Thursday, December 10, 2009

Adventures in Cuba

I was excited about the opportunity to go to Cuba since so few Americans get the chance. However, getting there is not easy, and although the U.S. and Cuba are less than 100 miles apart the distance between the two countries is almost immeasurable.

Our adventure - I was traveling with Karen Goraleski, who leads our Paul G. Rogers Society for Global Health Research - began in Miami, where there was mass confusion about checking-in and our charter left over an hour late. We would soon learn that this was pretty much par for the course on this trip. After 12 hours of traveling, including about an hour standing in a sea of blue plastic-wrapped bags (to prevent pilfering) waiting for our luggage, we made it to the hotel to find that it was overbooked. The hotel eventually came up with a solution, but this was not the way we wanted to start our trip.

We made our way to the Palacio de Convenciones the next morning for our meeting on tracking resources for health research. The Global Forum for Health Research officially started that evening with an opening ceremony planned by our Cuban hosts.

Cuba's Minister of Public Health, Jose Ramon Balaguer Cabrera (right) and Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez Alvarez (center) both addressed the Forum. Together they spoke for more than an hour and a half about the Revolution and their health system. Interesting at first and then very, very tedious. Cuba does produce a large number of doctors and have some very good stats on measures such as infant mortality and vaccination rates, but their public health message is watered-down when the toilets in the convention center didn't have seats and then you were lucky to find soap in the bathroom (I don't usually rely on hand sanitizer, but I was really happy to have a small bottle in my purse!).

Although we spent most of our time at the Global Forum, we had a free afternoon to explore Havana. We opted to take a guided tour since our time was so limited. It, like most things in Cuba, started very late.

Our first stop on the tour was Plaza de la Revolucion where many political rallies take place and many government offices are located. The Ministry of Interior building features the image of Che Guevara, with the slogan "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" or "Forever Onwards Towards Victory." Guevara was a major figure in the Cuban Revolution and the first Minister of the Interior appointed by Fidel Castro.

This billboard commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Revolution when Fidel Castro claimed control of Cuba was on the perimeter of Plaza de la Revolucion - just one of many examples of propaganda supporting the regime that we saw.

Our next stop was a cigar shop, but we took the opportunity to look around the area rather than risk being stopped in the Miami airport. This photo captures a lot of what we saw in what seemed to be a neighborhood where average Habaneros live, work and go to school.

The tour made its way to El Capitolio, where the Cuba legislature met from the 1930s-1950s. Today, it houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. This stop provided some of the starkest contrasts for us. The beautiful El Capitolio building and surrounding parks were on one side of the street.
While this building was directly opposite on the other side of the street. As evidenced by the laundry hanging from the balconies, people live in this building. We could tell that it was once very beautiful, but years of neglect and hurricanes have taken their toll.

However, Cuba, with the help of UNESCO, slowly has been restoring La Habana Vieja or Old Havana. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza borders the Plaza de Armas. The sculpture on the watchtower is called La Giraldilla and is the symbol of the city of Havana.
The ceiba tree in the picture above marks where Havana, then called Villa de San Cristobal, was founded on November 16, 1519. We were in Havana on the 490th anniversary, although we did not get to see the annual gathering where residents walk around the tree three times, dropping coins in the hope that their wishes will come true.

The Hotel Santa Isobel is a great example of one of the restored buildings in La Habana Vieja.

As the sun began to set, we stopped at some of Ernest Hemingway's haunts, including La Bodeguita del Medio and the Hotel Ambos Mundos. I used the last few moments of daylight to capture the photo above from the roof of the hotel.

Overall, my trip to Havana was fascinating, and I really enjoyed meeting many Cubans who were very friendly and always willing to chat. It will be an experience to remember that gave me a tremendous appreciation for so many things that as an American I took for granted before my trip.

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