Nothing to read in Cuba, Part One

Posted by: on Apr 22, 2008 | No Comments

It was heartening to see the passage of the resolution supporting trade in Cuba in the Minnesota House of Representatives on April 17, 86-9. (More information from MPR and the House of Representatives Session Daily) Several members have visited Cuba. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, author of the resolution, is a tireless advocate for more open trade. Rep. Erhardt visited five years ago. Representatives Magnus and Juhnke visited just this month with a trade delegation from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Their personal experiences strengthened their resolve to improve trade with Cuba – to do what we can to help Cubans.

I visited Cuba for ten days in January with a group from St. Mark’s Cathedral, sent to strengthen relationships with Cubans generally, and in particular, the Episcopalian Diocese. The trip was definitely life-changing. I went with a very open mind – after all, isn’t health care available to all? Isn’t there an extremely high level of literacy? I came back with a degree of anger I had not anticipated. Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if there is nothing to read? Perhaps librarians are used to a high level of information saturation, but don’t we all enjoy access to hundreds of newspapers and websites online? Americans drown in books and magazines. Cubans do not. Before we left for Cuba, our group members stocked up on useful items to give as gifts – shampoo, soap, aspirin, etc. Only one person, Ellen, chose the category of Spanish-language reading materials; she brought a Spanish language women’s magazine. After checking out the clothes and make-up tips in Siempre Mujer over Cuban rum one evening, we left it in the dorm lounge area in the cathedral where we were staying. There were no other reading materials around. Later, after midnight, I walked through the lounge area and found the Dean of the cathedral sitting by a reading lamp, engrossed in the magazine. The next morning the church cleaning woman was poring over the magazine. Later she found Ellen and hugged her warmly. “Gracias! I love you.”

Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if access to information is cruelly restricted? Web access is not allowed. Even clergy in Havana have to go to a tourist hotel and purchase Internet time to search the Web. I believe it was $4.00 for a few minutes. Keep in mind that average salaries are around $20/month. We stayed with a family in a small village in the countryside. The eldest daughter was beginning her college at a regional university, where she planned to become a lawyer and was studying human rights. Is it possible get a well-rounded legal education without unfettered access to the Web?

E-mail is allowed, but perhaps not trusted. After Raul Castro gained more power recently a friend sent the text of relevant New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles to a Cuban colleague. His response was pretty immediate, but guarded. “Are you doing well? How is your family? ”