Today we are sharing excerpts from an interview with the delegates from HWB who traveled to Cuba in December 2016. For the full interview, be sure to read the latest issue of our newsletter!
Women in Cuba December Delegation Interview: Health Care, Herbalism & Sustainable Agriculture
Interviewer: HWB Coordination Team
Cuba Delegation Co-host: Gigi Stafne, Executive Director, Herbalists Without Borders Intl
and Social Media Coordinator, Joanna Czubernat
HWB: What was your motivation to organize, host and conduct the health delegation to Cuba this past December?
Gigi: It was time to return to Cuba. Sixteen years ago I helped to organize a previous delegation of my school's Master Herbalism students and other health care workers to visit Cuba motivated by my strong interest in learning how affordable health care can be delivered to people in the face of adversity and crisis, specifically with few or limited resources to do so. I have attentively followed what Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries have accomplished within health care, literacy and education in Cuba. Also, I have a personal connection with the country of Cuba dating back to my childhood related to being amidst the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion.
HWB: When exactly did you go to Cuba?
Gigi: Just recently...December 2016. Our organization, Herbalists Without Borders International partnered with Witness for Peace and my school, Green Wisdom School of Natural & Botanical Medicine.
HWB: How did you manage to get into Cuba? Is travel to Cuba for general tourism activities permitted yet? I hear mixed things about this...
Gigi: It took some planning with our co-host, Witness for Peace, who had a 12-month license to travel in Cuba. And no, contrary to what many people currently believe, general tourism travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens is still off limits to a large degree. Travelers must be part of an organized group that has what is called a people-to-people travel license and are expected to have a full time schedule of activities related to their category of travel, such as health care, education or humanitarian projects. There are 12 such categories. Our December delegation and tour fell within several of those categories. So, our delegation was approved for this visit by the U.S. and by Cuba.
HWB: Who else joined you...I mean where were people from, their professions and interests?
Gigi: There were 16 delegates in total who were nationals from Canada, the Philippines, New Zealand and the United States, predominately from the U.S. Our delegates included community organizers and activists, healers, herbalists, health workers, organic farmers, educators, artists and business people. There were two of us participating from our core coordination team at Herbalists Without Borders...Joanna Czubernat, our Social Media Coordinator and I. Primary interests of those attending included: learning about Cuban culture, history, politics, food, herbs and especially the health care delivery system.
HWB: Tell me about a time in Cuba when your group had to adapt to a new situation while understanding the peoples perspectives there...
Gigi: I think one of the most unique aspects to this tour and time period was that the people of Cuba were amidst collective grief having just lost their revolution's leader, Fidel Castro, 8 or 9 days before we arrived there. It was important for our group to be highly sensitive to this huge transition in their country. We all wanted to honor their loss.
HWB: What did you learn about herbalism and the health care system in Cuba?
Gigi: First, an educational piece for our readers...the Cuban government operates a national health system and assumes fiscal and administrative responsibility for the health care of all their delivery systems. There are no private hospitals or clinics, all health services are government-run. There is a Minister for Public Health. Despite very limited resources and the dramatic impacts caused by historical economic sanctions imposed by the United States for more than half a century, and the Special Period when the Soviet Union pulled out huge economic supports of Cuba, the country had to manage to provide healthcare for all somehow. And Cuba did it. They've obtained similar results in health and longevity to many other developed nations. Even better than some. For example, the infant mortality rate in Cuba is lower than in the United States and is actually one of the lowest in the world (4.2 per thousand births). Life expectancy is age 78 in Cuba. Interestingly, Cubans live on average 30 years longer than their close Haitian neighbors. We learned during this delegation that health care delivery includes allopathic medicine as well as natural medicine. There is a definite focus on prevention with regimented screenings and more. I do wish we had gained more exposure to herbalism within this tour. That part was limited due to hardships some of our Cuban presenters were experiencing.
HWB: Anything else about the health care system?
Gigi: I have a great deal of praise for Cuba, even though I also see some of the flaws within their health system more closely after this trip. I ended up administering medical care often during this trip to others. During one emergency with a delegate I ended up with her in a Havana hospital for 7-8 hours. I certainly learned much first-hand that way, observing the ER room setting...including the strengths and vulnerabilities of such medical settings. I feel that this delegation helped many see that it is possible for economically struggling communities or countries with limited resources to implement some level of effective health and wellness for all people within their society. This aligns with our vision and mission at Herbalists Without Borders...accessible, affordable health and wellness for all.
HWB: Thank you for your time and especially for co-hosting this delegation, Gigi.
Gigi: You are welcome. I appreciate sharing our experiences!
Interview Part Two with Joanna Czubernat of Herbalists Without Borders about sustainable agriculture practices in Cuba...
HWB: I've been told that in addition to Herbalism, one of your special interests in Cuba was learning more about organic and sustainable agriculture practices there. What were some of the projects or farms that you visited? Will you tell our readers a bit about these?
Joanna: Definitely. There was the “House of God Co-op” which supplies hospitals, schools and the elderly with fresh produce and whose goal is to solve the food shortage problem in the community without affecting the land. We also visited “Artemisia” - a seven acre farm and human development project led by a Baptist Church. Their focus is on sustainable agriculture that supports the health of HIV patients and women who are victims of violence. There, the pork is coconut fed and the soil is deep red from the high iron content. They grow coffee, coconuts, bananas, plantains & veggies. Last we had too short of a visit at the Gardens of Bellamar – I could have stayed much longer! A restored garbage dump now “Nature Monument,” this permaculture site was built on rescued land and teaches middle school children and foreign exchange students about land stewardship. Bellamar makes use of human waste for compost, recycles old garbage from the dump as building materials; they have solar panels, a solar cooker and are installing a drop water irrigation system. They host workshops, community meetings and are a seed saving site. There is also a recently discovered crystal cave beneath the surface of these gardens. We were not able to go inside, but saw many pictures - definitely, worth looking up online! As magical as Bellamar was, the hosts said they were “enchanted” by us.
HWB: How would you compare sustainable agriculture in Cuba with the United States overall?
Joanna: Cuba’s sustainable agriculture came out of necessity. Where many U.S. farmers have followed sustainable practices because we became aware of the dangers of conventional farming; Cuba was cut off from the modern world and her farming practices. Due to the already U.S. imposed Embargo / Blockade and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost access to fuel, farming machinery and chemical pesticides. At that time, most of Cuba’s food came from Russia. With that relationship severed, Cuba had no choice but to return to growing their own food and do so using sustainable, organic practices & fertilizers.
HWB: Are there many community herb and food gardens? What do people commonly grow?
Joanna: Yes. There are many community gardens and co-ops like those mentioned above to assist where there are food shortages. The government encourages these farms to exist. Recently, the government has allowed private business as well. Many street side farm stands full of Yucca, Pineapple, Plantains, and my favorite, Sour Oranges have appeared in rural and urban areas of Cuba.
HWB: Joanna, is there anything else in conclusion that you'd like to share about your participation in this Cuba tour and delegation?
Joanna: I visited Cuba thinking I would learn so much regarding herbalism and agricultural, but I learned so much about the heart and soul of the Cuban people, about Witness for Peace and the work of the Martin Luther King Center in Cuba. Our Cuban hosts and their community reflect the community in which I work and volunteer in back home - ten miles west of Chicago. I would love to model my community activism after theirs; incorporating much of what they do within our own community garden and center.
HWB: Thank you for taking time to tell us about your experiences, Joanna.
Joanna: Thank you for the ability to share the experience and a small part of the Cuban reality.
To read the complete interview, visit our Newsletter page and view the latest issue, out this week!