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Cuba: The "Forbidden" Land

by Nancy R. Cope

Suggestions for Preparing for Class
Background of Recent U.S.–Cuban Relations
Observations of Cuba Today
Cuban Culture

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cuban flag


Curriculum Development

In North Carolina, the social studies supervisors and teachers from across the state decided to develop an elective course in Latin American studies for our high schools. We thought that a "case study" of Cuba would help in the development of such a course; it would help students and teachers prepare to study about all of Latin America.

Why Cuba?

For most of us, this country holds a historical fascination. We recall Fidel Castro, Ernesto "Ché" Guevara, the revolution, Cubans in exile, the embargo, and the "boat" people trying to reach the Florida coast. Also, we feel the allure of salsa (as in dancing!), the poetry of José Martí, the Cuban blend of wonderful music, the Spanish language, and, of course, those cigars! Maybe there is also the appeal of the forbidden – the place where Americans could not tread for so many years. In addition, our group had the common bond most educators share – the desire to explore and acquire new information to enhance our fields of study.

Preparation for Travel

We decided that we could do the best research by taking a trip to Cuba. In March 2002, I was one of twelve educators from North Carolina to visit Cuba.

We began our study by writing to the U.S. Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Assets Control, to seek permission to go to Cuba. The process is quite lengthy (it took us seven months), and we were sent many documents to review for our possible trip. We learned that four categories of Americans are allowed to go to Cuba:

  1. Journalists
  2. Medical needs (This is explained in the Cuban Assests Control Regulations as "People traveling to visit close relatives in circumstances of humanitarian need.")
  3. Business people who have a conference there
  4. Historians who are working on special projects

We were placed in category 4 with our proposal for a "case study."

After we were given clearance, we spent many months in study and preparation for the trip. The group met with Dr. Louis A. Perez, Jr., a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We read two of his texts on Cuba (see Resources) and discussed many issues with him. Reminding us that Cuba has "complicated layers of society," including the historical layers, he advised us to ask all kinds of questions.

Next, we contacted the International Education Office of UNESCO to find out why Cuba was being reported as having the highest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere.


I have suggested a lesson plan (PDF, 169 KB) and rubric (PDF, 251 KB) outlining a course of study about Cuban cultural conditions in current times. The objective is to have students become familiar with the history of Cuban-American relations and to understand the Cuban political scene as well.

However, before getting into the full study of Cuba, students will need to understand key events and terms (PDF, 7 KB). Students may gather this information through teamwork. Once they complete this list, they will formulate lists of question they have about Cuba. Direct the study thereafter to that list of questions. (In the course of this article, I have indicated some areas of questioning and further research for the students.)

Using the Internet will be very useful for both you and your students. There are many hot links for information about Cuba and the connections between Cuba and America. There are numerous Web sites with information, but many are strongly biased in their presentation.


Historical Connections

There are many historical connections between the United States and Cuba. The North American influence was intertwined in a long history of Cuban identity. The influence of the United States was not linear or straight "black and white," nor were we as imposing as we Americans sometimes think. Our involvement was more a lengthy series of negotiations over many years, concerned with many issues.

As we studied, we also learned that many of the values that gave meaning to Cuban lives were of North American origin. As our neighbor, Cuba has been affected by much of American culture and history. Some Confederate officers, politicians, and planters from the Deep South fled to Cuba after Appomattox; this period was called the "diaspora" (1860–1890). We discovered that Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland, for example, traveled to Cuba for health reasons and convalescence periods. Even Julia Ward Howe had a favorite hotel she frequented to do some writing. During the famous "gold rush" period, Cuba was part of the route some followed to get to California quickly.

Cubans living in the United States did much of the mobilization for Cuban "national" movements. (While living in the United States, the Cuban nationalist, José Martí, wrote the poem "Guantanamera," which has become a Cuban "cultural" anthem, set to music.) This exile experience helped give rise to a stronger sense of pátria (nationhood) for Cubans. Forces originating in the United States led to Cuba's transformation: they helped develop a new economic demand in Cuba and the formulation of an identity as a people with binding and permanent ties to the United States. As we traveled throughout Cuba, we still sensed this attachment and sense of identity. We felt a strong appeal from the people to be connected again. The long history of two neighbors, which Cubans all seemed to know, outweighed the ideology of the governments.

Historically, Cubans refer to their attempts to be independent from Spain in the late 1880s as the Ten Years' War. The aftermath of that struggle left much property damage and economic depression. Even though the struggle ended in 1898, it did not end in the way Cubans had envisioned. The North American intervention changed everything the "separatists" wanted to accomplish. The presence of the United States after what we call the Spanish-American War influenced how Cuba constituted itself as a nation. (Lesson Plan: To study this situation, students need to review the Teller Amendment and the Platt Amendment.)

By 1905, 13,000 North Americans owned land in Cuba. Many in the American military stayed on after the Spanish-American War and became landowners and businessmen. By 1920, Cuba was referred to as the "Paris of the West Indies." It flourished in international tourism. Baseball connected the two neighbors in that "romantic" period, with many players from the United States traveling for winter practice in Cuba. In fact, in 1920, "Babe" Ruth spent ten days in Cuba. (Baseball is still a connector as well as a serious sport in Cuba.)

Cuban landscapeImages of Cuba were romantic and appealing. In this period, Cuba was sometimes called "America's Mistress." Cuban and Latino music became popular in the United States in the 1930s. This was the period of bandleader Xavier Cugat and the rumba, followed by Desi Arnaz and the conga, the mambo, and the cha-cha. In Cuba, the American Sugar Company owned many mill towns. Although the Platt Amendment was cancelled in 1934, official papers were signed to allow the United States to maintain the naval base at Guantánamo Bay.

After World War II, there was prosperity for Cuba with the trade of sugar. The Cuban people were interested in news of American movie stars like Shirley Temple, John Wayne, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. In fact, Cuba was the first Latin American country to broadcast television, in 1950.

The notion of Cuban identity was established long before the "revolution" began. The process of "becoming Cuban," of creating a Cuban identity separate from Spain, included some assimilation of North American norms and structures. Cubans read and used the Sears catalog. Many sent their children to the United States for schooling. Many of the people who had known and felt the strong connection with their North American neighbors later became the exiles of Cuba in Florida.

A Change of Direction: 1959 Cuban Revolution

There seem to be many explanations of why the "revolution" was needed. Despite a democratic constitution, Cubans were living under a military dictatorship. Also, President Batista and others before him squandered the money from foreign aid. The majority of people were poor, illiterate, and had no health care. The rampant corruption of political life caused many struggles throughout the 1950s. The series of national crises opened a deep divide with the United States government and the estrangement began to deepen. [Lesson Plan: Have students take a look at the Spanish leaders, the presidents of Cuba (Machado and Batista), and then the revolutionaries themselves.] On July 26, 1959, when the overthrow of U.S.-backed President Batista occurred, Cubans seized control of their own history, and the ties between the two formerly close neighbors began to change.

Dr. Perez writes that after the revolution, Cubans gave up their mental dependency on North America. The United States became the adversary, and the relationship between the two changed greatly. (Lesson Plan: Have students study what was happening in the 1960s between the United States, the Cuban exiles, and Cuba. Include the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and newly released documents about the time period that were classified until 2001. See bibliography.)


Signs of the Past Are Everywhere

When we visited Cuba, we found a society seemingly stuck in the 1950s, as if standing still from the moment of the "revolution." Poster art throughout Havana and along the roadways gave us insight into what has been propagated for decades.

We have something the rich do not own; We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.

This poster art on the wall of the M. L. King, Jr., Center for Peace in Havana combines religious and political sentiments.

Senores imperialistas-ino les tenemos absolutamente ningun meido!

This poster was located two buildings away from the U.S. Interest Section (American diplomatic office), along the main thoroughfare in Havana. The statement, "Imperialistas: We absolutely do not have to be afraid of them!" indicates the Cuban resolve against Americans.

Stop the Blockade

Another poster at the M. L. King, Jr., Center uses the words of José Martí to protest the U.S. blockade.

Also representing the feeling that we were back in the 1950s were the relics of American-made automobiles that were still there and still working. They were everywhere and piqued our curiosity about the maintenance of the cars: How are autos from the 1940s and 1950s running without access to replacement parts?

a rusting, white, old car

The car works.

The best answer we could surmise was that Cubans have been very resourceful in utilizing the resources they have. After examining some of the cars, we discovered that Cubans modified the engines when needed and built their own replacement parts out of unusual things. We also discovered many of the parts have been adapted from Russian cars.

many old cars parked on the street

Everyone has a "collector" auto. "Collector" to Americans, that is.

old white convertible

This car seemed to be very well maintained.

Everyday life

The everyday life of the Cubans is not what we thought it would be. The country seems to be very busy with tourism: People from all over the world come to Cuba for the beaches and beautiful weather. The only ones obviously absent are the Americans.

a cuban beach

This beach reminds us of many beaches in Florida.

The Cuban workers are paid in pesos, but the economy is definitely based on American dollars. At the shopping center (yes, they exist) and any shop, American dollars filled the tills. The question of how the local people get the dollars could not be officially answered for us, but we saw enough "activity" to indicate that an underground economy is at work. Beautiful hotels line the beaches, and more are being built in partnership with the government.

The grocery stores we frequented were full of goods. Everyone was buying corn flakes—Harris Brand—on a special promotion. Meat was plentiful, but the color was a lot darker than we see. Apples, beef, cola, and other common goods were the same prices as we see at home. The shelves were full of products from Argentina, Italy, France, and Spain. Shampoo and soap were plentiful, but we saw no medical supplies in the grocery store.

Here are samples of some of the prices in one large grocery store, which had modern scanners at the checkout counter and plenty of American dollars in the drawers:

Baby food $1.00 a bottle
Coffee $1.55 per pound
Soft drink $0.45 per can
Nestlé® ice cream cone $1.40
Animal cookies $1.80 for a pound bag
Bag of chicken $2.40 per pound
Hot dogs $2.40 per pound
Fresh loaf of bread $1.19
Saltine® crackers $1.19
Jar of peach jelly $1.59
Boxed juices 6 for $1.49
Ketchup and barbecue sauces Price range was the same as ours
Frozen vegetables $2.40 a bag

Our Meeting with a Government Official

We spent considerable time with Julio Espinosa, General Coordinator of the Center of International Relations for the National Assembly of Cuba. We had a very lengthy question-and-answer period with Mr. Espinosa. As you will read, the "official" Cuban description of democracy does not match our perspective or the reality of Cuban government.

photo of Julio Espinosa

Mr. Espinosa was happy to answer our questions.

Mr. Espinosa carefully explained the election process in Cuba and the way the National Assembly works. The elected members of the Assembly are not professional politicians, and according to Mr. Espinosa, they do not need offices or big budgets. He compared Cuba's representative government with that of the United States. (He knew the details of how the U.S. system works, including how lobby groups, interest groups, and committees work on a bill.)

There are two types of elections. Half the members of the National Assembly are chosen from the provincial assemblies. The other half are chosen at the grassroots level. Because half are members from local districts, the Cuban government is confident of its democratic elections. In the last election of 1998, Mr. Espinosa said that 67,000 candidates ran for 601 positions. (There is one deputy per 20,000 people.) The numbers of those running for office are narrowed down over several elections until there are the final 601 candidates. Those are the candidates we know as "unopposed." We assumed that they were all in the Communist party. However, as many as 20% of the Assembly is composed of non-Communist party members.

Everyone automatically gains the right to vote at age 16. Voting is not compulsory, but it is a moral right; 97% of the people vote. Voters go to the schools to vote from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M. on election day. Electors, who are usually students, watch the vote, and the Young Pioneers count the ballots from the ballot box. Forty-five days after the election, the winners are called to the National Assembly. The National Assembly meets two times a year, distributing work among ten committees.

The officials have tried to ensure participatory democracy by sending the committee policy work to the provinces for revision until a consensus is reached. Also, if 10,000 people sign any kind of legal document, the National Assembly must act on that document. (We did, however, have reports of petitions for reform not being acted upon.)

There is no division of power in the Cuban system. The National Assembly, a unicameral legislature, chooses a Council of State, which includes the President, First Vice President, and Secretary. The Council is composed of 31 Assembly members. The President of the Council is the President of Cuba as well. The Council enforces laws, supervises government agencies, and guides foreign affairs. Fidel Castro is President of the Council and of Cuba.

Fidel Castro is 76 years old and has been in control of Cuba for 44 years. Who is expected to follow him as leader of Cuba? His brother Raúl (age 71) is the likely candidate.

It seemed to us that so much was in place that the government will continue as is and that a change in the presidency would not affect too many things inside Cuba. Mr. Espinosa explained that Castro is an independent person; he is not the "revolution." The "people" are the revolution. There are no presidential elections; Castro is only one member of the Council. Mr. Espinosa said Castro does not control the government single-handedly. Even though Castro is President of the Council, all 31 members have to agree with his decisions.

However, Mr. Espinosa did allow that Castro had some influence and much respect for "many reasons." He indicated that Castro has the control, but there are other voices. The question, of course, is whether or not Castro listens. As with the petitions mentioned earlier, there is often a difference between theory and reality.

Mr. Espinosa invited us to ask any kind of question we wanted; we asked many. We wanted to know about the domestic and foreign issues in Cuba. As you can see from the list of issues below, we were able to discuss a wide range of topics. Mr. Espinosa articulated the Cuban viewpoint very well, and his explanations regarding some topics are summerized below. I will discuss only a few of these issues.

  1. Cooperative farmers and production

  2. Improving the educational system
    a classroom
    The Cuban government has placed great emphasis on education.
    Prior to the "revolution," the literacy rate for Cubans was 17%; now, with intense reading programs, the literacy rate is reported to be 97%. According to the UNESCO report, Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere.

    Over a long period of time, the government has begun to require schooling for everyone. The literacy program is pushed from the time the mother-to-be announces her pregnancy. Everyone in the household must learn how to prepare the new child for reading/literacy. There are videotapes for children from birth to 5 years old.

    When children do go to school, they are required to participate in reading groups in their communities or neighborhoods, led by trained adults. Homework is given and answers come from educational television. (Cuba has only two television stations. Castro dominates the second channel.) Children in school are required to play a sport and engage in some kind of art program after school. Some students must leave their farms to attend boarding schools for their education.

  3. Social workers and 70 new programs for health and welfare

  4. Housing typical housing

  5. International relations
    In many cases, the various Cuban embassies around the world were closed; Mr. Espinosa said that Cuba wants its embassies back.

  6. Forming a full Latin America Parliament

  7. Race relations in the United States
    Cuba watches the events in the U.S. and is concerned with what is happening there.

  8. Concerns for senior citizens
    Mr. Espinosa discussed the concerns the government had for its many senior citizens. (Life is especially hard for those seniors whose children left for the U.S. Many have not seen these children for years.)

  9. Place of women in the scientific and technological work force

  10. Concerns for treatment of those with HIV/AIDS

  11. Helms Burton Law
    The Cubans call this a "blockade," not an embargo.

  12. Future development of Cuba
    Cuba wants to develop in its own way, not as if it were one of the states of America. It is willing to meet with the U.S. on one condition: NO CONDITION. It does not see itself as the 51st state.

  13. September 11
    Cuba was one of the first nations to deploy aid to the United States.

  14. Human rights
    Jimmy Carter cannot open the doors on this issue because the U.S. closed them.

  15. Cuban immigration and emigration

The time spent with Mr. Espinosa was longer than we had planned, but we all agreed that these three hours were priceless. The information opened our eyes and made us aware of many things we had not understood. The conversation enabled us to see the Cuban perspective on issues and gave us a different sense of the future of Cuba.

at the conference room table

Needless to say, we filled many notepads on our visit with government officials.


children in front of the school

We visited this elementary school, where the children were singing the praises of Ché Guevera.


Another point of interest to us was the abundance of posters, signs, souvenirs, songs, shirts, hats, monuments, and so on to Ché Guevera. We heard schoolchildren sing about: "wanting to be like Ché," and we constantly wondered why there were no tributes to Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl. Everywhere we went—from the old Spanish forts to the Center for Art and Humanities—there were huge tributes to Ché Guevera. Every classroom had a picture of Guevera, and some had pictures of Castro.

Since returning home, we have done much reading on the outgrowth of Guevera's "revolution" in the 1960s, which went beyond Cuba. Guevera remains an ever-present force, even though he died in 1967 in guerrilla operations in Bolivia. (See CIA documents referenced in bibliography.)

mosaic of Che painting of Che

These are memorials to Guevera at the oldest Spanish Fort.

a typical classroom

Here's a typical classroom with posters of both Guevera and Castro.

History as Culture

The former Presidential Palace has been turned into the Palace of the Revolution. It is a museum with many artifacts of the early days of the revolution, when Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Ché Guevera arrived in the boat Granma in a province to the east and made their way to Havana. The affluence of the presidential life was evident in the "Hall of Mirrors" and the courtyards surrounding the former homes of the country's presidents. I have included a few photos here of some interesting items in the museum. (I did not photograph every shirt and skirt with blood and every gun that was used in the revolution. Those examples were endless.)

the Hall of Mirrors

From this picture of the Hall of Mirrors, we get an idea of the opulence of earlier presidents.

a gold-plated gun

This is one of President Batista's guns.

an antique sewing machine

Singer Sewing machine: Was it perhaps used to make Fidel and Raúl Castro's uniforms?

a jail key

Batista had jailed the young Fidel Castro on the Isle of Pines. This is a key to that jail cell. Castro had asked for writings of José Martí to read while held prisoner; he was refused.

a boat

The vessel Granma transported Castro and the revolutionaries. It held 80+ people and equipment. It is carefully guarded. The Havana newspaper took its name from this boat.


The group participated in many adventures and special moments while in Cuba. We stayed in private homes, whose owners pay the government for related business permits. We visited schools where children, in uniforms with red scarves, sang songs to us about peace, love, and devotion to planet Earth. We saw billboards conveying messages about recycling, conserving water, and revolution. We visited the Bay of Pigs. Our entire visit was quite a production.

What we had been taught as teachers and what we had been teaching to our students was updated by our study and our travel to an area of the world that Americans can no longer visit without permission from our government. In fact, we are now studying even more to find out the facts about our recent U.S.-Cuba history. Using the newly released declassified documents from the CIA, we are like students again, investigating, reading, sharing, and asking hard questions. Maybe we are even making history.


Buena Vista Social Club. Music CD. Produced by World Circuit. Nonesuch Records, 1997.

Cuba. Music CD presented by Putumayo World Music. 1999.

Kornbluh, Peter. Editor. Bay of Pigs Declassified. New York: The New Press, 1998.

International Education Office, UNESCO, National Report of Cuba, 2001.

Luther, Eric, with Ted Henken. Critical Lives: Ché Guevara. Alpha Press: Pearson Education Company. 2001.

Perez, Louis, Jr. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy. Second Edition. Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia Press,1997.

Perez, Louis, Jr. On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Polo Montanez: Guajiro Natural. Music CD purchased in Cuba. BMG Entertainment. 2002.


Message from Castro to President Johnson (PDF, 139 KB)

Pre-Study Terms for students (PDF, 7 KB)

Lesson Plan (PDF, 169 KB)

Cuba Presentation Rubric (PDF, 251 KB)

Journal entry (PDF, 88 KB)

Cope, Nancy R., Tabron, Nikki, and Santos Carlos. One Rock at a Time (PDF, 48 KB). Written as a tribute to Cuba, March 2002.


Map of Cuba

Map of Cuba

Map of Caribbean Area

CIA World Factbook

The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War

Library of Congress, Hispanic Reading Room

Platt Amendment

Teller Amendment

Many documents related to Cuba have been declassified in the last two years, and the National Security Archives at George Washington University adds to the collection as documents are released.

Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The 40th Anniversary

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Bay of Pigs

Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (Helms-Burton Act)