Crew Blog | Shawn Malia Kanaʻiaupuni: Heading to Cuba

Aloha mai kākou! As we cross the ocean on day 5 of Leg 18 of the Worldwide Voyage, we can see the faint outline of Cuba off in the distance about 25 miles away. It is about 90 miles south of the Florida Keys. The crew has been reading up on Cuba in preparation for our arrival. We’ve learned that Cuba is much larger than any of our Hawaiian islands, home to over 11 million people and spanning nearly 750 miles from east to west.

We are headed to the capital, Habana, on the northern coast of the western third of the island. It is the center of military, political and economic power. Hōkūleʻa will be hosted at the Marina Hemmingway in Habana. Most of the people in Cuba are mulatto, of mixed African and European descent, another third are white, and some 11 % are black. About 1% are Chinese, brought to Cuba to work as indentured laborers between 1853 and 1872 to fill shortages left by the end of African slavery. Culturally, we can expect to see a rich Afrocuban influence in music, religion, and art.

As in the British Virgin Islands, the language of Cuba’s first peoples, the Indigenous Taino-Arawak, is extinct, and in the case of Cuba, the indigenous people themselves suffered the same fate. Their lands were given to European colonizers and the people given to Europeans for mining and agricultural labor. Those who resisted were killed. After about 50 years, they too were largely extinct.

Today, nearly all Cubans speak only Spanish, which means our crew needs to bone up on our Spanish very quickly. We have a couple of crew members who speak the language fairly well and we are all working to get comfortable with everyday expressions, for example “gracias” (thank you), “por favor” (please) and “donde está el baño,” Spanish for where is the bathroom. Apparently, Cubans also use a lot of hand gestures when they speak, so we are pretty confident about finding ways to share our aloha and to communicate non-verbally if not verbally.

We’ve also been learning about Cuba’s past. Following a long history of colonization by Spain and subsequent invasions in 1898 and 1906 by the United States, Cubans developed a strong sense of national identity reinforced by the Revolution in 1959. A red flag with black letters mark the date in 1953 on July 26th, when Castro attacked army barracks at Moncada. The independence fighters lost and were put to death. Only one life was spared, that of Fidel Castro. This young lawyer gave an impassioned five hour speech at his trial, History will Absolve Me, which became the official date beginning the independence movement to free Cuba from its colonizers. Once Castro was released from jail, he and several supporters followed through and on January 1, 1959, Cuba became truly independent for the first time since it was colonized in 1511.

As a socialist country, Cuba centered itself on improving wellbeing and standards of living in an egalitarian society, including food, clothing, shelter, health, education, and work. It made significant strides in this goal. Before the socialist revolution, only 45 percent of the population had completed primary education, 9 percent secondary, and 4 percent higher education. But by 1988, those numbers were 100 percent, 85 percent, and 21 percent respectively. The percentage of income earned by those in the lowest salary bracket rose dramatically, as wealth was dramatically redistributed. Since the 1990s, economic issues have challenged these ideals, especially in the last 25 years. However, the Cuban people remain dedicated to their nation. They highly value social cohesion and emphasize collective rather than individual interests.

We are really looking forward to meeting some of the local poʻe and learning more about their perspectives and stories. Stay tuned for more coming soon.

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