It was a very international meeting, with participants from places as diverse as Suriname, Egypt, Zambia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Kenya, and China. Almost all of the foreign participants at the conference were coming to Cuba for the first time and everyone it seemed was struggling to make sense of the place. My primary reference point was Mongolia, because of the common political history that Cuba and Mongolia share - namely as preferred partners of the Soviet Union up until 1990. Since 1990, the two countries have responded to the withdrawal of Soviet support in spectacularly different ways. By the end of my short time in La Habana, I realized that my stay didn't help me understand Cuba as much as it helped me understand the pre-1990 Mongolian People's Republic, a place I only know indirectly - through oral histories, photos, music, and writing.
There are many apparent similarities between the present Republic of Cuba and MPR: concrete-heavy municipal architecture, strong pro-government advertising (e.g., Patria o Muerte), a complete lack of any other advertising, an emphasis on anniversaries (e.g., the 50th anniversary of the 1959 revolution), a government-dominated employment system, few cars on the road, multi-colored playgrounds - the same colors as are still found in Mongolian playgrounds, an emphasis on progress through technology, widespread covert surveillance, a National Circus located next to a National Children's Park, various state monopolies. The list really does go on, but it's probably best to just show a few photos.
Massive Russian embassy towering above the local surrounds (compare to the one in Ulaanbaatar):
Tribute to Karl Marx- this is the Teatro Karl Marx (how Mongolia did it in 1961):Russian UAZ vehicles from a taxi driver - and he was tickled to learn the Mongolian nicknames: jaran yus = gua, furgon = guasavita. If you don't know what a jaran yus or a gua is, check out the first photo from last Sunday's New York Times piece about Tajikistan. There were also plenty of Kamaz trucks, Ladas, Skodas (Czech, not Russian), and a few Ij Planeta motorcycles. The photo below shows a Zil guch/30, locally known as a Zil ciento treinta/130 (here's a photo of a 30 in Mongolia):
I wrote about the meeting itself on the Global Health Ideas blog, in a series of six posts:
- Innovation Focus on Cuba
- South-South Cooperation & Scaling Social Entrepreneurship Models
- Site Visit to Ramón Pando Ferrer Cuban Institute of Ophthalmology
- Public-Private “Debate” Redux
- Innovation for Remote Populations/mHealth
- A Physical Therapist Headed to Tecate