Getting to Cuba

Graham Sowa

View of ELAM from the entrance.

Getting to Cuba for a US citizen involves many questions and few answers.  It is an illegal adventure for most Americans, an utterly bureaucratic one for those with family in Cuba, and, so exceedingly complicated for those of us with special licenses that someone with professional knowledge must do it for us.

As a medical student at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) I am in the latter group.  The organization that facilitated my matriculation was the decades old, New York based, Pastors for Peace.

The process which ended with our arrival in March of this year began two years prior.  I submitted an application to ELAM, made available at the Pastors for Peace website, and then waited.  The good news came when I was invited for an interview a few months later, which took place in New York in June of 2009.

I use the word interview only to make headway with those readers familiar with a general medical school application process.  In reality our “interview” was a two day retreat in upstate New York with all of the other applicants invited that year.  Questions were answered; however many of us left the retreat realizing that getting answers meant getting to Cuba.  We were told to pencil in a tentative departure date of “sometime in late spring.”

Lifestyle changes coming

The plane ride to Havana on Cubana Airlines from Cancun, Mexico, where the soon to be US medical students all met up, lasted just over an hour. This was barely enough time to enjoy my first taste of actual Cuban products (Tú Cola and a piece of hard candy), but long enough to be grateful that our old Soviet workhorse of an airliner got us to our destination.

Doctors for Latin America and the World.

The amount of luggage that my fellow students and I brought probably reflected a genuine attempt to hold on to American materialism for as long as the Power Bars and Peter Pan peanut butter would last in our new home.  Perhaps the stuffed duffle bags signaled that we were coming to Cuba on assumptions, not solid answers, about the lifestyle changes we would face.

In the nine months that have passed since we unpacked and tried to figure out where to put all of our stuff we have had the opportunity to find out why questions about the experiences we were going to face in Cuba were so difficult to answer.  Neither Cuba nor ELAM can be explained from the United States.  Questions are answered by word of mouth, announcements made in class, and notices posted a week before exams.  If you are not living here you are not going to be in the know.

If some American students grumble about collecting information on numerous programs and application procedures of medical schools then I highly encourage them to put down that latest version of the American Medical Schools Admissions Guide and join me in Cuba.

We don’t come here with the security of the printed word to compare to the reality we encounter.  Our search for information and answers is daily; involving multiple human interactions, a bit of effort, and the fortune of good luck.


Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

5 thoughts on “Getting to Cuba

  • January 16, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    cuban medical students do not attend ELAM, however remember that ELAM (the campus) is only for years 1-2. in years 3-6 we work and study with our fellow cuban students.

  • November 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Hi Graham,

    Thank you again. I’m starting to feel like I shouldn’t be scared anymore.

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    It is easier to get to Cuba if you dont live in the “Land of the Free.” I spent a very time in Cuba at the end of 2000. I am from New Zealand.

  • November 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Morning Graham, Look forward to reading about your experiences. Great article.

  • November 13, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Hi Graham,

    I enjoyed your article and have to agree that information about Cuba is difficult to find.

    I am 68 and a retired librarian. I expect to be visiting Cuba, legally with a license for my church group, in the first part of January. Part of my trip includes a visit to ELAM. I am looking forward to it and would like to meet you if such a thing is becomes possible. The itinerary I have is still tentative, and does not include the date I will be at ELAM.

    I do have one question I hope you will answer. Do Cuban medical students go to ELAM, or do they study at a different medical facilities?

    Doug McLaughlin [email protected]

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