Looking through photos and listening to Cuban music take Chilean Ignacia Paz Ugás Cádiz back to the years she spent studying in Cuba, from August of 2009 through July, 2014, at the International Sports and Physical Education School, located in San José de las Lajas, in what is now the province of Mayabeque.
She clearly remembers two significant moments from the era: hearing the speech given by Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro on the University of Havana's Grand Stairway, to inaugurate the academic year, in September of 2010, and a concert by singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez in a park in the Havana community of Managua, at the time when he was conducting his second tour of the city's neighborhoods.
The sports specialist offered her point of view to Granma International via email, "For me, Cuba was a turning point in my life. I left Chile, a timid girl and I came back an empowered woman. I had always read about the Cuban Revolution; I participated in politics in my country, but when I got to the island, that flame, wanting to do what was right in the world, grew even more."
She heard about scholarships in Cuba from relatives who were members of the Communist Party of Chile and other leftist organizations, and went through the rigorous selection process along with hundreds of youth seeking the opportunity. She was able to present her excellent secondary school academic record, and convinced Cuban professors in an interview of her commitment to a career in sports.
In Cuba, she was provided room and board, all coursework and materials, free of charge. The only commitment she was asked to make was that she would return to her country of origin and contribute to society - with no student debt to repay. The International Sports and Physical Education School was inaugurated by Fidel on February 23, 2001, in buildings that had been part of a military school, and thousands of youth from more than 80 Third World nations have studied there.
Among the stories she tells of her first year in Cuba, Ignacia especially recalls her friendship with several Cuban families who took her into their homes, making for a true cultural exchange: "These Cubans opened their homes to me, shared their food, affection, and hundreds of special dates like birthdays, Mothers' and Fathers' Day, New Year's, and Christmas," she said, mentioning names like the couple Líber and Zulema, who worked at the school.
She had the opportunity to visit many Cuban cities, mainly in the western province of Pinar del Río, since this is where she completed her professional practicum with the province's soccer team, and in Frank País Elementary School, where she conducted action research for her thesis. Recalling this experience, she said, "Cuban children love Physical Education; they come out euphorically to participate. It was a novelty for them to have a teacher from another country; they noticed my foreign accent, but showed respect. It was very satisfying to prepare a class they would enjoy."
Ignacia recalled that she learned in Cuba how Physical Education is just as important as subjects like Mathematics or Science. Habits are formed at an early age when several sessions are held every week, she noted, and participating in sports contributes to living a healthy life.
The young Chilean continued, "I sincerely hope that, given my convictions and that of my classmates at EIEFD, we can provide physical education like we learned in Cuba. I would like to see us generate real change in educational curricula in our nations, to create spaces for the prevention and resolution of problems that affect our countries, as a result of the heartless capitalist system."
Ignacia Paz Ugás Cádiz currently lives in the municipality of Florida, in Santiago de Chile, and is unfortunately unemployed, but had until recently worked as coordinator of after-school activities in this neighborhood. She maintains a close relationship with her Cuban professors and friends, staying in touch via Internet.
She is a member of the political party Izquierda Ciudadana (Citizens' Left) which calls for support of the country's most marginalized communities, providing material and cultural assistance. Ignacia also participates in an organization called Colectivo Siboney, which is part of the Chilean national solidarity with Cuba movement.
This group supports Cuba in all its international struggles, especially demanding an end to the criminal economic, commercial, and financial blockade imposed by the United States, and the return of territory occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base.
Activists contribute to disseminating the truth about Cuba and unmasking media campaigns to distort and manipulate the country's reality.
As for immediate and future plans, Ignacia said, "I intend to continue my studies, something that is difficult in my country, since big companies have made education a business. On my own, I am making the sacrifice and saving money to get my Masters. I want to contribute, via sports, to a change of the people's mentality, to vindicate, in this way, free of charge, the legacy which our historic leader Fidel Castro Ruz left us.”