Thursday, March 3, 2016


After a 3+ month hiatus, I'm back! And I've got so much to write about. 
I'm off to southern Spain on Monday and then Paris! I'm back at school in Switzerland for my final semester. I'm making big plans for after graduation! And I recently got back from an awesome weekend trip to Berlin.  
But first, C U B A! 

I went to Cuba last October for one week on a special academic visa as part of a program with the University of Utah. Cuba is still technically not open to US tourists for travel, but quite a few American tourists do still come through Mexico or with "educational" groups that are basically tour guides. 

Especially in the last two years the tourism industry in Cuba has really surged and is predicted to explode in the next few years. This is both a great opportunity and deeply concerning for those who wish to preserve Cuba's culture and avoid the fate of many of their Caribbean neighbors who have become cripplingly dependent on tourism. Moreover, their economy under Fidel Castro was strongly nationalized, but when his brother Raul became president in 2008 he began allowing some private businesses in Cuba. Now their economy is expected to undergo yet another transition, but it is unclear exactly what the outcome will be. They want to keep their socialist identity, but open up some sectors of the economy to private business and foreign investment. So there is a lot of uncertainty about how they will be able to accommodate a spike in tourists. 

Many of the Cubans we spoke to were concerned, but also very hopeful for the future! They also were all in agreement that the US trade embargo against Cuba was going to end under Obama. In the US we don't ever really think or talk about the trade embargo against Cuba. It has been around for fifty some years now, so it's easy to forget about! In Cuba it seemed to be a daily topic of conversation though that was very present in people's lives. The embargo has made things difficult for them and they see it as a human rights issue, an unjust policy that has been unfairly imposed on them. After talking with so many Cubans, and hearing their stories, I have to say that I agree. I think it is past time that we end the embargo. It clearly is a failed policy that is punishing the wrong people. 

In our brief week visit I learned so much about Cuba. 
Even though I had a migraine and a Cuban stomach bug the entire week :( 

Before we left I read a book about Cuba, and in the introduction the author said that Cuba is a "land of contradictions". After spending just a short amount of time there, I couldn't agree more. It is so difficult to put a label on Cuba. In the US some people would call the Cuban government "oppressive", "tyrannical", a "dictatorship", but I was surprised by the relatively high quality of life Cubans were able to lead despite the nations low GDP. While most live very simply, there are no homeless in Cuba and no one goes hungry or malnourished. That's better than the US can say. Moreover I was impressed by their free and comprehensive healthcare system. But they also do have some media censorship. These contradictions are also very apparent in the infrastructure of Havana. At times we would be walking around and the architecture was beautiful and comparable to that of Europe, while other buildings were soviet style high rises, and yet others were crumbling in decay. A month before we arrived they installed 30 free wifi modems around the city though which was a radical move in a country that has largely been cut off from accessing the internet! So when we'd walk down the streets we'd see literally 50 people huddled around one area, on their phones or other devices, using the wifi, even skyping with loved ones, often in America! All the Cubans told us that this has been life changing for people and that the government has said that more modems or on the way. 

It seems like every week I see a new article about transformations in Cuba.

In fact, President Obama is traveling to Cuba later this month! He will be the first sitting US President to do so in 88 years! 

So like I said, change is in the air in Cuba, it's exciting! 

the beautiful Caribbean ^^ 

This was the lush inner courtyard of the academic center where we had most of our guest lectures during the week. We'd have breaks for tea out here. 

^ Note the little cardboard sign indicating that they are selling their house. Home ownership is a new concept in Cuba and there is a big informal market for house swapping. 

And of course Cuba is famous for all of their old American cars from the 1950s! It really isn't just a stereotype, people do truly drive around in these and the crazy thing is that they appear to be in pristine condition! 

One of our first days in Havana we visited the Museo de la Revolución in the Presidential Palace. It was such an odd mix of this beautiful ornate architecture and artifacts from Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. It was so interesting to read the captions below many of the pieces and to hear the official Cuban government's version of events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion. There was one small room that was dedicated to American operations in Cuba to destabilize Fidel's regime, these included introducing the dengue fever virus, contaminating tobacco plants with blue moss, introducing an invasive mildew virus to limit sugar cane crop yield, introducing pig fever virus, blowing up two commercial Cuban airplanes, and spending $32 million to broadcast an anti-Cuban television channel aimed towards Cuba. 

These are some very serious allegations and while I know the CIA has gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to destabilize foreign leaders we disagree with, I don't know if they would go so far as to introduce a human virus such as dengue fever. That would be biological warfare and a war crime as it lead to thousands of civilian deaths. 

The museum was fascinating though!

Along the ocean there is a boardwalk that stretches on for miles and miles that everyone hangs out on called the Malecón, you can kind of see part of it in the picture above (^^) 

People in Cuba LOVE Che! This sticker of Che was on the headlights of our bus! 

minty green water. 
Monument to Antonio Maceo, a Cuban national hero, and black (very important because Cuba still struggles with racial divides) 

My hero Papa Francesco came to Cuba about 10 days before us! I would've loved to see him again (I was at his inauguration at the Vatican in 2013!) but things also would've been way crazier, so it's probably good our timing didn't overlap. #popeisdope

From the contemporary art space we went to 
A robot built out of junk! 
The view from our hotel window, we had lots of crazy afternoon downpours. 
But one afternoon we ventured out in the rain and by the time we made it to the Malecón, double rainbow all the way across the skyyyyy! 
street art 
Coolest thing ever. We volunteered one morning at an organic farming coop! The community members "rent" the land from the government by giving them 10% of the crop and then the rest is divided between the workers and some is sold to local restaurants and to families. I had a great time weeding in the sun and loved learning more about their organic farming practices and how the coop works! 
I spy che!  
There were so many bookstores in Havana! Did you know that Cuba has a 99% literacy rate? 
My favorite souvenir 
Havana from across the bay 

At this old fort (Fortelezza) they do a reneactment every night where they fire a cannonball after this revolutionary procession, it was quite entertaining! I didn't expect the white wigs! 

My roommate and friend Michael, who I knew before the trip but didn't realize was going to Cuba to until the first day of class! 

And then back to America, flying into Miami. 

Whew. Only a few months late posting that, but I couldn't not share! 
I am so grateful that I got to visit Cuba at such a unique time in its history and I definitely am keeping tabs on it and waiting to see what's in store! 

xx Jess 

1 comment:

  1. Cuba looks incredible! I've really been wanting to go there and I hope it opens up to Americans soon!