By STEVE WAKE
HAVANA TIMES, February 20 – “I believe in God.” It was about the last thing I expected to read in a letter from a Cuban university student in her reply to a letter from an Oakland, California high school student. But Cuba is a land of surprises, and I was in for a bigger surprise when I asked the second-year biology major to tell me what God meant to her.
In near-perfect English, for this was an English class, she explained, “Oh, I think there was something before the Big Bang. But I don’t think God controls everything; I believe man has free will.” Lesson number one for this short-term teacher of English: never jump to conclusions about what a Cuban is really thinking.
I spent last November teaching English at the prestigious University of Havana. The volunteer assignment was made through a Canadian program, Cuba Education Tours, which arranges “social tourism” packages for Canadian teachers, and the occasional adventurous American.
Canadians can travel freely to Cuba, and over 800,000 vacationed there last year. I, on the other hand, didn’t fall into any of the highly restrictive categories of travelers allowed under current U.S. Department of Treasury regulations, so I just went in my own undetectable way.
It was a humanitarian visit. I wanted to foster understanding between the U.S. and Cuba by bringing letters from high school students in Oakland. The letters would also serve as the basis of an English lesson, motivating the Cuban students to read, then write responses in English – what we educators call “authentic” instruction.
I also hoped to help teach these future leaders of Cuba a bit about life in their giant neighbor to the north and answer their questions about prospects for change in the U.S. Between the time the U.S. students wrote their letters and my arrival in Cuba, President Obama won the election, so I expected high interest and expectations.
In my role as a teacher and messenger I had the privilege of eavesdropping on over a hundred written exchanges. I wasn’t snooping – I had to explain some of the American slang, and correct the English in the Cuban students’ letters. Add the insights gained from that experience to the dozens of conversations and presentations I had with the Cuban students, and I feel like I had a pretty unique opportunity to get acquainted with the future of Cuba.
With the caveat above regarding conclusions in mind, I’ll go out on a limb and state that these youth from two countries that lie on opposite sides of an obsolete and rapidly corroding iron curtain are incredibly alike, while the societies in which they live are just as incredibly different. The reconciliation that will inevitably occur between our countries will be a transformative event for both.
The letters I brought were written by a colleague’s classes of high school seniors from Oakland School for the Arts. The students were a cross-section of the multi-ethnic, multi-class mix that is Oakland.
As I showed the Cuban students photos of the rainbow of youth who had written the letters I was struck by the fact that they too were a rainbow, though the colors had clearly been mixing for many more generations.
Questions from the Oakland students were typical: “What kind of music do you like? What do you do for fun? Do you dance? How old do you have to be to go to nightclubs?” “What’s life like in Cuba?” Their immediate concerns were just as predictable: “I’m so stressed about getting into college;” “It’s possible we’ll have the first Black President! I wish I could vote.”
Responses from the Cuban students painted a picture of youth who also prioritize having fun, but with a Cuban twist, and a few surprises: “We dance a lot, especially salsa, timba (what we call casino) and most recently Reggaeton.” “This weekend I went partying and I barely slept. I am worn out and my neck is in pain because of so much dancing.” “We go to the beach in summer, it is beautiful, like the pictures of Hawaii.” “You can always find a party, a dinner, laughing. …I really like rock music, especially Led Zeppelin and Queen.” “My favorite book is Harry Potter (all 7 parts).” “I never stop studying…. I like to practice karate and eat vegetarian food…. Sometimes I read novels. I prefer to watch TV and love Grey’s Anatomy.” “My birthday was on the 26th of October… that makes me a Scorpio too. You are right, we are very awesome.” “I have a Nintendo DS. I play strategy games.”
When I expressed my surprise at the Nintendo and asked if they were common, several students spoke up and said ownership is rare, but there is an underground market renting out video games and game consoles, including X-box and Wii!
With the introductory niceties completed, some real differences started to emerge: “Fortunately, I don’t work because in Cuba education is free.” “Cuba is a rather safe place… There are no street gangs… People do not live constantly afraid of being killed or robbed…. I hitchhike to school every day, and the idea of not coming back home safe has never crossed my mind [from a female student].”
“Our government representatives are people that we know because they are our neighbors and friends.”
“Biochemistry is my life and my dream.” “Cuba is a socialist country. Health assistance is also completely free. We have very humble conditions because Cuba is very poor… There is the Blockade established some time ago by the president of the U.S.A. Cuba’s government and U.S.A.’s have been kind of enemies throughout history and I think it will continue this way, but this should not be a reason for Cuban people to not get along with American people.”
One student broke from the friendly exchanges and reacted to an Oakland student who expressed mixed feelings about her life in America, but also seemed content to accept the “advantages and freedoms.” His button pushed, the Cuban student shot back, “Have you thought about how many problems your country has caused to the world, how much misery it has produced, and hatred and fear? How do you think that the children in Vietnam felt when their parents were murdered by your people; how do you think that the wives and sons of the rebels in Afghanistan felt when your country began a Holy War against them?”
But in every other instance, the Cuban students were sympathetic and encouraging: “I think that you will be the best singer in the world because you have a great heart.” “You are going to transmit experience and life. That’s why your songs are not going to be empty.” “I know that life is difficult in the U.S. but never lose hope and you should fight for your dreams.” “Yours is a very big country, and its economy is in serious trouble, so serious that it goes beyond the will and deeds of one man, and it will take more than four years if not more to solve it… So, never run out of patience or faith.” “So long as there is life, there is hope, and if there is hope, there will always be something to fight for. Think about it. This is pretty much the way Cubans see life.”
So what is life like in Cuba? A fourth-year English major at the Faculty of Foreign Languages (FLEX) gave this extended explanation:
“Cuban society is just like a ‘huge family’, which means that we all have the same rights and the same duties. There is no discrimination regarding sex, religion or race, but unfortunately there are still prejudiced people. You know, it’s not possible to control people’s minds and attitudes. However, it is possible to teach them to hold dear certain values such as justice and equality that make each of us a better person.
“Nowadays many Cubans immigrate to your country looking for higher life standards regarding economic possibilities. If you take into account that socialism is about giving and working for the sake and wellbeing of the entire society and having back what you need to cover up your wants, there is no place for rich people here, and no legal way of getting rich either. Some people just don’t conform…there is no perfect society in the world and ours has its own problems.
And Cubans are not shy about discussing the problems:
“There are many places in our country that do not look very good, I mean the streets are dirty and full of holes.” “The blockade makes many things difficult to get, not to speak of how expensive the stuff on the global market is.” “The agricultural areas were devastated [by the hurricanes] so there’s no fruits or vegetables in the stores.” “My country is beautiful, but the Cuban people can’t go to all the places because I don’t have enough money or I simply can’t go for other reasons.” “I want to travel the world too, but it is impossible in this country; maybe in the future I will be able to visit some places for work reasons.”
Perhaps the most frustrating problem for Cubans is the lack of access to CUCs, the money used by tourists that can be used to purchase the most desirable, usually imported, consumer goods. This frustration leads many enterprising individuals into schemes to hustle tourists, and many highly educated people into the tourist industry as hotel staff, restaurant employees and taxi drivers where they have access to foreigners and their tips.
The frustration can be compounded by idealistic views of life in the United States. “Every doctor there is a millionaire,” whined one student, who then withdrew into a deep funk and lost interest in responding to a letter.
On the subject of misunderstandings: One of the Oakland students gave me an unofficial campaign poster for Obama, produced in Nevada to appeal to the Latino vote. It read (in Spanish) “A President that Respects All of America” and depicted Obama and JFK gazing from the Pacific Ocean across a map of the Americas toward Cuba.
The Cuban students, who associate JFK with the U.S. trade embargo (they call it a blockade – an act of economic warfare), the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the missile crisis, found the poster a bit strange to say the least, even ominous.
I had to explain: “To Americans, Kennedy is remembered as a president who was young and dynamic; who inspired hope, optimism and a vision of an America that would help make the world a better place. Obama is doing the same. Whether he is able to achieve his vision or not, he has inspired the hopes and raised the expectations of a generation – and that is a change that can have a long-lasting effect.” The Cuban students understood. Their eyes brightened; they smiled and applauded loudly.
On the other hand, the greatest misunderstanding about the U.S. expressed by a Cuban student was probably this question: “Is your school like High School Musical (the movie)?”
In December, I brought the letters from Cuba back to Oakland School for the Arts. The students eagerly read the replies and matched names to group photographs I brought. I had encouraged the Cuban students to give their email addresses. I know the correspondence has continued in at least one case.
Many of the Oakland students want to go to Cuba some day, and some have already made plans. They will definitely be welcomed: “Cuba is a free country, very beautiful, and the people are nice and friendly;” “I am happy too for your new president Obama and I hope that he will break the blockade and you’ll come to visit my beautiful country and know us.”
The emerald isle that Columbus called “the most beautiful land the human eye has beheld” is waiting with anticipation and open arms – but Americans should not jump to conclusions about the motivations of our neighbor.
Cubans are an openly warm and affectionate people; so many students closed their letters appropriately, with LOVE, hugs and kisses. My favorite farewell from one young lady was, “Well, Tony, I’m waiting for you, kiss kiss (mua, mua).” Sorry Tony, but she really just meant she is waiting for a reply.