By Tim Henke

On our seven-day tour of Cuba, our delegation of educators from the U.S., on a trip sponsored by Global Exchange, was able to infiltrate some of the most powerful strongholds of the revolution.

We had a chance to meet with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the Young Communist League and ICAP. Certainly we would learn the reasons why this island nation has been under an economic blockade by the U.S. for more than 45 years. Were we scared? The adventure began.

The first of the core organizations that we visited was ICAP, or the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People), which is established to promote and enhance solidarity with people all over the world. They were the official hosts on our visit, and they also work closely with 18 organizations in the U.S. that support the country and its mission, of which Global Exchange is one. After learning details of how Cuba works, it was also pointed out to us that the U.S. harbors Luis Posada Carriles, who has been implicated in the terrorist bombing of Cubana de Aviacion flight 455 in 1976, in which 73 people were killed. He is supposed to be extradited to Venezuela to stand trial for this and other brutal acts against Cuban people, which he has boasted about, but hey, Bush says he’s OK. Bush also said that any country that harbors a terrorist is basically as bad as that terrorist, and it’s OK to attack them, or some such thing. But who’s paying attention anyway?

After leaving Havana, we made the four-hour trip to Villa Clara. There, we would meet with the Young Communist League, which surely would be a place where we would find a hotbed of repression. We met as a group with two very passionate men who explained their mission: to organize a program of social workers who serve as interns and who concurrently work their way through the university to get their degrees (for free). The social worker program was needed as a result of the change of the economy and the society, brought about by the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Overnight, Cuba lost access to its oil supplies and its main trade partner for its sugar, creating, over time, hardship throughout the country. Basically, with their idealism, energy and determination, these two men had helped to form this program to serve the families and children who needed help because of the major changes the country had faced. The social worker program mainly works with children who have health problems or teenagers who are not attending school and are not working. It serves as a model for the other provinces, which are following their lead. Well, not exactly the subversive gossip I wanted to bring back.

Then, finally, before leaving Villa Clara, we had an evening get-together with one chapter of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. For sure, after this meeting, we would understand the true justification of the blockade and our deep fear of Cuba. We faced off in an open courtyard below an apartment complex.

They, the revolutionaries, and ourselves, were both nervous. They began to introduce themselves, one by one: a professor of biochemistry, a professor in education, an environmental education professor, a chemistry professor, a preschool teacher, and their children, and then we weren’t nervous anymore. The two groups got closer as we introduced ourselves, all teachers. We had been paired with an all-teacher CDR and we were all curious to find out more about these, well, revolutionaries (for all teachers are). A couple of bottles of Cuban rum were opened and the conversation got lively. The CDR basically functions as a neighborhood group that watches out for the welfare of its area and its inhabitants. The members help to elect representatives who may go on to represent their municipality, city or province. Hey, isn’t that democratic? What is going on here?

Truly, what we found in the people and society of Cuba wasn’t at all repressive, scary or dictatorial. No, it isn’t an easy life for people in Cuba. Yes, they need social workers because many are poor, the divorce rate is about the same as in the U.S., and they have all the problems that poverty brings. Their freedoms are limited because you can’t exactly get up and travel the world when an average salary is less than $20 U.S. a month. Overall however, it sure appeared to us that the people we met were all trying to make their life a better place. Isn’t that all one can do? Why can’t we help them do that?