Over the summer, a group of twelve students and two teachers went to Havana to learn about Cuba’s culture, and its political, economic, and social systems.
Since the 1959 success of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution, Cuba has been a communist country. The government is required to own at least half of all large-scale firms, and all education and health care is government-operated as well. The Cuban government is currently led by Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. Because of the philosophical and strategic differences between the United States and Cuba, the US placed an embargo on all Cuban products. The embargo was first imposed in 1960 and strengthened by acts of Congress, most recently in 1996. It has had an immense effect on the lives of the Cuban people, especially after the end of Soviet support in 1991.
We witnessed the effect of the revolution and the embargo at a few of our stops: a local market in Havana and the several restaurants where we ate. It is remarkable how we could tell the state of the people by looking at their cuisine. The local market, one of many in this city of about two million, sold many basic Cuban staples like sweet potatoes and other root vegetables. There was little to no meat at the outdoor market, as meat is significantly more expensive in Cuba than it is in the US. We used the local Cuban money, which is pegged at 1/24th the value of the US dollar, another acceptable currency. Most establishments, the state-owned ones in particular, take both types of currency, but some of the restaurants we went to only accept the Cuban Convertible Peso, used for the tourism industry, making these restaurants some of the most expensive in the city.
These private restaurants are a new experiment in Cuba, as they are some of the only businesses that are not government-owned. Fighting heavy regulations and taxes, they are still some of the country’s most successful businesses, and the economy has benefited from them. These restaurants create jobs beyond their four walls; they create work for farmers, produce-shippers, and other logistical support staff necessary to sustain Havana’s many restaurants. This economic change has not helped the entire country, however, and the general Cuban economy has fared poorly since the end of Soviet assistance. Cuba’s culture more than makes up for its economic failings, and as a visitor, I was struck by how friendly the Cuban people were, especially considering the history between the US and Cuba.
Cuba’s culture can be admired through its architecture. We toured many sections of Havana and witnessed the city’s incredible architectural history, from its 18th century fort, La Cabana, to the elegant Spanish colonial façades scattered throughout the city. The best-kept façades had bright paint and pillars that supported the outcropping rooms above and also provided for shade for the people walking on the sidewalk. All of these beautiful buildings are a product of Spanish colonialism. There was another, less beautiful building as well: the Russian (formerly the Soviet) embassy. This concrete pillar towers nearly 30 stories, making it one of the city’s tallest buildings. We could see it from our hotel, which was at least a few miles away. The Soviet Union was communist Cuba’s biggest supporter from the revolution to Soviet collapse in 1991.
Overall, the Cuba trip was a great learning experience for all the Belmont Hill boys who attended, providing insight into the previously shadowed culture of this island so close to the United States.