A Crucified Cuba — Still Lives!

by marthastephens

I RETURNED RECENTLY from two weeks in Cuba, my friends, and I want to say that it was a journey of both pleasure and pain.

CUBA:People's art

Neighborhood art of paint and tiles

There’s little crime in Cuba, and I was told by a pastor there, “We don’t shoot each other here.  And we don’t have a heroin problem.”  Imagine that!  And by the way, our group did not run into any beggars or homeless camps.

In Cuba one can form an idea of what economic democracy might look like in the U. S., should such a thing ever come to us.  We’d have free healthcare as a basic human right — no premiums, no deductibles.  We’d have good neighborhood schools for every child, with pretty uniforms thrown in.  We’d have tuition-free colleges, no student debt. 

We might be a more peaceful country.  

STILL, not everything in Cuba is wonderful, and for me there was aching pain over what my blockade of the island has accomplished.  I traveled with a Unitarian group from Cincinnati, and we rode around in an old yellow school bus from Pastors for Peace which said: End the U. S. Blockade Against Cuba.

It’s well known that the U. S. embargo represents the longest set of sanctions any state has ever imposed on another country.   The U. N. takes a vote each year on whether the U. S. blockade should continue, and for years now we have been supported by no other nation but the state of Israel.

As our group walked about the streets of Havana, we saw that parts of the town have been broken almost to bits by the lack of resources to fix them up.  Many apartment buildings are in dire need of repair, ugly and dangerous.  Walls sometimes fall in on people.  The old cars and buses still smoke up the air everywhere you go.  Many sidewalks are still full of holes and broken chunks of concrete; two travelers in our group had falls on them.  Pipes are often ancient, pre-revolutionary affairs.  Cubans are used to whatever varmints or substances come through them, but for visitors like us, staying in small hostels, it’s bottled water all the way.  Be careful even brushing your teeth, we were advised.

The out-migration from Cuba continues; to depopulate the island is part of the     U. S. war against the government.  In the year 2015 alone, 44,000 Cubans arrived in the U. S., 28,000 through Mexico.  Cubans who succeed in putting even one foot on U. S. soil receive very special benefits denied to other refugees.  We don’t deport them or drive them underground.  We don’t force Cuban mothers into hunger strikes for the sake of their children in the detention jails.

                                                 The Mystery

Yet here is the mystery of Cuba one must try to explain: life seems to go on in a spirited sort of way amongst those who remain in the country.  They can still enjoy their beautiful arts, for instance, their world reknowned dance and music; their medical services, admired around the world; their opportunities in a tremendous variety of good schools, institutes, and universities. 

I spent an afternoon visiting on the tree-lined patio of a small Havana bookstore called Cuba Libro.  It’s run by an American woman, and speakers of both Spanish and English like to visit there.  One of the young men I met said he was in love with Bernie Sanders.   “But he doesn’t have a chance in a million!” he said, and his friends quickly agreed with him.  “Your ruling class will wipe him completely out!” they said.  

People were going inside to a tiny strip of kitchen where spaghetti lunches were being made, and I spoke at length with a young woman of 32 named Leisil.

CUBA:Leisi Rquez

Leisil Raquez in Cuba Libro in Havana

She lives in a small house with her mother and grandmother.  “I like it that way,” she said, “and my grandmother is like my baby. I told her today, ‘Grandmother, your slippers are dirty, and I’m going to wash them out for you!’”  Leisil is studying English in graduate school and will study German as well.  Yet before the revolution, women had no rights to education or work, and most were illiterate.

ON ANOTHER DAY IN HAVANA, I had a good time visiting two extraordinary museums: the National Gallery of the Arts, devoted to the history of Cuban painting of all periods, and the nearby Museo de la Revolution, a brilliant collection of materials about the struggle.

OUR GROUP ALSO traveled to Camaguey and the towns in between.  I liked taking little walks around our small casas particulares (about $25 a night), and seeing the kids skipping along home from school in their smart yellow and white uniforms, boxing and teasing each other as kids do.

In 1998 UNESCO carried out an extensive study of elementary school progress in language and math in the 13 Latin American countries.  They found that Cuba was outpacing all the others.  Cuban children scoring in the lower half of the tests were doing better than the upper halves of children elsewhere — and with scores comparable to the most developed nations.

                                      A Story about Camaguey

ONE DAY I got my hair cut in a little house where the front room became, by day, a beauty parlor.

My duena at the casa where I stayed, a wonderful woman who became a good friend, helped me line up this excursion.  In her front parlor one night, I had said, “Eufemia, do you know anyone nearby who could cut my hair?”  She did, she said.  The next morning, she was ready to see me off.  She said I must go by pedi-cab (or bicycle taxi), and I must pay the pedi-cab one dollar (or one convertible peso).  “No mas!“ said she.  For my haircut I must also pay one dollar. “No mas!” said my friend.

When I got down off the worn seat of the pedi-cab and walked into the front room of a small casa, the olive-skinned woman who would trim my hair was painting the nails of a black client in a smart green color!  The two women were very much at their ease with each other and very friendly to me.  They sat me down in a little rocker and placed in my lap a guinea pig for me to pet while I waited my turn.

The bespeckacled beautician, when she finished the job on my hair, and I was looking in my pocket for my pesos, said she could accept no pay.  She had no English, but we had talked a little in my broken Spanish. “A woman of seventy-nine coming all the way from her country to see us in Cuba?  We will not charge you anything!  We will honor you!”


Small beauty parlor in Camaquey

CUBA:Mick and I with porch couple

Friendly Cubans asked us up on there porch in Camaguey.  With Cincinnatan Mick Parker (in yellow shirt).


           The Opening

WE ALL KNOW about the Obama “opening” with Cuba, and we all wonder what it will mean; but somehow, for a government which has survived as much as this one has, Cuban socialism may also survive its changing relations with the U. S.  It was under John F. Kennedy that we first tried to “starve” the Cubans into submission, by halting their trade not just with ourselves, but with other countries as well — total isolation was the idea and in Congress it’s the same today.

Still — there’s the opening.  Will the tourist trade take over Cuba now — U. S. investment in general?  Will there be vast outcroppings of American-style senior villages across the land?  Will the almost pristine environment of mountains and seas be poisoned by us carpet-baggers from the north?  ##


                      Friends, If You’ve Read This Far, I Thank You

And I’ll conclude with a few fine-print notes you may or may not have time for.

OUR GROUP STOPPED once at a sugar mill and were given little cups of cane juice.  Demon sugar has been yet another cross to be borne in Cuba, after the loss of its Soviet trading partner in the 90‘s, for instance, and many attempts are being made to diversify its agriculture.  The abandoned sugar cane fields, the broken sugar mills, are a relic going back, I believe, to the conquistadores and the many Batista-style governments that came along.
THE SUNNY ISLE of Cuba has had tourists throughout its history, and it has them today with a vengeance.  Sleek air-conditioned busses ply up and down the main thoroughfares.   To exchange dollars for pesos, some of us walked at times to a swank, relatively new hotel, the Melia Oshiba, near the famous Malecon road by the waterfront.  Our Cuban-American leader, Jorge Vila, said he felt that the Melia Oshiba is at the center of maneuverings by U. S. businessmen with their Cuban counterparts.  They’re all waiting for the moment when Cuba will burst wide open to global finance.
An enormous ocean-front compound for internationals called Veradora has existed in Cuba for many years.  Our group stayed two days on its border in a home run by the Presbyterian Church, and bussed into this maw of the tourist trade.  Was it thrilling to buy four dollar lattes at the coffee bars there?  Some of us didn’t really see the point of that, and would have preferred, I think, to visit an organic farm, or a neighborhood health clinic (as I had done some years ago).
I spoke briefly in Veradora with a friendly family from Finland and another one from France, and I wanted to ask them this:  Do you know anything about the nearby city of Havana and the Cuban Revolution in this land . . .?  I wondered what their take on it was, but I didn’t feel I could ask them that.
WE ALSO SPENT a long morning at a government medical campus called La Pradera, created to treat sick people from around the world.  We saw afflicted children getting complex hearing tests, seniors treated “in new ways” for arthritis.  Any visitor can make use of the medical offerings on this estate and its pools and personal services.  A strange contradiction in a way, considering the hardships of normal Havana life, but again, Cuba must live — somehow.


I have not described here the magnificent Spanish churches throughout the island — or the rule, for good or ill (perhaps mostly for good) of the Castro brothers, an enormously complex subject in itself;  but I’d like to mention in closing a fascinating book by Salim Lamrani, The Economic War Against Cuba (Monthly Review Press, 2011).  On the special benefits for Cubans in the U. S., see on line a blog by Jerone Stephens: Illegal Immigrants.     
CUBA.Amajo el bloqueo

A Quaker poster in a Havana office