Friday, July 19, 2013


Day Four in Cuba was Wednesday, February 20, 2013. By now I had the plan down pat so after an easy buffet breakfast in the Hotel Nacional, I decided I wanted to do a walkabout.  First stop, as yesterday, commune with the hotel cat.  

Then, it was time to take it to the Havana streets.

Just a few blocks from the Hotel Nacional is a major thoroughfare which proved to be my early morning entertainment.  I parked myself on this corner and shot some of the great old cars at a stop sign.  It was like a parade at an old car show.  Amazing.  

I was snapping this picture when I hear this voice behind me say, "That is José Martí."  Who should it be but our guide Eric.  He was walking from the public transportation to the hotel to get our day started and discovered me wandering.  What is Spanish for serendipity?

Today's first stop turns out to be one of the most intriguing of the whole trip.  It is Casa de Las Americas, an institution founded in 1959 to promote research into and support the efforts of writers, artists and musicians of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.  The idea is to link the countries of the Americas by focusing on the visual arts, music, theater and literature.  The institution was first led by Haydée Santamaría, one of only a few women in Castro's campaign.

Now I realize that we are taking this tour to learn about the library here at Casa de las Americas but what keeps drawing my eye is the art.  It is amazing.  The visual artists do workshops and donate art to the institution.  Currently the art collection measures 60,000 pieces.  

On one floor we found some students listening to a lecture on this deck with an ocean view.  Nice.  

We did visit the Jose Antonio Echeverria Library where the librarians explained collection policies and access.  The biblioteca holds 200,000 volumes and 9,000 journals all in closed stacks.  Access to the collection is free to anyone including foreign students.  The Case de las Americas publishes a literary journal and awards an annual international prize.

It was at this point that our tour guide said she must stop because "we are disturbing the users."  See, cliches exist across all cultures and political boundaries.  

Next it was off to the Liberty City neighborhood (La Ciudad Libertad) to the largest former military base in Cuba which was turned by Fidel into a "school city."  Our goal is to visit the Literacy Museum.

It quickly became apparent that the Museum Director Luisa Campos was a very special person.  She has two master degrees in her educational background.  She was dynamic as well as informative as a speaker which made her tour very entertaining.  There was a missionary zeal to her that may be justified by the story she tells.

It is a simple plan:  take the educated people from the cities and send them into the countryside to end illiteracy.  The plan called for a one year effort.  The literacy brigades were mostly children and numbered nearly 100,000 strong.  The children ranged in age from 9 to 16 and 50% were female.  Working along side the farmers by day to learn the rural ways, the children then became the teachers in the evening.  Rural Cuban literacy rate rose from 60% to 96% in one year.

In additional to the youth literacy brigade, 14,000 adults went into the countryside while 100,000 retired people taught in the cities.

One of the coolest parts of the campaign was that a proof of "graduation" was to send an email to Fidel.  The Museum houses over 707,000 letters as a part of its collection.

Some things stick with me from the experience of hearing this history.  Each day, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance that Americans recite in school, the literacy brigades began their education with the pledge, "We want to be like Che (Queremos que sean como el Che)."  Children still recite this every day in schools.

Another story that stuck with me was the story of a man named Manuel Ascunce Domenech.  He discovered that not everyone in the rural areas was thrilled to see the teachers and sometimes reactions were violent and tragic.  Hiding among the children when counterrevolutionary bandits attacked, he revealed himself to them, his last words becoming an iconic representation of the movement:  "I am the teacher."

A school bulletin board that  preserves the bullet holes of the counter-revolutionaries who resisted socialism

Education in Cuba today is free to anyone and it is mandatory until the age of 14.  All the students and their parents have to do is buy the child's uniform.  Primary uniforms are red and white, middle school uniforms are mustard and white.

The elementary school day starts at 7:30 a.m. with the national anthem and the pledge.  Class sizes are fifteen to twenty pupils. Students have a choice to have a free lunch or go home for lunch.  At 8:00 a.m. the lessons begin and last 45 minutes before there is a ten minute break.  School ends at 4:20 p.m.

The high school day begins with study in the morning and ends with a work experience in the afternoon.  At the end of high school, a student is offered a long list of educational opportunities in college.  They take their final exams in high school and pick nine areas of interest to study in college.  The average of their high school grades and scores on an entry test (plus number of students interested and availability of an opening) determines what area of interest they will study in college.

After college graduation, each student is guaranteed a two year paid experience in their field.  After the two years, they can change career fields if they choose.

School holidays are the months of July and August.  Parents can choose to be off either July or August.

Lunch today was at a popular Havana's restaurant called El Aljibe.  I ordered chicken and rice that came with the restaurant's own secret sauce.  The weirdest thing that happened at the restaurant was while we were sitting there a busload of University of Wisconsin alumni walked in, most dressed in crimson red, and sat across from us.  This was too much for the three Wisconsinites in our tour so we wandered over to their table to find out they were on an educational tour.  It is a small world after all.

In the restaurant, there is a political wall addressing the issue of the Cuban Five (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González).  These five Cuban intelligence agents were accused of working against the interests of the United States government.  The Cubans argue they were anti-terrorist agents trying to stop expatriated Cubans from attacking their homeland.  Whatever your opinion is, it is evident that the Cubans are not going to let this one go.

When we got back on the bus after lunch our ever observant and protective guide Eric noticed that one of us had stepped in some "dog poo" and had left the remnants on the bus step.  He then observed, "Some people say it is good luck to step in dog poo.  Probably the Russians."

We also were taught another Che quote:  "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until Victory, Always).

This afternoon it is time to visit Cuba’s National Library (Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba).  The National Library was founded in 1901 and the building we were in was built in 1958.  The National Library manages the public library systems in Cuba.  Their are 16 Providences, each of which has a provincial headquarters library.  There are 169 municipal  libraries and 238 branches.  The Providences fund the headquarters libraries.  The National Library does establish policies for all the libraries but there is flexibility in the procedures at each library.

We met around a table with eleven individuals who represented the management team of the National Library and members of the Cuban National Library Association.  

We learned that how a person can become a librarian in Cuba.  After finishing the ninth grade, the student enters a technical/clerical school for four years.  Then, by entering a university and studying for five years, a person can be designated a librarian.  A person then can earn a Masters or PhD in Library Science through further study.

Every Cuban publisher is required to send five copies of each of their publications to the National Library.  The National Library also provides Info Med, a database of medical information shared with all libraries in Cuba.

The libraries in Cuban have fairly typical services to offer to their customers.  The promotion of recreation reading is the main mission of the public library. There are book clubs and the librarians do provide reader's advisory.  There are story times for one to four year old children. Senior receive special services but there are no literacy services because in Cuba they are unnecessary as only 2% of the population is deemed illiterate after schooling.

Public libraries in Cuba are open from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.  They are staffed by two shifts of employees.  There are no Sunday hours.  Branches are only closed because of physical age or damage from weather.  New branches are built occasionally.

Future plans for Cuban libraries include better Internet connectivity, digitization of materials, and working to create a balance between the academic and public needs throughout the system.  One of the concerns of the librarians at this meeting is that Cuban children are reading less, distracted from that activity by computer games and the Internet.

I was able, through the interpretive talents of Eric, to provide a short presentation on the transformation of the Greendale Public Library, where I am the director, into a Community Learning Center.  While I spoke English and Eric spoke Spanish, it was evident to me that many of the librarians were bilingual.  I could tell this when I got religious about our attempt to be a proactive in the community rather than reactive, and heads were nodding yes before Eric even got to the translation.

My opinion is that we discovered one thing today:  we are very similar no matter who we vote for or what political system we believe in.

Then, it was tour time.

As Americans, we are very aware of where we are and who we are dealing with.  Yet, the issue of access to information may not be as limited as what we are led to believe.  We are told that there are limits to what Cubans can access and that even email is a struggle.  

 So, I decided to put the library's internet connection to the test.  I brought up the Cuban version of Goggle, typed in my name, and after a relatively short period, by website popped up.

So, that begs the question:  how restricted is information in Cuba?

 This is En el Reino de este Mundo (In the Kingdom of This World) by Juan Carlos Balseiro which hangs on this wall in the Library

Dinner this evening was at the Hostal el Canonazo where I ate lomo ahumado (smoked loin of pork).  We picked this restaurant so that we could walk to our final destination of the evening.

Every evening all Havana celebrates the Firing of the Cannon at 9:00 p.m. at the Fortress of San Carlos de La Cabana which is also the location of the International Book Festival.  This ceremony is very much in the tradition of military events like the Changing of the Guard in Arlington Cemetery.  It was a moving event and well attended on this evening.  

For a complete set of all the photos from this trip, please visit me at

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