Global Awareness Through Experience in Cuba
FSPA Justice and Peace Promoter Pat Ruda in Cuba (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
The lives of the people of Cuba, discovered FSPA Justice and Peace Promoter Pat Ruda during her Global Awareness Through Experience trip of 10 days there last November, are not shrouded in complete darkness and oppression, not exactly what many perceive life under the thumb of communist rule to be. “Instead of a socialistic society in which people have no rights, we saw many freedoms.” Pat is opening the pages of the journal she kept there, sharing her experiences of the goodness and light that mirror FSPA’s call to prayer, witness and service.
November 5, 2019
I boarded a plane bound for Havana in Miami with Sister Marie DesJarlais and nine other GATE participants. Everything went quite smoothly. We’re traveling on religious activities visas, not as tourists. We arrived at a former Dominican monastery where we are staying, quite beautiful, and were served a lovely Cuban lunch of soup with beans, rice, chicken and vegetables. Afterward, we attended a presentation by the Cuban Council of Churches on the achievements and challenges of the Cuban church and Cuban life today. The council maintains relationships with the Minister of Health and is very oriented toward the marginalized. The relationship between medicine and religion here is very interesting.
November 6, 2019
We attended a presentation by a university professor who spoke about human rights. She grew up in the U.S. fearing communism but now sees all the benefits that came after the revolution. Regardless of need, there is free medical care for all. Free education, including doctorate degrees. Cubans are guaranteed a 12-month maternity/paternity leave, even leave for eldercare. There is no homelessness. No hunger. Everyone receives ration cards for rice, beans, oil, bread, and other food necessities.
GATE participants join a tai chi session at a senior center (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
November 7, 2019
We visited a senior center where we joined a session of tai chi. On to a gorgeous orchid garden at a beautiful Spanish estate where University of Havana botanical students can study and even live. We learned that Havana will be celebrating 500 years since its inception. In preparation, many of the buildings are being restored and there seems to be a lot of pride involved.
Old Havana (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
We logged the miles — 15,000 steps — and made a few friends as we enjoyed refreshments tonight.
November 8, 2019
We visited a wonderful school for children, ages five to 15, with disabilities. Many are in wheelchairs, are blind or deaf or have behavioral health conditions. Such loving and individual attention the students get. Graduation is a wonderful celebration. The girls get dressed up in formal attire of every color and the boys wear white tuxedos. The president of Cuba always attends.
A student receives one-on-one attention at a school for children with special needs (photo by Chelsea Ruda).
November 9, 2019
On to Havana’s Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital where children come from all over the world to receive cochlear implants. Cuba is well known for its outstanding health care education. Practitioners are held in the highest esteem. Sixty percent of doctors are women.
Children are given world-class care at Havana's Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
Money is not spent on “bricks and mortar” here. Most medical facilities are not modernized. There is much less technology. Charts are paper and what you could say tattered at best. There is no need for an insurance system. The pay scale for practitioners is nowhere near what it is in the U.S. Doctors are assigned specific neighborhoods/areas in which to treat residents. The focus is entirely on care for the whole person. Everyone is treated with love and respect. A strong parallel to FSPA.
Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
Later, we experienced some of the best of what Cuban culture has to offer: a market with hand-crafted treasures and the ballet in a magnificent old building. There is a significant appreciation for ballet and classical music. Their opera is world-renowned. And I’m finding all of the music in Cuba to be so beautiful.
Pat and her GATE companions attended a ballet (photo by Chelsea Ruda).
November 10, 2019
Time to leave Havana and travel to Varadero (on a peninsula that reaches out into the Caribbean). It was raining tropical style today, pouring. We visited a Baptist church. The churches in Cuba are very active; many, like this one, are missioned to help people. While it’s true that everyone has much of what they need, there are still trials and tribulations. Many churches provide safe drinking water because there are sewage problems. The infrastructure in Cuba needs repair, which is difficult to do when building materials must be imported from Europe or beyond.
An historic church in Havana (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
November 11, 2019
Today we visited the Bay of Pigs and the Guerre Museum. It was quite a learning experience. The museum exhibits the social conditions of the poverty, malnutrition and horrific working conditions, especially in the countryside, before the invasion. Contrary to what U.S. history teaches us, Fidel Castro seems to be a humanitarian to his people. He tried to protect them and in turn, they have great love for him. More than 100 people lost their lives in the attack in 1961. Why? Why bomb a little island? Communism is such a threat to imperial United States?
Recent changes to the Cuban constitution, we’ve learned, include replacing the term “communist” with “socialist,” reframing what society looks like, sounds like and is like here.
November 12, 2019
Many new experiences again. We visited another senior center — free and open to all. They offered an exercise class and also gardening, produce and beautiful flowers. In general, all people are out and about in the community, very social, and looking out for each other. No one is lonely here; no one is left behind. Another strong parallel to FSPA.
Next, we toured an organic farm where bananas, pineapples, vegetables and flowers (that supply many of the international hotels) are grown. I asked if the farmer can bottle and sell juice; he said no because Cuba is not industrialized like many of the other Caribbean countries are. A major factor is the U.S. blockade that has been in existence for 60 years. Business owners may not have the means to import what they need. There is even little access to basics like toilet paper, soap and laundry detergent. Dairy products have to come from New Zealand.
A few days ago, we attended a presentation by a professor of economics from the University of Havana. The full force of our administration’s blockade definitely hurts Cubans. Only 20 percent of the population has financial stability, own businesses.
November 13, 2019
Our visit to the city of Cárdenas was a trip back in time. The streets are very narrow and mostly filled with horses and carriages. Many people bicycle to work. We moved on to El Fuente Presbyterian Church where we had lunch. The church was very simple but beautiful. They had a garden with vegetables and fruit for anyone in need. The Cuban way is to use what you need and share what you don’t need.
A special opera performance for GATE participants (photo by Chelsea Ruda)
November 14, 2019
Last full day in this beautiful country. Breakfast and then a tour of the peninsula. We met with a group of women who are leaders in Cuba, including a national director of women in the church. Many women hold high-ranking positions in politics, law, and education. I admire them all.
We are also inspired by how all people participate in their government, use their voices. If this is communism, why are we so fearful?
As we prepare to leave Cuba, a question has been stuck in my head: why should someone participate in a GATE program? GATE offers complete cultural immersion, one which my companions and I will never forget. It’s opened our eyes to a different way of life. We have learned so much, including how immigration and migration are interconnected. You can’t understand the people and the challenges of a different country when you’re a tourist, lying on a beach.
There is a lot to be learned from the people and the beautiful culture in Cuba.