UNESCO in Havana

Blog #7: Final Reflections-Advice on Traveling and Conducting Research in Cuba

By: Elena Saavedra (7/29/2016)

As my stay in Cuba ends and I get ready to come back to my life in Washington D.C. I thought that the best way to end my blogging would be to reflect on the things I learned and offer some insights for the next fellow or any student from the United States (YUMA as you will be referred to here) coming to live and do research in Cuba.

My first advice I can give to you is to not be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them. After 3 months of being here it is still hard for me to come to terms with the fact that just because something worked once or was available once, I will be able to access it through the same means. This goes from anything from losing that opportunity to buy chicken breasts in a store to accessing money.  You always have to be ready to have another plan or plan ahead for when your first strategy actually does work and doesn’t the second time.
The next advice I have for anyone traveling or planning to live here temporarily is to not be afraid to try local food establishments and knock on people’s doors to find housing.  Also, don’t shy away from using the bus system. If you are from Washington D.C., Havana’s bus system will make you feel like you are back home. It’s just as reliable, crowded, and air-conditioning free. It even smells like a DC metrobus! The only different is that it costs about 1/40 of the price we pay.


If you are planning to stay in Vedado, there are a few restaurants I recommend. All these places you can eat great food for as little as $0.50 and everything under $10. They are also among the most popular in the area and you may even find people asking you for directions to them:

5ta y A  for if you are in the mood for burgers

Doña Esmeralda– best pizza in the neighborhood for $0.50 per personal pizza

Chuchería they are even known on trip advisory for their amazing sandwiches

Razones the place to go for seafood

Next is housing. You will want to find housing with a licensed landlord. All licensed landlords will have this sign somewhere on the property. The blue is for foreigners and the red is only for Cubans.IMG_3868 (2)

Don’t be afraid of asking other foreigners how much they pay for rent. This is the only way to figure out the market. Also try to avoid Airbnb because since there is no access to Paypal, sometimes there is a 3rd party involved based in another country. I’ve heard it can get super complicated and expensive.

My final piece of advice regards research (PLEASE NOTE I CAN ONLY SPEAK FOR EDUCATION RESEARCH). Someone here told me great advice regarding this topic “to be a good researcher you must look past your presumptions and see things through different perspectives because what you may have originally thought might end up being far from what is actually the case”. Conducting good research takes time and unlike in our country where there is open government data and unlimited access to wifi, the most reliable data systems for research will be through the universities. However, these may not always work. Thus, I found it extremely useful to explore the research conducted by doctorate and master’s students from their thesis projects. Also, try to connect with professors and faculty members from universities. For me, it was easy to find emails and contact information through people I met and just showing an interest in their subject of expertise. Once I started working with one person from the university, it became easier to find out about doctorate thesis defenses and other events, which gave me a better grasp of the Cuban education psychology (although I still have a lot more to learn). Personally, this was the best part of the fellowship experience and I recommend that anyone who plans to do this fellowship program take advantage of this opportunity.

Blog #6: Internet in Havana and Communicating with the Other Fellows

By: Elena Saavedra (7/15/2016)

If you ever wondered how the 5 of us communicate being in 3 different time zones, 4 different continents, and one person in the island with the worst internet access in the western hemisphere then you are in luck because this blog will reveal all our secrets (okay, just one).

As I had mentioned in a previous blog post, Cuba’s internet access is limited and quite expensive. Access is available only in hotels, office buildings, media organizations, schools, some parks, and about 4% of households (excluding those who have internet illegally). As I have recently discovered, internet access in Cuba is operated through a submarine cable transmitted through Venezuela and two satellites, one from Japan and one from Russia. As you can see from the picture, Cuba is the only country with the least number of cables transmitting internet services. cuba cables

As a result, public access to internet is very slow. Fortunately, the UNESCO office has an antenna to pick up satellite signals.


For most of my time here, the internet via satellite at the UNESCO office has been slower than what I am used to back home but more reliable that what is available to the public. I have been able to use all the applications on my phone and communicate with the other fellows through WhatsApp (What has now become our go-to for communicating with one another). Communication between us worked great until something shifted in either the positioning of the satellite or the antenna and WhatsApp stopped working. While I can’t tell you why WhatsApp stopped working while all other Applications on my phone worked, I can tell you that getting that application to start working again (as well as fixing our internet in general) required a laborious process involving multiple people to reposition our enormous antenna so that it could pick up a better signal from a satellite floating thousands of feet above Hawaii. Experiencing this satellite fiasco made even more apparent, that just like everything else in Cuba, figuring out a solution is a perplexing adventure that forces you to look at what once seemed like a mundane task in a new way.

Since last week, our antenna has been in sync and our internet is back to normal, except now it takes a little less time to load a webpage and I am now able to see my family through IMO when I use my phone in different areas of the building. Before I would see them for only a few minutes and then they would all morph into floating potatoes on my screen.

Martí portrait I found near the office

For the rest of Cuba that has internet access in public parks, I have seen it improve since I first used it. I don’t know if it’s due to the fact I got more used to it, but I do know that improving internet access is a top priority for the country, particularly for improving internet access in schools. Additionally, there are now applications available for your phone which tell you about the cultural events occurring in Cuba and more and more organizations are making Facebook pages. In terms of what the normalization process has done for Cuba, Google has already started offering its services to the island. The Obama Administration is also very interested in expanding telecommunications in Cuba. In the meantime, I will continue to keep my fingers crossed that the antenna and the satellite stay aligned and that a shark doesn’t nibble on the submarine cable.

Blog #5: The Quest for an Omelet

By: Elena Saavedra (6/16/2016)

If you ever ask anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping in Cuba they will most likely describe it as a scavenger hunt where the prize is whatever you manage to find at the right time of day and before everyone else figures out what store you shopped at. After one month and a half of living in Havana, I have learned the art of perseverance and planning ahead—visiting four or five stores before finding what I am looking for, even if it’s only for one thing. Meanwhile, I have also learned to plan my meals around what is available at the time. In most cases, that includes a lot of pasta, rice, chicken, hotdogs, and ground meat (what is typically available in grocery stores in addition to the occasional fish fillets and whole turkeys). With the help from my colleagues at UNESCO, I have found different vegetable and fruit stands. Overall, I have figured out ways to fill my fridge with enough produce to keep up with the other GW fellows who are on their ways to becoming culinary masters in addition to their Master’s degree, although my food never turns out looking quite as good as Jen’s.

Of all the experiences I have had grocery shopping, the most difficult find has been eggs. Not just because of their limited availability, but also due to my bad luck and poor judgement. Since many of my coworkers were involved in my quest to find eggs, I felt this experience is worth writing about, not just because of the humor but also because it will give you a general sense of how the food distribution system, or rations system, in Cuba, also known as “la libreta” as explained in this short video.

You should also check out the song about “la libreta” by the comedian Pánfilo.

Finding Eggs

Back home I am used to eating eggs quite often. After a few weeks, I began to really miss eating eggs in all its forms—scrambled, hard boiled, fried. First the craving started with the hardboiled eggs and soon it progressed. No matter how many grocery stores I went to those first couple weeks, I could not find eggs anywhere. I shared my frustration with my coworkers and my landlord, who all let me know that eggs were hard to find in Cuba and that when they are available, everyone rushes to go get some, particularly since some of them they get for free (6, or in some municipalites 5, for each person in your household if you are a Cuban national). They also let me know that grocery stores don’t sell eggs, but rather stores that are offer the rations. In an effort to help me out, my Cuban coworkers offered to give me some of their eggs to satisfy my cravings until they were more readily available.

Finally, my days of waiting were over one day after work when I found a few people outside the office carrying cartons of eggs. Where were these people coming from? I soon learned that close to the office there was a store that also served as a location where Cubans could pick up their rations for the month. The store doesn’t look at all like your typical grocery store and it even operates on a different schedule, opening up in the morning until about noon and then again at 4 pm, unlike other grocery stores that typically operate from 8 am- 6pm.

Buying Eggs

The next day I decided to finally get some eggs after work. When I went into the store, I was first very confused. There were several stations which each served a different purpose, one was for pork meat, one was for chicken, and one was for eggs, rice and other miscellaneous cooking ingredients like tomato sauce. Each station had a line and the store was pretty packed. After asking around, I figured out what line was for eggs and I made my way through the line. When it got to my turn, I ordered a dozen eggs, expecting to get a carton container to take home; instead the eggs got neatly placed into a plastic bag which I then had to carefully carry back to my apartment several blocks away.

Taking the Eggs Home

While I never quite understood the idiom “Walking on eggs shells”, walking home that day from the store, I realized that it should really be changed to “Walking with eggs in a plastic bag”. Each step I took I had to be very careful not to move to suddenly or alternate between hands. Unfortunately, I wasn’t careful enough, because when I got home I noticed that one of the eggs had cracked.


Once I got the eggs out of the bag, I noticed a spot for eggs in my fridge. As you see from the picture, the fridge most likely witnessed the Cuban revolution (perhaps even Spanish colonialism) and was probably a good place for eggs at some point in its long life.

Yet, I was so excited with my eggs I didn’t even both to think twice about placing the eggs so close to the freezer section. So of course, the eggs froze and my plans of morning omelets and French toast were temporarily shattered.


After a few days in the fridge, the eggs started to crack. They were no longer salvageable and I had no other option but to go get some new eggs. The second time, I came prepared with a Tupperware container at hand.

And if you are now wondering, yes, I have now had eggs every day this week!

Blog #4: Digital Technology in Cuba: Capacities, Uses, and Risks

By: Elena Saavedra (6/5/2016)
(Photo credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Last Thursday I went out with a group of friends I met through an international social network of people temporarily working in Havana. As we exchanged stories about where we were from and our interests, we began talking about how we all had to adjust to having limited access to internet. We were all so used to having unlimited access to the internet on our phone and having the capability to easily share photos and add each other on Facebook or other social media sites in a matter of seconds. That night, we couldn’t add each other on social media sites, however we were able to share photos from that night via AirDrop. AirDrop is a function on apple smartphones that enables the transfer of files, videos, and photos between apple phones within 30 feet of each other without the use of internet.

Using smartphones to share files, photos and videos is quite common in Cuba, in particular Havana. This has become more widespread through the use of applications, such as Zapya, which enable file transfers between different types of smartphones, not just apple phones. Since androids are used more than apple phones in Cuba, Zapya has opened up more opportunities for sharing and accessing information in a more cost-effective way.

In order to understand how file transfer technology, such as Zapya and AirDrop, has significantly transformed information sharing in Cuba, it is important to recognize that internet access, as well as, cell phone services are very expensive for most of the population. While cell phone ownership is widespread, not everyone has the money to afford cell phone coverage or buy internet access cards. Thus these types of applications and smart phone functions serve as a great alternative to keeping up with the latest music, news, and memories with friends and family.

Despite its advantages, these technologies can also increase the risk of cyberbullying and violations of privacy. Adolescents are the most vulnerable to these risks, not just because of their stage in development but also because they are the group that uses Zapya the most. Since Zapya has become more widespread, schools have reported a number of cases of dating violence involving leaks of sexual photos that were originally sent between two people in a relationship. While the number of reported cases are not as high as in other countries where there is more internet access, these cases demonstrate that there is a need to investigate these issues further in order to problem solve a solution before it escalates as it has in other countries.

In order to better capture the use of digital technology and internet access among adolescents, I have been working with La Universidad de Ciencias Pedagógicas Enrique José Varona (UCPEJV) to design and administer a survey exploring digital behaviors and perspectives on the risk factors that may arise in communicating through social media and cellphones and in sharing photos and videos. The study will not only investigate the use of Zapya, but will also explore the uses of Facebook, WhatsApp, and IMO. The purpose of the study is two-fold. First, to contribute to studies which have already been conducted by UCPEJV and UNESCO on bullying and technology by combining both topics. Second, to inform teachers and school counselors about the uses of these new technologies in order to aid them in the development of lesson plans and strategies that promote protective behaviors and safe digital uses.

Blog #3: May 25-“Orange Day”afiche-yo-digo-no-a-la-violencia

By: Elena Saavedra (5/27/2016)

Every 25th of the month is known as “Orange Day” – a day to take action to raise awareness and prevent violence against women and girls. In commemoration of the 25th day of this month, the United Nations in Havana hosted an event to discuss the prevalence of violence against women in Cuba. During the event, there was a screening of the documentary, “Estoy vivia…Lo voy a contar”, followed by an open discussion about the film. While the documentary was only 45 minutes, the content of the film was extremely powerful, serving as a reminder of the different forms of violence that women experience globally, yet are oftentimes overlooked and have been historically avoided. The film is narrated by 14 women from different parts of Cuba who retell their painful memories of violence and how they developed the resilience to overcome their traumas. Each woman told a different story and shared a unique challenge. Despite their experiences, all their stories touched on the cultural issues that are relevant to many nations around the world, not just in Cuba. This connection was a main topic of conversation during the group discussion after the film.

The group discussion, led by an international group of feminists, touched on many interesting dimensions that relate to risks factors associated with gender violence. One of these dimensions was health education and what it means to be literate in terms of knowing your rights and knowing where and who to go to for help. As one person noted, while having formal education may serve as a protective factor, people are still at risk of violence, especially if violence occurs in the home and is perpetrated by those they love and trust. For many women, the home is the main source of violence in their lives. It is important for us as a society to understand the fundamental need to address the cultural factors that contribute to violent behaviors and power dynamics between genders. Since cultural factors are generally the root causes of violence, it is vital to raise awareness about the importance of changing harmful cultural norms and promoting norms that foster respect.

Blog #2: Addressing Gender Issues in Cuba

By: Elena Saavedra (5/17/2016)

During the past 2 weeks, I have spent a lot of time learning more about the education work of the UNESCO Havana office and about the education system in Cuba. During my first week, I got the chance to visit La Universidad de Ciencias Pedagógica Enrique José Varona (UCPEJV), a university dedicated to teaching and an institution that produces a number of research studies which have been used to aid the project work of UNESCO Havana. The campus houses all levels of education, from pre-kindergarten to higher education as well as UNESCO associated schools used for testing new pedagogical practices and approaches. There is also the famous literacy campaign museum where visitors can learn about the national literacy campaign that was executed during the 1960s.

The National Literacy Campaign Museum
Sign for the Museum








I found the trip to UCPEJV to be a very enriching experience. Not only did the visit put into perspective the role that the university plays in the work of UNESCO Havana, but it also helped me to gain a better understanding of the environment in which teachers and students interact and the types of resources available to them. While the learning environment was very different than what I am used to seeing in the United States, their current research studies and project work with UNESCO demonstrates that their agenda is similar to that of the United States in that they are both focused on addressing factors that impact the social development of students, such as bullying and gender parity.

Throughout the 2015-2016 FY, UCPEJV, with the funding and support of UNESCO, conducted two studies examining gender differences in behavior among students in middle school and high school. One examined gender differences in the prevalence of homophobia and bullying based on sexual orientation. The other study investigated patterns in the use of technology (e.g., video games, computer use, television use, and cell phone use). While the studies used a small sample, both reported differences in patterns among gender. These results will be further explored through more expansive and thorough investigations in the near future.

The interest in the topic of gender at UCPEJV and in Cuba is influenced by a number of stakeholders, most importantly as mentioned in their report, by the Cuban Government’s campaign against prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. Since appearing as one of the objectives in the country’s 2012 agenda, the government has greatly increased its support to civil society groups in the prevention of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. The government involvement has been largely led by Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro who has been invovled in addressing the island’s gender issues for a lot longer. The government has demonstrated their support through television and radio broadcasting and in speaking at events on behalf of these issues.

Mariela Castro Speaking at the Eighth Annual March Against Homophobia and Transphobia

This weekend was the ninth annual march against homophobia and transphobia. While the event had a large turnout, the presence of men surpassed that of women and transgender people. Meanwhile, the health promotional materials were largely focused on HIV/AIDs awareness and were focused almost entirely on men. In speaking to a colleague at the UNESCO Havana office, we realized that as a humanitarian agency, this was an issue that we needed to bring up to advocacy groups and other stakeholders. In doing so, we hope that in future events, there will be more inclusion of all genders and that there will also be more representation of the psychological and cultural issues that infiltrate bullying, exclusion, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. Fortunately there are many groups, including academic groups based in UCPEJV, who are working to close gender representation gaps and address the cultural and societal factors that contribute to these types of gender imbalances.

Blog Post #1: Being the First U.S. Fellow in UNESCO’s Havana Office

By Elena Saavedra (5/8/2016)

I never considered myself as being a pioneer or a very adventurous person, but I always thought that if I was ever put in that situation I would have some big shoes to fill. As the first fellow from the United States in the Havana office, my work will not only reflect my personal professional growth, but will also shape the development continuing US representation in the office. My goal for this this blog is to share with you what it is like to be the first representative from a country in a regional cultural office, and in doing so, you can also partake in this experience.

The Office

If you ever visited the neighborhood of Vedado in Cuba, you will probably first walk by the UNESCO office and completely overlook it. This is because every building possesses a unique history and background, making it easy to get lost in the mystery and wonder of Vedado. Once you find the office, you are quickly mesmerized by its elaborate entrance hall that you can see from the outside gate. Inside, you will find frescos in the walls, early 20th century architecture, and stain glass windows.

As I mentioned before, each house in Vedado has a rich history, in the case of the UNESCO office, it previously housed the owners of “El Encanto”, a store that was known internationally by musicians, artists, and the wealthy. The store owners were Spanish immigrants who left Cuba during the Revolution.

My First Day

I could not have pictured a better first day, nor could I picture a more welcoming office environment. As a work environment that is used to having temporary international staff, everyone is very supportive not only of helping staff adjust to the work of UNESCO but also in helping new staff understand the basic necessities of living in Havana such as finding affordable temporary housing, understanding the Cuban currencies, banking, groceries, and accessing a Cuban telephone line.

Besides the supportive staff, one of my favorite qualities about the Havana office is the endless supply of coffee and candy that the staff members provide for each other. Without knowing this, I came prepared for this by arriving with two bags of starburst candies. While many of the staff had never had starbursts before, it was happily received and gone within hours. For someone who is an introvert like me, I had brought candy as a way to meet other staff. It was helpful for me, and through handing out candy I was able to meet many of my coworkers and discover that there were several other staff members named Elena. By the end of the day I had about 5 nicknames. I can’t remember all of them but I am able to recognize them when I hear them!

The UNESCO Havana building
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