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Rebuilding the bridge with Cuba

A Cuban-born American returns to his native country to rediscover the world he fled five decades ago.

Editor’s note: Late one June day in 1962 in Matanzas Bay, Cuba, 4-year-old Luis GarciaFierro, his two young siblings, parents, and two family friends boarded a simple 16-foot rowboat outfitted with an adapted lawnmower engine and paddles and made a risky voyage to a new life. Their journey was necessitated by the forewarning of a sympathetic police captain that Luis’ father was to be arrested the next morning and suffer severe consequences for subversive, counter-revolutionary activities. Their perilous trip involved evading a Cuban naval patrol boat and surviving stormy weather before they were picked up 28 hours later by a U.S. battleship conducting military exercises in the Caribbean in preparation for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now an FGCU assistant professor of justice studies and long-time U.S. citizen, GarciaFierro has since returned to his homeland three times, most recently in March. What follows is his frank perspective on modern-day Cuba and the U.S initiative to normalize relations.

 

Trip back in time

I traveled to Cuba this spring with my mother and two siblings to visit family, witness the spectacle of President Obama’s visit and the Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cuba National Baseball Team game, and reacquaint myself with Cuban culture. It was an enlightening experience as I was able to observe many aspects of Cuban society.

The extent of my parents’ prescience and bravery to leave our homeland became more evident with each subsequent trip I took, the first in 1990, then in 2013, and this one in 2016. Sorting through inevitable thoughts of what our lives would have been like had we remained in Cuba, my siblings and I conclude that we are very fortunate that my parents’ remarkable efforts provided us with a much better life as immigrants, and eventual citizens, in this great nation.

When I first returned to Cuba in 1990 with the U.S. Venceremos Brigade, I was a doctoral student supportive of the Cuban Revolution as an incredible “David vs. Goliath” type achievement in the U.S.-dominated western hemisphere. I respected the Castro government’s efforts to embark on a new independent course for Cuba. Though I had inklings of a burgeoning resentment of government-coerced conformity among some Cubans and that U.S. destabilization efforts and the economic embargo, which includes all U.S. allies, appeared to fortify rather than weaken the government’s philosophical and physical control over the Cuban nation, I remained supportive in the context of their historical struggles for independence and self-governance.

However, the notion of a benevolent dictatorship now seems improbable to me. After decades of one party-one family rule and woeful underdevelopment in Cuba, my optimism seems naive. The subtle indications I had in 1990 are borne out, and the effects from both Cuban and U.S. government propaganda have been unfair and deleterious to the Cuban masses. President Obama’s initiative to normalize relations is best for both nations. I hope the next U.S. President does not falter in this effort.

 

1950s meet 2016

As visitors exit the terminal building at Jose Martí International Airport in La Habana, new arrivals are typically agape when they see all types of old cars in the parking lot and are compelled to commence photographing.

I was transported from and to the airport in a modest 1951 Studebaker that the owner had worked on for two years to restore to an operational capacity.

At the first traffic signal leaving the airport, instead of colorful “Welcome to…” signage, a billboard prominently displays the Cuban government’s sentiments about the longstanding U.S. embargo – images of a hangman’s noose around the island and a peripheral spider’s web with the accompanying words “BLOQUE: El Genocidio Más Largo de la Historia” (“Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History”). Other messages and images of icons from the Cuban Revolution and independence struggles dominate billboard and wall displays with well-known figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Jose Martí.

In a town about 20 minutes outside La Habana, we secured an amiable driver, Antonio, for $20 per day. His 1957 Oldsmobile 88 had an economical diesel engine, was in relatively good shape and served us well. “Por favor, no tire la puerta” (“please, do not slam the door”) was his refrain to us until we became more attuned.

There are almost always people walking; engaging in conversation, commiserating about their daily struggles or activities or celebrating the weekend. When the temperature and dew point rise, umbrella-parasols are prevalent among women walking or waiting for transportation and pedestrians hug the sides of buildings for shade.

The Malecón area (a wide, paved public walkway along the ocean) of La Habana (with a population of roughly 2.1 million) teems with people around-the-clock. At 3 a.m. on a temperate Sunday, a couple thousand people were out and about. With limited funds, Cubans have mastered the art of “hanging out,” conversing on the streets and waiting alongside the road for transportation. It is common to see bicycles with passengers casually balancing themselves atop tube/crossbar with ankles crossed and hanging legs pointed forward, old diesel “wa-wa” (public buses), pedaled and motorized tricycle taxis, human-drawn carts and horse-drawn wagons, industrial tractors and trucks, loud motorized bicycles, a souped-up riding mower used as transportation, antique jalopies, and motor scooters with women in dresses riding side-saddle and couples with infants sandwiched between them.

At la Casa de la Musica nightclub in Habana’s Miromar section, I met people from Cuba, Mexico, Austria, India, Australia, and the U.S. dancing and enjoying the excellent 14-piece “Orquesta de Pupy.” (Note to self: Never again order a pina colada in a Cuban club. Whole milk mixed with sweetened condensed milk and rum with a pineapple slice on the rim is something totally different.)

While many visitors focus on the bustling capital city, I spent more than half my time in the countryside and towns. Cotorro is an industrial city of 100,000; 10 de Octobre was named after the day in 1868 that slavery was abolished by Cuban nationalists fighting for independence from Spain; and Guanabo and Playa Santa María are seaside towns popular with international visitors.

Courtesy, music and dancing abound. Friends and family members shake hands, hug or exchange besito (cheek-to-cheek kiss) greetings and goodnights. Endearing calls of ‘Mi vida,’ ‘mi niña,’ ‘amigo,’ and ‘viejo’ are heard in the neighborhoods. During a half-mileplus walk to get some delicious guarapo (freshly squeezed pure sugar cane juice) with a relative, she was greeted by more than a dozen people along the way and stopped five times to converse. This is a common and uplifting social phenomenon in Cuba. With limited television, internet and phone service, I felt largely “unplugged” and appreciated aspects of their simpler, slower pace of life.

 

“Life here is not easy”

I have stayed in various types of housing in Cuba: relatives’ home, an apartment, a casa particular (room rentals within homes), and an upscale hotel. It is evident that most residences are very humble; from people living in the equivalent of musty, concrete caves in multi-story buildings to nicer apartments comparable to modest, low-income dwellings in the U.S. (Outside of hotels, do not expect to have a toilet seat to sit on.) The few majestic homes are typically reserved for highranking government officials or other well-placed individuals.

Once you leave La Habana and enter smaller towns, residential streets can be in horrid condition, with broken sidewalks (if they exist at all), huge potholes and mud puddles, trash piled along the sides of some streets, ever-present litter, street lights that may or may not work, occasional broken underground sewer pipes that result in constant flows down some streets, and homes with multiple electrical and plumbing safety code violations, including partially built, incomplete, or condemnable buildings housing families. As many Cubans say, “La vida aquí no es fácil” (“Life here is not easy”).

 

Traditional gender roles

It is not unusual for three generations or more to live in a small home or apartment. Men typically dominate the household. Married women largely clean, cook and handle childcare while men work when they can, rest and socialize.

While many females work in low-level state or commercial jobs, most have limited income or employment opportunities. Some young women offer travelers short- or long-term services as a guide, procurer, housekeeper and/or intimate companion for $20-$50 per day.

Some Habana residents I spoke with remarked that the visibility of prostitutes, transvestites, and other “undesirable” individuals was reduced to almost nothing during President Obama’s visit. Before and after, however, their activities were much less controlled.

 

Matters of race

There is little evidence of racial discrimination in Cuba, at least among lower- and middle-class people. Interracial relationships are more prevalent and accepted than in the U.S., but often still affected by social class. You are much more likely to see light- and dark-skinned males and females together among the working class. This is not the case among the upper class, as the majority of high-ranking political leaders and government officials are light-skinned and interracial relationships are more rare.

 

Education needs upgrade

Though education through high school is mandated, the lack of tools such as computers, internet access and other resources in most areas present significant challenges to teacher effectiveness and maintaining student interest in learning at a pace and depth appropriate to the modern era. In one elementary school I visited, books were in short supply and outdated. Classrooms were largely limited to pencils, paper and chalkboards.

School-age relatives and neighbors were enthralled with my laptop computer, respectfully wanting to learn how to use it and access the internet. We were limited to viewing pictures, playing solitaire, and practicing writing as internet connections are nonexistent in most areas.

President Obama’s initiative to help Cuba achieve nationwide internet connectivity will significantly expand the ability of school children to learn and compete in the global community.

 

World influences in La Habana

With the recent progression toward normalization of relations, many U.S. institutions, organizations and individuals are eager to engage in collaborative activities with Cuba. I visited the University of Havana’s director of international relations who offered to open a line of communication with me via internet as the normalization process continues. She indicated the University has long had relations with universities and professors from many nations but few from the U.S. until recently, when demand has increased.

There is a growing U.S. presence in Cuba. From the time I arrived, I met law students from Duquesne University and history students and professors from the University of Jacksonville there to conduct courses/studies in their subject area. At the Habana Libre (former Havana Hilton), I had engaging conversations with three graduate sociology students from the University of Denver who were conducting an independent study.

 

An Unexpected Medical Experience

Shortly before leaving the U.S., I began experiencing intermittent stomach and back pain that I attributed to indigestion and sleeping on an aging mattress. By the time I arrived in Cuba, the pain had increased and, by the next day, was constant.

The following morning my cousin walked me a mile to a modest medical clinic. We walked in without an appointment and I was immediately attended to by a young female doctor who inquired about my symptoms, then sent me down the hall for a urinalysis, which turned up a significant kidney infection for which I received medication. The process took 15 minutes and cost nothing. We had to cajole the doctor to accept $3 for her assistance, which was the equivalent of three days’ salary for her. While the facilities were humble, the results were effective. A few days later, I felt relatively normal.

 

President Obama in Cuba

The President’s historic visit was unparalleled in Cuban history, perhaps with the exception of Pope Francis’ February visit, in how it affected the daily routine. For example, all vehicles coming into the city the evening of the President’s arrival were turned back, ours included; hotel and other workers living outside the city had to make extra efforts to get to work on time; and native residents were prohibited from entering several areas and buildings. Many of the pristine antique cars owned by the government were brought out for international visitors to see.

Most Cubans recognized the extraordinary significance of President Obama’s visit and accepted the inconveniences during his stay. They had a largely pragmatic, “wait and see” mentality, and believed that significant changes that would affect their lives in a positive manner would be a long process, changes that middle-aged and older Cubans likely would not realize in their lifetime.

While standing on a street corner in Habana one afternoon, I was approached by an English-speaking older woman whose parents had moved there from another country when she was young. An intellectual, she sought out the opportunity to speak English and was keen to tell us that the system there makes “slaves of everyone – relegated to lead life as directed or else.” The frankness of her unsolicited remarks surprised me.

After President Obama’s first formal speech in Cuba, the next day’s Granma state-run newspaper headline read, Lo que Obama dice y no dice, (“What Obama says and does not say”), extolling cautiousness in the normalization process to ensure that the U.S. does not take advantage in this new course to the detriment of the Cuban nation.

The President and First Lady demonstrated a compassionate sensibility for the Cuban people. That the President came with his family illustrated that there should be nothing to fear on either side. In addition to ceremonial events, tours and the baseball game, the President further endeared himself by appearing in a skit on the popular television comedy show “Vivir del cuento” (roughly, “Surviving by Your Wits”), considered relatively edgy in its sarcasm toward Cuban government shortcomings.

As usual, the Obamas represented America with grace, intellect and humor; they seem to evoke a sense of pride in being American wherever they go.

 

The Tampa Bay Rays and Rolling Stones in Cuba

The Rays organization stayed at one of the best hotels in the city, the Meliā Cohiba along the Malecón. U.S. television personnel, international airline staff, and well-to-do travelers were among the others who could afford the $300- plus per night to stay at this upscale facility. In the lobby, we talked to, and took photos with, Rays players and spoke with several American and international visitors. I also spoke with Cuban bathroom attendants (female attendants in male restrooms at some hotels threw me for a little curve), housekeepers, and waiters about aspects of their lives there. They repeated often “la vida aquí no es fácil.” The differences between their home and workplace environments are obviously stark.

At a swank party co-hosted by Major League Baseball at the historic Parque Morro facility the night before the game, more than 500 international and Cuban dignitaries and the players and personnel from both teams were feted with great food and drink. Jimmy Buffett performed and the best classic cars were on display. The resulting 4-1 victory by the Rays seemed to reflect the superior competition and resources of MLB in the U.S. as well as perhaps the exodus of many top Cuban players to the U.S. and other nations.

Though I left the day before the Rolling Stones concert, my siblings attended and reported that their music, once banned in Cuba as subversive, was enjoyed by all. The Stones’ two-hour show was outstanding with high production values and superb performances by the band; and, best of all, it was free!

 

Future Considerations

Overall, Cuba still has a long way to go to realize its full potential. The evolving normalization process provides greater optimism for doing so, but, as President Castro remarked in his speech alongside President Obama, “It takes much less time to destroy a bridge than to build one, and this will take some time.”

In the interim, the nostalgic charm of the Cuban nation continues to draw visitors from around the globe and increasingly from the United States. We shall see how this progresses in the post-Obama era.

I encourage Americans to experience Cuba in its current state and contribute to the positive evolution of its relationship with the U.S. In time, the dissensions of the past may fade away, allowing for amicable sovereign alliances and Cuba rejoining the U.S.-allied global community. Ultimately, it would be ideal if Cubans and Americans become in fact what they are in geography – close neighbors.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to visit Cuba during this historic period, and return with a renewed appreciation for life in the United States. Though we must continue to strive to more effectively address lingering issues of injustice and inequity within our democratic society, I am happy to say, Hooray for the USA! As well as ¡Viva Cuba Libre!