June 16, 2017

June 16, 2017
Grandma and Grandpa

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fantasy Island

Before our recent trip to Cuba, I had a fairly idealized image of the Socialist Island nation. I imagined that there would be no homeless people (there weren't) and few if any class differences like we see in the states. I imagined that all people would have health care (they do, but it's more complicated than that) and that everyone would have meaningful work (everyone has work, but not everyone has meaningful work.) I imagined the quaintness of all those old American cars on the roads. (They were there, but these cars were hobbies, too, often taxis for tourists. There were newer cars and buses--especially tourist buses--and old square Russian cars along with the grander old American ones.)

My Cuba education started in Little Havana, in Miami, the day before flying to Cuba. A group of us was on a city tour and had stopped in Little Havana for Cuban coffee. I was the slowest one of the group, so Ann and I were the last to leave the coffee shop window. As we started to walk away, a man in his sixties (I would guess), ran out of the shop, and--red-faced and sweating--screamed at us, "Are you going to  Cuba?" I said that we were, and he screamed, "I hope your boat sinks, and you all die." I thought about mentioning that we would be taking an airplane, not a boat, but thought better of it. Of course, our mode of transportation was beside the point.

I had known before our trip that many Miami Cubans hate Castro for capturing their wealth and taking over their homeland and their way of life. Before going, I thought perhaps their involuntary sacrifices were necessary and insignificant in light of a more just society. This red-faced man humanized their losses for me, and although he had wished me dead, I was glad he didn't have a heart attack.

Before our flight to Cuba, the 24 of us on the Road Scholar educational tour met our Miami guide. We would meet our Cuban guide in Cuba. Both were extraordinary people and guides. Our Miami guide told us, "You are going to Cuba with questions, and you will return with more questions than you came with, but these questions will be smarter." I think she was right.

I found much that was compelling in our two weeks traveling from Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba to Havana, about 90 miles from Miami: indeed, I did not see one homeless person in those two weeks, I met many artists whose work the culture honored; the people I met seemed to embrace the Revolution's values of equality. 

But much seemed broken in Cuba, and this surprised me. For starters, in addition to the Cuban flag there are memorials to war everywhere. Of course, I already knew that the Cuban hero Che Guevara was a fighter. (I had read an extensive biography about him years ago when his image was appearing on so many t-shirts, and I wondered if he might be my hero, too. I'm a peacenik, so he isn't, and I've never worn his likeness.) There were endless cannons and fortresses, endless buildings still pockmarked with holes from the Revolution's gunfire. 

There were also statues everywhere of Jose Marti, another Cuban hero but of the War of Independence from Spain in the late 1800s. Marti was an intellectual and a writer (even a poet!), and I had first learned about him as an inspiration for freedom in El Salvador. I find more to celebrate in Marti than in Che, and his story feels more complicated to me. When, if ever, is violence the right response to injustice? I don't know. My friendships with people in rural El Salvador have raised this question, too, and this question remains with me as I reflect on my Cuba experience now. 

In addition to being pockmarked, many of the buildings, like the infrastructure, are crumbling. (We learned from an architect that an average of three buildings a day collapse in Havana. Sometimes they've been abandoned, and sometimes people are in them.) There was the "Special Period," the decade of the 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse, when people were so hungry that pets--presumably eaten in desperation--started disappearing from households. 

The narrow sidewalks were impossible for Ann to help me navigate with my disabilities, and I asked some "lively elders" how they get around. Graciela burst into a litany of falls and pointed to bruises and cuts on her right elbow, left shoulder, and right cheekbone: a recorded history of broken sidewalks and unmarked drop-offs. (Though other than the fact that the sidewalks were narrow with a steep drop off, they were in better shape than Seattle's sidewalks.) 

I remember seeing two curb cuts, both in Havana, the whole time I was in Cuba, and several times I went on my rear down long uneven staircases without railings . (Fortunately, pride about such things isn't a big issue for me.) Cuba is no place for people with disabilities, though of course there are lots of people with disabilities there. When I asked where they were, I was told that maybe they "prefer" to stay indoors. I'm guessing they don't really have a choice.

My biggest surprise was probably in the differences in socio-economic classes. I had guessed that I would see little differences, and though it's true that many people were living frugally--to be euphemistic--it was clear that people--generally with light skin, who received remittances from relatives in the United States were doing better financially and had more options than those without U.S. relatives. The color difference surprised me: like in the U.S., people of African decent in Cuba have a rougher time economically than those of European decent. People with connections, most of them light-skinned, have a higher likelihood of benefitting from Raul Castro's more open economic system than their darker country men and women. Though everyone has health care, people with connections are more likely to see the specialists they need to see. 

So for me, reality has confronted fantasy on this Socialist Island. As Raul and Barrack shook hands at The Summit of the Americas last week, I hope that Cuba and the U.S. will both gain from the connection, though I fear for Cuba's values, imperfect though they may be. Maybe we in the US could learn to eliminate homelessness and respect our artists. And maybe Cubans could live a more prosperous life with more choices. 

That would be ideal. Maybe that's just another fantasy. Only time will tell, I suppose. 

I'm still hoping that guy in Little Havana is okay.




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