HAVANA -- Just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba once played the role of America's tropical playground. Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" and six other novels on the outskirts of Havana, and Frank Sinatra rubbed elbows with the American mafia in Cuban casinos. Rich Americans drank mojitos in the mahogany-lined bars of the Hotel New York and the Hotel Nacional.
Yet the nearly 50-year U.S. economic and travel embargo against Cuba makes it illegal for most Americans to visit this island nation of 11 million people and, for many, relegates it to an afterthought outside of hurricane season.
Much of what we do know comes from the U.S. government -- which is actively working to overthrow Fidel Castro's (and now his brother Raul's) regime -- and the few American journalists there. We know the story well: Cuba is poor. Cuba is communist. Cuba violates human rights and represses dissent.
This summer I traveled to Cuba with six journalists, documenting the experiences of the African diaspora in the Western Hemisphere for the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies in North Carolina.
While there, I found a Cuba you may not know. A Cuba with a 99.8 percent literacy rate, the lowest HIV infection rate in the Western Hemisphere, free college and health care.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon under a golden-hot Caribbean sun. Within minutes of leaving the airport, it became obvious how deeply the Cuban identity is connected to what it sees as U.S. aggression.
Along the scenic Malecon, a walkway that stretches along Havana Bay, 168 soaring black flags commemorate Cuban lives lost during the Cold War conflict with the United States. Posters, billboards and photos commemorating the Cuban Five, a group of men the Cuban government believe are wrongfully held as terrorists in the United States, pop up on the walls of ritzy restaurants, in newspaper articles and middle-school classrooms.
Talks with Cubans -- both officials and common folks -- reveal a scrappy pride forged by a half-century of this tiny, Third World nation fending off the will of its superpower neighbor.
Cubans may not believe in everything the revolution stands for, nor agree with all of their government's policies. But no one likes to feel bullied. Cuban officials like to point out, often, that America has strong ties with many nations with pitiful human rights track records -- including China and Saudi Arabia, to name just two.
The sense of unfairness, Havana University history professor Digna Castaneda Fuertes says, only provokes Cubans' rebellious nature. It manifests in what Cuba has accomplished, through socialism and despite poverty, that the United States hasn't.
"The U.S. cannot forgive us for having this revolution," Castaneda says with a wry smile. "All 50 years of the revolution have not been for nothing."
A crushing U.S. embargo has ensured Cuba's low per capita income and crumbling infrastructure. Yet, Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. As in the United States, some Cuban children attend schools with tidy grounds and gleaming floors, while others sit at decaying desks in sagging buildings. There are no more than 20 students to a teacher, and more than 600 rural schools with five students or fewer.
Education is the cornerstone of the revolution. Nearly everywhere among the magnificent Havana architecture signs speak of equality and liberation through education. "An illiterate person is a person prevented from developing his human condition," Jorge Gonzales Corona, assessor for the Ministry of Education, told us.
When Castro took power, fewer than one-quarter of Cubans were literate. Many couldn't afford school. One of Castro's first acts was to universalize education. He disbanded school for a year and sent everyone with a sixth-grade education or greater -- even students -- throughout the country to teach others. Today, 60 percent of Cubans ages 17 to 24 attend higher education, Corona says.
But he is not afraid to criticize the system, as well. Within the Ministry of Education, a faded and worn Soviet-style building with no air in the lobby to shoo the midday heat, Corona jokes that the story of education across the globe is the same: It's always underfunded.
Schools and teacher pay were neglected as Cuba's economy struggled after the Soviet Union's collapse, he says. Many kids dropped out of school to help their families. Yet as its economy improved in recent years, Cuba launched a program to pay dropouts to return to school.
Cuba's universal health care system is seen by many as a world model. Neighborhood clinics and municipal hospitals provide free treatment, including laser vision correction and cosmetic surgery to fix deformities. HIV and AIDS drugs cost nothing. Most clinics make do with outdated equipment and a shortage of supplies. Yet the country has a higher ratio of doctors to patients than the U.S., and Cubans live longer than we do.
The country's HIV infection rate is lower than anywhere else on our side of the planet. Cuba's nonpuritanical view of sex is key. Sex education begins in elementary schools, and AIDS-prevention posters geared toward both heterosexuals and homosexuals are tacked to the walls of a middle school classroom we visited. Contraception is free, and a new Cuban television show features a character with AIDS.
Cubans also have exported 26,000 of their doctors to help poor communities in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. And after hurricanes slammed Central America in the late 1990s, Cuba founded the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, where it provides free medical school to students from poor communities in other countries.
I met some of these 14,000 foreign medical students from 23 nations and was shocked to learn that about 110 are from poor communities here in the United States. One such student was Joaquin Morante. He's talented and smart and comes from the Bronx. Without Cuba, he says, he couldn't have pursued his dream of medical school.
Cuba offers 250 scholarships a year to U.S. students, who get a free medical education, room and board, and a stipend. They must repay Cuba by working in a public clinic at home for two years.
I asked Hernanda Casan, the deputy director of the Latin American School of Medicine, why Cuba would give free education to students from the U.S., a wealthy nation with no diplomatic relations with her own.
She smiled. "Our country is poor, but rich in human resources," she said. "We have students from the U.S. coming from the poorest communities, so Cuba opened our doors to them."
Cubans -- most of whom have some African ancestry -- feel a kinship with communities of color in the United States and around the globe. Across Havana, exquisite monuments honor Latin American and Caribbean patriots Simon Bolivar and Antonio Maceo. Marble planks at a Havana park named for Martin Luther King Jr. commemorate King, Malcolm X, and the slave insurrection leaders Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.
Black Cubans especially are wary of outsiders wishing to overthrow the Castro regime. They admit the revolution has been imperfect, but it also led to the end of codified racism and brought universal education and access to jobs to black Cubans. Without the revolution, they wonder, where would they be?
We journalists had a great deal of freedom to travel through Havana -- no handlers, no monitors. We could see that Cuba is not the great evil we are led to believe. Still, life is difficult for many Cubans.
Too often we saw beautiful young girls on the arms of much older, male European tourists. The government subsidizes Cubans' incomes with rent programs, food staples and other commodities. But imported items, such as soap and toothpaste, are too expensive for many Cubans to afford if they don't supplement their income in some other way.
One night, while mingling with the Cubans who flock to the Malecon on hot nights to cool off and socialize, we met a young man who bemoaned the racism he felt as a black Cuban. And the measly salary he earns as a security guard that prevents him from buying beer for friends or helping his mother patch the hole in her roof.
"In Cuba, I am spoiling my youth because (we) have no future, just the same monotony," he said, looking nervously over his shoulder. "I am afraid to talk about that."
But even this belies easy characterization. The poor in our country tell similar tales. In this regard, the Cuba you may not know offers a lesson. No nation produces only evils. No nation, only good. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff reporter at The Oregonian. Reach her at: 503-221-4316 or email@example.com