HAVANA, Cuba — Pavel García was always interested in helping young children. He spent his time coming up with ideas to organize sports and cultural events for his community. Project BarrioHabana was founded partly in honor of García’s son Fabio who had to undergo rehabilitation from the Perth illness. On April 20, 2015, the Municipal Directorate of Culture in Cuba recognized this sociocultural project for the community work it aimed to develop in the city of Old Havana.
In an interview with the Borgen Project, Pavel García shared, “I grew up in a little town close to Viñales [in Cuba], in a family that helped and loved the people living in a neighborhood which loved to share everything.” He moved on to study law at the University of Havana before he realized his interest in doing more to help younger people in his community.
About Old Havana
BarrioHabana is located in Old Havana, the oldest part of the city of Havana. Old Havana was founded over four centuries ago and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. This resulted in a huge restoration project throughout the area. It has also become an important tourist destination as it is larger than most Latin American historic centers. It is the traditional center of Cuba’s industries and entertainment, containing various historical buildings, museums, churches and other Spanish colonial structures.
However, it is also apparent that this part of the city is one of the poorest parts, especially in the southern half where there has been less restorative activity. Here decaying buildings expose the need for interactive methods, such as BarrioHabana, to teach children about the opportunities the world may offer them.
Project BarrioHabana is a voluntary, educational endeavor that draws on the support of the community in Old Havana. It aims to divert adolescents in the area from dangerous behaviors through playing soccer. It also aims to create a stronger connection between children and their overall involvement in the community. García shared, “We involve them in programs, activities or cultural events that happen in the city and give them good experiences to believe that a better future is possible for them too and that it depends on their efforts, their work and their education. We also work hard to show them that there is a correct way to earn money that they can see every day around them.”
BarrioHabana further supports the community by being extremely active. It organizes exhibitions and performances and food drives for the elderly. It also invites famous athletes to engage in workshops with the children. It is important to note that BarrioHabana only engages with official mechanisms that already exist within its surroundings to allow a greater range of institutions to educate and influence their community. It serves as a central location to open up various doors to different opportunities that may not have been considered before.
Pavel García realized quite early on in his planning of this organization that the kids in his neighborhood found it hard to identify themselves with out-of-school intellectual activities such as visiting museums. They felt that these were locations that only tourists could visit. He also recognized their avid interest in soccer, so he began by suggesting a tournament between all the schools in the neighborhood, which involved about 100 students.
García used soccer to complement their school studies in an attempt to help them better involve themselves in school. For example, students participate in a soccer tournament on pitches at the university through BarrioHabana. As a result, they are exposed to a university campus and the concept that further educational opportunities are available to them after they complete their basic education. García stated, “[Soccer] was the way to start the dialogue with them and develop many other beautiful, sad, difficult and amazing experiences during these 14 years.”
Education in Cuba
In Cuba, education is available to all, and there are institutions working to support families with their educational needs. Public education is considered one of Cuba’s top priorities. In fact, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Education is mandatory for students until the ninth grade. After this, students have the choice to attend pre-university programs or vocational schools. Currently, about 60 percent of students continue an academic path.
The government hopes to refocus this number to fit the country’s growing need for trained skilled workers and fewer academics. This is primarily due to an increase in tourism and the growing private sector. However, the country has also been experiencing a teacher shortage despite education being such a high priority. BarrioHabana fits well with these concerns as it has helped expose students to different possibilities in a range of careers that will hopefully shift these trends and benefit Cuba’s economy.
Today, Project BarrioHabana has extended to include a range of sports and activities that are highlighted in the Friendship Games, one of the many incredible initiatives of the organization. The Friendship Games is a competition in which all the schools in Old Havana participate and compete in soccer, chess, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and marathons. Pavel García hopes that the children and families that this project touches can benefit from new opportunities and experiences in the years to come.
– Adya Khosla