by Jim and Melanie
So much imagery we experience of Cuba stems from immigrants washing up on the shores of Florida on rafts or tiny boats. The Mariel boatlifts of 1980 and other stories of refugees can make us think everyone is trying to escape the small island. On the contrary, Cubans are incredibly proud of their country as it is, as well as its past and burgeoning future.
Their literacy rate and education system, and high-quality free healthcare, stem directly from the revolution of the 1950s. But we found some points of pride that cross a longer history. There is a sweet and odd fixation on Ernest Hemingway and the decades of his prominence there. Baseball, the national sport, holds fascination for most. Below we share a few pictures and thoughts on these areas of national pride.
Literacy and Education
After the Cuban revolution, one of the first actions of the new regime was to undertake a literacy campaign. Literacy in the cities was relatively high, but in rural areas, lack of access to schools left a high illiteracy rate. The year of 1961 was deemed the “year of education.”
Citizens were enthusiastic about being part of the campaign. Volunteers of all ages, from 10-years-old up, went to the countryside to teach, or taught co-workers in their homes after work. It is estimated that 100,000 youngsters from 10-19 volunteered in the movement.
By 1962, the literacy rate was measured as 96%, one of the highest in the world. We visited a literacy museum that houses memorabilia from the campaign. One of our tour group members asked how that literacy rate was measured. We were told that to count as literate, a citizen had to write a letter to Fidel Castro.
Education remains a high priority for the country. Nearly 100% of Cuba’s children are enrolled in school, at least up to age 12. School is free, though a family must pay for the child’s uniform. (Many families can only afford one uniform per child.) There is an elementary school in walking distance for almost every child, including one we saw that enrolls only four children, those who otherwise would have no school near enough.
After elementary school, children go to a middle school through about age 16. After that, students may attend a pre-university program or a technical education program. When the pre-university program is complete, students are considered to have earned a bachelor’s-level degree.
University is also free to those students who qualify. Qualification is by exam, which also determines the student’s course of study. Our tour guide had a university degree in languages. She majored in French and minored in English. Her degree is considered the equivalent of a master’s degree.
The education system also gave rise to the healthcare system, with free access to all. There is a general doctor located in every neighborhood, as well as specialists as needed. None of those healthcare workers had to take out loans to pay for their education.
Memories of the Revolution (1953-59) are fading over time. The number of actual revolutionaries who fought and supported the cause is dwindling. Only a few remain alive. The New York Times had an interesting story about those fading few. What does the future hold? Will the Revolution be forgotten by the younger generation? What will be gained and lost as the country moves into the 21st century? Time will answer these questions.
The Museum of the Revolution was formerly the Presidential Palace for Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista, until the revolution succeeded in 1959. The Neo-Classical building, decorated by Tiffany & Co. of NY, was opened in 1920. Today it houses memorabilia from the revolution in displays on three floors. Some rooms are large with ornate decorations suitable to the time. Work is continuing in some rooms to restore them to their former splendor.
Directly behind the palace is the Granma Memorial. The Granma is the 60 foot yacht used to carry 82 fighters from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956. Their aim was to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista. In addition to the yacht, there are jeeps, cars, a plane, and a missile like the one which shot down an American U-2 spy plane during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Several armed military guards were around this memorial.
The Plaza of the Revolution is the center of politics and government. It is surrounded by several important ministries and offices. This huge plaza is where Fidel Castro and other political figures address Cubans. Fidel addressed more than a million Cubans on several occasions. Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis both held large Masses there during papal visits.
A short video showing the region around Plaza of the Revolution.
We were joined during lunch one day by Rolando Macías, a former national star player who discussed his career. Now in his mid-70s, the man was one of the top pitchers produced by the country. Multiple times he was offered MLB contracts, but he turned them down because he didn’t wish to leave Cuba. After his years playing, he coached internationally until a few years ago, when a car accident ended his career.
Baseball is strongly associated with Cuban nationalism. People are very proud of their teams and players. Their top players are invited to be on the national team which plays in in international competitions.
During a free afternoon, we walked toward the National Capitol building. Nearby is a beautiful plaza where we sat and watched people. Not far from our seat was a group of very animated men who seemed to be arguing constantly. They gather each day to argue the merits of their favorite baseball teams and players. It was fun to watch their intense exchanges.
Ernest Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 on his way to Spain. He fell in love with the island and called himself a “Cubano Sato”, or garden variety Cuban. His love for the island and for marlin fishing brought him back in 1932. In 1940, he bought his home in the small town San Francisco de Paula 10 miles east of Havana. He called it Finca Vigia, or lookout house. It was there he wrote The Old Man and the Sea as well as For Whom the Bell Tolls. School children are required to read The Old Man and the Sea as part of their middle school curriculum, and they learn of Hemingway as an influential resident of Cuba.
Cubans have much to be proud of, and we felt privileged to share some of these experiences.