Last month I was honored to join MEDICC, a nonprofit organization that works to promote US-Cuba health collaboration, on an educational trip to Cuba. My father has always been a big admirer of Fidel Castro and I have always been intrigued by this country, wanting to understand the impact of their revolution. I was honored to be traveling to Cuba with Congresswoman Karen Bass and former State Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, as well as Maria Carriedo-Ceniceros, Chief Medical Officer of the San Ysidro Health Centers, to learn more about the country’s public health system. I have been to Cuba once before, when my husband played baseball against the Cubans as a member of Team USA, but this trip was so much more enlightening. It opened my eyes to the rich cultural and political history of the country and educated me on Cuba’s contributions to global health equity and universal health.
Here are a few things I learned during my educational adventure in Cuba:
Cuba’s health care system is available to all free of charge and rooted in community
Cuba’s health care system is built on the belief that health happens in the community and care should be free and available to everyone on an equal basis. I was able to visit a local poly clinic where we learned about Cuba’s overall focus on prevention and the community approach to the practice of medicine. We also visited a family doctor’s office where the physician and nurse team were the assigned providers within the community and were ultimately responsible for everyone’s health.
Health innovations are impacted by the embargo
We had a great visit to the Center for Diabetes Care while we were there. We met with specialists and discussed innovative treatments for diabetes – including the use of the drug Heberprot-P to treat diabetic wounds. This drug was developed in Cuba and has greatly reduced the need for amputations. Unfortunately, due to the embargo, it is not available in the United States. Cuba has also been unable to export the drug to other countries.
Cuba is educating American Physicians
At the Latin American School of Medicine, we learned that this medical school was established in Cuba for the purpose of educating doctors from foreign countries for free. These physicians commit to going back to their home country to work in underserved communities. We met students from Ghana, Congo, Angola, Antigua, Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Chad, as well as American students from Minnesota, Illinois, and Los Angeles. Most of these students were people of color. It was fascinating to find out about the existence of this educational opportunity and that so many graduates end up working at community health centers and public hospital systems in the United States.
The Revolution is alive and well
I learned about Committees in Defense of the Revolution or CDRs. We met with neighborhood representatives of a local CDR, including women that were its founding members. We learned about the history of these neighborhood entities and how their role has evolved since the revolution. CDRs originally existed to promote social welfare and report on counter-revolutionary activity. They now serve as community support entities, working to put health, educational, and other national campaigns into effect on the ground and they continue to advance the principles of the revolution.
Education system strives to be equal for all
One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting a local middle school. We observed the classroom instruction and learned about the curriculum. We found out that the curriculum is standard throughout the country and that school attendance is compulsory through the 9th grade. Literacy is widespread throughout the population as a result of this policy. We also got to visit with students and see a wonderful student performance which included singing, dancing, and skits.
African roots flourish
I was fortunate to visit the Biosphere Reserve in the Artemia Province outside of Havana. There we visited land being farmed by a female descendent of the slaves that had once farmed the same property. The property-owner fled during the revolution, leaving the land in the hands of the farmer’s parents and it was passed down to her. She is now growing botanicals that are used in herbal remedies and has a contract to sell these botanicals to the government. She was deeply knowledgeable about natural and herbal healing techniques and used the herbs from her farm to create her own healing products. These techniques and knowledge have been passed down to her from her family, which descended from African slaves.
Cuba’s economy is in transition
We had a fascinating conversation with a University of Havana economist, Dr. Faustino Corruvias, where he discussed the evolution of Cuba’s economy. During the 1990s, Eastern bloc countries and Russia withdrew their financial support virtually overnight. Cubans suffered greatly during this time, but the economic reforms that followed have allowed for greater opportunities for Cubans to be entrepreneurial. As a result of President Obama’s policies, which included lifting the cap on remittances from families abroad, the Cuban government went even further in the loosening of economic policies which allowed for even greater entrepreneurial opportunities, such as operating restaurants or “Paladares” as they’re called, or renting rooms to tourists. However, they also created greater economic inequities within the country, the implications of which Cuba is still struggling with. Most recently, the Trump Administration’s policies have halted much of the progress that was made in opening Cuban and US relations and the government in Cuba has begun to retreat from the policies that were allowing entrepreneurship to thrive. Cuba is struggling to figure out how to hold onto their socialist values while creating opportunity and economic growth.
Music is a common language
One has not fully experienced Cuba unless they experience the music, and I had some pretty amazing exposure in this regard. Early in the trip we were introduced to two local female rappers. We went to their home in a local neighborhood in Havana and had the opportunity to hear about their lives and the challenges they face as female rappers in Cuba. In addition, we received an incredible live performance – a sneak peek into what they will be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. this May. It was such a highlight to go into their home, hear from them personally, and see them perform.
We also went to a small jazz club and saw an amazing quartet that played everything from John Coltrain to Latin jazz. We also took a trip to a local night spot to hear salsa and saw some amazing moves on the dance floor. We then went with a group to experience Reggaeton, giving me insight into how the younger generation likes to experience music. We also went to a place called Fabrica Arte de Cuba – a former factory that had been converted into a giant multimedia complex that included live music, videos, rappers, spoken word, and an incredible display of art work – it was truly unique and amazing. The music I experienced while in Cuba was incredible.
This trip was both educational and inspiring. I learned so much about Cuba’s health care system, educational system, economy, and culture. I am so fortunate to have been able to participate on this tour with Congresswoman Karen Bass. It was an incredible opportunity and I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience Cuba in this manner.