In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous rule, communist Cuba opened its doors
to some of Cambodia’s most promising students, offering professional training and a
welcome taste of Latin life in the Caribbean’s favorite rebel stronghold.
San Seidaron, a doctor with the Department of Preventive Medicine, looks over photos taken during his 13-year stay in Cuba.
Studying in Cuba during the 1980s gave a select group of Cambodians more than the rare chance at a higher education – it offered an escape from the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime and the opportunity for a social rebirth in a sexually permissive, albeit staunchly socialist, country at the center of global Cold War aggression.
As many as 11 students a year used to travel to Cuba, but recently the number has dropped to just two because students now have to pay for their own flights. But the more than 100 Cambodian students who have studied in tropical Havana since the start of the scholarship program in 1982 all say they left with far more than just a degree.
“I had no education, I’d never seen a discotheque, I had only difficult times [before I left Cambodia], so my real upbringing was in Cuba,” said San Seidaron, a former medical student and now a doctor with the Ministry of Health’s Department of Preventive Medicine.
Seidaron, a Battambang native, grew up in “concentration camps” under the Khmer Rouge and in itinerant communities along the Thai border. Now a respected medical professional, Seidaron said that when he left for Cuba at age 23 he “didn’t have any experience with anything.”
But his 13 years in Cuba taught him more than just a profession: Seidaron reveled in the opportunity to experiment with the social freedoms to be found in Cuba’s “more liberal social environment.”
“It was all very new for me – sometimes you had a relationship with a girl for just one night,” he said. “Every person was very friendly. Cubans are constantly interacting with one another, and it was not divided by rank.”
Within six months of arriving in Cuba he spoke enough Spanish to have friends – and girlfriends – which heralded a “complete transformation”: he learned to interact and to regain his trust in others.
“I was offered a kind of friendship I’ll never forget,” he said.
For Hem Chanly, who went to Cuba in 1985 to study physical education, his time abroad provided a welcome break from the chaos at home in the 1980s.
Chanly had studied English, French, Vietnamese and Russian in high school but arrived in Cuba knowing only a few words of Spanish and “without a cent” in his pocket.
“I cried every day,” Chanly recalled. “I couldn’t eat the food. We didn’t understand other people. The only greeting I knew in Spanish was ‘good morning,’ but I’d say it at night and people would respond, ‘Not yet.’”
Despite this unpromising start, he left Cuba seven years later with a degree and a wife – a Cuban woman who now lives with him in Phnom Penh, where he runs a travel agency. He has fond memories of his days in Havana, and says he admires the Latin lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of talking and people open up more. In Cambodia, we don’t open up in the same way,” Chanly said, smiling as he recalled his surprise the first time a Cuban girl greeted him with a kiss on the cheek.
“There was music and dancing in the street. In Cambodia, you’d need to pay for something like that.”
From unfamiliar to beloved
For many students leaving Cambodia in the 1980s, Cuba was a virtual unknown.
“I only knew that Cuba was a communist country so I was afraid it would be like here,” Chanly.
Seidaron said he “didn’t even know where Cuba – or any other country for that matter – was on a map.”
Both, however, soon developed glowing impressions of their new home.
“Cambodians have always had the idea that Cuba is very poor, but the universities in Cuba were much more comfortable than the universities here,” said Seidaron, who, even after a decade back in Cambodia, has maintained a distinct Latin bearing and wears a tightly trimmed moustache.
While the isolated island state is often criticized for its closed political system and suppression of free speech, Chanly said he regularly engaged in political debate while in Havana.
“It’s wasn’t true that you couldn’t talk openly there,” he said, recalling class discussions in which he contradicted his philosophy teacher on Marxism.
Others were equally supportive of the regime and the ideals of its leader, Fidel Castro.
“I came to love Fidel and appreciate what he’s done for Cuba. I read nearly all of his speeches,” said Salin Samleang, who studied pedagogy in Cuba from 2001 to 2007 and has worked as a secretary and interpreter at the Cuban Embassy since returning.
“There’s a lack of political will to make anything happen [in Cambodia],” he said, adding “It’s certain, the way of life in Cuba is nobler than Cambodia’s.”
Seidaron, the doctor, finally left Cuba in late 1998, after the Cuban government requested he put his medical skills to use in his homeland.
But in Cambodia’s “environment of manipulation and bureaucracy,” he said he went two years without work and was desperate to return to Cuba.
“The doctors in Cuba were motivated by their hearts. In Cambodia, doctors are motivated by money, and someone who appears poor will not receive medical attention,” he said.
Chanly also said returning to Cambodia was a rude awakening, mainly because of the blatant corruption and the lack of opportunity to work in the profession he had trained for.
“I wanted to work in sports,” he said. “The second day I was back I went to Olympic stadium and my heart dropped. It was falling apart. I thought I couldn’t perform the career that I had planned.”
Chanly was given a job teaching in a high school and was told by Ministry of Education officials “that if I had some money to offer them, I could get a better job. I was surprised because in Cuba they wouldn’t speak openly about this sort of thing,” he said.