The Plaza de San Francisco in Havana.

Cuba Libre

Cuba. Just the name conjures up images of vintage cars, late-night boozing in jazz clubs, dense clouds of cigar smoke, sharp suits and wayfarers. Or else maybe military uniforms and tortured prisoners stripped of all dignity and human rights. The vast chasm between nostalgia and propaganda belies a willful ignorance — an absence of understanding and of knowledge pertaining to what contemporary Cuba is actually like. Because, as Americans, how could we possibly know the truth?

For decades the island nation not even a hundred miles from our coast has been sequestered by an absurd and arbitrary blockade whose effects have been as informational in scope as they were economic. We were denied high-quality cigars and rum; their bandwidth was restricted and connectivity to underwater cables for internet and communication purposes prohibited. Forget LTE, smart phones and iDevices — the Cubans that can afford electronics use models that were new to us five, maybe ten years ago. Their hospitals, staffed by some of the most highly-regarded doctors in the world, look primitive to our eyes, and their factories are full of Chinese and Soviet leftovers from previous decades, all because of a deep-seated ill-will rooted in a complex political history that, like a mosquito buzzing in one’s ear, miraculously persists.

Last September, I seized the opportunity to see what lay beyond the blockade as a delegate for the US Women and Cuba Collaboration. The theme for the visit was Impacts of Social and Economic Reforms on Women and Families in Cuba. Over the course of nine days, the delegation visited Havana, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Trinidad, meeting with representatives from the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) and the National Center of Sexual Education (CENESEX), as well as educators, community art project leaders and neighborhood political groups.

Vintage cars are a hallmark of the trade embargo. Taken in Trinidad.

While it’s impossible to fully know a place after one visit, or perhaps even a lifetime, the Cubans that we engaged left such a strong impression that in the weeks since the trip I vowed to find a way to convey, in some small way, the resilience, goals and dreams of the people that I met. For beneath the haze of propaganda, Cuba is a developing country struggling to stand on its own in the aftermath of its Soviet partner’s collapse and following years of crippling opposition from the United States. As President Obama paves the way to amending relations between the two countries, it’s up to the rest of us to start viewing Cuba as something other than a former enemy or a pit stop on the travel bucket list.

As an island lacking natural resources, Cuba has, since the ‘90s, increasingly turned toward international tourism via ICAP as its primary economic venture. Modern resorts and hotels in partnership with foreign companies have sprung up, but the increased volume of visitors comes with a price: an upswing in prostitution and all its unfortunate ramifications. Meanwhile, factories like the Industria Nacional Productora de Utensilios Domésticos (INPUD) churn out Cuban-made appliances knowing that they will fall well short of the goal of meeting domestic demand, in part because their equipment consists of relics donated by socialist allies. Imported models fill the gap in the market, but the Cuban people dream of being more self-sufficient.

At INPUD, based in Santa Clara, a woman oversees production of fan propellers.

The majority of locals that we met were surprisingly candid and optimistic about the status of their country and government. Yes, it functions as a single-party state, but its citizens are not brainwashed like those of North Korea. The Castros are revered for what they did during the revolution and afterwards, but have managed not to orbit off into sinister cults of personality, despite foreign media attempts to paint a different picture.

At home in our living rooms we are force-fed the negative aspects of Cuban society, which grossly overlook some of their greatest accomplishments such as achieving lower rates of infant mortality and illiteracy than the vast majority of their neighbors, including us. Fidel Castro’s campaign to teach everyone from the inner city to the rural mountains how to read and write, thanks to adolescent volunteers in the face of attacks from America, is legendary both at home and abroad; the instruction methods have since been refined and are used widely across the globe.

Luisa Campos, director of the Literacy Museum in Havana.

Of course, it’s no secret that the US has been tumbling down the international education index for years. But let’s compare this heroic feat of public instruction with my mother’s experience as an urban community college instructor, where she routinely receives remedial students from the University of Washington who have managed to make it the collegiate level without being able to read. (Said students are generally athletes, but the machinations of the college sports industrial complex are a thinkpiece for another day).

Here, or at least where I live in the Bay Area, it’s all about tech, tech, tech and gender disparity, as if the imbalance didn’t also exist in other industries. Cuba boasts a female majority in medicine and law, and parliament boasts a near even split between genders. Nowadays we’re pushing STEM at earlier ages but splashy scandals like Ellen Pao versus her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, or the great Tinder ousting of yesteryear send mixed messages about female empowerment. Reach too high and ye shall be both privately and publicly scorned.

Interior of the FMC national headquarters in Havana.

Should girls choose to become members of the FMC — and the vast majority do, once they’re eligible at age fourteen — they are equipped with powerful tools from the start, becoming part of something that can effect actual change and relentlessly promotes their interests. Beyond Cuba, the FMC is also heavily involved with the women’s interest and human rights sections of the United Nations.

Not only does the US lack an equivalent, but we waste countless words and energy quibbling over whether or not feminist and feminism are dirty words. What do young girls have to look forward to in America? Receiving a coming-of-age introduction to the black hole of victim-blaming and rape culture, getting smeared on the internet for having opinions, and, once they’re all grown up, getting paid less than their male peers.

Motherhood is not stigmatized in Cuba, but fully supported by the workplace with paid maternity leave. Cuba is not unique in this but, once again, we lag behind. Some companies have started including egg freezing as a perk, ostensibly to encourage women to work full-time longer and delay starting a family, which is great in theory but far from foolproof in practice.

Maternity homes like this one in Santa Clara serve at-risk pregnant women.

In 1989, CENESEX was established as an extension of an FMC initiative. The original premise was to create a space for women to discuss and handle issues like abortion and family planning, but has since grown to encompass gender identity, sexual orientation, gender violence, disabilities and, most importantly, sexual health and disease prevention.

At the inaugural meeting of the Lesbians and Allies Project in Santa Clara, we met Cuba’s first female to male transgender and heard from leaders in the LGBT community. Held at Mejunje, a community center that has acted as a safe haven for LGBT Cubans for over twenty years, the majority of the conference was a dialogue during which members of both nations spoke about problems that the LGBT community faces and ideas for how to address them. Homophobia is still rampant in parts of Cuba but, through CENESEX, important milestones have been achieved. For example, gender reassignment surgery is free. The year is now 2015 and only the most liberal of states are showing an inkling of catching on to this.

One of the strongest impressions left on me from the delegation is that the fabric of Cuban society is woven tighter, which is not to say that things are “better” there. However, there is a certain irony in the fact that the very country that essentially denied Cuba widespread internet access has significantly less social cohesion. In Santa Clara we were invited to a block party held by a local chapter of a political grassroots organization. While in the past these groups were more active, in times of political stability like the present, they organize services for the public good such as blood drives.

This performance was our welcome to a community art project in Cienfuegos led by Santiago Hermes. One of his main initiatives is to reconcile Cuba’s history of slavery through art.

Seeing all the families who lived on that street together, buzzing with excitement to meet us, felt incredibly foreign. I thought back to my home, in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, where I have no idea who my neighbors are, and when I go to a house party or out to dinner there inevitably comes a time when everyone is on their phones, fully disengaged with the people and the environment around them. Technology is at least partially to blame.

Regardless, the point of all this comparing and contrasting is to say that Cuba and the US don’t need to continue behaving like one is oil and the other water. There has never been a better time to move on with history, and there is so much to be gained through collaboration. Let’s act.

All photos taken by Misa Shikuma. The rest are viewable here.