This is a dynamic time in Cuban history. While only 90 miles separate Cuba from the United States, this island nation has been a world away for more than 50 years. As Cuba’s doors slowly slide open to US business and travel, the opportunities for learning are tremendous in nearly every discipline. CGL organized an educational program for 27 Villanova faculty, staff, alumni and guests on a People to People exchange program that took place in Havana, Cuba in early January. CGL partnered with the World Affairs Council and Distant Horizons on this exciting initiative that included roundtable discussions, briefings and site visits that explored museums, historic monuments and architecture, arts and culture.
Participants visited the Centro Cultural Padre Félix Varela (Felix Varela Cultural Center) housed in the beautiful San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary and named in honor of the revered 19th century Cuban priest. The center was founded in 1990 and is run by the Catholic Church as a long term project reflecting interest in promoting cultural solidarity, participatory politics, inclusive economy and civil society.
The center includes space for educational seminars, art expos, film screenings, concerts and other cultural events. In an interview with Catholic News Service, the Center's cultural director, Gustavo Andujar, described such programs at the former seminary as a fitting tribute to the center's namesake because he was part of early discussions of Cuban independence.
CGL Advisory Council member Al Martinez-Fonts ’81 VSB sits on the board of Caritas Cubana and facilitated an introduction that permitted the CGL Cuba Participants to conduct a site visit at the headquarters in Havana and to provide personal donations in support of their programming: Senior Citizens Program; Human Development Groups Program for children, including those with disabilities and learning difficulties; adolescents and young people at social risk and their families; Learning to Grow Program for people with disabilities and their families; HIV/AIDS Program. Caritas Cubana is an organization of the Catholic Church founded by a decree from the Bishops’ Conference of Cuba in February 1991. It is currently one of the few independent non-governmental organizations in the country and works in coordination with other public actors that have common interests. Its main collaborators within the confederation are Caritas Switzerland, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Caritas Spain and Caritas Germany, as well as Misereor.
CGL Cuba participants were able to experience the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans in several ways. First, by dining in a new wave of private restaurants called “paladars.” The name, meaning palate in Portuguese and Spanish, was inspired by a popular Brazilian soap opera in the 90s. The broadcast coincided in time with the first issue of licenses for self-employers’ work in Cuba, so Cuban popular culture adopted the name. Most of the paladars started as family-run establishments in their own homes subjected to strict limitations by the Cuban government, but have since expanded significantly to include professional chefs and specially designed architectural spaces that have radically transformed the culinary landscape. One dining experience included La Guarida, one of Havana’s most reputed paladars, also famous for serving as the setting for the main apartment in the Academy Award nominated Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate.
In another sign of the changing Cuban economy, program participants also visited El Trigal Wholesale Market, the first, private-run agricultural cooperative since Cuba monopolized wholesale operations in the 1960s. El Trigal is managed by the cooperative that leases space from the government and charges a fee to individual produce sellers. Individual vendors set their own prices for their goods.
Carlos Sabon, one of the founding partners, addressed the group and explained that they have provided a large space where private farmers sell their goods to individual buyers for use in private and state-run restaurants, hotels and cafeterias. More than 6000 tons of agricultural products move through this facility weekly. Operating independently of the government and state businesses, the cooperatives, like El Trigal, will lease state property and equipment at ten-year renewable intervals, operate on a market basis and divide profits among members who would then be taxed on their income.
The extended economic crisis that began in the early 1990s and consequent food shortages had significant repercussions on Havana’s occupants - about 1/5 of the Cuban population – and radically transformed urban agriculture. These changes took on many forms ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state owned research gardens (organicponicos). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary economic partner, the country struggled to reinvent itself. Without an outside source to provide farm equipment, tools, fertilizer or chemicals, the country’s farms became organic by default.
Historically, agriculture in Cuba played an important part in the economy for several hundred years. Today, it contributes less than 10% to the gross domestic product (GDP), but it employs about 20% of the working population. The inefficient agricultural industry in Cuba has led to the need to import about 70–80% of all the food its people consume and 80–84% of the food it provides via the rations to the public. The rationing program accounts for about a third of the food energy the average Cuban consumes.
Participants visited Vivero Alamar, a state-owned research garden, was founded in 1977 by Miguel Salcines as a way to feed the surrounding neighborhood. Originally an 800 square meter vegetable garden, the farm has grown to over 25 acres and includes animals, fruit, herbs, vinegars and spices. It employs over 160 people and sells its produce to nearly 50,000 people yearly. The farm plants three million seedlings and harvests 300 tons of vegetables annually. Today, organopónicos like Vivero Alamar are completely sustainable and organic. Very little Vivero Alamar does is outsourced, and the farm takes recycling and reusing seriously, with everything having a specific purpose.
Other activities included a US Embassy briefing, lectures by Dr. Raul Rodriguez and Dr. Ricardo Torres, Economists from the University of Havana, and Dr. Rena Perez, formerly with the Ministry of Agriculture and now an advisor to the Ministry of Sugar. Cultural excursions included a tour of Arte Cubano at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, luncheon at the home and art studio of Jose Fuster who has turned his neighborhood into one enormous piece of mosaic art, and the National Theater to watch a performance by the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba.
Today’s challenges in Cuba include poverty, limited resources, and aging infrastructure. However, there are rich legacies of fine arts, music and dance. Farmers grow sugar, coffee and the tobacco that makes the famous Cuban cigars. Tourists visit from all over the world, and it will be especially interesting to see how Cuba’s tourism industry evolves in the face of pent up demand from American travelers. Manufacturing, engineering, medicine and education are all areas ripe for continued study and observation.