I’m starting a rather informal summer series. (By definition, shouldn’t all summer series be informal?) I’m finding people who are spending part of their summer exploring a new culture, learning a new technology or experiencing something new and unusual and I’m asking them to write about it and then share it here. I have a few posts lined up and am always looking for more!The series is starting here today with a wonderful piece from my dear friend, Susan Adams who recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba. She was excited to go and I was so excited for her! I know her well enough to know she would fully experience Cuba and all it has to offer and that she would come home with keen observations. I know she has stories too! I can’t wait to meet up with her in Indy and here her stories!!
The following are her reflections.
I was recently privileged to travel to Cuba with a small group of faculty members from Butler University where I am a faculty member in the College of Education. I have long been fascinated by Cuba and have thought often of what I heard from 2 undergraduate professors, the first of which was a Cuban attorney turned foreign language professor and the second of which had been a young college student studying in Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power in the 1950’s. The Cuban attorney was bitter, frustrated and angry about how his life in the U.S. had turned out; frankly he did a lot of ranting and raving about history and politics, most of which went over our heads, but seemed to soothe him because he generally would cease his rant with a cool smile. The other professor intrigued me even more because her eyes lit up and she smiled a dreamy smile as she described the charisma and intelligence of Fidel Castro, almost forgetting herself as she mentally relived the excitement of being in Cuba at such a momentous time in history.
What I learned from my professors clashed in contrast with my mother’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the stark terror my mother remembers experiencing whenever my father went to sea as a young Navy soldier. My father was frequently on the ships patrolling the Caribbean; the uncertainty of his exact location and the daily news reports made her fearful she would be left a young widow with a baby. When I told my mother I was going to Cuba, she attempted to mask the flood of these old emotions (failing completely, of course) and tried to pretend she did not think I was crazy for wanting to go. I have a nasty habit of traveling to parts of the world that scare my mom (Mexico, Honduras, and most recently, Bangkok) but she tries valiantly to be happy for me in spite of her fears.
How to describe what I saw and experienced was constantly on my mind as we traveled to Havana, Santa Clara and Varadero, spending hours and hours aboard an old 1970’s Thomas school bus imported from Canada. It is easy to describe the lush, green, tropical beauty of the island. Yes, of course, it was very hot there (one day the temperature reached in excess of 97 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity)so being sweaty even when you are doing nothing at all is normal. Eating beautiful and sometimes unfamiliar fruits and vegetables (malanga, a tuber sort of like the potato, was a favorite discovery) was a great adventure-mango for breakfast almost every day makes me SO happy! Visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum was deeply touching and strangely inspiring. Swimming in the ocean at Varadero was amazing and beautiful on the white sand beach under the blazing sun and at night under a full moon, waving our hands to see flashes of phosphorescent microscopic creatures. These are the easy things to describe.
What is more difficult is to characterize the beautiful, resourceful, inventive and generous people that we met. Each day we listened to an expert in some field (economics, social sciences, folklore, education, organic farming, etc.). As I listened, it was impossible to miss the immense pride and sense of accomplishment that permeated each lecture and discussion. I began to sense the significance of the collective Cuban commitment to revolution in all of its iterations, beginning with the overthrow of Bautista in 1959 and extending all the way to the present struggle to prosper under the U.S. embargo and blockade. How could a tiny little country do what so many other countries have failed to do in the onslaught of multinational corporations taking root in so many other parts of the world? Could it be that the embargo and the blockade have served to protect Cuba and to maintain its identity?
As I turned on the beach to view the few buildings scattered along the curves of the coast, I had a horrific vision of what would happen to this pristine place if multinational corporations got their hooks in it. Like mushrooms, Hiltons, McDonalds and Starbucks would
spring up and vacationing Americans would populate those white sand beaches seemingly overnight. What a nightmare that would be! I do understand the economic implications and struggles that are direct consequences of the embargo and blockade for Cubans, but I cringe as I imagine stately yet playful Old Havana converted into a Disneyesque caricature of itself as I recently heard a Venetian complain that Venice, Italy has been taken over by the tourist industry and has pushed out many of the residents. I thought of the huge changes I have witnessed as Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and KFC have moved into México where distinctive, unique towns and villages are transformed into ubiquitous, predictable and ordinary sprawling landscapes that look like any interchangeable Midwestern town. I have grieved over this destruction in México, which has helped me in turn understand the destruction and damage has been done all over Indiana (and the rest of the country, for that matter) over the course of my lifetime; I would hate to see this happen in Cuba.
So, what did I learn? For starters, I realized anew how we have been framed by our own government to see only the negative side of socialism and the way this gets lived out in Cuba. I did not expect to hear Cubans speak of Fidel (and that is ALWAYS what they call Castro) with open love, respect and genuine appreciation for what he has done for the country. I did not fully understand the immensity of the impact of the Soviets pulling out of Cuban in 1991 and how this has resulted in scarcity and economic hardships, but neither did I know that the Cubans choose to see this time as an opportunity to grow and mature as a nation that is confident in its leaders’ wisdom and its collective willingness to sacrifice for the sake of this growth and continued autonomy. Never before had I seen with my own eyes a countryside decimated by the sudden ceasing of sugar production, but neither had I seen a nation working together to dramatically recover and reverse courses in agriculture so quickly and with such unity of purpose. I did not realize the punitive nature of the blockade, which prohibits from docking at any U.S. port any ship which has docked in Cuba in the past 6 months. I was startled to see propaganda openly and blatantly displayed on billboards and in the state-run newspapers, causing me to reflect upon the more sophisticated, insipid, carefully phrased delivery of news through U.S. media sources and our own government officials.
What is the “truth” about Cuba and the U.S and who gets to decide? How do we as Americans feel about the U.S. as a world power infringing upon our neighbor Cuba’s sovereign right to self-determination? Cuba is certainly not perfect, but neither is the U.S. What we do not know about each other would fill many books. What we fear about Cuba might no longer even be true, but perhaps Cuba has good reason to be suspicious of us. I am humbled by the fact that Cubans who spoke to me on the streets, in restaurants, community arts centers, universities and the neighborhood where we stayed were able to separate me as an individual from the politics of my country. I was welcomed, greeted with gracious welcomes and interested curiosity about what I was doing there. Sadly, I think this is more than the average American would be willing and able to do if the situation were reversed. For now, I remain hopeful that the U.S. will continue to allow small numbers of citizens to visit and learn more from our neighbors in Cuba. As Mark Twain says in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”