Sunday, March 13, 2016

Cuban prelude

Jet lag notwithstanding,
I'm back.
My Cuban adventure was everything I'd hoped it would be - 
and more.
Cuba is a fascinating, complex country
and I'll need more than one or two posts 
to describe my experience there;
 so either sit back and read along
or sign off and come back in a week or so 
when I've moved on to more mundane topics.

It will take a few days for me to get everything posted.
My return to work tomorrow - 
and orienting a new employee - 
will be time consuming and exhausting - 
and I'm old.

I'm dancing as fast as I can!

However, after my 10 day liver challenge in Cuba -
drinking my way across the country -
my suggestion would be to grab a beer or mojito 
and relax;
I'll get things posted as I can.
But first, my usual disclaimers.

I am NOT, even remotely, an expert on Cuban history,
the American/Cuban relationship
or Cuban culture.

I am however someone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis;
someone who vividly remembers the drills in elementary school
of going into hallways and covering ourselves with coats 
or crouching under our desks,
in fear of the nuclear bombs 
that would be launched at our country 
by the Russians 
from their base in Cuba.

As if my windbreaker from JC Penney would protect me 
from the fallout of a nuclear bomb impact or mushroom cloud!

Frankly it was oddly reassuring to see that they might have been 
as afraid of us as we were of them.

Over the years, I remember hearing about 'Fidel' and 'Che',
being told that all communists were 'bad'
and that living under a dictatorship 
was the very antithesis of our system of government. 
 This was 'back in the day' of the 'domino theory' in foreign policy- 
the fear that if one country 'went communist', 
all the other undeveloped, vulnerable countries, 
would follow suit 
like a string of falling dominoes,
and soon
 we'd be surrounded by 'Godless communists'
and our system of life would crumble.

(I found it ironic that, in Little Havana, Florida, 
there's a 'Domino Park' where many of the Cuban exiles 
gather to play the game every afternoon.)
Maybe I wouldn't have been able to as a child, 
but I'm pretty sure that now, if push came to shove, 
I could take one of them out;
I'm not saying it would be pretty
but it could happen!
 I knew our country had imposed an 'embargo' on trade to Cuba
in an effort to cause so much suffering to the Cuban people 
they would rise up against their dictator and force him out of power.

As an adult, 
I now understand that our government didn't have moral objections to a dictator,
we just wanted it to be one of our choosing, 
under our control.

I knew people were willing to risk their lives
to escape from Cuba to start a new life here in America.

I knew that many of the people who escaped the regime in Cuba 
now live in Florida;
they look across the 90 miles of sea separating them from their homeland
and desperately wish they could go back
under different circumstances.

I know that Cubans in exile are a powerful voice in Florida politics.

I know President Obama has made steps to 'normalize' our relationship with Cuba,
that sanctions may, at some point, be lifted
(as the majority of the countries in the United Nations have recommended for years) 
and that travel restrictions have been,
and may continue to be, loosened.

I know that many in the Cuban community in Florida are opposed to anything that would seem to legitimize a government that has been in power for over 50 years.

 Beyond that, I knew nothing.

So I was curious.
I wanted to see this country for myself.
I know that individual citizens are NOT their governments;
most people, 
in every country, 
are just trying to live our lives 
on a daily basis - 
and, for many of us,
 that's enough of a struggle.

We don't have energy left over for a revolution.
When the opportunity came for me to participate in a Road Scholar
'People to People' 
9 day trip to Cuba,
I couldn't say 'No'.

Here's the other part of the disclaimer:
this was a 'curated' trip.

There is no ability for visitors from the US to go to Cuba, 
rent a car, cruise around completely on their own 
with unlimited, unrestricted access to places and people.
All aspects of the tourist industry are state owned and controlled - 
the buses, bus drivers, guides, hotels -
all of them sponsored and monitored by the government.

What little 'free enterprise' or entrepreneurship there is
exists with the permission, or license, of the state.
That permission can be withdrawn on any provocation
with no explanation.

Our days were packed from 8:30 am - 9pm 
with visits to various sites of cultural or historic interest,
lectures by various Cuban 'experts' on religion, architecture, fine art etc;
again, all employees of the state.
Even the people we met for extended conversations as part of our "People to People exchange"
had been vetted by the government.

That's not to say they were dishonest or lying;
I do believe however that they have been 'conditioned' 
by virtue of where they live
to see things in a particular way
and to know the parameters through which 
they can express their reservations or criticism.

 While Road Scholar provides a bilingual guide from their company
whose job it is to oversee the details of the trip,
making sure things run smoothly for their customers,
(although I suspect not all come with a sock monkey)

the information shared 
and the day to day operation of the tour 
is under the direction 
of the state guide.

Ours was a delightful young woman, Yani, in her early 30's.
She has an infectious laugh, 
a willingness to be open about her life and opinions,
and an impressive knowledge of English,
spoken with a delightful accent.
(ex. 'Road Scholar' was "Rose Collar"; 'yachts' were 'jots').
(Think a cuter, petite, more dynamic version of Desi Arnez)

 She also has a deep love for her country 
and a limited frame of reference.

She has never been off the island.
She has never seen any other country.
She has never known another form of government.
She has lived under the dictatorship of a single family her whole life.

She went to school and gathered every day 
for 10 minutes 
with her classmates in the courtyard and, 
after they sang the National Anthem, 
they were told the news the government thought was important for them to know.

So, when she pointed out 'restored' buildings, 
saying they were the most beautiful in Cuba
and that they were "world treasures", 
 I couldn't help but wonder how she'll feel if/when she ever gets off the island 
and experiences for herself 
some of the other beautiful heritage sites 
that so far surpass theirs.
This is not to say that there weren't lovely buildings and areas in Cuba that have been, 
or are in process of being,
 beautifully restored;
there were.
but the un-curated, 
un-restored areas,
were never far out of range,
and they spoke to a reality different than the state sponsored public one.
Anyone who has lived on an island 
or near a sea coast 
knows how damaging 'normal' salt air can be to houses and cars;
not to mention the destruction caused during hurricane season or tropical storms;
upkeep is an ongoing concern.

It's a problem that has clearly exceeded the ability of the Cuban government to keep up. 

Yani mentioned that about 3 houses a day in Havana completely collapse -
from lack of maintenance.
It was easy to believe.

All of which is to say that, 
while I'll be showing you lovely places,
don't be fooled into thinking that's all there is to Cuba;
there's always more than meets the eye
Don't think I was fooled either.

If you ever want to see proof that communism, or a dictatorship,
as forms of government don't work well,
you just have to look at Cuba.

But the consequences of their politics doesn't negate
either the beauty of their country
or the warmth of the people we met every day.
 Our tour was like having a meal of tapas - 
small tastes of a lot of different things,
but not so much of any one thing 
that you felt completely satisfied.

It left me wanting more.
I know I'll go back.

Yet, for this one trip,
it was just enough time.
I was ready to come home.


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