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A Glimpse of Cuba

by Johnny Verdad (Contact: email [email protected])

These vignettes are a glimpse of my experiences and the people met while visiting Cuba to see relatives this October 2002. All of the names have been changed to protect these contacts. Cubans shared their thoughts and stories at the personal risk of harassment, detention and even years in prison. I feel obligated to share what they told me with friends and perhaps the press as well. Any comments and criticisms are welcome.

Ay Cuba! Finally, after years of curiosity, Havana came into sight under my plane’s window. Cuba is the largest island in the Greater Antilles, a long extended claw that is home to Fidel Castro as well as about 11 million other Cubans. At 21-23 degrees north, Cuba lies on the same latitudes as Algeria, Egypt, India, Mauritania, Oman, Vietnam and Hawaii. My stated purpose necessary for the US to grant me a general license to travel to Cuba–was to visit my mother’s cousin whom no one from the Cuban side of my family had seen since the beginning of the Revolution (1959). But what I really wanted was to explore the land of Rum, Rumba and Revolution for the next three weeks.

While in Cuba, I would come to fall in love with the graciousness and humor of its people, the beauty of its land and climate and the charm of its architecture. But I would leave grieving over the poverty in the country, the grinding oppression, the lack of any semblance of human and civil rights, and the pervasive fear by Cubans of their own government. Though many Cubans would greet me with a smile, their disaffection and dwindling faith in the Revolution shocked me. I learned that the Revolution was for sale.

Ever since my father died five years ago, I have had a passion to learn more about my family’s roots. My father, an American, met my mother in Havana while on a business trip. It was love at first sight. They wed in 1954, years before the takeover by Castro in 1959. All but two of my mother’s relatives left Cuba by 1960 after their businesses and freedoms had been confiscated. My mother neither spoke of Cuba nor of her relatives still there. She even declined to visit her former friends from Havana who had settled in Miami. Not being a sentimental woman, she refused to reminisce about the past, especially a tragic past. She felt that Castro had laid waste to Cuba. She had moved on with her life.

I had pestered her with questions about her childhood. What she remembered most were the parties in Havana. She came of age in the early 1950s, the belle epoch, of Havana. My father used to joke that that is why the Revolution occurred–the rich were oblivious to the problems in the country. My Mom partied while the sugar cane burned.

I also begged my Cuban Aunts and Uncles for their remembrances of Cuba. Though I forget the details of their stories, I remembered their loathing of Fidel Castro’s lies and oppression, their sadness over losing their country and how they didn’t think my traveling to Cuba was such a bright idea. They worried that Castro’s thugs would hurl me into one of his island Gulags for some imaginary offense. One friend thought that my incessant curiosity would cause me to ask impertinent questions resulting in a stay behind bars. Later I would learn that tourists were almost a special, protected class. As one Cuban told me, “We have less rights than a dog while foreigners are treated like royalty.”

For my first night in Havana I chose to stay in an upscale hotel. The prices were as expensive as a hotel in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, but the services and food were miserable. Maybe the only reason Fidel was letting me onto his island was so my dollars could help bail out his plunging economy. That evening I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of hermetically sealed tourist buses waiting outside to take the package tourists to their next destination. State security agents in their black pants, white Guayabera shirts and walkie-talkies were everywhere. My hotel was safe from being stormed by hungry Cubans. Or perhaps the guards were necessary to protect some government dignitary. Anyway, I felt oppressed.

Most Cuban tours are highly structured and controlled by the government which doesn’t want to reveal too much of the Cuban reality. Most tourists come to the island on two-week packages. Few have direct contact with Cubans outside the tourist centers, much to the satisfaction of the Communist government. To Castro, tourism is a necessary evil and tourists are no more than dollar signs. “It’s out of necessity,” he would say apologetically. “Tourism is a sacrifice we must make. There is no choice.” Besides, if tourists can be herded from government owned hotels to tourist resorts, less dollars slip out of its control and onto the black market or other non-governmental entities like casa particulars (small bed & breakfast homes) or paladares (private restaurants). This is why upon arrival, custom agents often require bookings for three nights at a hotel by tourists entering the country.

I asked a young Cuban outside the hotel who was waiting to guide tourists why he was not allowed into a hotel in his own country. He replied, “There are places Cubans are not allowed to go. They (the government) don’t want Cuban people to mix with foreigners, they don’t want us to trouble you, to steal from you, or tell you the problems of our lives. We are all humiliated. “It must be difficult,” I said. “No, it is inconceivable,” he said.

After a night in a Cuban hotel, an experience I vowed never to repeat, I wanted to look up my relatives. I had obtained the address from my Aunt Tona, who told me the house had been in the family for generations. October is still a hot month in Havana. The sun blistered and my shirt became soaked from walking the 12 blocks from the hotel to my cousin’s house. When I stood in front of the door, I thought it might be condemned or abandoned. The house number was painted with whitewash in large scrawling letters by the door, the shutters were closed and the floorboards on the porch were cracked. The wooden doors seemed to be from the time of the Spanish Conquistadors. I went over to the next house to ask a neighbor if my cousin still lived there. “Si, claro, si” (yes, of course) came the reply.

I then knocked on the door. Immediately two barking dogs lunged against it. A commotion ensued, as the dogs were dragged back and a slat in the door opened. “Who is there?” a voice called out. “It is a relative of Garcia’s from New York, Juan,” I replied. The door opened and I stepped into a large foyer with high 14-foot ceilings. The home is a row house with two stories and windows facing the Malecon and the sea. It has an open-air interior garden at the center of the house. A row house indicated that my family had been rich enough to have a two-story house on a block with two to four story buildings throughout the neighborhood.

My second cousin, Garcia, certainly looked like one of my Grandfather’s nephews. He was tall, rail thin with white hair and a quiet English air about him. I had brought a photo album including a family tree with pictures of all my Cuban relatives. I pointed out that my mother, Elena, had been named after his mother, the sister of my Grandfather. We embraced, and he introduced me to his two daughters, three grandchildren, a daughter-in-law, and the mother of his deceased wife. Typical of many Cuban families, three generations were living under one roof. His grandson and daughter-in-law were living there since they could neither find nor afford other housing.

I was led through the house where my mother, aunt and uncle had grown up. It was where my Grandparents had raised their family and lived most of their lives. Most of the house now seemed in disrepair and decay. The walls had crumbling plaster, almost all paint had peeled away from doors, window frames and floors, and the shutters were cracked and missing slats. Forty years of salty air, sun and rainstorms had beaten the house into crumbling submission. My cousin could read my mind because he said that it had been difficult to maintain the house with the lack of paint, wood and other materials due to rationing and the economy. Though I thought the house was in similar condition to a deteriorating tenement, I would learn later that my family lived better than most Havana residents.

My mood was darkening. Any hope of bringing my mother back to Cuba was gone. She would be aghast to see her family home. And, thank the Lord, my Grandfather couldn’t see it either. Finally, Fredrico took me to where a pig was housed — kept for food. The pig’s vocal cords had been cut, since a squealing pig would alert neighbors to an illegal possession. The government prohibits livestock in Havana homes.

I sat with my cousin asking questions in my broken Spanish. Was he happy living in Cuba? What was most difficult about the current situation? What had the Revolution achieved? Garcia, 78, had lived all his life in Cuba working as a civil engineer. He was now retired, supplementing his $8 a month pension with a small business of selling ice water to vendors at the market behind his house. He was a cuenta propista, a small entrepreneur. Yes, he was happy because Cuba is peaceful with little crime. All children can go to school and, when they graduate, find work. He told me Castro fought for the liberty and sovereignty of Cuba after years of domination by the Spanish and the Americans. Castro had followed in the footsteps of Jose Marti. Yes, the economy was weak, but the embargo was the main reason. Cuba couldn’t buy needed supplies from the U.S. I was taken aback by my cousin’s answers, but I wasn’t going to probe any further. I accepted his beliefs at face value, but I promised myself to ask the same of other Cubans. I would revisit him after my travels through Cuba.

Then I walked over to the Malecon and sat with my back to the sea and Miami, 90 miles away. My emotions were conflicted. My cousin sat in a crumbling house with no new paint or plaster available to improve conditions, he had a pittance of a pension, and his house was jammed with relatives and even livestock, yet he was happy. Why? I would try to find out through my travels. Well, if he was content, who am I to judge, I thought.

My thoughts turned to Papa and Mama, my grandparents, and to my uncle and aunts who fled from Cuba during the Revolution. Did they have to leave in the middle of the night with police at their door? Did they think they would return? After spending 70 years of his life raising his family, building a business, working honestly, what was my Grandfather feeling and thinking as he packed his small suitcase while being exiled from his own country? His freedoms had been denied, his property stolen in the name of the State and his business confiscated. Was he fearful for his life? I couldn’t imagine how painful it must have been leaving for the airport and closing the door behind him; the same door I had entered ten minutes ago.

Ernesto Che had scribbled a warning in his notebook that revolution is impersonal, that it consumes the innocent and guilty together, and then manipulates the memory of the dead as an instrument of control. Perhaps my Grandfather and his family and millions more were consumed by the revolution, but for what purpose and at what price? Did the Cuban Revolution liberate Cuba from foreign domination or did the Cuban people just trade one dictator, Batista, for another, Castro? It was time to go ask the Cuban people.

It’s another hot, steamy night in Centro Habana as I am met on the street corner by Carlos, a jinitero or hustler, who asks me, “Quieres una chica, cigar o run?” I politely decline his offer of a woman, cigar or rum, but we hang out and talk. So what is life like in Castro’s Cuba, I ask? Glancing left and right, he says, Sin Libertad (without freedom). Next to us, four of his neighborhood buddies are playing dominoes for a bottle of rum while across the street several young men and women gyrate to disco music booming from a cassette player. I feel like it’s a block party.

See the full PDF below.

Cuba in socialist context: http://www.321gold.com/editorials/thomas/thomas120916.html