Cuba: A Celebration of Community

Madelaine Greacen
A group of gardeners share with us how people participate in their local urban gardens in Cuba. Photo: Madelaine Greacen

Cuba, while physically breathtaking and notoriously musical, is a very complicated place to understand, especially for those of us who have been taught only one side of history in the classroom and through political propaganda. This summer I participated in the 20th annual IFCO (Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization)/Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan delivering 115 tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba. After observing how the immoral US economic blockade on Cuba affects 11 million people daily, listening to family members of the imprisoned Cuban Five1 share their stories, and witnessing first-hand a society that values community over materialism, it is safe to say that my experiences in Cuba have transformed me!

This year's Caravan to Cuba consisted of about 130 caravanistas who came from all over the US, Canada and Europe to participate in an extraordinary humanitarian aid trip. We delivered computers, books, medical supplies, bicycles, school supplies, tools and clothes. The caravan was composed of individuals committed to social justice: ending the US blockade on Cuba, ending the ban on US citizens traveling to Cuba and working for the release of the Cuban Five. We did not have a travel permit, because asking for a permit essentially justified the senseless and unjust travel ban. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

The US's perpetual economic warfare towards Cuba has created a reality where ordinary items like soap and toilet paper are rarely available. Despite the stifling trade embargo, the Cuban people have built a high quality of life for themselves. For example, I discovered in my travels that 98% of the Cuban population is literate. Cubans have free universal health care. Cubans are not charged anything to attend university. The Latin American School of Medicine in Havana has students from all over Latin America (and US students who cannot afford to attend medical school in the US) participate in a six year program for FREE, the only "cost" being a two year period of volunteer service in their respective communities in need once they leave Cuba. While the Cuban rationing system is by no means a daily buffet, the Cuban people are supplied some food staples. Cuba has government subsidized urban gardens in neighborhoods all over Havana. There is nationwide support for the cultivation of community arts. Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Gangs, drugs and homelessness are virtually non-existent in Cuba. You can walk the streets and feel safe at night. Kidnapping is not an issue. When compared to the rest of Latin America, Cuba has made significant progress.

This year's caravan coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba's substantial accomplishments since then show what can be done when a country successfully resists imperialism and attacks on its sovereignty. What does the revolution mean to people living in Cuba? The people old enough to compare life before the revolution and life after can appreciate the tangible achievements in terms of education, health care and quality of life that may have never otherwise made themselves a part of daily life in Cuba.

Images of Fidel, Ché and Raul are icons of hope, rebellion, love for the homeland and the symbol of triumph in the face of the imperialistic agenda of the United States. The same way we have huge billboards demanding you tune in at 10 pm to watch Desperate Housewives, Cuba has huge billboards saying "We will never be a Yankee colony" and "Viva La Revolución." For every Coca-Cola ad on the side of a building in the United States, Cubans have their respective "Free the Five Cubans wrongly imprisoned in US jails!" billboard. Cuba is a triumphant example of resistance to corporate imperialism.

Although Cuba has my heart, I do not have an idealistic or utopian view of this society from which we have been shielded. I cannot extricate myself from the lens of my US upbringing and yet it is this very lens that has enabled me to see the beauty of Cuban society and the ways and efforts in which it has fought to keep itself "pure" from our imperialistic and capitalistic model. We are taught to believe that life that does not celebrate the "American dream" is in fact a failure. Yet I have learned in my travels to this magical country that there is a life beyond ownership and individualism, a life rooted in community, the ascent of the spirit through the cultivation of the arts, social medicine, education and a quality of life some of us can only imagine here.


1 The Cuban Five were investigating right wing anti-Castro groups in Miami and were wrongly convicted of espionage in 2001. They are currently imprisoned in the US, serving four life sentences collectively. See www.freethefive.org


Madelaine Greacen is a Syracuse resident, local school teacher and a prospective medical student at the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba