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Cultural Awakening
Local students experience life in communist Cuba
You can hail a car or a bicycle as transportation in Cuba. Asya Craven gives one of the rental bikes a try.

Forget about the dilemma of choosing Coke or Pepsi. There’s only one government-provided cola.
The same is true when it’s time to bathe. There’s not Dial, Ivory, or any other name brand. It’s just soap.
The government owns all the hotels, controls how much everyone earns, and you should be careful exactly what you say. Free speech isn’t embraced.
Welcome to Cuba, a Caribbean island with some 11 million residents located about 90 miles south of Miami. Americans are sure to become more acquainted with this communist nation in the years to come after travel regulations between the United States and Cuba were soften by the Obama Administration in January 2015.
Three Warren County High School students were among the first local residents to experience Cuban culture over spring break when they flew from Miami to Havana for a seven-day stay. Madison Mason, Lauren Hennessee and Asya Craven made the trip accompanied by guidance counselor Keri McGiboney.
“They are still on the ration system when it comes to food,” said Craven. “They get a certain amount of eggs and a certain amount of sugar and that’s it. That’s all they get.”
McGiboney said rations are determined based on the number of people in a household and the age of those people. “The rations are nominal,” she said.
Cubans are active in the workforce, holding jobs to make up the difference between what’s provided and what’s needed to survive. But the government establishes the wages too and they are extremely low. They said all bus drivers earn the equivalent of about $20 a month. All doctors earn about $40 a month.
“We saw abject poverty and we never saw wealth,” said McGiboney. “Some of the poverty was pretty amazing. We’re talking kids running across railroad tracks in their bare feet and living in shacks made of palm trees.”
While visits to Cuba are new to Americans because U.S. sanctions have just recently been lifted, the country has long welcomed tourists from other nations. Tourism is in fact a big industry in Cuba, home to a number of five-star hotels. The local group was fortunate to stay at a hotel with hot water, a luxury most Cubans do not have.
“It’s kind of like a time capsule because everything has been untouched for so long,” said Hennessee. “We were sheltered from the real Cuban experience. We didn’t eat at the same places they do because they can’t afford it. We definitely got special treatment.”
Tourists eat at different restaurants and shop at different stores than the natives. The meals are elaborate, featuring several courses and taking hours to complete.
Transportation is a challenge as few families have their own vehicles. The cars on the road are not new. They are vintage models that are typically kept in immaculate condition.
“I think some people must wash their car every day,” said Craven. “Bicycles are also popular. You’d see three or four people on a one-person bike. They do whatever it takes to get around.”
With no name-brand products, there’s also no advertising. The only billboards are those proclaiming the glory of the Revolution of 1959, the conflict which overthrew Batista and put the current Castro regime in power. Longtime leader Fidel Castro resigned in 2008 and his younger brother, Raul, now runs the country.
“Everything was about the Revolution of 1959,” said McGiboney. “In fact, I think the only books I saw while I was there were about the revolution.”
The countryside is filled with churches as Cubans are active religiously. Catholicism is one of the primary denominations.
By coincidence, there was an American feel during their visit as President Obama was there for a historic two-day trip in an attempt to improve diplomatic relations. The Rolling Stones also played a free concert in Havana.
“We were in a restaurant when Obama’s speech was aired and we saw it on a TV that had reception that looked like it was from 1955,” said McGiboney. “But everyone stopped what they were doing and they huddled around the TV to watch Obama.”
As for Cuban culture, music and dancing are a large part of their lives. Street vendors line the sidewalks selling paintings and handmade crafts. Cigars and alcohol are enjoyed, often to excess.
The WCHS students said they felt welcome and never felt unsafe during their visit. They said guns are not allowed and crime is virtually nonexistent.
“The main thing I took from it is how fortunate we are,” said Mason, whose grandfather, Pedro Paz, is a Cuban native who left the country when he was 8. “It makes me appreciate all that we have.”
Added McGiboney, “To me, it was one of the most enriching human experiences I’ve ever had. You find yourself with people you otherwise would never have met. I had some long conversations with a man who doesn’t even speak English and I felt like I still got to know him as a person.”