Political Affairs Magazine
Interview with Erica Smiley on Cuba
PA: What were the circumstances that led you to go to Cuba?
ES: Personally I had never been to Cuba, and orgaizationally we have been talking for a while about figuring out a way for young people to be able to go. In the past we had the US-Cuba Youth Exchange, but because of licensing problems and tighter restrictions by the Bush Administration, we were unable to continue that program. Therefore, the Venceremos Brigade, which has been going for 38 years now, seemed like a really well-structured, organized way for young people to be exposed to what’s happening in Cuba. The Brigade also offered a way for us to continue the fight to lift the travel ban, and eventually lift the embargo and have better U.S.-Cuba relations.
PA: Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” raised some discussion about Cuba’s health care system. What did you learn about Cuba's health care system?
ES: We learned a lot about health care in Cuba. We visited a clinic and also got to talk to several Cuban health professionals in the system, in addition to ordinary, everyday people who aren’t affiliated with the health care system, unless it was for the fact that maybe they went to see the doctor. We got a really decent, well-rounded picture. We also saw how everyone has a neighborhood family doctor they can go to, and we visited a polyclinic as well, which serves as an intermediary between the family doctor and the hospital. People usually go to these polyclinics after being referred by their family doctor with a bigger problem, not necessarily a problem that meant going to the hospital, but something that was bigger than the family doctor could handle. We were also told that the polyclinics take walk-in patients, so you don’t necessarily need a doctor’s referral.
Then, of course, we talked about the hospitals. We got to ask a lot of questions. There was one really good question raised about how many gunshot victims they saw there each year. It was interesting to see how people responded. Finally one lady said, “Oh yeah, remember what happened a couple of years ago when those people came in....” It was kind of like "the incident." It’s just a totally different culture from the youth violence that we experience here. That difference was visible in the clinics.
Also, I think they definitely have an eye more toward prevention than we do here. We got to see the other side of the health care system in Cuba, which includes a lot of physical activity. Sports are part of every neighborhood association’s activities as well as diet and nutrition. It definitely seemed to me like a more balanced, prevention-oriented health care system than we have here.
I think there are definitely some drawbacks, but the things that they are struggling with in their health care system seemed mostly to be imposed by the embargo, such as not having access to medical supplies because of the United States trade embargo.
PA: What other things did you do?
ES: Oh, man, we did so much! The purpose of the Brigade is not just to go and tour around Cuba but to actually donate some of our labor and work. A lot of days, we’d wake up to this horrible rooster at around 5 a.m. and go out to the fields to help pick weeds and plant mango and guava and papaya plants. Whatever they needed done in that field we would do. We would do that for the first 5 or 6 hours of the day and then come back to the camp and shower and eat. We’d then have meetings and exchanges with different segments of Cuban society, from veterans to youth, from student organizations to teachers, you name it. I feel like we met with just about everyone. We learned about the electoral system in Cuba and the various things they are struggling with. In the evening we’d always have some form of cultural activity and cultural exchange. We got to see and listen to a many different musicians, singers and dancers, and to experience many different aspects of Cuban culture, from folk music and dancing to the new hip-hop, even reggaeton and salsa. I mean there was always something; it would go on well into the night – only to be awakened again by that terrible rooster at 5 a.m. and then it was back out to the fields. We had a packed schedule but it was all very, very well organized, so that we really got a full sense of what life is like for the Cuban people.
PA: Finally, what would you say was your most lasting impression of ordinary life in Cuba?
ES: I guess one of the things that struck me personally was the sense of how recreation and culture are considered to be a basic part of a healthy life. Everyone in Cuba plays an instrument, because everyone’s local neighborhood community centers have programs where everyone learns to play an instrument, to dance or sing or play a sport. Everyone does something. One young woman in particular I remember – she was a dancer. After her performance, I said, “You know, you’re really good. Are you considering being a dancer in the future?” She was just starting high school, maybe in the 8th or 9th grade, and she said “Oh, no, I’m going to be a doctor.” I was very impressed by how these types of activities were just an expected, ingrained part of life.
In the United States, such things seem very much extracurricular, and after a certain age you are in many ways forced to let them go, unless you become a professional athlete or a professional musician. You generally have to narrow it down to just a side hobby that doesn’t get much attention. I think we all have that dusty guitar or dusty keyboard that we don’t play any more. But in Cuba it is very much something that you just whip out after dinner. It’s just a part of life. Don’t get me wrong. Cubans are very hard workers, and we saw a lot of people hard at work in the factories and in the fields. But recreation was also a very important part of life, and I thought that was great.
PA: Are there plans to go to Cuba again soon?
ES: The Venceremos Brigade goes to Cuba every year, and they’ll be going again next year. They are also building up for the big 40th anniversary, which is 2 years from now. Anyone who is interested in going should go to the website of the Venceremos Brigade (VenceremosBrigade.org) or our website (YCLUSA.org).
-- Erica Smiley is the national coordinator of the Young Communist League.