by Lou Mancinelli

You may be surprised by the impressions made on two local residents during their recent journey to Cuba.

Stelle Sheller and Janet Young, of East Falls and Chestnut Hill, respectively, traveled to Havana for eight days in mid-October with Global Exchange (GE), an international human rights organization, and discovered things that were “totally unexpected.”

What they saw was a country in transition. There were elegant, ornate, restored buildings and well-kept vintage American cars from the 1940s and ‘50s, when Cuba was a playground for wealthy Americans. But outside of the tourist world in Havana, the nation’s capital and largest city, most neighborhoods are shabby and run down.

In Havana there are two worlds, one for the tourists and another for the Cubans. The tourists have their own money system, “cucs.” Cubans are forbidden from using this money, as tourists are forbidden from using the Cuban pesos.

This, according to Stelle Sheller and Janet Young, of East Falls and Chestnut Hill, respectively, who traveled to Havana for eight days in mid-October with Global Exchange (GE), an international human rights organization.

“It’s a country of contradictions,” said Sheller. “You would just have to visit to begin to understand the mixture. You leave with more questions than when you came.”

GE offers reality tours designed to connect people to issues, issues to movements and movements to social change. Sheller and Young, who both requested that their ages not be mentioned, went with a group of 13 to observe and learn about the sustainable community efforts of Cuban women.

In addition to their nightly banquet at a hotel or restaurant, mojitos and music, the former schoolteachers in the Philadelphia School District met with women’s studies professors from the University of Havana and members of the Federation of Cuban women. They talked about the roles of women in society.

While there were scheduled events and guided tours, the group members also had their opportunity to wander on their own and mix with local residents. “They people were welcoming,” said Young. “I didn’t hear animosity. The biggest questions was why is there still a U.S. embargo…

“The people were warm, our questions to officials were considered, and we had a good time. Many of our friends said they didn’t know Cuba would let us visit.  They were often surprised to learn it is the other way around. Our country isn’t hot to have us go to Cuba. We also looked at how women, in particular, are coping with shortages in food and money, and yet how much they are participating in government.

“Back in the ‘60s, my late husband and I participated in the War on Poverty by working in Eastern Kentucky.  I was struck by similarity of rhetoric, enthusiasm and problems we saw then and what I experienced in Cuba today. It was a striking resemblance to me and totally unexpected.”

The U.S. imposed an economic, commercial and financial embargo on Cuba in October, 1960, after the new Communist government of Cuba nationalized the properties of American citizens and corporations. Between 1953 and 1959 the Cuban Revolution had fought successfully to remove the dictatorship of Fulgenico Batista.

After Fidel Castro gained power, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1962, which ended with the Russians removing their missiles from the Caribbean island nation. Thirty years later, the Cuban Democracy Act codified the embargo into law so long as the Cuban government refused to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights.

In Cuba, still a Communist state, healthcare, education, employment and food have all been subsidized and provided for by the government. According to Sheller, the money taken in from the lucrative tourism industry, thriving with travelers from around the world, minus America, funds those subsidized efforts. Children are educated straight through the university. The literacy rate is 99.9 percent. The unemployment rate is 3.1 percent.

But wages are low. One of Sheller and Young’s guides had left her job as a teacher because she made more money giving tours. Until 2008, when Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel, took over after his brother became incapacitated, Cuba was a state ruled by egalitarian pay. Everyone, from doctors to farmers, made about $20 a month. But transportation costs and cost of living were low.

Since coming into power, Raul Castro has introduced a number of economic reforms. They include the significant expanding of permits for Cubans to open their own businesses and hire workers. Citizens can now buy and purchase cars and homes. Raul Castro appears to be taking steps to increase the opportunity for free enterprise in Cuba.

“What they don’t have is the material advantages we have,” said Sheller, also a longtime member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Justice. “We went to Cuba to see for ourselves what life was like for the average person there, not compared to life in the U.S. but to life in other Caribbean islands or Central American countries. Unfortunately, this type of fact-finding visit is discouraged and impeded by our government. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans, Canadians and Mexicans are able to go there as freely as we go to Cancun. Although we had to go through all sorts of hoops to get there, we would recommend that it was well worth the effort.

“We met with many people, young and old, who both believe in the ideals of the revolution but are dissatisfied with the material deprivation. They blame not only the U.S. blockade but the stubbornness of their government to institute economic policies of private enterprise.”

Fifty miles outside of Havana, the women and their group visited Las Tarrazas. Designated a biosphere reserve in 1984 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Las Tarrazas is a sustainable village. There, 1,000 trees were planted, and a community for 1,400 was built as well as hotels.

Since the 1960s, the U.S. has restricted travel to Cuba. But in January, the Obama administration announced that airports in eight cities will begin permitting charter flights to the Caribbean nation, including Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. The new rules expanded travel to Cuba for religious, academic, journalistic and cultural reasons. In 2009, the administration also eased restrictions on family reunification travel.

And according to Sheller and Young, Americans would be intrigued by how much emphasis the Cuban government and its people have put on healthcare and education and by the bright colors and mansions of Old Havana and the tropical landscape.

If I may be permitted a bit of editorializing, many questions remain unanswered as to the current quality of life for ordinary people in Cuba. Are there political prisoners? How many? What has become of them? Are people afraid to speak out against the government for fear of losing work, imprisonment or even worse violations of human rights? In a police state in which even the press is controlled by the government, citizens are likely to be guarded when speaking to foreigners, especially about matters that could get them in serious trouble.