Farewell to Cuba

February 20
Dateline: Havana Airport

We returned to the Havana airport to await the arrival of the charter jet that would take us back to the United States. The airport was symbolic of much of what I had found in my 10 days in Cuba. It  was called Jose Marti International. But as I looked out the window in front of me, there was not a plane to be seen. There was only one exit gate, which led out to a pitted tarmac, where we would walk to board the plane that would take off from the airport’s lone runway.

As we had on our arrival, we easily passed through security. After 50 years of reading about Cuba, I had expected visible signs of a police state. The reality was that we would find much more intrusive security screening in one day of D. C. than we had the entire time we had spent in Havana. I could have brought my iPhone; I could have brought my iPad; I could have brought my iAnything. But, to be honest, I was glad I hadn’t. Without my electronics, my travels over the past 10 days somehow seemed more authentic.

The large screen TVs that I had been surprised to find were still at the airport. But the pictures on the screen often faded to fuzzy blurs. That about sums up the state of 21st century technology on the island. It sometimes appeared to be there, but really it wasn’t. The internet at our hotel was painfully slow. Our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci had told us she spent two hours one night trying to connect by phone to her boyfriend in California. I wondered how much time we had spent waiting for elevators that never arrived.  Probably much less than all those Cubans in long lines who waited patiently for the buses than ran irregularly when they ran at all.

But what the island lacked in modernity, it more than made up for with simple charm, a commodity long missing from the hustle-bustle pace of much of today’s America. Life in Cuba, even in the large city of Havana, was slower. Much slower. With transportation options limited, people walked more. Without headphones and iPhones, they talked more. It appeared they valued art more, whether that art involved painting or dancing or music. Devoid of the games and gadgets that drive us into solitary isolation, they were more social, more outgoing, indeed more friendly. Provided with a cup of strong Cuban coffee and possibly a cigar, they were ready for hours of chat. As an educator, I kept coming back to one astounding statistic. In a country plagued by shortages and deprivations and hardships, 99 percent of the people were literate. America might have the books, the glossy magazines, the Kindles, and the computers, but Cuba had the readers, even though much of the limited reading material they had access to was dry and dated.

As we continued waiting for the plane, I focused my reflection on two people: one whose presence was everywhere, but whom I had never met and the other, much less famous, but whom I had come to know quite well in 10 days.

The first was Fidel Castro. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Cuba without Castro. But even El Jeffe can’t last forever. He has outlived all the other famous figures of the 1960s, Kennedy, Kruschev, Ho Chi Minh, Mao. The Beatles have broken up and the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Castro’s heart still beats, no matter how faintly. He has given most of his power to his younger brother, 81-year-old Raul. Rumors periodically circulate that he is dead, but then Fidel makes a brief appearance to dispel those reports. He may be failing and no longer able to deliver his fiery five-hour speeches, but he is still a force.

So what will happen when Fidel dies? The answer is cliched, but true. Your guess is as good as mine. Ten days in a country doesn’t make you a political expert, a fact even more true if the country being analyzed is as unique and enigmatic as Cuba. The only certainty is that a post-Fidel Cuba will be different. My guess is it will be more open. With Fidel gone, I would hope the United States would drop its senseless embargo (if it doesn’t do so sooner) and open complete relations with Cuba. But, as we all know, change is not always good. Cuba will gain, but it will also lose.

Remember it was its last encounter with America’s preoccupation with power and greed that led Fidel and his revolutionary brothers to take up arms. And then there was that disturbing question that Tom Miller had posed earlier: Can you imagine Spring Break Havana or Girls Gone Wild, Cuban-edition?

But if Fidel represents the past, the other figure in my reflections, our local guide Luis, stands for Cuba’s  future. Like all younger Cubans, he doesn’t remember anything about the pre-Revolutionary days. He wasn’t alive then.  As a well-educated guide and translator, he knows much more about the world outside of the isolated island than most of his countrymen. He knows there are benefits to his home, but he believes there are great benefits at other places, too.  And he wants a chance to see those other places for himself.  He was offered an opportunity to join the Socialist party, but turned it down. (That was another big surprise to me. I naively assumed that the entire population was Communist, but only about 10 percent of the people at any time actually belong to the Party.).

 “It will never be offered to me again,” he says. “But I believe change is coming. I believe that one day soon I will be able to come to D.C. and you and Judy can show me around. I would like that; I would like that very much.”

Finally, our plane arrived. As we walked toward the jet, I turned for a last look. Whenever Judy and I travel, we put the places we visit in one of two categories. The first we call been-there, done-that. We may  have loved the place or we may have hated it, but if we didn’t feel a need to visit again, it goes there along with Scotland, the South Sea Islands, Monaco, Malyasia, and the rest.

The other category we call we’ll-be-back. Not surprisingly, many of my places to revisit are cities. Barcelona, Bangkok, Bejing. Judy’s usually displays a more natural setting: Africa, Ireland, Italy. So where would we place Cuba? We have other places to visit, but we were certain we would return to Cuba. And it wouldn’t (indeed, it couldn’t, since I doubted I would have enough travel mobility at 109) take me 50 years for a 2nd visit.

Obviously, I found a different Cuba than the one my father and mother frequented 50 years ago. But in some ways – cars and customs, architecture and artifacts – it was almost the same, an island, as Tom Miller termed it, “frozen in  time”.

Relying on his Texas roots, my Dad had a saying whenever he planned to go back to something. “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back.” When it comes to Cuba, that sounds about right.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Viva la Revolucion!

February 20
Dateline: Havana

Today would be our last day in Cuba. Later this afternoon, we would be flying back to Miami. But that still left us a couple of hours in Havana. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, which had been closed when we had tried to visit it earlier.

Arriving at the museum grounds, we walked past the SAU-100 Soviet tank that Fidel Castro supposedly commanded at the Bay of Pigs. In a bit of irony, what now serves as a repository for revolutionary artifacts and memories was once a Presidential Palace, built in 1920 with an interior decor by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1957, the palace was the site of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow General Batista. You can still see bullet holes in the foyer from that attack.

Although the museum focuses on the years of the revolution, it actually highlights chronologically much of Cuba’s political development, from slave uprisings to joint space missions with the Soviet Union.

The descriptions are in Spanish, but even if you don’t understand that language, the visuals allow you to comprehend the story. Two of the more noted exhibits are one of Che’s famous berets and a diorama of Che and Camilio Cienfuegos emerging from the forest of Sierra Maestra ready to continue the fight.

But I found an omission to be the most interesting fact about the museum. There is not one word, not one picture, not one news clipping, not one artifact about the 13 days known in America as the Cuban Missile Crisis. To me, given the impact it made on me as a 12-year-old, that was exceedingly strange. I tried to ask a couple of the guards the reason for the omission, but my Spanglish wasn’t sufficient for me to convey my questions.

Just outside the museum, a glass encasement – Memorial Granma – enshrines the vessel that brought Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and 80 others rebels from Mexico in 1956 to launch the revolution. Also outside is a display of other vehicles involved in the struggle including planes and tanks. There is a piece of a last U.S. spy plane shot down over Cuba in the 1970s.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

The Bay of Pigs

February 19
Dateline: Playa Giron

To the socialists of Cuba, the swampy fields of the Bay of Pigs are their Bunker Hill, their Valley Forge, their Yorktown. The Battala de Giron is the site where the bravery and blood of martyrs secured the threatened freedom of the Cuban people from the invasion of dissidents backed by the Yankee imperialists of America.

At Playa Giron, there is a museum, rather small and simple by American standards. Here, you can see the story of the men, and the women (for as a propaganda poster proclaims in Spanish “Women you are not discriminated against here; you can fight for your freedom’) who made up the Cuban force which repelled the ill-planned, under-equipped invasion launched from the shores of the United States.

You can see the canteens they carried; the toothbrushes and toothpaste they used. You can see the soiled caps they wore and the weapons and bullets they fired. Outside, a single plane stands as sentry. Inside, you can learn the story of the young Edward Garcia Delgado, who according to Cuban lore wrote a message in his blood about his undying faith in the victory of the Revolution, a message he composed just minutes before dying, “a victim of Imperialism and Yankee shrapnel.”

One of the most visited artifacts in the museum is the pair of small white shoes which hang above the poem “Elegía de los Zapaticos Blancos” (Elegy to the Little White Shoes) by Indio Naborí. In the poem, Nemesia, a young charcoal maker, talks about watching her mother die and her grandmother and two brothers become wounded by anti-Socialist forces. She was unharmed, but her white shoes were marred forever by bullet holes.

Many Cubans view the Bay of Pigs as a monumental moment in Cuban history. That belief was encapsulated in a 2011 speech delivered by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul. 

“The historic importance to the destiny of the Revolution of the crushing defeat of the mercenary invasion of the Bay of Pigs escapes none of us,” Raul said. “It was achieved as a result of the firm, ceaseless, and decisive action of our combatants, who under the direct command of Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, who remained on the battlefield the entire time, where they destroyed in less than 72 hours, the intention of the United States government to create a beach head in a remote corner of the homeland, to which they would later move from a military base in Florida, a puppet government which would request of the Organization of American States (OAS), the sadly infamous OAS, a military intervention by U.S. forces, located in very close waters, accompanying a mercenary contingent after its departure from Central American shores.”

“This is an appropriate moment to repeat the words of Fidel on the 15th anniversary in 1976 of the April 19th victory, when he said, “After Girón, all the peoples of the Americas were a little freer,'” Raul concluded.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

The U.S. and Cuba: What Comes Next?

February 18
Dateline: A Hotel Veranda in Cienfuegos

This morning after breakfast we all gathered on the veranda of our hotel to hear Tom Miller deliver a talk entitled U.S./Cuba Relations: Hope for the Future? As Tom talked, we sipped strong Cuba coffee and were gently buffeted by the warm morning breeze.

Cuba’s ties with United States go back to the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Jefferson, ever the expansionist, coveted the island and wanted it to become part of America.

In the 1860’s, American sailors brought the new game of besibol to the island, where it immediately became overwhelmingly popular. Baseball came to represent the freedom of America, while bullfighting stood for the imperialism of Spain. Spain acted immediately and banned Cubans from playing the American game.

In 1895, led by the passionate rhetoric of Cuban’s national hero of liberation Jose Marti, the Cuban people were able to establish their independence from Spain. Marti had deep American roots, having spent more than 15 years living in New York City. His martyrdom was assured when he was killed in his first battle. “He was a much better intellectual than he was a soldier,” Miller said.

As most students of American history know, the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor (at the time, Spanish forces were believed to have blown the ship up, but today it appears the ship was sunk as the result of an on-board accident)  which occurred in 1898, led to the Spanish-American War. After the Americans won, the Spanish gave them, not the Cuban people, the flag symbolizing victory. Leonard Wood was named military governor of Cuba, where he worked to bring progressive reforms to the island. The American naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established. “This gave the Americans the right to interfere in Cuban activities whenever they wanted to,” Miller said.

In 1952, Wilencia Batista staged a coup which “pissed a lot of people off, including a young firebrand lawyer named Fidel Castro.” In 1959, Castro led a Socialist takeover of the country, seized all American assets, and formed close ties to Communist Russia.

Prompted by the heightened fears of Communism and the Cold War, the U. S. government lead by President Dwight Eisenhower, had planned an invasion of Cuba led by exiled Cubans. When John Kennedy assumed the presidency, he scaled down the proposal, but went ahead with the plan. The Bay of Pigs resulted in a quick victory for Castro and a political disaster for Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and an American embargo on Cuba, which is still in effect today. Cuba became a country-non-grata to the United States.

In the 1990’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War becoming a distant memory, President Bill Clinton allowed an increase in people-to-people, professional research, and journalistic trips to Cuba. But the strict trade embargo remained in place. Because of the strong political power of anti-Castro Cuban residents of Florida, politicians feared to open relations completely.

In recent years, Cuba has stayed on the American political radar with the kidnapping of young Elian Gonzalez, the popularity of the documentary on legendary Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, and the political incarceration of The Five, a group of supposed Cuban spies captured in the United States.

Miller said political considerations continue to keep Cuba and the U.S. apart. “It’s easier to maintain a bad policy than it is to come up with a new good one,” Miller said.

So what will happen in the years to come? Miller said it is impossible to say. “Every prediction in the last 53 years about Cuba has been wrong,” he noted. “Cuba is perfectly capable of screwing up its economy on its own without any help from the United States.”

In fact, Miller noted, Cuba simply isn’t ready to open its doors to an influx of American tourists. “There aren’t sufficient facilities,” he said. “You’ve spent time here. Can you imagine Spring Break in Havana? That would be a disaster. The fact is that Cuba (after 50 years of trade embargo) is very fragile today. It would take time and planning to open the island. But there is a level of curiosity about Cuba. More people will come. They will just have to accept a certain level of vacation.”

After the lecture, Judy and I talked about the presentation. We agreed with Tom that Cuba isn’t ready for a major influx of tourism. We both believed the ongoing embargo was senseless and should be lifted. But in a selfish way, we liked the isolated Cuba we were discovering. It was different than anywhere else in the world; it hadn’t been corrupted by the quickening pace of life brought on by rapid advances in technology and corporate McDonalds-ization. We had been to China. There was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden Temple and Haagen Dazs ice cream was available for sale at the Great Wall. In an increasingly flat world, Cuba remained a unique hill. Was there a way for the island to keep the best part of its uniqueness and still garner the benefits of open relations with its giant neighbor to the north? I guess only time will tell.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Lunch with a Close Companion of Castro

Naty Revuelta with Judy and Me

February 16
Dateline: Downtown Havana

On the bus on the way to the National Museum of Fine Arts, our writer-in-residence Tom Miller teased a special guest at lunch. Of course, we all wanted to know who it would be. “I haven’t finalized the details yet. But I think you’ll be surprised and really pleased,” Miller said.

So with that bit of speculation in our minds, we began our guided tour of the museum’s massive collection. Of course, there are paintings by Cuban masters such as Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Peleaz. There are also artistic calls for La Revolucion such as El Alba (The Sunrise) which depicts faceless worker trudging unhappily to a belching factory. In the modern section, there was an interactive Punch and Judy-like display where you could create your own history with figures of Che, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, V. I. Lenin, and many others.

Outside, Miller revealed that our special guest would be Naty Revuelta, Fidel Castro’s mistress and fighting companion during the 1950s and the mother of his only-known daughter. Miller said Naty, which she liked to be called, would not speak to the group, but would allow two of us to join her at her table. Or course, I wanted to do just that, but held back to see if others would want that honor. When no one came forward, I readily volunteered and so found myself in a Havana restaurant sitting next to someone who had once known Fidel Castro perhaps as well as he can be known by anyone.

Miller had laid down some strict guidelines for what was appropriate for discussion and mandated that I couldn’t take notes nor ask anything about Castro unless Naty brought it up first. On first meeting Naty, now in her mid 80s, I quickly discovered that I was in the presence of a lady who exudes a sense of specialness in speech, dress, and manner. She is, as I told Miller later, a woman both “classy and classic.”

Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Naty said she had an interesting raising. “I had a grandfather who was English and was very proper and I had a grandfather who was Spanish and was very emotional. I learned about both worlds,” she said.

Naty spent four years at a boarding school in Philadelphia, then two years in college in DC. We talked briefly about both those places: what they were like then and what they are like now.

“You know, I was 22 years old when I met Fidel,” Naty interjected. “It was an interesting time.” I waited for more, but she shifted into a narrative about the daughter she shared with Castro.

The daughter had fled to the United States from the island in 1960. It would be 24 years before UNESCO set up a meeting allowing Naty to see her in America. She showed me a picture of that meeting she always carries with her.

She then shifted back to earlier Cuban years. “Batista was not good for the people,” Naty said. “I was not a party member, but I was working for the party when I met Fidel. I am 6 months older than him.”

Although we then chatted about other matters, I knew from previous reading her current stand on the Cuban leader. She doesn’t say outright that Castro has failed to follow through on promises of democracy. Instead, she names his successes and commends his bravery in facing both Cuban and U.S. opposition. Castro, she says, will be remembered as ” a man who tried very hard. Some love him more, some love him less.”

Miller and my fellow traveler Dennis excused themselves from the table and I found myself alone with Naty. Suddenly, she began choking on a piece of prosciutto. A vision flashed before my eyes. I would try to save the choking Naty and be unsuccessful. Castro would be outraged. I would find myself in a Cuban prison. The New York Times lead article would be headlined, “Castro Claims American Agent Kills Mistress; Calls for Death by Firing Squad.” However, a sip of wine cured Naty of her choking and we resumed our talking until Miller returned, signaling the end of lunch.

I thanked Naty for her conversation and asked if she would pose for a picture with Judy and me. Ever gracious, she complied. “Did my husband talk too much?” Judy asked. “No he was the a perfect lunch companion,” Naty replied.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order