About roun4070

Directs National Superintendents Roundtable, a learning organization of 100 school superintendents from 30 states.

Casa Particulares

Although we did not stay in the largest of the preserved buildings, we were housed in very attractive substitutes, dating from 19th century. Known as “casa particulares,” these are private homes that are permitted by the government to rent out rooms to visitors on a daily basis. They offer almost complete privacy to renters, as the owners abandon the homes once their guests have registered. They leave behind assistants such as Yanerquis, or Yema, to maintain the casa and cook tasty breakfasts.

In these homes, one could easily be living in a Spanish or Italian villa. They are exceptionally comfortable and filled with art, artifacts, and bric-a-brac that speak to the desire of the 19th-century residents of Trinidad, with their wealth built on sugar and slave labor, to be understood as European. The pictures of the interior of one of these homes, speak for themselves as to the very high standard of living enjoyed by the people of 19th-century Trinidad — and by their successors today. While poverty can be seen everywhere in Cuba, even in this Socialist economy it is possible to see families enjoying an exceptional quality of life.

Trinidad: A Cuban Jewel

First up on Saturday, our last full day in Cuba, was a meeting with Nancy Benitez, a local architect and historian, who provided us with an overview of the city’s history and development.

Trinidad is a magnificent little city. Studded with beautiful large mansions preserved from the 19th century, graceful smaller homes, a handsome large public square and wonderful beaches, it is truly a Cuban jewel.

This city of 90,000 was founded in 1514 by the Spanish, nearly a hundred years before the establishment of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Sugar production fueled the community’s growth from 1800-1840. In that period, beautiful homes, with large and handsome rooms and shaded courtyards were built in the center of the town. Financed by the profits from sugar, the buildings were designed with large doors and windows, protected by bars, to let air circulate and enhanced with attractive chairs, china, artwork and artifacts from Europe.

How did these homes and and mansions survive? It turns out, said Benitez, that the road we took to Trinidad from Cienfuegos was completed only in 1957. Trinidad was almost completely isolated, except by boat, until the road was finished. So this jewel from the 19th-century was preserved, almost intact, from modernization and from the sort of gambling-based modernization that transformed Havana under the Mafia.

In 1968, the Cuba government named Trinidad a national monument and turned the largest of these homes into museums for the public to visit. In 1988, UNESCO named Trinidad an international Heritage Site.

Montezuma’s Revenge

No pictures, please.

An especially powerful revenge was developed by the people of South America in retaliation for the brutal way in which the Spanish conquistadores dealt with native populations in the “new world.” Known as Montezuma’s revenge, it is named after a Central American leader of the Aztecs in the early 16th century and consists of overwhelming nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The United States reports that many travelers to South America experience traveler’s diarrhea, with some estimates suggesting that between 40-50% of Americans visiting Cuba might experience problems. We seemed to be beating the odds. With two early exceptions among our party of 14, we appeared to be in reasonably good shape. But as the trip wore on, eight of our party succumbed.

Fortunately, the effects for the most part seemed to last 24 hours. Still, somewhere Montezuma smiled.

Arriving in Trinidad

Early evening found Cienfuegos in the rear-view mirror as we headed off to Trinidad, another coastal town about 90 minutes away.

Here we experienced the delights of casa particulares or private homes. Since the 1990s, Cuban families have been encouraged to rent rooms out of their family homes to foreigners. Featuring comfortable accommodations in remarkably luxurious homes with ample privacy (below), we found the casa particulares to be an excellent way to see a different side of Cuba.

We arrived in time to enjoy a wonderful meal in a beautiful outdoor setting at a private restaurant opened in a local house. We spent the rest of the evening resting up for our last full day in Cuba.

Cuban Economy and Money

It is not impossible but it is difficult for the visitor to understand the Cuban economy. Government finances are shrouded in secrecy, and day-to-day life revolves around three different kinds of cash.

The main cash crops in Cuba are tobacco, sugar cane, and coffee. The government pays farmers a nominal amount for their crops and requires farmers to give up 90% of their crop at that price to the government. Farmers keep 10% to sell on the private market, as in selling handmade cigars to tourists who visit their farms.

The government produces brand-name cigars, rum, and coffee from its 90% and sells the products at market rates. The government’s income is spent on providing a monthly income to everyone, subsidizing essential food (for free) to everyone, and providing free medical care and free education (through graduate school) to every Cuban citizen living in Cuba. Are funds left over? Where do they go? Who knows?

Meanwhile, citizens get the equivalent of $25 (US) a month guaranteed income, but even with subsidized food, education, and health care, that is insufficient to live on . Hence the “la luch” or “luchendo” – the struggle for life – described elsewhere in the blog. Just about everyone has a side gig to make ends meet – interpreting for tourists, acting as guides, waiters or musicians. Everywhere you turn in Cuba you find small, very accomplished, combos beating out Afro-Cuban music. The pictures below show an old man posing beside his burro for tourists to take pictures and a street artist posing as a statue for the same purpose.

Cubans are paid on pesos. But most commerce in Cuba from visitors involves a second unit of currency, the CUC, which trades at 85% of the value of an American dollar. The third currency? The American dollar. Cuban’s are only too happy to accept American dollars.

How did this bizarre system of three currencies develop? As best we could determine, it seems that when the dollar was introduced into Cuba in the 1990s, inflation threatened to devalue the peso, since there was no gold standard against which the set the Cuban peso. So a new currency, the CUC, was developed and established at 85% of the value of an American dollar. Then the value of the peso was set against the CUC, at 25 pesos per CUC.  We think.

National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba

Orlando Garcia, president (below), described the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba as something quite different from unions as understood in most western countries. This is not a union established to bargain with management on behalf of workers, but a “uniting” of artists and writers to strengthen their community and develop young artists.

A non-governmental organization, which selects its own members, the union is made up of 216 members, including 66 women. It promotes writers and artists. It publishes children’s books. And a lot of the union’s time is spent working with children since “we are not daydreaming in heaven,” said Garcia.

With its own dynamic “completely independent of the state,” the union has played a major part in defending artistic freedom and fighting censorship and efforts to control free expression along the lines of the Soviet Union.

“We aim to reinforce the belief that reading and the arts improve the understanding of young people and are something that lasts a lifetime,” said Garcia.

Working with Down Syndrome children & adults in Cienfuegos

Following a quick visit to a local farmer’s market (below) the Roundtable headed to the site of the Graphical Society of Cienfuegos, a program specializing in linography, but also in community service.

Our particular interest was in the project concerned with assisting children and adults with Down Syndrome. Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality involving an extra copy of chromosome 21. It causes lifelong developmental delays that cannot be cured but can be managed with educational interventions, specialized parenting techniques, and community engagement. The local Catholic cathedral sponsors the program at the graphical society as part of a five-day a week effort to improve the quality of life of people with Down Syndrome. Society director Rafael Casades (right below), cathedral program director Anita Alfonso (left), and society volunteer Jennifer Delgado outlined the elements of the entire thing.

On Monday, the group meets for music; on Tuesday, for dance therapy; on Wednesday participants go to the farmers’ market the Roundtable toured to make their own food purchases, which they will cook on Thursday. Friday is the only day they are involved with the graphical society, which has done a remarkable job developing the artistic work and self confidence of participants, with the evidence displayed on the society’s wall.

When the participants (aged from 12 to 55 years of age) were first invited to work at the Graphical Society, most were afraid and uncomfortable , anxious about being put in a new situation with strange people, said Anita Alfonso. There was no sign of fear or discomfort as the students gathered with the Roundtable for a photograph. Most smiled and introduced themselves, eager to put their arms around the shoulders of their new friends. This was a dramatic display of the value of program in developing the social poise and sense of confidence and self-esteem of adults and teenagers dealing with the challenges of Down Syndrome.

Rick Stout of Onslow schools in North Carolina presented director Casades with gifts from the Roundtable for the students in the program and we were on our way to meet the representatives from the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba.

Cienfuegos: Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Primary School

Cienfuegos, “Pearl of the South,” beckoned on Thursday morning, a three-hour trip by coach from Havana. It is a beautiful city, located on a large open bay, loaded down with handsome French and Spanish architecture, such as the town hall.

A visit to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes” primary school was the first thing on the agenda. The school is named after a hero of a rebellion against the Spanish in 1868, a man known as the “father of Cuba.”

Rector Tania Diaz presided over a lovely greeting from the music teacher and two students. They performed two songs, the first dedicated to Fidel Castro on his death: “Riding Home with Fidel,” the second a celebration of the values of peace and freedom, “Knowing Cuba.”

On hand to greet us at the school were community representatives concerned with international visitors, a metallurgical engineer, and representatives from higher education and the school’s UNESCO liason.

The school, said Rector Diaz, serves 313 student with a staff of 49, 40 of whom are teachers. About five have master’s degrees, 11 are studying for their master’s, and seven are undergraduate students focused on pedagogy,

She feels the school has everything it needs to deliver a high quality program and proudly noted that every class has a television, while the schools has 11 computers in a lab, along with five DVD players.

School staff are especially proud of their UNESCO designation, part of a worldwide program emphasizing environmental stewardship, that includes 69 Cuban schools.

The school functions from 6:30 AM until 6:30 PM, with classes beginning at 8:30 and finishing at 4:30.
Once a month the staff meets with parents to go over student progress and advise parents on what they can do to help students move along. “We are nothing without the support of the parents,” said Diaz, who taught for 24 years before becoming Rector ten years ago. She emphasized, “We are both teachers – family and us. By the end of six years we are a family and it is possible for a student to remain with the same teacher throughout their time in the school.”

Julie Vitale presented Rector Diaz with gifts from the Roundtable – and then it was on to lunch at El Lagarto, a wonderful restaurant on the bay.

Don Mariano Marti Primary School

A highlight of the day was a visit to the Don Mariano Marti Primary School, named after the father of José Marti, “The George Washington of Cuba.” Marti was born on the street in which the school is located and, in fact, lived in what is now the school building at one point. A large poster in the lobby celebrates the centennial of José Marti’s birth.

With little to distinguish it from the street, the school is an attractive facility inside with airy, open landings.

Rector Milton Arbesuk (below) reported that it is a small school that enrolls 158 students in Grades 1 through 8. It employs a staff of 28, including 17 teachers and is proud of its association with UNESCO’s environmental protection efforts. Immunization of children is not required prior to enrollment, but all the shots students need are incorporated into the health program as part of the school.

A wonderful looking group of fifth graders, in the maroon uniforms with red ties that signify they are in elementary schools entertained us with a rousing rendition of the Pioneer Song sung by Marti’s pioneers, “Revolution: The Pride of Cuban Pioneers.”

We then visited a first grade classroom, where it was noted that the curriculum focuses on reading, writing, and mathematics and is part of a common curriculum statewide.

After Daniel Moirao presented our gifts to Rector Arbesuk, we were fortunate to get a group photo with the school leadership.

Barrio Habana

Last stop for the day was the “Barrio Habana” effort, a community-based after-school program offering sports and arts for children and youth (and the elderly) especially for at-risk children on the street.

Pavel Valdez, a lawyer and former football (soccer) player founded the program with his wife 12 years ago. The main athletic facilities are located in public space (available free to Barrio Habana), which he set out to clean and paint. The space (below) is basically a concrete playground that accommodates a small soccer field and it is located adjacent to what appears to an American eye to be very substandard apartment housing.

Valdez (below) described an effort to interest neighborhood children and teens in culture and museums, but found the boys in particular obsessed with football. He started with where they boys were. He sees football as just a vehicle to start a conversation with kids in the neighborhood.

Among his observations:

  • The football program has been very successful. Barrio Habana now has some of the best sports teams in the city, regularly winning city-wide competitions. Three of his “graduates” competed for selection in Cuba’s World Cup team, and eight are now in pre-selection competition.
  • The program offers chess and now boasts the best 8-year-old chess team in the city.
  • It offers an arts program and intergenerational programs with a local senior citizens center.
  • Girls are not attracted to football, but are actively involved in volleyball, softball, and dance.
  • The program subsists on donations and volunteers and desperately needs such elementary materials as Lego sets and chess boards.

With that, Susan Enfield presented Mr. Valdez with some gifts from the Roundtable and young boys who had been playing very competitive soccer in the background, crowded around him as he started to pass out some of the goodies.