Like most Americans, Joellyn Manville's perceptions of Cuba have been shaped by a media that portrays the socialist island nation as hobbled by economic crisis and divided loyalties to Cuban President Fidel Castro.
"It was surprising. You go down there thinking there are three people in support of the Cuban government and instead, it's everybody," said Manville, who will be a junior at East High School this fall.Earlier this month, Manville, 16, spent a week in Cuba as a participant of the Cuba Lives International Youth Festival. Manville and Nelson Gonzalez, a Kennecott smelter worker and Socialist Workers Party candidate for Salt Lake mayor, were the lone Utahns among about 3,000 delegates worldwide who attended the gathering.
Gonzalez, who visited Cuba 15 years ago, said he was struck by the high morale of the workers, despite the economic pressures due in part to the longtime U.S. trade embargo of the island.
Part of the pride comes from being empowered to work through the economic crisis, he said.
"Cuba has always turned to the workers and professionals in a crisis. They've gone and asked the workers what to do. In every crisis they've had, they've turned to the farmers and mobilized them. It indicates it's still a revolutionary government. The workers themselves figure out what to do, and government facilitates it," Gonzalez said.
In addition to an address by Fidel Castro, which capped a demonstration involving a reported 500,000 Cubans, Manville and Gonzalez visited hospitals, schools and farms and stayed with Cuban families during the visit.
"They are extremely proud. Even though they are in the midst of a special crisis, not one hospital, not one school has been closed. You've got a people and government there that puts human needs first," Gonzalez said.
Manville said the Cubans' societal values were evident in the poor condition of domestic animals. Manville recalled she saw a bone-thin horse in Cuba's countryside. "You'd never see that here. But all the people there had plenty to eat. Here you see unhealthy people. You don't see that there," she said.
While the Cuban government provides free health care, education and ample food to its citizens, toiletries are at a premium. "You can get a heart transplant for free, but there isn't toilet paper in every bathroom," Manville said.
Manville, who is also active in Socialist Workers politics, said Americans perceive that vast numbers of Cubans are clamoring to immigrate to the United States.
"They (media) must show every person who comes off one of the boats. What they don't show is there are a lot of people who come here and are very disappointed. They think the United States is a great place to live, that everybody in the United States has a car and home. They get here and find it's not true," Manville said.
The highlight of the weeklong stay was Castro's address to the young delegates, Manville said.
"It's great to hear him speak. You could sleep through just about anybody, but not Fidel Castro," she said.