Graham Sowa

Graham Sowa

Havana celebrates 100th anniversary of Rotary without rotarians

The Rotary Club of Havana could have celebrated its 100th anniversary on April 29th this year, if Rotary International had not revoked all Cuban club charters in 1979, leaving no active Cuban Rotarians to celebrate. Today, on the doorstep of the celebration and in the context of renewed U.S.-Cuban relations, Rotary has an opportunity to restart in Cuba. In 1979 Rotary International, the world’s largest service organization with clubs in over 120 countries, decided that it could no longer maintain active clubs in several places, including Cuba, which faced United States sanctions. The Havana Rotary Club was the first Rotary Club to be founded outside an English speaking country, and within 30 years of its founding there were close to 60 other clubs across the island. Rotary had such a strong presence in Cuba that Havana was selected as the site of the 1940 Rotary International Convention. It was here in Havana that Rotary issued a desperate call for peace on the doorstep to World War II. Cuban nationals served on three different occasions as President of Rotary International. As far as public record goes the Cuban government never had a problem with Rotary. As with other social and service...


Cuba’s Personal Jesus

Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jesus Christ. Albeit temporarily, the Christian Savior is the third person to be immortalized on the side of a building (in this case the National Library) in the Plaza de la Revolutión. Standing open-armed above a banner that says “Come to Me” the Messiah is commanding tourists that arrive by the bus load to point their selfie sticks away from the Argentine revolutionary and toward the Nordic looking Son of God. Not since the standard bearer of Cuban cinema Strawberry and Chocolate juxtaposed, and then destroyed, colorful busts of Jesus and Karl Marx have a communist and a deity been placed so close together in such a public place. The Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square, is a large sun beaten patch of concrete surrounded by bland examples of civic architecture that house important government agencies. Imagine if the United States Capitol Building, West Wing, J. Edgar Hoover FBI Headquarters, CIA Langley Headquarters, Pentagon, Kennedy Center and Library of Congress were all within a 2 square block radius. That is basically what the Revolution Square is, the nerve center of the political, cultural, and military organizations of Cuba. And now add Jesus, looking down...

Photo: David Reyes

The Stars and Stripes in Havana

Empty flagpoles in front of the United States Interests Section in Havana (soon to be embassy) are nothing new. I am referring to the dozens of giant flagpoles that were erected in front of the Interests Section years ago by the Cuban Government to block the view of an electronic sign the George W. Bush administration put in the front of the building to scroll propaganda like a bank in the 1990’s advertised low interest rates. Since the electronic billboard has been removed in 2009 the flagpoles are usually bare these days, almost forgotten. A new flagpole that has been getting all the attention the past few weeks is the one on the United States side of the fence, the one that will fly Old Glory later in July. Like its neighbors across the street, it has been sitting bare since it was erected almost a month ago. For those of us who have used the services of the Interests Section to file for visas, renew our passports, vote, or get something notarized we know that it doesn’t need our flag to fulfil those missions. In truth the Interests Section already functions sorta like an embassy; so much so that...

Photo by Roby Gallego

Filling the Demand for Ethnic Food in Havana

Last week investors keen on Cuba met in New York City at the Cuba Opportunity Summit to try to figure out their place in Cuba’s opening economy.  Meanwhile, in Havana, silverware clinks and waiters balance trays in restaurants already financed and managed by foreign entrepreneurs who have placed early bets on the island. The last vestiges of ethnic food in Cuba disappeared with the Soviet Union. Imports dried up and the few ingredients that did arrive to restaurant kitchens were shuffled out the back door to sell on the informal market. Customers would save time ordering by simply asking the waiter for the food that was available.  Invariably the selection would come down to the stereotypical rice, beans and pork… maybe a pizza as well, but don’t push it. From the early 1990’s up until now state restaurants that advertise as having “Italian”, “Polynesian”, or “Chinese” food have pretty much the same interchangeable menu as any other state restaurant. Fortunately everybody got tired of the charade that a government trying to keep the extensive public health, education and transportation system afloat could also manage the finer points of an entire country’s gastronomic needs. Restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, bistros, and bars were...

Photo: Mireya Ojeda Cabrera

Good health outcomes through less privacy?

“Stop looking so nervous, you all are here for the same thing”.  Just like that my attending physician told three men they all had venereal disease.  Their uneasy glances between one another became a short bout of raucous laughter. It is a common exchange I have seen in my 5 years of studying medicine in Cuba.  Patient-patient relationships are as integral to medical care as patient-doctor relationships.  Indeed these relationships are a large part of what makes Cuban medical care the success story it has become. The culture surrounding themes of professional rapport, patient dignity and respect for privacy in the Cuban healthcare setting differ fundamentally from what is often expected in the United States. You can begin to see these differences in Cuban lifestyle.  Neighbors overhear each other´s conversations, multiple generations (sometimes of different families) live under the same roof, severely crowded public transportation means we start our day shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers. Where I grew up in Grapevine, Texas the idea that “good fences make good neighbors” established a definition of privacy that we extended to our transportation (almost everyone has their own car); and even to the workplace where we set up cubicle dividers so...