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Hello from Cuba (6) - The Student Experience and Political Insights

By Susanne Pacher

It is such an amazing experience to live the life of a student again, after 15 years in business, 2 business degrees and at almost 40 years of age (okay, soon I'll be 39.....). No regular Internet access, no cell phones, no business appointments, just interactions during the classes with the professor and my co-students. And after class, of course I try to immerse myself as much as possible in Cuban culture, speaking Spanish only. (I have actually started noticing that when I speak English now I am starting to mix in Spanish words.....very very strange.)

For me this is absolutely fabulous. Yesterday we had a particularly great day. There were only 4 students in my class yesterday and the other 3 were from Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden and Norway) and we had this amazing exchange among all of us, including the professor, about different cultures, different lifestyles, recreation, perception of other cultures, customs, laws, societal circumstances.

I have never had much contact with Scandinavians and I asked some rather naive questions about the long hours without daylight during the winter (after which the suicide rates shoot up in spring) and my colleagues talked about the fabulous summers in Scandinavia, when it's light from 4 am in the morning until 11 pm at night.

And I find myself sharing a lot of things about Canada, my chosen home country and I find that I am a lot more proud of my Canadian connection than my original Austrian heritage. Here in Havana, where there are students from all over the world, studying Spanish (Europeans from all different countries, Canadians, Brazilians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese etc.) I feel at home and the atmosphere reminds me very much of the environment in Toronto, where we have people from more than 100 different cultures. And it's great to hear from people from different countries that Canadians are generally well received everywhere. I figure Canadians generally know their place in the world, we know we are a pretty insignificant country and there is a certain humility that goes along with that....

At any rate, the student experience is fabulous, and my Swedish co-student and I in particular share a lot of idealist perspectives about the world. He is young and plans to study international law and human rights in Sweden and has a real interest in social justice and I have a feeling we will spend more time exchanging ideas and viewpoints.

Today we watched a video, a famous Cuban movie called "Fresas y Chocolate" that deals with a multiplicity of topics, first and foremost the intolerance and militant attitudes against homosexuality in the early 1990s. But the movie also has socio-critical undercurrents, eg. women marrying men to have a comfortable life (money, a house and car), not because they love the person; women not working and making money by reselling all sorts of underground goods (or sex), oppression of freedom of speech, intolerance in general of alternative lifestyles and opinions. Apparently, this movie was a groundbreaking movie in that it changed Cuban attitudes in the early to mid-nineties and society has apparently become more open-minded in the meantime.

Freedom of speech still does not exist here and I have noticed with everybody that they are definitely watching what they are saying. I was also told that the "Comites de la Defensa de la Revolucion", local political neighbourhood organizations (in existence to defend and protect Communism) in every area of the country and city, keep a reasonably close eye on the population.You have to be careful about what you say to whom. Complaining openly about political conditions in the country to this day is not at all advisable. There are no newspapers that carry critical editorials and there are no official means of complaint against the regime.

On the other hand, Fidel Castro has been giving 4 to 6 hour long speeches ("intervenciones") every Thursday for the last few weeks and he is talking about some coming reforms that will apparently liberalize economic conditions somewhat. Apparently retirement pensions and government salaries are supposed to be increased, and the national currency is supposed to rise against foreign currencies. I have not yet figured out if there will be liberalization of private enterprise, but it sounds like there are some significant changes to come, and local people wait hungrily for news of future developments and many of them watch the entire 5 hour long speeches.

It's a truly strange country, and it's so unique, not even close to anything I have ever experienced. But you definitely get the feeling that you are part of history here, that the country is on the cusp of some significant new changes......

About The Author
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions ( Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the t-ransitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.

Submit your own travel stories in our first travel story contest ( and have a chance to win an amazing adventure cruise on the Amazon River.

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The travel story with photos is published at Travel and Transitions - Travel Stories (

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