Thursday, July 17, 2008

Journey to Sancti Spiritus - July 9th

july 9th, morning, sancti spiritus.

photos of havana, and the martin luther king jr. centre

photos of the latin american school of medicine

check back for audio

yesterday we left havana, in three separate buses, for the provinces. we were each asked to choose our preference, selecting from rio del pinar, matanza, and sancti spiritus. i hope the others are as pleased with their selections. i get the feeling i've chosen really well.

just prior to leaving havana, we all met at the latin american school of medicine. this is where all the doctors are trained - local students, plus students from all over the world including the united states. there's an entrance requirement, plus i believe people are given priority if they're from low income neighbourhoods. apparently american students have to take two years of university or college level biology in order to bring their educational status up to match applicants from the rest of the world. we also heard that, recently, cuba authorized gender changing operations as part of their health services.

we drove about 5 hours from havana, east, through lush green countryside - agricultura, jungles, and distant mountains. we were greeted by representatives from the provincial government who gave us flowers and fresh jugo de pina (pineapple juice) and coffee. they told us about their province - comparing statistics from prior to the revolution, proud of their accomplishments with increased numbers of schools and hospitals, higher life expectancy, and extremely low infant mortality. some local bands played a couple of songs, including guantanamara (a celebration of the beautiful earth, sea, and sky), and we were taken to the presbyterian church where we're staying.

as is typical of spanish style architecture, there are small dorm rooms and an inner courtyard. there's also an upstairs balcony with a terrific view of the city rooftops. lots of bicycles here, lots of motorcycles and side cars. it's one of the oldest cities, known for its heritage buildings. today we'll be taken to a cooperatively run agricultural project, we'll have lunch there, and then we meet with representatives from the cdr and the federal organization for womens' equality. each neighbourhood, as i understand it, has a cdr - committee for defense of the revolution. we've seen a lot of their offices as we've been driving through havana. today we get to learn more of what they're about.

ariel, our interpreter, just wandered into the little dining area where i've found a plug in that fits my computer, and i showed him some photos from the ancient forests and victoria's various rallies. i asked if cubans are able to rally in the streets and he said no, not unless it's something in favour of the revolution. this is a concern for me. the cuban government, for the most part, is very benevolent and environmentally strict with regulations protecting the land and their main focus taking care of the people, but the fact that they don't allow dissent is a bit of a concern. i've explained to ariel about the olympics, why many of us are boycotting it, and i've given him a copy of the street newz with an article about its horrid history and impact. he's a very intelligent man. cubans are very well educated. but he didn't know about the olympics. actually, i've had to explain the olympic history to a lot of the caravanistas too. i guess i know a lot about its fascist and corporate history because of vancouver's activist natives, and then of course there's the murder of native elder harriet nahanee for her efforts to try to stop the destruction at eagleridge bluffs. that really woke a lot of people up. i talked a lot about it the other day when we were driving to the beach and saw a billboard for the 2008 games in china. cuba is sending athletes for baseball, basketball, volleyball, and track and field, he told me. it was the first corporate billboard that i saw. the second one i saw yesterday - an overhang off a building that read 'winston.'

ariel's grandparents fought in the revolution. there's no doubt the island is better off now than it was prior. for the most part, i'm all in favour of this revolution. it's incredible, really, to think that a handful of people were able to sail to this island, trek through the mountains, and take this place from the wealthy hedonistic mafia that ran it beforehand. the health care system is indeed incredible. the school system is amazing. youngsters spend a month each year on a farm, learning agriculture. when it's time for university they list their top ten choices and then take a test and are placed in a faculty based on their test results. all their schooling is free.

i asked ariel about leaving the island - is it true that cubans can't do that? to avoid a brain drain, he said, the government has issued exit visas for professionals. if you're a doctor or teacher, you have to apply to leave. they don't want to lose those folks. after all, they've paid for their education and housing and i agree it doesn't seem right that those people can just take off anytime they want without giving anything back.

but it's decidedly unfair that the average cuban can't leave the country unless they receive an invitation from another country. why are governments so wierd about allowing people the right to travel? who created those borders anyways?

pastors for peace are unable to bring cubans to america because the bush administration won't issue the invitation. arial, our interpreter, has been to the united states twice, also some latin american countries. so it's true that cubans have been able to travel in the past, if they're able to get invitations, but now it's difficult to get approval from the american government. ariel said things changed regarding travel to the united states after a couple of cuban girls travelled there with some american men who promised to marry them and give them a good life. the girls found themselves in a bad situation, forced to prostitute themselves, and appealed to the cuban embassy to bring them back to cuba. because of that, there's a form of collective punishment - the government won't allow anyone to leave the island unless they're invited. as is typical of cuba, what seems to be rather repressive legislation has its roots in an attempt to protect the people. still, it's repressive.

i've heard some of the people on this bus describe this island as paradise. i really doubt that people would disappear in droves from the island just because they're allowed to travel. besides, if repayment of debt is what concerns the cuban government then they could request that people offer up some capital prior to departure to take care of what's been invested in them. not allowing people to travel is kind of the same logic that is used in canada regarding homelessness - some municipalities believe that it's better not to provide a lot of support services because then homeless people will flock in droves from other places. it just doesn't happen. studies in victoria and elsewhere have proven that homelessness is home grown. it's the consequence of unjust economic policies. homeless people, just like everyone else, have families and friends, community activities they're involved with. they don't necessarily want to uproot themselves and go somewhere else, even if there appears to be more opportunity. they'd rather take their chances with their friends than go to some new community where they don't know anyone. besides, it costs a lot to travel and start again.

the cuban refugees we hear about, arriving on rafts in florida, are guaranteed entry into the united states if they can get there. they get a lot of media attention, which the american corporate media uses to focus on the parts of cuban society that are repressive. unfortunately, the corporate media refuses to focus on the stuff that cuba does well - and there's a lot of that. it's really difficult to find fault with the health care and agricultural systems, and equally as difficult to capture the essence of what those are with mere words.