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Published: June 19th 2017
Today we are waiting at Miami International Airport and sit to reflect on the experience of the trip we have just completed. Last night we had a preliminary discussion and all slept on what we wished to share. So, here goes. As our guide, Ralph, told us last Sunday, we would leave Cuba with more questions than we entered and was he right! The words contradiction, paradox, and confusion all come to mind. The Cuba we visited was not the Cuba we expected to find. The living conditions we witnessed, though not in any way near the standards we are used to, did not represent the poverty and oppression we initially expected to find and, honestly felt we were witnessing at first. In just a week, we learned to look beyond first impressions into the interior spaces of the island nation, both physically and in the hearts and minds of its people. There, we found more happiness than we ever expected to find. In what could be quickly perceived as abject poverty, we found a nation of people who are among the most kind, genuine, and trusting of one another we have found anywhere in the world. We found an absolute lack of crime, violence, vandalism, cruelty, or drug use. We found a country that is full of art, almost everywhere we looked, that existed for the sake of art and not because of any desire for individual financial reward. Art, here, is an expression of love. Helping one's neighbor in any way is second nature. Talents and successes of others are valued for their own sake and people find genuine happiness in each other's successes, not envy.
So here are our thoughts. Cuba continues to be ruled by a one party, Communist system, thought the Cubans we met said it really isn't communism, but is more socialist. The days of totalitarian big brother have eased. The government of the revolution has, for the most part, provided the things it said it would: housing, health care, and education, all of which are in better shape for most than they were in 1959. A stunning aspect of the visit for us was the repeated sight of billboards supporting the continued revolution. At every turn, the people are reminded of the revolution's successes--the basics of life are provided by the government and this message is repeated over and over. There is a certain cult of personality here, with Fidel, Raul, and Che celebrated as the heroic figures who redeemed the people. So, what is missing, at least our eyes? The lack of opportunity for Cubans to travel abroad and to access information outside of government control does seem overly oppressive. As we had lunch one day and looked out over the Gulf of Mexico, we noticed only a couple of licensed fishing boats. Few Cubans have access to boats, which is another example of a tightly regulated society. Technology has started to bridge this obstacle. For example, each week, Cubans are able, for $1, to purchase "The Package," a flash drive with downloads of virtually any U.S. television program they wish to see, including things like Bill Maher, CNN, The Voice, etc. The government has turned a blind eye to this widespread practice. "We may not get your DirctTV directy, but we get your DirecTV," our driver told us. The replacement for retiring Raul Castro is being groomed and the election will take place within the Communist party with the people not really having much of a say. They are pretty accepting of this, however. The U.S. embargo was intended to punish the Communist government and impose such harsh restrictions on the Cuban economy that the people would rise up against their revolutionary government. The reality of this intended reaction does not come even close to its intention. Though Cubans would love greater access to U.S. Goods, to travel, and to technology, they are still loyal to the system of government that has met their basic needs. The feeling of solidarity is palpable.
We are well aware that our government's actions have caused more oppression to the Cuban people than they have harmed the Cuban government. We have heard stories about Cuban mothers denied visas by the U.S. to visit their emigrant children in Florida, after raising an exorbitant amount of money to sit for an interview and then denied without explanation or appeal. The a Capella choir we came to love struggles to buy ink for their printer due to the embargo. Yet, the Cuban people, while hostile to the "imperialist powers" are absolutely kind to American people. It became very clear to us that we share a mutual understanding that the troubled history between our nations is one between leaders and their egos, not a conflict between people. Along the way, we were offered so many gifts, including artwork, flowers (see previous blog), rum, coffee, and expressions of good will.
So, we leave Cuba thirsty for more. (Knowledge, not rum.) The trip encouraged us to read quite a bit ahead of time and along the way; now we are eager to expand our understanding. Above all, we are thankful for the opportunity to travel to this place, a 40 minute flight from Miami that is truly a different reality from anything we know at home. Travel is a political act, but it is also a human act. The encounters, relationships, and understanding we experienced in Cuba are experiences we will never forget. We hope that, one day, both Americans and Cubans will be granted the freedom to travel at will and learn more about one another.
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