Our Comrade in Cuba
One Educator’s Descent into Socialism
Saturday, September 26, 2009
I arrived at the Casa de Jorge after a very dark ride through Havana, ending in a pitch black alley close to midnight. Outside my cab was the head of a chicken detached from its body. Jorge called me up from his third story balcony, and I wrestled my luggage up his crumbled and uncomfortably narrow stairwell. He welcomed me into his home, speaking Spanish at a speed I thought was impossible to articulate, let alone understand. It was a humbling experience to be warmly welcomed as a stranger into Jorge’s home, while his mother was fast asleep in the next room. Jorge gave me a brief introduction to La Havana Vieja, and to the rules of casas particulares (Cuban homes available for travelers), and said goodnight to his bedraggled guest. I took the first of many cold Cuban showers, and passed out.
The Forbidden Threshold
It was on a trip back from Costa Rica last summer that I first began to wonder how I might go about gaining legal access into the closest communist hotbed to the United States. My mind began to race as I pondered a country that I was not allowed to visit.
Sorting through all of the political red tape, I found that Americans can actually fly to Cuba legally as long as they book their flight to Havana in a third country (e.g., Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, etc). However, Americans are not allowed to spend money in Cuba. If you do spend money there, you are in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Nice catch. You also are at risk of penalty if you lie to a federal customs agent about your recent travel whereabouts once back in the U.S.
Americans can apply to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for specific licenses to Cuba, but these licenses are rarely granted. My last sliver of hope came from a charter company in New Jersey, Marazul Charters Inc. Through Marazul, I found that I qualified under what is called a general license. I had to show proof that I was a full-time professional, traveling for research related to my field. In my case, I wanted to see how people with special needs were included in families, schools, communities, and the workplace. I became interested in inclusion as a result of seeing the benefits of it with my own students at Kellogg School in Goleta, and in 2003 had joined CalTASH, an organization dedicated to giving equal access to all facets of life for people with significant special needs. Once I sent in my paperwork, I awaited a response with my fingers crossed.
In the interim, I began setting up contacts in Cuba, and came across the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund (CAAEF), and its president, Dr. Delvis Fernandez. Through Fernandez and his Cuban contacts, I was in touch with the Asociaci³n Cubana de Limitados F-sico Motores (ACLIFIM), a grassroots organization that advocates for health, education, community inclusion, and general rights of people with various physical disabilities.
Collecting Commie Cash: I departed from LAX on the night my school let out for winter break. I had the normal pre-travel jitters, but my Cuban destination added a bit more stress to my winter holiday. Since the U.S. dollar (USD) is not accepted, at least not legally, in Cuba, and ATMs and banks do not accept U.S. ATM cards, I had to carry all of my spending cash with me. I also had to exchange my money into Euros in Cancun, and then into Cuban convertibles once I reached Havana. A Cuban convertible (CUC) is one of two currencies in Cuba. CUCs are for tourists, while the Cuban peso (CUP) which is worth close to nothing is for Cubans. Cubans earn about 530 CUP a month, roughly the equivalent of $20 USD.
Rolling Antiques: In the morning, Jorge’s mother prepared for me a breakfast of fried eggs, bread, and strong Cuban coffee. As I finished breakfast and soaked in the view from the balcony, I was in awe at the beauty of the crumbling city before me. Shutters were unhinged or missing, balconies were clinging precariously to buildings, and women were gossiping while hanging their laundry out to dry. It was as if time had stood still since the U.S. Embargo in 1962. I had a stunning view of the Malec³n, Cuba’s most famous sea-swept street, running along the northwest coast of Havana, where old classic cars rumbled along and spewed fumes into the atmosphere. Gazing at the sea beyond the Malec³n, I realized that boats were strangely absent from this quintessential Cuban scene. This was especially strange as I was visiting from the boat-filled seascapes of Santa Barbara. I later learned that Cubans are not allowed to own boats, as they could be used as escape vessels to the U.S.
Later that morning I set off in search of the ACLIFIM office. I asked what seemed like a million people for directions, but received no pushes in the right direction. Feeling a bit anxious about not meeting up with my contact at ACLIFIM, I set out on foot to explore Havana to see if I could check out some schools, or connect with people plugged into the disability community. I was immediately distracted by the plethora of antiques on wheels all around me. Being in Havana was like walking through a living museum.
As I wandered down the weathered, forbidden streets, I came across historic churches, Cubans hawking authentic Cohiba cigars, and La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar Ernest Hemingway made famous and where he allegedly invented the mojito. Hemingway traveled to Cuba in 1928, and again in 1932, staying there until 1960, writing some of his most famous books there. I also noticed a very high number of people with physical disabilities using wheelchairs on the cobbled streets. Though people with physical impairments seemed to have access to wheelchairs, I saw a lot of debris on the streets, missing manhole covers, and a lack of curb cuts at intersections. From my observations, this made navigating Havana, for a person with disabilities, quite treacherous.
After sampling some spirits with the locals, on the Malec³n during an unforgettable sunset, I set out to find my way back to my casa particular. Along the way I ran into Cira, a Cuban woman I met randomly on the street, who happened to be a special education teacher in Havana Vieja. She teaches at an escuela especial, for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She said her students used to attend typical schools, but were placed in a special school because their behaviors were too disruptive in their former setting. It was easy for me to pass judgment on the Cuban schools system for sweeping the students with disabilities out of sight, but this type of restrictive and segregated school placement is not abnormal practice in the United States either. For every depressed facet of Cuban life I witnessed, there seemed to be a comparable American counterpart (think Flint, Michigan, in the tropics). The more of Cuba I experienced, the more parallels I found to my own country. Seeing so many challenging aspects of daily Cuban life made me choose to view Cuba as a place of opportunity and growth.
A santeria priestess.