Cuba. Only 90 miles south of Florida; so close, yet so far away. The United States and Cuba have experienced odd relations for decades. Last December, President Obama announced the United States would change its relationship with the people of Cuba. When I saw his speech, I had hope for the US and the Cuban people. I am so thankful I was able to attend a study abroad program in Cuba this past summer. It opened my eyes to see how others live and made me question many aspects of life.
The relationship between the United States and Cuba is complicated, and many schools in the US skew the story. In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the military leader of Cuba and ally of the US. Castro took away Cuban land the US owned, socialized many entities including education and health care and created an alliance with the Soviet Union through trade. In 1960, the US imposed a trade embargo on the island. The CIA tried to overthrow Castro and his government during the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
Even though the US and Cuba have not had friendly relations since 1959, Cuba is still a fantastic, vibrant place. I met some of the warmest people and enjoyed great food and drinks during my stay. One aspect about Cuba that I found interesting was their sex education programs and views on the LGBT community. It is important for young girls and boys to learn about their sexual health and how to protect themselves, and for people to
feel comfortable in their own skin.
In 1960, Fidel Castro and Vilma Espin established La Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, or Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which is an organization that enhanced health care for women and helped women obtain equal rights. Some famed accomplishments of the FMC are its contributions to Cuba’s literacy campaign, passing maternity leave laws and incorporation of women into the work force. The FMC and the Ministry of Public Health created campaigns addressing the problems of women’s sexual and reproductive health, and the FMC also fought for a sex education program to be taught in schools.
As a prioritized objective of the Cuban education policy, the Ministry of Education started instituting a sex education program in Cuban schools. Lázaro, one of my program’s tour guides, said Cuban children begin to learn about relationships and sex at a young age, and continue to do so throughout school. He said schools focus on teaching about safe sex and offer free condoms to the students so they stay safe. Since this program was implemented, school dropouts decreased, adolescent sexual relationships decreased from 31 percent to 10 percent and the use of birth control methods increased, according to an article from the Kinsey Institute.
In addition to sexual education, many people in Cuba fight for equal rights for the LGBT community. Mariela Castro Espin, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and daughter of President Raul Castro, said Spanish colonialism left prejudice, racism, homophobia and misogyny. She said it was difficult to change that even with the Revolution, and they are trying to create a new society. Castro said Oxfam is helping to work on many aspects including LGBT rights in Cuba. She said we (CENESEX) are proposing that same-sex couples have the same opportunities as hetero couples, and the Cuban population respects more and is more sensitive. Same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Cuba. I watched the US Supreme Court rule same-sex marriage as a legal right in Spanish on a Cuban news station, and I hope to see the same broadcast about Cuba soon.
Cuba also continues to fight against HIV/AIDS. By teaching about safe and protected sex, many Cubans prevent the spread of HIV. According to the United Nations, only 17,000 people in Cuba live with HIV. Earlier this year, Cuba became the first country to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from the mother to her child. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director general said this is “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.” This is an example of the innovative research performed by Cuba’s health care system, which is one of the best worldwide.
All citizens in Cuba receive health care free of charge. Ileana Gonzalez, a Cuban ophthalmologist, said American doctors are different from those in Cuba, and they see medicine as a business first and foremost. My host mother in Cuba worked as a dermatologist for 40 years, and her son is a brain surgeon. Many Europeans travel to Cuba for medical surgeries and treatments. My friend Nacho from Mexico said Mexican doctors look to Cuban doctors as the prime example of what health care should be. Cuba offered to send doctors to the US during Hurricane Katrina, but the US said no.
I think the United States could learn some valuable lessons from Cuba. I admire that Cuba takes action to teach young ones about their bodies and sexual health, and how to protect themselves. Many schools in the US do not inform their students about reproductive health. This is a dis-service to our children because they could stop the spread of STDs if they were informed about birth control methods. We should take some lessons from our neighbor to the south. I hope the relations between our two nations continue in a positive direction, where we share knowledge and culture, and see people we have not seen in more than 50 years.