Northwestern State history professor Dr. Greg Granger received a first-hand glimpse of the complex world of “contrast and even contradiction” during a trip to Cuba in early January.
Granger visited the Caribbean island nation as part of a 15-professor cohort organized through the Council for International Educational Exchange where the American group spent 10 days with Cuban professors, economists and healthcare professionals discussing a variety of topics and touring Cuban facilities.
“I am still processing it — it was fascinating,” said Granger, who toured the country from Jan. 3-13. “The country is in transition, and we don’t exactly know where it’s going.
“One thing I got a real feel for that may surprise people is that there is a great deal of participation in policy-making. It’s not a free country as we know, but it’s not all a top-down, dictatorial style, either. There were a lot of people at the neighborhood level in offices and apartments that discussed hundreds of reform proposals, and they were open and critical discussions, which surprised me.”
“Overall, Havana was a clean, pleasant and friendly place with good music and good food.”
He likened it to New Orleans for its Spanish-influenced cultural liveliness and hospitality to visitors. The group purchased fresh fruit daily in markets teeming with vendors such as elderly ladies selling bread from basement ovens, sporadic music flowing from street corners and shoppers sipping superb coffee. Cars from the 1940s and 1950s are used as taxis, charming yet emitting levels of pollution that caused Granger a sore throat even 10 days after leaving the country.
One of his colleagues used the term “decrepit grandeur” to describe Havana, meaning structures might be falling down from the outside but were well maintained inside.
But as tourism booms with recently softened U.S.-Cuba relations — Granger said American tourism contributed greatly to about four million tourists this past year to Cuba, an island nation of just more than 11 million –Cubans worry about the effect of large outside investment overshadowing their culture and customs.
“You don’t see great gaps of wealth and poverty, so we want them to advance but not lose their sense of social justice or pride in education. Personally, I have a problem treating healthcare like a commodity, and I think (Cubans) have a better sense of taking care of one another. I also think we need to adopt their pride in education and advancing literacy. We’ve got some serious issues competitively in key areas of education. We have so many opportunities in this country, but I can’t help but to feel we lose some of them by just getting comfortable and complacent. But when you can’t afford to be complacent, you strive and you work. I think we need to get a new sense of that.”