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EXCLUSIVE: Reports From Cuba By Soraya Diase Coffelt: Jews Fled Island After Castro Took Power

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Soraya Diase Coffelt, JS, MJS


It’s hard to believe that this is the third day of my visit to Cuba. I’ve been like a sponge, soaking in all that my five senses can absorb about this beautiful country.

We had an extremely busy day today and continued to learn a great deal about Cuban ingenuity and tenacity amid very challenging circumstances.

Education is very important for Cubans. It is free from first grade through college and is mandatory up to 9th grade. Students are required in high school to select whether they want to attend a trade school or college. If they want to go to college, they are tested to determine what field of study to go in to. 

In all, there are 67 universities in the country, including many medical and law schools. The total student enrollment in all the universities is 150,000, with 45% studying medicine.

Upon entering college, a student embarks on a 5-year study program in a particular field. After graduating, each student is required to give back to the government by providing mandatory “community” or “social service” for a certain period of time — two years for men and three years for women. This service is assigned to them in their particular field and they receive a small salary for their work. Young men spend one additional year in compulsory military service. 

We toured the campus of the University of Havana, known to be the top university in Cuba, with a total enrollment of 14,000 students. It offers 65 masters degrees and 40 doctoral degrees and has a faculty of 2,000 professors.

Fidel Castro was a student at the law school as well as a leader of the student organization. There is an Army tank outside the law school which serves as a symbol and reminder of freedom the Cuban people obtained from the dictator Batista in 1959 as a result of the Castro-led Revolution.

After touring the university, we attended a lecture by Cuban professor Jorge Mario Sanchez Egozcue, an expert in economics and international relations, in which he gave his perspective on the complex issues surrounding the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Since December, 2014, when President Obama declared the normalization of relationships with Cuba, there has been much steady progress. First, diplomatic relations were re-established, and the American embassy was reopened in Cuba. Second, Cuba was removed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Third, there was an ease in restrictions on travel, banking, and remittances (money sent to Cuba by Cubans residing in the states). And, fourth, there was an increase in telecommunication links allowing internet services to improve.

There, however, remain pending issues, including those surrounding the base at Guantanamo as well as compensations which the U.S. and Cuba are each seeking against the other for the losses they sustained as a result of the Revolution.

Looking toward the future, Professor Sanchez described the ultimate full normalization of relationships as causing a “tourist tsunami.” The U.S. imposed the embargo against Cuba in 1963 and 82% of Cubans only know about life in Cuba during the years of the embargo. Dramatic changes will occur as a result of the opening of its doors to the Americans.

We also visited the Sephardic Hebrew Center and learned about the struggles of that group in Cuba. Before the Revolution, there were 15,000 Jews residing in Cuba, with most of them having moved there from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Spain. Currently, there are less than 1,000 Jews, as many fled to either the U.S. or Israel. The Jews embraced the Cuban culture while still preserving their roots, and are known as the Cuban Hebrews or Los Hebreos Cubanos.

Since music and dance is so vital to Cuban life, we visited two renowned dance groups and observed their unique performances – the Malpaso Contemporary Dance Company and Havana Compas Dance, both of which have performed around the world. These dancers are dedicated to their art form and intent on being good will ambassadors for Cuba.

Last, but not least, we had a great deal of fun riding in the colorful vintage American convertibles that populate the streets of Havana. These vehicles were in Havana before the trade embargo was imposed in the 1960s, and then afterwards, the owners did a magnificent job maintaining them, despite the scarcity and high cost of replacement parts.

What an exciting day we had today and tomorrow is equally promising. I certainly hope that the Internet will be working so that I can send out this article and accompanying photos. From Havana, as the Cubans say, ciao (goodbye).

Soraya Diase Coffelt is a longtime St. Thomas resident, a retired Superior Court Judge and former V.I. Attorney General for the Mapp Administration who has a JD and MJS in law. She is visiting Cuba as part of a “people to people exchange” in conjunction with her alma mater Cornell University.

Soraya in Cuba 1


Soraya Diase Coffelt stands next to a vintage car.

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Soraya Diase Coffelt

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