Chabot College history professor Rick Moniz organized an educational group trip to Cuba in January 2020. Moniz has led such visits since the 1990s as a program known as the Faces of Cuba. The U.S. Department of State’s website says that tourist visits to Cuba are prohibited and that trips for “certain specific activities” are allowed with restrictions. Moniz explained that educational trips are one of the permitted exceptions.
Moniz has been to Cuba 40 times. The trip in 2019 was going to be his last, but people requested one more. Around fifteen people, the majority unaffiliated with Chabot arrived at Havana’s airport on January 3 for a ten-day stay.
A third of the people on the trip were fluent Spanish speakers, one of whom knew the dialect because he was born and raised in Cuba. On the other hand, the son of a host family was able to speak English.
The group visited several museums around the country: the National Art Museum; the Jose Martí Museum, a history museum dedicated to an early Cuban independence advocate; an Afro-Cuban heritage museum in Havana; and one covering the 1961 national literacy campaign, which resulted in today’s 99.8% literacy rate, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The group visited an organic farm. These farms originated from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The loss of a significant trade partner forced Cubans to be more self-sufficient. In addition, the end of Soviet pesticide imports led Cubans to resort to organic farming.
Much of the tour was spent in places where Cubans work today. A Red Cross office building works on monitoring hurricanes, assessing damages, and rebuilding. According to the Red Cross, Cuba experiences hurricanes so often that the people are familiar with how to evacuate and thus have a low fatality rate. A center for climate change monitors how Cuba will be affected by hurricanes in the future.
The group visited a polyclinic, but some members got to experience Cuban health care firsthand a few days earlier when one person was injured in a fall. According to Craig Shira, who was at the hospital with this person, after the wound was cleaned and given a compress to stop the bleeding, the whole process took 90 minutes, including stitches, an X-ray, and receiving medication.
Throughout the trip, the visitors stayed at host family houses, which are government-approved and identified on the outside with a blue anchor. These families hosted two to six guests each.
On the sixth night, however, everyone stayed at a hotel in Havana, which is the capital and largest city in Cuba. The reason for a hotel stay at that point in the trip was to provide a contrast.
According to Moniz, tourism is an essential industry in Cuba because the American embargo holds back other business sectors. However, outsiders who stay isolated to hotels and typical tourist sites learn nothing about the Cuban people.
Chabot economics professor Ken Williams took the opportunity to speak with locals about money. Williams says, “Cubans pay one twenty-fourth of [the prices that outsiders pay],” due to Cuba having dual currency to protect its economy from outside influence. Cubans use pesos in everyday life; outsiders must use the “convertible peso,” which is also called the cuc (pronounced “kook”) or Cuban dollar.
The group exchanged money at the official rate when they first arrived at the airport. Williams was also interested to hear about the existence of hundreds of paladares, private restaurants allowed by the communist government.
The day before the hotel, the group had visited the site of the United States’ unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Later that day, the visitors went east and met a community defense group. Moniz compares them to a neighborhood watch.
Originally created to stop counter-revolutionaries, today such groups function as community organizers. The visitors gave hygiene supplies to the group, who then distributed them to the community based on need.
The arts were not forgotten. The visitors went to an art show featuring local artist Lester Campa. Later that week was a dance company that combined Spanish and African influences and related to the Santeria religion.
A fortress in Havana has hosted a cannon ceremony every night at 9 p.m. for the last 200 years. The ritual originally signified that the port gates were closed for the night, but is now done for tradition.
The group was also able to attend the national semifinal baseball game, Havana’s Industriales, against Camagüey’s Toros.