Cuba 2018

Cuba’s contradictions

By Holly Honderich
Medill Reports

HAVANA – A cab driver earns more in one day than a doctor does in a week. Monthly government ration cards provide only enough rice, coffee, eggs and milk to cover basic needs for 13 days. Education is free, but tens of thousands of teachers have abandoned the profession because of poor working conditions and negligible pay. Daily life in Cuba is stained by contradictions.

When President Raúl Castro steps down later this year, it will be the first time in six decades that Cuba will not be led by a Castro. His successor faces a country struggling not just to live up to the soaring ideals of the 1959 socialist revolution, but also to realize more earthbound goals: put milk on the shelves, provide a living wage and restore a missing sense of opportunity to the national narrative.

“We expect nothing,” said Leslie Alemán, 25, who lives with her husband Jorge in her parents’ Havana home.

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The private sector brings change to Cuba

Loumay Alesali
Medill Reports

For years, Luis Manuel Rodriguez made vaccines for a living. He liked his job, but he didn’t earn enough to support his family and improve his life. Attracted by the money available in the tourist industry, he quit his job as a chemical engineer and became a waiter in a popular brewpub.

Eight years later, the brewpub thrives in the beautifully restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, where tourists keep the convertible Cuban currency flowing in restaurants and bars.

It is only the tourism sector, Rodriguez said, that holds out the possibility of a living wage.

“Our economy is on the bottom,” he said.

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Photo Gallery: Portraits of Cuba

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

From Havana to Matanzas: away from 1950s Cadillacs and souvenirs of Che, these are the people we met, the streets we walked.

Photo at top: Havana, Cuba. (Giulia Petroni/MEDILL).

In Cuba Family Means Collective Wisdom

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

HAVANA — A sunbeam streams through the window and crosses the living room. It is 9 a.m., and Lesbia is opening the shutters while humming the notes of Cuban guajira. They resonate in her mind as the most powerful of memories.

It was the late 1970s, and Lesbia was in her house in Matanzas. Her mom was getting ready to receive family for lunch. Eleven siblings, three children each. It was the same every Sunday: a meal, a guitar and songs until late afternoon.

“Siempre juntos,” says Lesbia. Always together.

This is how she defines family. It’s the essence of Cuba and, perhaps, an inadvertent product of the socialist experiment.

Scarcity forces entire families to live under the same roof. Houses with three bedrooms accommodate up to nine people. The sense of community – the greatest strength of the Cuban population – stems from the necessity to share.

Physical closeness ensures a continuous exchange of knowledge and wisdom. Stories are turned into life lessons that family members pass on to each other.

At the same time, as the country undergoes historical changes, generational gaps become more tangible: Young Cubans face the limits imposed by the regime and mature a stronger desire for openness.

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In modern Cuba, English is key for success

By Ilana Marcus
Medill Reports

HAVANA – On the top floor of a walkup in the chic Havana neighborhood of Miramar sits the office of entrepreneurship magazine Negolution. Co-founders Marta E. Deus and Rigo García Berriel are young, professional, speak perfect English and look the part of any business owner in a capitalist country.

Except that this is Cuba, where communism reigns and “capitalism” can be a dirty word.

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Cuba’s future population is tied to the strength of its private sector

By Caroline Tanner
Medill Reports

HAVANA – For young people in Cuba, like 19-year-old computer science student Julien Martos Farinos, the emerging private sector presents the greatest opportunities for professional growth and wealth after six decades of Communist Party rule.

“Most young people want to go to the private sector because it represents more money,” said Martos, who studies at the University of Havana. “Most of my friends are planning to go to another country to make money and maybe they come back, maybe they don’t.”

As President Raul Castro prepares to step down this year, a central question facing his still unidentified successor is how to spur a moribund economy that fails to provide basic sustenance to the population and continues to hemorrhage young workers. More than a million Cubans have departed for the United States since 1960. The government is struggling to find ways to the most talented people at home – and that means providing economic outlets. Continue reading

In Cuba, chess is not just a sport—it’s an institution

By Em Steck

Medill Reports

Cuba is known for cars, cigars, communism and…chess?

HAVANA – Though little-known to many in the world, chess is one of Cuba’s greatest prides. The game is considered to be a blend of sports, arts and science among players and is deeply embedded in Cuban history and culture. Among chess circles worldwide, Cuba is known for producing one of the greatest chess grandmasters of all time—José Raúl Capablanca, whose influence led generations of Cubans to study chess in school and become internationally-ranked chess players.

“Cubans like chess and we had a world champion—Capablanca—and any country that has a champion has to seek the steps of their champion,” says Ramòn Pastor Hernàndez Somè, a professor of chess here in Havana.

Even Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime leader, played chess and promoted it along with his nationwide literacy programs. Castro and his right-hand-man Che Guevara organized the Chess Olympiads in 1966 and the world’s largest simultaneous game of chess in 2002. Since 2002, chess lessons have aired weekly on national television. Continue reading

Medicine, heroes and dancing in Cuba

This is the final installment in a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Memory and invention mix in Cuba”


“No es lo que quiera, es lo que hay”

HAVANA – Donated medications can’t be given to the state, my host mother Lesbia explains to me as I pry for anecdotes about her experiences with health care for a potential story.

I am walking the fine line between acting as a journalist and a house guest, but it is paramount to get to the bottom of medical resource accessibility after months of research and listening to doctors vaguely talk about the lack of resources.

Lesbia is telling me about her son-in-law, Jorge, who had an accident about a decade ago. He was on the roof when he fell into a power line and suffered a severe electric shock.

He suffered no permanent brain damage, but one of Jorge’s legs never fully recovered. Now, he takes vitamins sent to him by doctors in the United States to ease the pain.

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Memory and invention mix in Cuba

This is the continuation of a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Deciphering Cuba: Of streets, gardens, churches and kitchen tables”


“A woman can never forget”

HAVANA – It’s 9:45 a.m., and Lesbia is having breakfast. She is using her favorite mug, the one that Kiki, her husband, got her years ago. It says “the world’s best lover.”

While Lesbia dips a slice of bread in milk, I set my eyes on her hands. Today her nails are painted with a glittered pink polish. Yesterday they were burgundy. A couple of days before, as she sat on her porch doing her nails, she looked at me and said: “A woman can never forget to bring nail polish in her purse.”

Lesbia and Kiki have been married for 27 years, dividing their time between Havana and Matanzas, where they first met in 1990. In the early years, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was in the middle of its economic crisis, the so-called “special period.”

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Deciphering Cuba: Of streets, gardens, churches and kitchen tables

This is the continuation of a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Of democracy, dogs, and WiFi: Scenes from Cuba”


Cuba through a cereal box periscope

HAVANA – Cuba’s capital is defined by its veneer.

American tourists experience Havana from the vantage point of a cereal box periscope. Freshly waxed Chevrolets from the 1950s, fine cigars and restored Spanish colonial buildings weave the veil draped over the true face of Havana.

The reality of Havana is rusted disparity.

Opening the hood of one of the well-polished classic cars will reveal the oil-burnt “Frankenstein” engine, a mashed mechanical spectacle of salvaged parts. The toilets flush in Havana but the bathrooms lack toilet paper. “Special forces” soldiers will casually walk the streets with barrel-chested bravado despite having only the training of a basic infantryman.

The veneer is kept polished and clean by Cubans themselves. Continue reading