Cuba, Croissants, and Communism

By Johanna Jahnke, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

In the past five weeks in Cuba, my group has experienced the wide array of costs and benefits that come hand-in-hand with living in a communist country. One of the most frequently faced encounters with communism, though, is slow service due to workers’ lack of motivation. Undoubtedly, this is a natural consequence of the fact that because the shops and restaurants are owned by the government, workers’ salaries are fixed despite customer satisfaction, and there isn’t much room for career advancement. In America, a restaurant that takes an hour to bring your food out will go out of business within a year. In Cuba, waiting upwards of two hours for food is the norm. This, I am used to by now. But last week, the poor service was brought to a new level when I was confronted with “inventory time.” After class I ventured to the bakery to get a croissant, and I was very, probably overly, excited about it. When I got to the bakery, I knew I’d be in for a wait, but when I was told that I would have to wait half an hour for the woman to literally hand me a croissant from across the counter, I was shocked. I was told that it was “inventory time,” a time that the shop takes every day, in the middle of the day, to count the money. Disheartened, I walked home, croissant-less. This seemed ridiculous at the time, probably because such an occurrence would never happen in the US, where a successful business is built on good customer service. But it is happenings like these that remind me that I am actually in Cuba, a communist country, constructed on entirely different ideals than I am accustomed to. It reminds me what this country is all about, and it gives me food for thought.

The Caged Bird Sings in Cuba

By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

This past weekend, our group traveled to the western region of Cuba. Throughout the trip, one image kept appearing…a caged bird. This made me think back to a poem by Maya Angelou (that I’m pretty sure everyone had to read in high school) and these paintings that are up in Casa de las Americas (where we take some of our classes).

Here’s the poem:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

This is a bird hanging in front of a person's house in Vinales

A pet bird in Havana

Artwork up in Casa de las Americas

Artwork that is up in Casa de las Americas

Artwork in Casa de las Americas

For me, the image of the caged bird is powerful because birds can fly and are normally free to go whereever they please. However, when caged, the bird has to stay in its place. The artwork up in Casa de las Americas is actually about the freedom of other Latin American countries, not Cuba. The caged bird sings in Cuba.

In other news, I was reading this New York Times article ( about someone who is going to swim from Cuba to Key West. This sounds amazing and reminded me that I would write about running in Cuba. So far, it has been amazing. I have been exploring the city from the Plaza de la revolucion (where Fidel Castro would announce his plans after the revolution) or El Capitolio (the capital building that is grand and magnificent) or the Necropolis de Cristobal Colon (a huge cemetery that holds some of the most beautiful funerary architecture that I have ever seen).

Bring a Dictionary

By Johanna Jahnke, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

A minor detail of this particular study abroad experience is that our classes are taught in Spanish. In fact, it turns out the whole country functions in Spanish.

Although I was highly aware of this fact when I chose to study abroad in Cuba, it was impossible to know what it would mean in real life. Well, here’s what it means. Our classes are three hours long. I understand about fifty percent of the lecture for the first hour, and my comprehension deteriorates by approximately twenty percent per hour thereafter. When we are out in town or at a restaurant, even when I manage to put together a sentence, practice it quietly, and ask it, the answer is often a mystery. And that’s when people actually understand what I’ve asked.

Luckily, though, the group doesn’t let me drown in mis-translations and blank stares. Our better translators help those of us who are weaker, and I feel my own understanding of Spanish improving as the weeks slip by. I do look up words if I can distinctly identify them from class, and I can actively transition between passive listening that registers as gibberish and a focused listening from which I can make out gists of conversation, and on a good day, even literal translations. Yes, learning a language in country is the easiest way to gain fluency, but it’s not magic. Each day there are challenges, frustrations, and of course humor in my attempts to navigate the language. The best advice I can give to others, though easier said than done, is to not take yourself too seriously and to expect to make a fool of yourself. Every day. Multiple times a day. And hopefully by week eight I will make a fool of myself just a little less.

A Country Full of Irony

By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

The Malecon is a boardwalk where locals go to hang out and relax

Thus far in Cuba, we have interacted with a lot of different people. We have met a babalawo, a priest in the Santaria religion, taxi drivers, college students, professors, medical students, restaurant owners, and even the son of a general in the Cuban army. Despite the difference in backgrounds and roles, each person has spoken in a certain way; each one has a subtle undertone with the words they say and how they say them that have. This undertone has to do with the difference of the words that they are saying and what they actually mean. It is very confusing.  There is the official thing that they have to say and there is what they actually believe. This happens everywhere, but the gap between the public and private beliefs is huge in Cuba.

An example of this is when a medical student gave a lecture on the education system in Cuba.  He said that their system is the best because it is more encompassing. However, after the lecture we ate lunch with him and there were moments where he contradicted things he said in the lecture. They were very subtle and hard to catch because of the language barrier. At first, I thought I just misinterpreted in what he said because of the Spanish. The director of the our program, Adrian, describes this practice as doublespeak (from Oswalt’s 1984). It is very extreme in Cuba because of the vast gap between the government and the people. In everyday language, there are two rhythms going on at the same time, what they are saying and what they actually mean. Adrian even described it like salsa music because there are two sets of beats in the music, which makes it very complicated to learn. I can testify this as we have taken 4 salsa lessons so far and I am so confused because the instructor will say to move a certain way but then move a completely different way. Mostly, this just leaves me bamboozled.

The other day, we went over to our professor’s house and watched La Cena Ultima, The Last Supper. On the surface, the movie is about a slave uprising in 1791, however, there are very clear references to Cuba in the 1970s, when the movie was made. A telling scene is when a slave tells a story from Santaria about Olofi, an Orisha. He says, “When Olofi made the world he made it complete with day and night, good and bad, Truth and Lie. Olofi was sorry for Lie, who was ugly, and gave him a machete to defend himself. One day Truth and Lie met and had a fight. Lie cut off Truth’s head. Headless, Truth took Lie’s head. Now Truth goes around with the body of Truth and the head of Lie.” This correlates with how Cubans talk; how they can say one thing but mean something totally different.

Recently, for class, we read an article by P. Sean Brotherton that cited the obsession with statistics by international organizations and the Cuban government. In my last blog post, I talked about that Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the western hemisphere. However, behind this number are thousands of stories that paint a different picture. Like the metaphor from La Ultima Cena and the idea of doublespeak, the statistics show something that is not actually happening. This is what makes Cuba so mesmerizing, the complexity of everything here makes us want to investigate more and more.  You can read about this country from your dorm room in Chicago and get to Cuba and it be completely different.

This truly is a country full of irony.

Getting the perfect balance

By Anna Krist, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

Varadero (Photo thanks to Emily Roskey)


One of the best perks of studying abroad on an island has to be the beaches.

Our first weekend here, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6AM to catch a bus to Varadero, a beach about two hours away. We arrived at a hotel where we had arranged an all-inclusive deal for the day, only to find that they wanted to see our passports (I’m still not sure why). When we finally produced scanned copies, we were rewarded with yellow wristbands that entitled us to any food and drink, as well as access to the pools and the beach. There was no crowd, and I’m pretty sure that most of the people there weren’t Cuban. We spent the day napping and splashing around in the warm, incredibly blue water.

The following weekend, we hailed two taxis to take us to Mégano, a beach much closer to the city. This beach was, in almost every way, the opposite of Varadero. It was packed with Cuban families, vendors selling tamales, and, needless to say, no one was asking us for our passports. The water was amazing and the people-watching was even better.

There’s no doubt that both beaches were beautiful. However, one could have been at any resort in the world, and the other was inherently Cuban. I think there’s a lot of pressure when you’re studying abroad to always be doing something cultural or taking advantage of being in another country. While that’s obviously important, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the more vacation-esque parts aren’t amazing as well. Fortunately, I think I’m getting the perfect balance in Havana.

The limits of censorship

By Emily Roskey, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

Last weekend we went to El Museo de las Bellas Artes (The Museum of the Beautiful Art) and got to understand Cuban culture and history through a new medium. Personally, I learn best by absorbing the same information but in different contexts, for example studying the Cuban revolution first in a classroom, then through literature, poetry and film.  One of the best things about art and culture is its intersection with censorship, specifically in Cuba. Just as we can debate about what qualifies as art, it is not clearly distinguishable what messages are being portrayed within it…it’s not scientific or qualitative in nature. It’s interpretive and so inherently allows for more leeway. And at the same time, it is personally intimate and interesting in ways that can’t compare to any history book.

This photo is a mural by Raúl Martinez, a Cuban pop artist in the 1970′s inspired by Andy Warhol and the pop art movement in the United States. Martinez strategically adopted the simple imagery in order to reach lay people without literacy in Cuba’s modern artistic discourse. In a time of censorship and homophobia, Raúl Martinez pushed the boundaries around sensitive topics in a subtle yet comprehensible way. At first glance you’ll see a depiction of the average Cuban in the 1970′s but take a closer look to notice symbols that deal with sexuality and gender. Just as history repeats itself, the themes in this mural also apply to society in Cuba today.

The Architecture and History of Havana

By Anna Krist, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

This first week, we’ve been doing a lot of walking—walking to restaurants, back from dance clubs, and exploring neighborhoods.  Walking down a street in Havana, you can clearly see the different eras of Cuban history.  Buildings that were built during the 1700s are nestled in between dilapidated mansions from the 50’s and tall, modern skyscrapers.  Earlier this week we went to see a model of the city, in which you can see the development of the city in detail.  The buildings are color-coded, so that you could distinguish when each one was built.  Those built in the colonial period are brown, those built in between Cuba’s independence and the Revolution of 1959 are red, and those built since the Revolution are white.  Perhaps the most striking part of the model is how few white buildings are sprinkled among the brown and red.  Havana has had so little development over the past few decades, and it is obvious on every block.  Most of the buildings are in a state of beautiful decrepitness, vivid paint peeling off the facades.

Despite the crumbling architecture, habaneros continue to not only survive, but live vibrantly.  Everyone we have met is almost unbelievably welcoming, and the city itself gives off a friendly vibe.  In Habana Vieja, the oldest part of the city, buildings surrounding the Plaza Vieja were recently restored thanks to the city historian.  The best part of the story is that the families that were living in these decaying buildings, many of them extremely poor, could come back to their newly renovated homes and live in much better conditions than before.

Parque Lenin

By Johanna Jahnke, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

Last week we visited Parque Lenin, a community space built after the Revolution that, at the time of its creation, was meant to embody a communist utopia. The government hoped Parque Lenin would serve as a social and scenic forum, complete with a theater, aquarium, acres of unadulterated environment, horse-back riding, and a giant statue of Vladimir Ilitsj Lenin. Originally, admission and activities were free, but the setup was not sustainable. Built a bit south of the city of Havana, the park was intended to give the working man a break from the big city. However, Cubans didn’t and still don’t have much access to affordable transportation, and Parque Lenin has seemingly become a ghostland. Although the park is still open, the eleven visitors in our group were the only people in sight aside from a few staff, and concerts are no longer held in the once-gorgeous outdoor theater.

Parque Lenin and so many of other places we have visited are illustrative of Cuba’s rich and complicated history. As a group, I think we are still trying to piece together the history with the people’s incredibly variable perspectives on politics and government. It seems that everyone we meet brings new ideas to the table, and getting “the facts” about Cuba won’t be as easy as I originally thought.

First Impressions of Havana and Maternal Health Care

By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011

Close your eyes. Imagine a city on an island that blends 18th century architecture with early 20th century buildings and postmodern buildings from the last 50 years. Now, imagine if these magnificent buildings have not been rebuilt or repaired in 40 years; just left to break down at the will of nature. This is Havana. In the streets are a blend of imported cars from Asia, American cars from before 1959, along with a few horse and buggies. This unique blend of architecture style and modes of transportation gives Havana a very interesting atmosphere. Below is a picture of the hotel we are staying in (temporarily), Hotel Presidente. It was built in the 1920s and has over 400 works of art.

We have been here for a little over a week and every minute has been full of life. From visiting a Cigar Factory to spending half a day in Parque Lenin, a 670 park dedicated to Lenin. The people we have met have been quite welcoming; as interested in us as we are in them. We started our classes this week at the Casa de las Americas and Instituto Pedro Kouri (IPK), a medical school that specializes in tropical diseases. I’m really excited about the access to doctors, medical students, and patients. This is important because we were asked to come up with a research project for our time here. Some students are focusing on psychology of public health, while others want to study  the medical education system. I, along with two other students, am examining maternal health care in Cuba. In particular, why the infant mortality rate in Cuba is so low? According to statistics put out by the Cuban government and UNICEF, the national infant mortality rate is 4.5 babies out of 1000. This sounds incredible, but there are many reasons behind that number including the abortion rate in Cuba is 60.2%. I am really looking forward to delving into this topic and examining the political and cultural reasons behind this system.