Laura Hedeen and Naima Dhore, a MFA Farmer Education Program participant and owner of Naima’s Farm, traveled to Cuba as delegates for Witness for Peace. The following is an excerpt of a piece written by Laura, Minnesota Food Association Programs Manager.
Want to read the full article? Please email Laura Hedeen.
Sugarcane fields, top notch cigars, sizzling salsa dancers, and classic old cars – judging by the 10 days I spent in Cuba this past September, I’m convinced that much of the romantic mythology surrounding the country is true. I was utterly enchanted by this forbidden land of brightly-colored colonial architecture, picturesque beaches, and undulating Spanish accents, only 90 miles off the US coast. Behind its charm and beauty, however, exist intricate social systems, a complex and fiery history, and an array of current day successes and challenges.
I was given the opportunity to study Cuba’s revolutionary art, alternative healthcare systems, and food sovereignty as a delegate through Witness for Peace, and along with 13 other delegates, caught a glimpse of what’s truly going on today in Cuba. We met Cuban artists, doctors, professors, farmers, pastors, politicians, and everyday Cuban people, while visiting farms, clinics, galleries, and historical sites. Although I probably have enough material from my visit to compile an entire novel, a few of my experiences truly stood out, and fit within a few common themes.
Solidarity. Cubans’ strong sense of community shone bright beneath the tragic gray skies of Hurricane Irma. Irma’s violent tropical winds brought down gigantic trees and buildings, took out acres of banana trees, flooded the streets of Old Havana, and was the first hurricane in decades to result in Cuban casualties. Our group was staying in Playa Larga, a southern coastal town near the Bay of Pigs, when Irma struck, and our private homestay hosts were quick to respond to the Civil Defense’s precautionary measures. Naima and I, who were sharing a room right on the beach, were relocated to the house of Cecelia (Ceci) and Randy on higher ground. Even though their homestay was closed for the season, Ceci explained that when the owner of the homestay on the beach called for help, there was no other answer but to open her door.
This Cuban spirit of camaraderie and working together for the common good was evident throughout the entire trip. We met a group of Cuban doctors who had traveled to countries in Latin America and Africa to provide medical relief and share their knowledge. We learned about a volunteer-powered campaign to wipe out illiteracy that took place just after the revolution and still continues today through the use of its legacy curriculum in various countries abroad. We visited an art gallery filled with international works symbolizing solidarity, and were invited into the modest home of an accomplished artist who spends his days teaching art in the local elementary school. Repeatedly, the Cubans we spoke with were baffled by our questions of “how do you pay for ____” and “why do you do ____” when they referenced making a personal sacrifice for the good of others. The most common answer, “Como que no?”, reveals the revolution’s steadfast commitment to community and solidarity.
Peace with dignity. A second theme was encapsulated nicely in a lecture by Che’s daughter, Aleida Guevara – people shouldn’t only have the right to live, but to “live in peace with dignity.” Aleida impressed the idea that we all need a roof over our head, a job, our health, and an education. During our visit, we witnessed many of Cuba’s attempts to provide these basic needs for all of its citizens. We met farmers who explained to us that choosing to farm as a career is highly respected in Cuba, and doesn’t mean sacrificing your healthcare or a living wage. The head of a clinic spoke about Cuba’s comprehensive, preventative, free healthcare system that has resulted in a national average lifespan of 80 years and other health metrics comparable to those of other first-world countries. We learned about Cuba’s free education system, where anyone is eligible to earn their PhD if they are able to pass the entry exams.
Everyone we met also stressed the fact that Cuba is no Utopia, and many problems still exist. Although everyone receives rations of imported rice and beans, some cannot afford the fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Many medicines and medical devices are unavailable, and the average price of a used vehicle is upwards of $30,000 due to the US embargo. With recent changes in policy, those who work in tourism can make more than a doctor or a lawyer. Despite these shortcomings, Cuba’s concern for the most at-risk members of society is evident based on their policy and social programs. While there is certainly still hardship in Cuba, I learned an important lesson from my time here: despite the odds, sometimes the little guy wins.
This was an excerpt of a piece written by Laura Hedeen. For the full article please email Laura.