It is indeed a fact universally acknowledged that one of the most interesting and picturesque places in the world is Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean archipelago. Fondly called by Cubans “el gran largarto verde”, or “the big green lizard”, since the island appears like a huge lizard on the map, Cuba is an extraordinary and heart-warming place to be, whether it is for a short visit as a tourist, or long “visit” consisting of a number of years for studying purposes.
Having been a sixth form language student at St. George’s College in Barataria, my Spanish course required a great deal of literary exposure to the Latin American world so as to familiarize myself further with the Latin culture. As I gained more knowledge about the various Latin countries, I realized that I was rather limited with respect to deeper information about one of them in particular, which was none other than Cuba. My questions to others about Cuba always triggered the same responses, such as “Cuba is communist” and “Cuba is run by a dictatorship” or “Cubans are suffering and all run away on rafts to Miami” and many comments of the sort. I was intrigued and wondered what was really going on with the Cuba-United States issue, and on researching I found most literature heavily seasoned with the one-sided information written by authors from the capitalist world. I wondered then, what was Cuba’s perspective since I was only able to analyse one side of the story, which was the United States’ position on the issue. I allowed this matter to rest as I decided then that it was just “one of those things you cannot fight” since everyone seemed to have a bad perspective on Cuba.
However, my matter was brought up unexpectedly again as I was granted a scholarship by the Ministry of Public Administration to study a first degree in Telecommunications and Electronics engineering in the highly intriguing and mysterious Cuba, now deemed by me “the most lovable place on earth”!
My images of everyone in military wear lurking around all corners and strict serious faces were quickly dispelled as I caught my first real glimpse of Havana. Instead of what I had expected, it felt as though I had been placed in a film of a happy movie! It was so alive and throbbed with the merriment of genuine laughter and the blissfulness of peace, of sun and smiles, and of a sort of non-military discipline that was refreshing to the spirit…..an engrained personal discipline with respect to the general attitude toward public transport, littering, walking on the pavement, saying “sorry”, “excuse me”, “good day” and “thank you” with great cheer, and the entire ambiance of the place was just positive and agreeable to the soul. It was nothing like the images of oppressed Cubans or the hunger or the poverty like I had expected, or rather it was nothing like what had been previously told to me.
My epic experience in the Cuban university of Santiago, La Universidad de Oriente, was filled with excitement, fun, and solidarity with Cubans and fellow students from more than one hundred and fifty cultures who were all under scholarship like me. Cuba’s education system, while inculcated heavily with culture and fun activities, left no room for lackadaisical attitudes, as their dedication to achieving higher education was unwavering, and learning as a whole was highly appreciated as an invaluable tool for self-development and growth. The system paved the way for such a holistic individual development that if it were called a mere “balancing” of one’s life it would be underestimating the term itself.
Classes begun at promptly seven thirty in the morning and some ended at six in the evening, according to one’s timetable. Tardiness was treated with great discipline in the form of the classroom door being locked until such time as a break and then one was allowed to enter. However strict inside the classroom was, there was always a certain bond among students and professors where all would contribute whatever change they had in order to purchase an entire bucket of ice-cream, sold in the school cafeteria, after a given class and enjoy this together with lots of laughs under a shady tree on campus.
The relationship between student and professor was one of great support and always inspirational to the student, and the term “hay que seguir luchando” meaning “you have to keep fighting” and “para adelante” meaning “keep going” were consistently repeated by professor to student for motivation purposes. The general optimistic attitude of the Cubans was contagious, and it was a general consensus of the population that all is possible with determination and hard work.
Although there were challenges I inevitably had to face initially with respect to the entire culture shock, the surprising factors which formed part of the Cuban system far outweighed those challenges and I was able to adapt well both in and out of the University. Also, breakfast, lunch and dinner were all provided free of charge to all students on a daily basis, and this promoted solidarity since it allowed for students to not only share in the classroom, but also for meals in the University’s grand “comedor” or dining room. I am often asked about crime in Cuba, and I can only say that I have never been to a place where I felt so safe, as crime is almost non-existent save for a pickpocketing incident now and then.
We, as foreign students, were privileged to enjoy all of the benefits of the Cuban students, like free health care including dental, vision and medicine, free residence in the residential dorm including monthly personal care items like toothpaste, soap, feminine personal care items, detergent, and even shavers for males and more, free academic books and all stationary including pens, pencils, notebooks and more depending on career, for each semester, and free participation in all of the Student guild’s activities, even political ones. Cuba focuses highly on healthcare, education, culture and holistic development and one of the Cubans’ favourite quotes comes from José Martí, who wrote “Ser culto es el único modo de ser libre” meaning “To be cultured is the only way to be free”. Extra-curricular activities were diverse and many, ranging from different types of sport and game like table tennis, baseball, swimming, dominoes to complementary activities like karaoke nights in the University’s “discoteca” and just relaxing in the park with music and fellow students.
The weekends consisted of a multicultural merge of cuisine, music, conversation, dance, and of course, studying, as the majority of Cubans would go to their respective homes and we foreigners would be left since the dorm was our “home”. The cultural diversity was fascinating to be part of, and it was wonderful to experience first-hand the close interaction with others from different countries. One learnt a lot from others, and what is better than gaining facts from the horse’s mouth itself? In the end I learnt that despite cultural differences, we are all human beings endorsed with the same emotions and we all respond similarly to certain situations. We were like one unit in our residence and we had two things in common; we were all foreigners and we were all there for one purpose, so we lived like a huge family and stood up for one another always.
Outside of the school curriculum, the department of International Relations always created opportunities for us foreigners to participate in many activities, one of such activities was the XVI World Youth and Student Festival which took place in Caracas, Venezuela and I was sent along as a delegate to represent both my country as well as Cuba. I was provided with a good deal of clothing for the duration of the Festival, including shoes and backpack, as well as stipend in US dollars, and sent to the Festival with other foreign student delegates as well as Cubans. It was an opportunity which I gratefully took to broaden my multicultural experience even more!
The university itself arranged many outings for us foreign students to experience beautiful places in Cuba, including the lovely blue and green beaches, the night life, historical sites, and interesting places such as the Santiago Prehistorical park, where fantastic monuments of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures are amazingly portrayed in their exact size and colour, and the whole scene appears like a huge but standstill Jurassic park to the eye.
My experiences in Cuba as a Trinidadian student were so very interesting, that if I were to write on even quarter of it, the definition of an “article” would no longer be applicable but rather gravitate toward the definition of a “book”.