“You know, Cuba actually has an incredible education system. Their entire population is literate.”
“Really? But is it worth it if they’re trapped there? What’s the point if they have no freedom to use their knowledge?”
Thus begins a conversation I have had many times since returning from Cuba. One would think that a trip abroad would involve some ambassadorship for one’s home country. This is particularly true when on a trip with a large group from an educational institution, like ours was. Those who make such a trip happen want the participants to represent themselves well, which thus reflects well on their school, their state, and their country. The participants think about how to talk about their home country, information they would like to share and emphasize, and commonalities they likely share with people in the host country. The main purpose of going abroad, particularly with an educational group, is to see and learn new things in person. Yet another purpose is the exchange that occurs between the two groups—between the visitors and the people who live in the country.
Going to Cuba, I imagined that there would be a fair amount of exchange. Popular thought in the United States would leave one to believe that Cubans have little to no access to the outside world. Even after spending a semester learning about Cuba and the realities of life there, some part of me still held on to the fiction of an uninformed Cuban populace, and I expected that I would spend a fair amount of time answering questions about the U.S. What I found from conversations with actual Cubans, however, is that they are extremely informed about the life in the U.S. They asked us our opinions about current politics, particularly about Trump and Bernie, and about our general opinion of Cuba. I felt awkward at times, answering in vague terms when the truth was that few people I knew in the U.S. knew anything about Cuban politics. Before Obama announced the normalizing of relations between the two countries, I doubt most people I knew had even considered Cuba beyond the mention of the Bay of Pigs in a high school social studies textbook.
Thus, on my return to the United States, I found myself acting as an ambassador for Cuba. I felt unequipped to do so; Cuba is a complicated place, just as any country is, and I spent just two weeks there. Yet on the other hand, most people I talk to day-to-day have significantly less knowledge and less reason to know anything about Cuba than I do. Our educational system and our media has failed to assist the average person in the United States in learning about Cuba, so I feel a responsibility, as someone who has had the privilege to study and visit Cuba, to attempt to explain and often defend Cuba. While most Cubans we spoke with had at least a basic understanding of current politics in the United States, most people in the U.S. are uninformed, confused, or misinformed about Cuba and this misinformation usually means that they have an overall negative opinion about Cuba. The U.S. government’s policies toward Cuba also influence this opinion, though Obama’s changes are certainly helping to change that.
This often negative opinion of Cuba and its government, more specifically, is why I usually bring up the literacy rate of Cuba. I find it astounding, still, that Cuba’s population is one hundred percent literate (The World Bank, 2016). In the United States, fourteen percent of the population is illiterate (Crum, 2013). Despite our country’s comparative wealth, our policies and our system of governing have not been able to achieve this feat. Clearly, these are two very different countries with two very different histories and circumstances. Cuba has achieved a great deal, however, and I think it is important that that is acknowledged and that Cuba serves as an example of what is possible to accomplish even without significant resources. This does not mean that Cuba is beyond criticism-every country has its flaws, and those should be carefully considered and addressed when discussing policy. Yet when the gut reaction of most Americans is to label Cuba as “wrong” or “bad” because they believe that communism or socialism is inherently wrong or bad, I think that it is important to emphasize Cuba’s accomplishments.
Since becoming a socialist country, Cuba has achieved zero percent illiteracy, total health care coverage, and discovered a vaccine for lung cancer. People can debate the longevity of socialism or its overall ethics, but they cannot deny Cuba’s accomplishments. I will continue to emphasize the positive ways Cuba has changed with the introduction of socialism in an attempt to bring a more balanced perspective to my friends’ and family’s understanding of Cuba. I will not deny those aspects of life in Cuba that many are dissatisfied with, nor will I assert that I am the final word on Cuba—I did only spend two weeks there, after all, so my perspective is limited. I do, however, believe I have a responsibility to use what knowledge I do have in order to broaden and complicate others’ beliefs and ideas about Cuba. No country is simple, and so no one’s understanding of a country should be simple. While I am certainly not the ideal ambassador from Cuba, since I am not even close to being Cuban or understanding what it means to live in Cuba, I will do my best to use my privilege to expand others’ knowledge of Cuba.
“Adult Literacy Rate, Population 15 Years, Both Sexes (%).” Adult Literacy Rate, Population 15 Years, Both Sexes (%). The World Bank. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
Crum, Maddie. “The U.S. Illiteracy Rate Hasn’t Changed In 10 Years.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 8 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.