining the conversation for connected pieces included relating it at our impromptu meeting with Mary Murray of NBC at the Havana Airport just before the last of us flew at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2nd. This felt especially apt since NBC had focused on the Cuban Five and the connection to the three-year anniversary of Alan Gross’ detainment in Cuba just the day before.  Knowing more of Cuba and the Cuban Five from the perspectives of Sara and Peter, along w/the other WDNers at my table and then having a completely separate add-on conversation with Mary, well, I’d call that priceless kismet.

Nancy Aronson (left) and Jean Karotkin share a meal.

 

The other small group conversational gem with guest was dinner at L’Atelier. We ate with Gail Reed of MEDICC where we delved into the Cuban health system, a topic that we hadn’t explored in depth until that point. We covered everything from living in Cuba during the special period  with a health care lens, since Gail lived in Cuba during that time, to how low-income students from abroad can receive a very affordable medical degree in Cuba to become a doctor. Questions about how an integrated wellness system in Cuba operates and how one accesses care at the appropriate point-of-entry in an entirely free system were hot topics on the table. Reed shared a funny story of being “caught” by a family doctor when leaving a neurology appointment for headaches when the symptoms were clearly about stress, which the primary care doctor would have diagnosed due to a work/life balance series of questions and extensive patient history.

How to go about assisting hurricane-affected Santiago was passionately explored and we intently listened to how ¡Salud!the documentary, has more to teach us about Cuba. To be able to be introduced to the Cuban health care system by a journalist who’s covered Cuba from social and economic angles for two decades in a small WDN cohort was the kind of unique knowledge acquisition typical of this trip thanks to our organizational values and the experience of CDA.

WDN members had opportunities to meet with representatives of several different government agencies during the trip.

 

Reflections on Past, Present & future: By Susie Richardson

Cuba is a deeply complex place. The past, the present and the future seem to battle for one’s attention.

In Trinidad, the restored colonial architecture of the main plaza sparkles with the pastel beauty of the past. A young man was selling homemade pastries from a tray, his “private enterprise” and search for foreign currency that could make his future bright. A 69 year-old man sat on a bench bemoaning that fact that he didn’t have the $7 he needed to replace his almost sole-less shoes. He saw no future.

I wandered a few blocks beyond the square, and the cobblestone streets and lovely buildings gave way to dirt roads and dilapidated homes. Surprisingly, I could see sturdy furniture and occasional televisions through the open doorways.

Cuban government resources and salaries are inadequate. And yet foreign currency and tourist oriented jobs are creating opportunity for some. The developing class separation is likely to create yet another Cuban conundrum.

 

The Impact of One Artist’s Scultpure: By Ellen Bush

There are many reasons why I am so grateful we started our trip in Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

For the purposes of this shared reflection I will focus on one.

The studio of Yami Martinez is located in a unique, a corner location in an old historic building in downtown Trinidad.  Her door faces the historic stone steps that lead up to the area where live music is enjoyed nightly. I was captivated by her “coffee maker”’ theme as a metaphor for expressing the experiences of women in her culture. In the few minutes we had to talk with her I learned that she lives in a poor barrio and has many struggles in her personal life, especially around gender equality.

Several days later, I spotted a large “coffee maker” sculpture at the door of the mezzanine dining room in the big modern hotel in Havana.  It seemed it had to be one of Yami’s creations.  I was so grateful that I knew the work in its context.

If I had only seen the sculpture in the hotel it would have only been an interesting decoration for the doorway of the modern dining room.

This example can serve as a metaphor for the whole experience of going to Cuba.  In relation to a culture about whom many conclusions are made out of context,  hearing from the Cuban Americans in Miami, and then crossing the very small area of water to the island,  to see and hear the people in their home context,  becomes really important.

I continue to struggle with how to share the experience in my community. People ask questions that I still cannot answer.  I feel overwhelmed with the bizarre quality of the U.S.-Cuba official situation. Yet, the auspices of “People-to-People” travel is also a metaphor, for this is how change will happen. I plan to continue my interest in promoting an educational DVD through CDA and fostering communication with Sandra about her dream to connect with other Caribbean groups working on race issues.

Thanks to all who made the trip not only possible!

A colorful vista in Cuba.

 

Cuba is A Country of Contradiction: By Margery Goldman

Cuba – such a country of contradiction. On the one hand you can walk into the courtyard of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, headed by Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, and ride a “penis” (see photo below) and on the other – well, they are on the U.S. Terrorism list. Is the U.S. really that afraid of someone else’s penis?

I mean we are long past the Cold War, and Cuba presents no military threat to the US, so what are we so terrified of?  Could it be their coordinated national program for sex education – you know they are distributing condoms to everyone.  Maybe it’s the fact that they now have not just a day, but an entire month dedicated to fighting homophobia.  Or maybe, just maybe what really terrifies us is that this country, just 90 miles off our shores has abortion that is free and legal. And they cannot imagine why it would be any other way.

Cuba is not perfect – far from it – and in its current still very restrictive economic and political state, most of us would not choose to live there. But many of their programs, at least in the view from the top – in health education, family planning, gender violence,  tolerance for sexual difference, the advancement of women, and of course the basic human right of health care for all – these put us to shame.

As early as 1964, Cuba’s National Institute of Family Planning worked to educate the entire population and assure access to condoms, counseling and safe, free abortions. Womens’ rights- though still not fully realized, were a goal of the Revolution, and a key component of solidarity.

Said Fidel on Aug 23, 2005,   

“Ni las palabras, ni los homenges pueden reflejar en su justa dimension la grandeza de la mujer cubana ganada  a fuerza del su ejemplo incomparable.” 

Which means, Neither words nor homage can reflect justly the greatness of Cuban women that has been earned with the strength of their incomparable example.

Recognizing the full power of women, acknowledging women’s rights to control their own bodies, paying homage to their greatness…now that’s something to be terrified of.

Margery Goldman in Cuba.