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For Spring Break 2012, three professors and more than 40 students traveled to Cuba for an in-depth exploration of the dynamic, multi-dimensional country. The trip was part of the International Studies course “Cuban Transitions: Heritage, Ecotourism, and Cultural Transformations in the 21st Century.”

Montaremos Como El Che

What has two wheels, handlebars and a unique presence on the Cuban streets?

Surprise, surprise! This time I’m not focusing on bicycles. Here’s a hint:

A Cuban license plate on a Harley-Davidson, a U.S. brand (Frazier).

For my part of the final project with Danielle, Alli and Ian, I studied sustainable bicycling within Cuba’s ravaged economic context of the Special Period. The price of fuel soared unbelievably with the collapse of the USSR, and Cuba was left to seek transportation alternatives to pricey busing. Spoiler alert: an early 90s bicycle boom. To be exact, 1.2 million bikes were imported from China during this time. Job-holding citizens acquired the bikes at a subsidized price equivalent to a modern $6 CUC or 150 moneda nacional (Warren). The bikes were and continue to be a hit, even if they are now imported from Russia and Canada as well. On our trip, I kept my eyes peeled at first, but soon realized I didn’t have to look very hard. Bicycles were everywhere, painting an interesting street panorama with their hodgepodge of Chinese, Russian, Canadian and Cuban parts. And no wonder their popularity: they guzzle no fuel, demand no high maintenance fees and last for years. In short, the use of a bicycle saves money and (perhaps inadvertently in reference to Cuba) earth.

The motorcycle, a cousin of the bike, conserves neither, but every now and then, I spotted one flying down the highway towards Pinar del Río or weaving through the narrow labyrinth of Old Havana. I’m not nearly as keen on motorcycles as I am on bikes, perhaps because they release exorbitant air and noise contaminants (or perhaps because the only time I ever tried to ride one, I crashed into an elementary school). Despite my general disillusion, the motorcycles I saw on our trip sparked my curiosity. How are they maintained when an economic embargo limits financial and physical access to spare parts and fuel?

CNN assures me that my eyes weren’t deceiving me; a small group of “harlistas” (as they are known in Cuba) keeps a motorcycle culture alive. After extensively investigating the development of Cuban bicycle culture, I assumed that the biggest challenge or obstacle for motorcycle enthusiasts would be the acquisition of parts, but Patrick Oppman of CNN identifies another: “… being a Harley fanatic courted controversy in the early years of the Cuban revolution when everything American, from jazz music to rock ‘n’ roll, was considered suspect. It also didn’t help that Harleys were the motorcycle of choice for police during the Batista dictatorship.” This brand did recall a reign of terror to some and signify a threat to communism to others. However, many of their current riders find this association regrettable. One owner of a Harley Knucklehead , Luis Gonzalez, keeps a sticker of Che Guevara on his motorcycle as an ode to the revolution. He explained his feelings on riding in a recent article by Peter Orsi of the Associated Press: “I love everything about [riding my motorcycle]. It’s like my girlfriend. I love the heat, I love the vibration, I love how it rides. I feel like a plane floating through the clouds” (Orsi).

The first Harley-Davidson rally in Cuba (Orsi).

About 2,000 motorcycles, primarily Harley-Davidsons, settled in Cuba in the years before the 1959 revolution. Their riders were often police and military men, but motorcycles changed hands quickly when the U.S. embargo began to hinder economic welfare in Cuba. Many of their owners sold their motorcycles illegally, whether they stripped them down for parts or not. Around 270 to 300 of these original motorcycles are believed to be registered legally with the Cuban government at this time, the only known survivors of more than 50 years of wear and tear. These antique machines would be retired as collector’s items by now in other countries, but Max Cucchi, a Harley owner and scholar currently writing a book on Cuban motorcycles, told the Associated Press, “Here people use them to live” (Chung). Despite their natural deterioration after fifty years of use, motorcycles continue to be a source of working transportation, even if they have undergone dramatic repairs. One legend has it that a motorcycle’s tire popped in rural Cuba during the Special Period, and its owner, with no alternatives, filled it with grass until he could find a way to patch the hole (Orsi).

The first Harley-Davidson rally in Cuba (De La Osa).

Harlistas hosted their first national Harley-Davidson rally the weekend of April 14-15, 2012 in Varadero, Cuba. About 70 of the registered 300 motorcycles (and their riders) attended the two-day event and arrived in generally good states of upkeep (Oppman). Some motorcyclists mentioned that the trade embargo has crippled their financial and physical access to spare parts, but trade restrictions have lessened in recent years. Their friends and family abroad can more easily ship goods or visit. Still, within Cuba, name-brand Harley-Davidson materials can be hard to come by. One Harley enthusiast, Jorge Fonseca, admitted that inside the body of his 1954 Panhead is an alternator from Ural, a Russian brand. That part cost him $15 CUC, whereas the same part from a Harley would have cost $400 (Orsi).

Harley-Davidson is a brand that publicizes itself as patriotic to the United States, but I wonder if the addition of a Russian engine dilutes those sentiments in Cuba. If not, these motorcycles’ decals of Che Guevara’s iconic image certainly do. This mestizaje of parts is unsurprising, especially after my research on the importation and collage of the Cuban bicycle. Still, I wonder if the iconography of Cuba’s revolution has the biggest weight. A Cuban Harley might boast a prestigious U.S. brand name and a new engine made in Russia, but it seems Harlistas are most inspired by the history of their revolutionary countrymen. “Seremos como El Che.”

Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado during their 1951- 1952 trip across South America on a motorcycle they called "La Poderosa" (D'Orléans).


El Che and Granado with friends during the same trip. Many believe that Che's experiences on this trip were formative to his future as a Cuban revolutionary (D'Orléans).

I have lived in the city of Chicago my entire life and so I have used public transportation as my means to get around the city. After riding trains and buses for a good portion of my life I have realized that public transportation is a space where different peoples from the community are forced to get together and interact. This is why I firmly believe that one of the most important ways someone can understand a city and its residents is by using public transportation.


One of the things that impresses me from cities is how they organize their public transportation. Cities are chaotic and it is interesting to see how and what bus routes are formulated in order to transport people through the chaos. Immediately, when I saw a bus on Havana’s streets I became excited. Buses in Havana are definitely spaces of community because of the amount of people that use them. As we traveled throughout the city, I noticed that at certain times and places there was an immense amount of people waiting to take the bus. This made buses become incredibly packed and full of people to the point where everyone was squeezed against each other. This is a great place to get to know people and the community since it is a tight environment (literally).


Unfortunately, I was not able to get a ride on one of the public buses. Instead, as tourists we had the privilege of being on a coach bus which was airconditioned the entire time and gave us ample amount of space to sit on cushioned seats. These buses are the common method of transportation for tourists who go to Cuba and so if they are trying to understand the country and its people, these buses are not the way to go. These buses do not force tourists to interact with Cubans and instead become a barrier between the real Cuba and a comfortable safe zone for tourists to enjoy their sight seeing far from the locals.

At some points during my trip, our luxury bus would drive next to a public bus and as we sat comfortably in our seats we looked at Cubans squeezed together in the hot bus. This made me feel very uncomfortable because as I sat there in a clear status of privilege I realized that I could not effectively connect and understand a country from this position.

Although, it was harder for me to understand the Cuban community from the luxury of a coach tourist bus, these buses are still places of community. In my bus, our class got to know each other more and enjoy get times together as we drove in the streets of Havana and throughout the rest of country. So the tourist bus created a sense of community between us in the same way that public buses creates community for the Cuban people.

One of the triumphs of the Revolution was the access to a free health care system to the entire population regardless of income, race, occupation, etc. In the government’s view, to be healthy and receive treatment when you are in need of it is a human right, not a privilege. Therefore, after their triumph they worked to provide this for all Cubans. In 1959, there was only one medicinal university in the country and so the Revolutionary government opened more making Cuba today a country with 21 medicine schools including, the Latin American School of Medicine.

The structure of the health care system in Cuba consists of four levels. The first is very grassroots in that there are family doctors living in each community . If someone gets sick, they are the first to respond. If needed, the ill person is taken to a poli clinic. There are over 400 poli clinics located around the country.  It is important to note that at this level, there is a focus on health promotion and illness prevention. Additionally, there are two programs that are priorities which are the Infant Motherly Program and the Elderly Program. After this primary level, there are the provisional hospitals that make up the second level. These hospitals deal with the more serious illnesses.  Then at the third and fourth levels of the health care system are the research institutes and specialized schools and facilities, respectively.

Other important facts that I learned about health care in Cuba is that 80% of Cuban medication is made domestically while 20% is made abroad and imported. Also, Cuba has a high life expectancy rate and has the 2nd lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas. Regarding doctors, there are currently 35,000 doctors working abroad. Additionally, doctors are required to work as family doctors for three years after studying for six.

Overall, the Cuban health care system seems to be effective in providing the health care right to its people. However, it is proving to be difficult with the U.S. embargo still in place. The United States has 8 of the ten most important pharmaceutical companies and 7 of the ten most important banks so it is difficult for medical supplies to reach Cuba.

The United States must change its policies to embrace the notion that health care is a right not a privilege. First, the U.S. should follow Cuba in providing free health care to all people (citizen and non-citizen) and make it more grassroots with a family doctor in each community.  Additionally, the government should take down the embargo since it is causing more difficulties for the Cuban government to provide its citizens with the right to health care.

Although on paper the Cuban health care system seems almost perfect, I still have my doubts about it. One of the things I noticed when I was in Cuba and more specifically in Havana, the capital and largest city on the island, was that I did not see any ambulances and I went days without hearing any sirens whatsoever. Coming from a big city in the United States where I often heard at least one siren a night whether it be from an ambulance, fire truck or police, I was struck at the absence of them in Havana which concerns me. Maybe I am wrong and the health care system is perfect but two weeks was not enough to actually get the full picture.

A couple of times while in Cuba—at the organopónico in Alamar and again at the ruins of Buena Vista—our tour guides grabbed a funny little fruit up off of the ground and spent a moment emphasizing the supposedly amazing health benefits of “noni” (whose scientific name is morinda citrifolia).  Inspecting the fruit for the first time, I certainly wouldn’t call it visually appetizing: its yellow and lumpy with small dark spots all over, and it gives off the distinct smell of bad cheese (I know this last detail might sound like an exaggeration, and I didn’t believe it either until the guide prompted us to smell the noni and we found ‘bad cheese’ to be a surprisingly accurate description).  Basically, the “amazing” noni stinks and actually looks more like an oversized insect’s cocoon than a fruit.

Both the guides who introduced the fruit claimed that current research is discovering that noni may have cancer-preventative benefits.  I must admit, I was skeptical about these claims—could it really be true that this rather repulsive fruit could be the next açai, acerola, or goji, or some other “super fruit” that has nutrition experts and health fiends singing its praises?  Are we likely to start seeing the phrase “includes Noni-extract” on every dietary product and health food product?

Known by many other names, including moringa, Indian mulberry, dog dumpling (which I personally feel to be quite appropriate), and pace, is related to the coffee bean plant.  Just as our guides both said, noni is native to Southeast Asia.  Noni trees carry fruit throughout the year, and (as I would like to add mostly for personal validation) multiple sources note that noni “tends to have a very pungent odor when ripening (also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit).”  High in fiber, vitamin A, protein, iron, and calcium, noni is considered by many health experts to be particularly beneficial for the digestive system.  Typically noni is considered pretty bitter for a tropical fruit, and is usually consumed either raw (often with salt) or else cooked into a stew.

As it turns out, maybe our guides weren’t exaggerating.  Noni has been a common ingredient in the diet of many Southeast Asian nations for as long as 2000 years, and “has been reported to have a broad range of therapeutic and nutritional value.” (Wang 1127)  Additionally, various parts of the noni tree, in addition to the fruit itself, have long been used for food, drink, medicine, and colorful dye.  Traditional medicines in Southeast Asia have used the plant

“for different kinds of illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, muscle aches and pains, menstrual difficulties, headaches, heart disease, AIDS, cancers, gastric ulcers, sprains, mental depression, senility, poor digestion, atherosclerosis, blood vessel problems, and drug addiction.” (Wang 1127)

In other words, traditional medicine considers noni useful for treating just about anything.

Modern scientific research on the benefits of noni is still limited, but it is certainly already clear to researchers that the plant has a long list of health benefits.  In particular, research is considering the connection between this extensive list and the fact that

“the Noni fruit contains a natural precursor for Xeronine…named Proxeronine.”  Xeronine can help “when a protein…is not in the appropriate conformation [and] will not work properly.  Xeronine will interact with the protein and make it fold into its proper conformation. The result is a properly functioning protein.  Whenever a problem arises in the cell due to a protein structural problem, Xeronine’s presence would be beneficial…[This] hypotheses may explain why TAHITIAN NONI JUICE (TNJ) can help in health problems in different ways.” (Wang 1128)

But before you’re convinced to jump out of your chair and head to the health food store, I should probably mention the principle downside of noni consumption: namely, price.  Noni juice usually goes for about $39 per small bottle! My biggest question is: is the stinky cheese smell included?



Wang, Mian-Ying, et al. “Morinda citrifolia (Noni): A literature review and recent advances in Noni research.” Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2002 Dec; 23(12): 1127-41.  http://www.chinaphar.com/1671-4083/23/1127.pdf

The Balconies in Cuba

Travelling along the streets of Cuba one can not help but notice the multitude of colorful and diverse balconies that line the sides of roads and streets.  These balconies are a product of urbanization and over-crowdedness that have emerged from Cuba’s Special Period (1990’s).  Balconies are also a product of complexes built by government as it aims to provide housing for its country’s growing population.


Balconies in Havana, Cuba

The word balcony is derived from the German word, Balcho, the Italian word, Balcone, and the Persian word, balkaneh.  A Balcony is a projection from a building that is supported by columns and railings. Balconies are thought to have first emerged during the times of Ancient Greece, their primary function was to simply provide lighting to the inside of a building during the day and circulation of fresh air in hot climates.   Since Cuba has a very hot climate, especially in the summer, it is not surprising that the country is filled with balconies.  Additionally, according to Dr. Lazero from CENESEX, during the Special Period of the 1990’s, Cuba experienced 8 hours without lighting every day.  This explains the need for natural lighting from the balconies to light the homes during the day.

According to our tour guide, Yoel, about 4 generations live under one roof.  This implies that the inhabitants of the home rarely get any privacy.  In order to gain some privacy from other family members, Cubans have found balconies as an escape.  Couples can be found on balconies either sharing a special moment or a private talk.  Older couples are seen enjoying a cup of coffee or just lounging on chairs.  Friends can be seen calling out to their friends on the street and inviting them into their homes.  For these reasons, balconies can be considered a center for socialization.

Couples and individuals enjoy the view from their balconies

The balconies of homes are not only used for lighting, circulating air, or even socializing, but have numerous other functions.  The balconies can also serve as a fire safety escape.  In addition, they are useful in drying clothing on wires after washing.

Drying clothing on balconies

Furthermore, since in urban areas there is a lack of vegetation and backyards, Cubans have turned their balconies into little gardens by adorning their balconies with potted flowers and other plants.  These plants include

medicinal plants which have played an important role in revamping Cuba’s healthcare system in times of the economic crisis of the 1990’s and the US bloqueo.

A garden on a balcony and a complex with a multitude of less intricate balconies behind it.

A tree has found a place to grow above a balcony in Havana, Cuba

Cubans also grow other fruits and vegetables for their own consumption and to sell to their neighbors.  Since water hoses are unaffordable, some Cubans have installed hand-made slow-drip irrigation systems made out of plastic bottles, like the one below, to deliver water to their balcony plants and gardens.

Slow-drip irrigation system–c/o thebeantree.org

Some Cubans even take advantage of balconies as a means to transport grocery and other miscellaneous items without having to carry them up the stairs.  For example, in Havana I observed groceries being transported up the balcony via a book bag tied to a rope.  Furthermore, I observed a man delivering a chair to the ground floor using a very long rope.

Additionally, numerous tourist attractions and hotels advertise balconies as a great feature of their hotel.  They suggest that the balconies are great for people-watching, restaurants serving Cuban food, or bars serving drinks.  In tourist attractions, balconies also serve as places to relax and to contemplate.  Some hotel balconies consist of swimming pools, water fountains, and lush greenery.  These balconies are also draped with beautiful fern and decorated with colorful paints and varying architectural designs.


Slow drip irrigation system: http://www.thebeantree.org/3/post/2011/10/the-skys-the-limit-rooftop-balcony-gardening-in-cuba.html





The Price of Freedom

What is freedom? Is it necessary for people in a society to live peacefully and happy? What is the price of freedom? Is freedom the ultimate value that should be fought for and defended no matter the costs? As a U.S. citizen bombarded by the messages of corporate media and the government, I am told that yes, nothing is more important than freedom. That is what the fourth of July is all about. This is what most politicians mention in their speeches. But is freedom worth it?

As someone who understands the injustices committed in the United States (the best country on Earth who loves freedom supposedly) I find it hard to believe whether freedoms like freedom of speech is worth it when citizens who rally and march for issues never actually influence the government. How many wars of terror has the United States waged that have been successfully avoided because millions of citizens showed no support and protested on the streets? The United States government likes to provide (but not always) the freedom of expression to its citizens but goes no further in providing freedom from poverty, gangs, illness and other forms of violence.

In my point of view, democracy and freedom is and should not be required for people to live peacefully and happily. Cuba, for example, is not a democracy and the freedom of expression is severely limited but from the people I talked to it seemed that they were content with the Revolution that had provided other types of freedom. A few examples are freedom from poverty which was provided through government programs, freedom from gangs provided through the Comites de Defensa para la Revolucion and freedom from illness provided through the free health care system.

However, there were a few Cubans who I met that told me otherwise. They did not believe in an authoritarian government. One of them was a drug dealer who I met on my final nights in Havana. He had spent ten years in prison because of dealing drugs, however he continued to do so in order to support his family. When I met him, he was with his brother who was occupied with someone else and the drug dealer expressed to me that his brother was not even aware of his business. Then he went on to speak about his daughter named Angelina who was five years old and how it was unfair to live in a place where opportunities were scarce yet they could not leave. He said that money was not the issue but that it was Fidel and the government. He proceeded then to talk about Fidel using a lot of vulgar language.

Another person I met was a former balsero. I met him in Havana as he was passing by and told me his story. He had left the island in the hopes of reaching the United States on balsas. He had made that entire journey even losing friends on the way when he got to a point where he could see the U.S. coast line. Unfortunately, he was forced to turn back even though he was so close to his destination. The balsero told me later that he loved his country no matter what since it was his home. He loved the free education and free health care however, “liberty has no price.”

After these two encounters, I realized that liberty and what Cubans want for their government was not as black and white as is portrayed by the Revolutionary government.

If you hadn’t been studying Cuba from all angles for an entire semester, and craved a play-by-play of the Cuban revolution from 1959 to 1999, you might be tempted to pop in Januaries of Victory.  Then again, you might be tempted just the same.  But keep in mind that this 45-minute documentary given to each of us during our stay in Cuba by Joel’s tourist agency is going to give you the Cuban government’s account of the Cuban revolution—that is, a heavily biased perspective loaded with political propaganda that glorifies the 26th of July movement while demonizing the United States, imperialism, and capitalism.

The structure of the film is reflective of the mission statement of the documentary’s producer, Mundo Latino, which is

“to contribute to the spread the Cuban reality both nationally and internationally through visual communication products that address social, political, cultural, historical, scientific, and environmental issues of our country using a language that is competitive in the audiovisual market .”

In accordance with this mission, the film gives a chronological listing from 1959 to 1999 of important historical events and situations as related to all of these issues.  Below I give a brief synopsis of the contents each chapter, especially noting some of the quotes and details that I later use to draw attention to the strategic propaganda employed throughout the documentary.

The Film

Introduction: a brief introduction covers the period between Cuba’s independence from Spain to the victory of the 26th of July movement in 1959.  This section introduces Fidel Castro, and makes a point of showing the popular support for the movement.

1959: Year of Liberation”: a “momentous” agrarian reform document is signed; organizations for national defense are created; ‘Casa de las Americas’, “home of Cuban intellectuals” is founded in Havana; and revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos dies.

1960: Year of Agrarian Reform”: the naval ship ‘la Coubre’ is sabotaged and Fidel Castro first uses the phrase “Homeland or Death”; U.S. companies are nationalized, “thus fulfilling the Moncade program”; the Federation of Cuban Women is established, “women are always present in the work of the revolution”; the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are created, which according to Fidel is a “system of collective revolutionary surveillance, surveillance so that everyone knows who lives on their block, what were their links with the tyranny, and what they do, whom they get together with and in what activities they’re involved, because if they think that they will be able to confront the Cuban people it will be a huge letdown for them”; the U.S. implements the economic blockade.

1961: Year of Education”: the U.S. government breaks diplomatic relations with Cuba; a volunteer teacher is killed by counterrevolutionaries; the Cuban Union of Pioneer Teachers is formed; Cuban soldiers put down the invasion of Playa Girón in 72 hours, “the first military defeat of imperialism in the Americas; the National Literacy Campaign and Cuba soon proclaims itself “a nation free of illiteracy”, and in this way “the Moncada program is fulfilled.”

1962: Year of Planning”: U.S. pressure causes the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Cuba; the National Vaccination Campaign begins; the Association of Young Rebels becomes the Union of Young Communists; the U.S. president “demands of the Soviet Union the withdrawal of strategic nuclear weapons” from Cuba and orders a naval blockade, which causes the “October of crisis.”

1963: Year of Organization”: hurricane Flora devastates Cuba; the Movement of Amateur Artists is founded, and thus the “Moncada program fulfilled.”

1964: Year of the Economy”: Ché Guevara inaugurates a mechanical plant in Santa Clara; a Cuban sprinter earns a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics; Ché represents Cuba at the 19th UN general assembly.

1965: Year of Agriculture”: the Millionaire Movement of Sugar Cane is created; the Lenin Hospital is inaugurated—“Health is a right of the people”—and thus “the Moncada plan is fulfilled”; the Cuban Communist Party is founded; Fidel Castro reads publically Ché Guevara’s farewell letter to Cuba.

1966: Year of Solidarity”: the first Tri-continental Conference occurs uniting Latin American, Asian, and African nations; the National Defense Council is created; the “Books Within Reach Program” begins and the first national book fair occurs; Ché leaves for Bolivia; Cuba returns “loaded with victories” from the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico.  “Despite provocations and obstacles placed in their way, the team’s determination was paramount.  For the first time, Cuba becomes the lead country in a regional competition.”

1967: Year of Heroic Vietnam”: “the heroic guerilla,” Ché Guevara, is wounded and taken prisoner in Bolivia, and “the following day he was cowardly assassinated.”  At the memorial ceremony, Fidel emphasizes that “our people should be like Ché…”

1968: Year of the Heroic Guerilla”: Ché’s diary in Bolivia is published and mass distributed for free among the population, so that “the world discovers the truth about what happened in Bolivia.”

1969: Year of the Decisive Effort”: the Cuban baseball team wins in major international matches; the 10 million ton sugarcane harvest begins; the ‘Schools in the Countryside Plan fulfills “the Martí principle of linking study to work.”

1970: Year of the 10 Million”: brigades of Cuban doctors assist in Peru after a devastating earthquake; Cubans rally in front of the U.S. interest sector of Havana and demand the liberation of the Cuban fisherman; “Although the 10 million tons [of sugarcane harvest] were not reached, the people celebrate the largest sugar cane harvest in history with a combative spirit.  A setback is turned into a victory.”

1971: Year of Productivity”: African swine fever breaks out among Cuban pigs; Fidel visits Chilean president, Salvador Allende, and is received with an overwhelming welcome.

“1972: Year of Socialist Emulation”: Cuba wins 3 gold medals in boxing at the Olympics in Germany; Fidel visits African nations to strengthen ties; Salvador Allende visits Cuba.

1973: Year of the 20th Anniversary”: Cuba becomes the country with the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America; the Young People’s Labor Army is created; military service becomes obligatory.

1974: Year of the 15th Anniversary”: significant changes implemented into the system of political elections; Cuba hosts the boxing world championships for the first time and Cuba wins 5 titles.

1975: Year of the First Congress”: the first congress of the Cuban Communist Party is inaugurated and “people gather to support the agreement reached” by the party; the first Internationalist Mission to Angola leaves; the complete works of Jose Martí are published, “another triumph of Cuban literature.”

1976: Year of the 20th Anniversary of the Granma Landing”: the Cuban population approves the Constitution of the Republic; 73 people killed in sabotage attack backed by the CIA and the U.S. government; Granma memorial inaugurated; Cuba “achieves an unprecedented result in Olympic athletics.”

1977: Year of Institutionalization”: Alejo Carpentier receives the Cervantes Prize for his literature; 50 young people that form the Antonio Maceo Brigade arrive in Cuba.

1978: Year of the 11th Festival”: University of Havana celebrates its 250th anniversary; the first ‘Ché Guevara International Pedagogical Group’ leaves for Angola; Cuban women’s volleyball team claims the title as world champions; Cuba hosts the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students.

1979: Year of the 20th Anniversary of the Victory”: Cuba hosts the 6th summit of Non-Aligned Countries; Cuba attends 34th period of sessions of the UN general assembly; Old Havana declared a national monument.

1980: Year of the 2nd Congress”: the first Soviet-Cuban space flight occurs; the Cuban Communist Party has its 2nd congress; National Culture Day declared in October.

1981: Year of the 20th Anniversary of Girón”: at the 5th congress of the Federation of Secondary Education Students, “Cuban youth declare themselves a worthy continuation of its[the revolution’s] tradition of struggle.

1982: Year of the 24th Anniversary of the Revolution”: the Calros J Finlay Brigade of Medical Students is established; Old Havana is declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

1983: Year of the 30th Anniversary of the Attack on the Moncada Garrison”: the Family Doctor Program is established and provides “unprecedented solutions to world community health problems”; a renowned Cuban poet receives the National Literature Prize.

1984: Year of the 25th Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution”: Santiago de Cuba is recognized and celebrated for its struggle in the revolution; “Cuba and Angola issue a joint declaration” and the Cuban International Military Contingent withdraws from Angola; Wilfred Lam Center established to promote third world art and artists.

1985: Year of the 3rd Congress”: first successful heart transplant in Cuba occurs; the Foundation of the New Latin American Cinema is created.

1986: Year of the 30th Anniversary of the Granma Landing”: one-of-a-kind hospital opened in Cuba; the fist test-tube baby of Cuba is born.

1987: 29th Year of the Revolution”: Cuba named a member of the UN Economic and Social Council; the National AIDS Prevention Program begins; Cuba celebrates the 150th anniversary of the railroad.

1988: 30th Year of the Revolution”: Cuba named a member of the UN Human Rights Commission; center for transplant and regeneration of the nervous system is opened in Havana; UN peace accords signed in Namibia; Cuban medicine makes an important contribution to both national and world optometry.

1989: 31st Year of the Revolution”: first contingent from Angola returns; Cuban sports “continues on the rise” and both the men and women’s volleyball teams win world championships, “thus showing their domination in this discipline”; Cuban high jumper sets world record.

1990: 32nd Year of the Revolution”: National Day of Cuban Science celebrated; though “taking care of the disabled in [Cuba] is already a tradition”, a new school for the blind and deaf is opened.

1991: 33rd Year of the Revolution”: Cuba holds a torchlight march to celebrate José Martí; Havana’s central computer palace inaugurated; the Pan American Games in Cuba show the nation’s “high level of organization and efficiency”; Fidel attends the Ibero-American summit.

1992: 34th Year of the Revolution”: Fidel visits Spain; Cuba returns to participation in the Olympic games in Barcelona and shows “indisputable dominance” in athletics; a Cuban poet receives the Cervantes prize.

1993: 35th Year of the Revolution”: Fidel participates in the Ibero-American summit; the 5th anniversary of the Pastors for Peace caravan is celebrated.

1994: 36th Year of the Revolution”: “Anti-social elements carry out vandalistic actions and the people take to the streets to repel those actions…Fidel goes to the scene of the crime”; the World Health Organization recognizes Cuba for being polio-free; the U.S. intensifies the blockade with new economic measures and Fidel denounces U.S. aggression “designed to strangle the country”; Fidel attends the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela.

“1995: Year of the Centennial of the Death of José Martí”: Fidel goes to the World Summit on Social Development; “Cuba Vive” International Festival is inaugurated, and “young people gather from all over the world to show their solidarity with Cuba”; Fidel attends the 50th anniversary of the UN; Fidel visits various Asian countries.

1996: Year of the Centennial of the Antonio Maceo’s Death in Combat”: “The president of the United States signs the anti-Cuban, extra territorial Helms-Burton law. In response, Cuba approves the Law of Reaffirmation of Dignity and Sovereignty”; Cuba gains access to the internet; Cuban musician receives Picasso medal and diploma of honor from UNESCO; Cuban composer receives the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize from the King and Queen of Spain; Pope John Paul II receives Fidal at the Vatican; the José Martí memorial is inaugurated.

1997: Year of the 30th Anniversary of the Death in Combat of Ché and His Companions”: Cuban musician Irakere receives a Grammy Award and the Pongo de Oro Prize; Cuba hosts the 14th World Festival of Youth and Students; the remains of Ché are identified in Bolivia and Cubans receive his remains.

1998: 40th Anniversary of the Liberation War’s Decisive Battles”: Pope John Paul II visits Cuba; Cuba women win a world volleyball championship; Raul Castro receives a Hero of the Republic Award; Grammy awards bestowed on Cuban musicians of Buena Vista Social Club; the 5th congress of Cuban Writers and Artists occurs; Cuba celebrates the 59th anniversary of the Cuban National Ballet; Cuban painters gain international recognition; Cubans unite in solidarity for hurricane Mitch.

Conclusion: “This is a people that for 40 years have defended the sovereignty of this country in Revolution.  To achieve that goal, it has faced the most powerful empire the contemporary world has known.  This is not a complete summary of part of our history. This is our history, written day-by-day with determination, enthusiasm and confidence, having José Martí’s thinking as a reason for life, which is the best legacy we can give our children.”


It seems hardly necessary to underscore the aspects of propaganda that are abundant and most likely very visible to the (most likely) American reader of this blog.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider a few of the tactics considered essential to effective propaganda and how they are present in the video.

First, effective propaganda must be SEEN.  It should be highly visible for its audience.  Considering that the DVD in consideration was freely given to each member of our group from the tourist organization that we had contracted, and given that all tourists in Cuba must affiliate to one of three of the government sponsored tourist organizations, it can be assumed that the DVD is provided to the majority of tourists.  In other words, its accessibility for its target audience (tourists) is essentially assured.  But the DVD could easily be directed toward a native Cuban audience as well.  In fact, there are actually a number of facts and events presented at various moments in the film that are given little or no explanation or background information, and it can only be presumed that a Cuban might possess the necessary supplemental information necessary to fully understand why the event was significant enough to be included in the film.

Next, affective propaganda must be UNDERSTOOD, and for the tourist audience this is facilitated by the translated subtitles, available in English, German, and German, in addition to Spanish.  Of course, a Cuban audience—especially given the high average educational attainment of the Cuban citizen—would most likely be able to understand the messages communicated in the video to a further extent than a foreign viewer.  Anyone who has not been to Cuba would not know of the incredible extent to which many images (Ché’s face), slogans (“Homeland or Death”), and campaigns (the Cuban 5) are reproduced in both public and private spaces in Cuba.  The familiarity a Cuban viewer would have with these symbols and the meanings behind them would most likely allow him or her to understand the many of the references made in the video that remain confusing for the foreigner (who might be wondering ‘what is the Moncada plan?’ or ‘what is the story behind the Cuban fisherman who were detained by the U.S.?).

Finally, propaganda is obviously more effective if it’s REMEMBERED.  The best way to ensure that the audience remembers the content of propaganda is through repetition.  Looking through the extensive list of highlighted events and situations in the video, the reader probably noted that certain themes were constant and many specific points resurfaced quite often.  Achievement in sports, for example, was emphasized throughout the entirety of the video, and was usually presented with a subtle message about Cuban excellence.  Another common theme was the antagonistic nature of political, cultural, and economic relations with the U.S., which never presented Cuba as the aggressor.  Positive relations with other Latin American, Caribbean, African, Asian, and European nations was a resurgent theme as well, and seemed to reinforce the notion of Cuba as non-controversial in its foreign politics and diplomacy, and thus the behavior of the United States as unwarranted.  Other recurrent themes included military might, academic excellence, artistic distinction, and medical aptitude, and the organization of public events and social programs.  Symbolic figures like José Martí, Fidel Castro, and Ché Guevara were present in countless scenes, including many of those that emphasized less political moments, like sports victories.  Even some phrases were repeated regularly throughout the film: a majority of the chapter titles were of “the anniversary of the victory of the revolution” (or else of another important political event), and multiple programs “fulfilled the Moncada plan”.  Lastly, the strategy of repetition was visibly used in the language that described events and situations.  Language carrying a negative tone or connotation was almost exclusively reserved for moments that discussed the United States and its synonym, “imperialism.”  Even when referring to situations and/or events that have been widely recognized as disastrous or problematic (such as the failed ’10 million ton sugar cane harvest’ or the ineffective economic planning of Ché Guevara while he served as minister of the economy) were portrayed in a positive light.  Additionally, some of the ugliest moments of Cuban history during the revolution were completely omitted from the documentary.  There is no mention of the Special Period, of the Mariel Boatlift and Balseros exodus, or of international criticisms of oppression or human rights violations.  More than anything else—more that the exaggerated language, the excessive repetition, or the arrogance about seemingly trivial achievements—it is these omissions are what immediately point to the documentary’s illegitimacy as a factual source of information on the history of the Cuban revolution.

Marino, Adolfo.  Eneros de Victorias: La Revolución Cubana en Imágenes. Mundo Latino. 2000.


Why so familiar?

As I first stepped down the aluminum staircase of our mysterious “Fly Guam” airplane in Cuba, the air seemed familiar.  It was warm, sweet, heavy, and moist as I tried to inhale it in big gulps.  I kept on taking bigger gulps because I could not exactly determine why it seemed so familiar.  The white noise from the airplanes and the walk towards the José Martí airport all reminded me of something familiar.  After we had lined up to be checked in, photographed, registered, interrogated about the purpose of our visit, and waited for our baggage to come on to the rotary belt, I still could not pinpoint this familiarity.  As I made my way out with the rest of the students towards our tour bus, the crowds of people waiting outside the airport and the lighting of the airport grew a mysterious feeling within me.  This mysterious feeling surfaced even more as we rode off in the bus with two strangers who we would come to know very well in the next few weeks: our tour guide, Yoel, and our driver, Duniel.  While looking at the scenery and trees outside of the window, I finally understood why this feeling was brewing up inside me.  It was simply trying to make a connection with home, Pakistan.    All this time I was being reminded of Pakistan through all the similarities Cuba and Pakistan shared.  This would not be the last time I would feel this way, but the beginning of numerous encounters, where I would be brought back to home.

The weather, the air, the scent, the paved and unpaved roads, all reminded me of Pakisan.  Even the jasmine flowers and their sweet scent outside of my room at Hotel Ancon connected my back to my country.   The coco-taxi reminded me of the Rickshaws that occupied the streets in Pakistan. Other forms of transportation shared by both countries include: horse-drawn carriages, bikes, and small cars.

Cuban Coco-taxis (left) and Pakistani Rickshaw (right)

Other similarities included vendors selling produce on carts throughout the streets.    As vendors were seen selling roasted peanuts in paper cones while yelling “mane, mane,” in Pakistan vendors are seen selling roasted nuts and corn in newspaper cones while yelling, “ne ne.”  Just like in Pakistan, bargaining of goods was evident in every corner of Cuba. In both countries vendors are seen persuading consumers to buy their goods, so they could earn a living, in order to support their families.

Poverty is also very ubiquitous in Pakistan as it is in Cuba.  While in Cuba individuals are found begging for money in the form of tips, in Pakistan one will find beggars directly asking for money.   While in Cuba most beggars were found fairly well-dressed, in Pakistan, most beggars are found wearing tattered and disheveled clothing.

As we travelled throughout Cuba we observed numerous farms, orchards, mango trees, other tropical fruits.  Similarly, in Pakistan one will find similar fruits, orchards, and farms.  Agriculture is also taken very seriously in both countries because it is a form of sustenance and a way of living for numerous people.  In Pakistan agriculture is the largest economic activity, accounting for about 21.2% of its GDP.  In 2008, agriculture accounted for 20% of Cuba’s GDP.

Farming in Cuba (left) and Pakistan (right)

Additionally, I was very shocked when I first tasted the dairy products, for instance, the yogurt, the milk, the butter, because they all tasted so natural and fresh, just like in Pakistan.   I made sure to consume enough of these dairy products before getting back to the US where I would be reintroduced to their processed and homogenized forms.   Additionally, while in Cuba each meal included a cup of coffee, in Pakistan a meal is not complete without a cup of tea.

Furthermore, the hospitality and friendly attitudes of the people resonates in both countries.  For example, as we were warmly welcomed by the CDR to the block party by every member of the community, it reminded me of the people of Pakistan.  For instance, in Pakistan one will find weddings and parties taking place in the middle of the streets in which every member of the community participates and shows hospitality to their guests.

Finally, before stepping back on to the aluminum staircase of our plane which would take as back to Miami, Florida, I couldn’t help but touch the ground for one last time.  This ground had provided me with a home away from home.  It had connected me back to my own country I had left a few years ago and was beginning to forget.

A link comparing some statistics between Cuba and Pakistan:

Other sources used:





In our two weeks in Cuba we were able to experience the Cuban people’s kindness and hospitality. Generally people were extremely welcoming and ready to strike up conversation with anyone who was willing to listen to them. In my many conversations with Cubans, I found what I have comed to label the Cuban peoples spirit of International Love.

In perhaps the most genuine conversation I had with a Cuban, my favorite book store owner, Fernando and I began a conversation that was enlightening and in many ways life changing. Two topics during our conversation stick out as memorable moments, the first the Cuban mission in Angola and the second Puerto Rican independence or the lack thereof. As many have heard before, Fernando was a commander in Angola and while I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask him about his exact experiences in the African nation, I was able to speak to him about the reasons behind fighting in Angola. Fernando described his two years in Angola as a “mision de libertad de fuerzas coloniales” or a mission of liberty from colonial powers. To Fernando, Cuba’s goals in Angola and other African nations was to share their independence from imperialist powers. In many ways, Fernando believed that the Angola mission was a selfless act and that Cuba wanted to express their solidarity with other oppressed people.

On that note, our conversation turned towards Puerto Rican independence. Fernando expressed his solidarity with what he called “my oppressed brothers and sisters” and shared a touching moment as we discuss the Puerto Rican struggle to liberate Vieques from US Navy occupation. This need to show some sign of solidarity with me persisted throughout my time in Cuba. When speaking to Tania, the lady from ICAP who gave us the presentation, she found it necessary to inform me that Puerto Rican patriots were also political prisoners in the United States and that our struggle to liberate them was the same as their struggle to liberate the Cuban five. In the providences I was once told that one day I would also enjoy the freedoms that Cuba enjoyed because after all we are the two wings of one bird, sister nations.

Protest for liberation of the Cuban five and the Puerto Rican three (Photo credit: Kathe Karlson via Facebook)

But Cuba’s sense of solidarity with other people and their sense of internationalism perhaps stems from two key figures in their history, Henry Reeves and Ernesto Che Guevara. Henry Reeves was born in Brooklyn, New York yet he died in Matanzas fighting for the Cuban Army of Liberation during the Ten Year war or the First Cuban Independence War. Before entering the city of Cienfuegos, Yoel took us to the place where Henry Reeves committed suicide (to prevent being captured by the Spanish forces) and explain to us the importance of Reeves in Cuban history and perhaps most importantly as a symbol of internationalism. To the surprise of many us, despite being under the burning mid day Cuban sun, we stood around this small plaque and had a moment of silence for the “inglesito”.







Ernesto Guevara, perhaps the most iconic face of the Cuban Revolution was not Cuban but rather Argentinian. Che dedicated his life to the liberty of many Latin American nations but fought his most important battles in Cuba. For his efforts in the Cuban Revolution Che was proclaimed a Cuban citizen by birth.

These examples of selfless acts of internationalism certainly have shaped the character of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba has many brigades of medical personnel in internationalist missions all over the globe and it is something that they take great pride in. I never thought that on a more individualist level however, I would see that rhetoric of internationalism but my experiences in Cuba proved to me that Internationalism is a virtue that many Cubans embrace and take pride in.


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