On February 21, 1859, the Honorable Jacob Collamer of Vermont delivered
a long-winded speech in the U.S. Senate against the proposed acquisition
of Cuba. Ticking off his litany of the islands shortcomings, Collamer
dismissed its importance. Cuba can only be dangerous to us in the
hands of a powerful naval nation in time of war. In time of peace, it
can annoy nobody.
Youd be surprised, Senator.
On May 19,
2002, at 1:45 a.m., an aging, Soviet-built plane lands at Jose Marti International
Airport in Havana, Cuba. At least seventeen of the Cubana Airline passengers
disembark with some bounce, flagging energy restored by the anticipation
of an adventure ahead, and possibly goosed by a desire to get out of the
vapor-filled plane. Its humidity, not smoke, theyd
been assured. Still
Youth also feeds the stamina of fourteen of the group UVM students,
united for the first time this spring by weekly seminars on Cuba, here
to probe the courses reality. They are accompanied by their teacher,
Lynne Bond, professor of psychology, and two staff members Marisha
Kazeniac, coordinator of UVMs Cuba Project her passion for
the island the catalyst for this and other UVM-Cuba connections; and me,
the reporter, green-as-they-come-to-Cuba. The course focuses on how individual
and community development influence one another and how that plays out
culturally in Cuba.
We have a lot to learn, Cubas anxious to teach. While my fellow
travelers sit on a bus outside the airport and practice the Cuban patience
drill, Ive been singled out to face-off customs inspectors, fingers
crossed that the donated medicines, the $400 worth of film, and the ridiculous
amount of toothpaste Im carrying wont be considered contraband.
And, that the unfunny jokes I made at work about detention in Cuba dont
become a reality bite.
The inspector, clad in a tan, military-style uniform, finally accepts
my explanations for the video camera, the film, the laptop computer, and
he never finds the compartment filled with over-the-counter and prescription
medicines, part of our communal cache to be left here in medical hands.
That leaves the large, hermetically sealed cardboard box marked Crest.
Its toothpaste, I say.
He stares, unconvinced.
Im going to share, I add lamely.
Open it, he commands.
I invite him to do the honors, assuming, rightly, that hed need
a machete. His fingers pry at the seal, and he quickly figures the odds
for losing machismo points. He tosses the box into the suitcase and says
something in Spanish to his colleague that signals my dismissal.
First hurdle down, I telegraph success with a one-arm pump as I join our
group. Marisha, a veteran of many visits to this country, says, with a
knowing grin, Welcome to Cuba.
Jacob Collamer was just one in a long line of politicians to underestimate
Cuba. As near to Floridas keys as Montreal is to Burlington, the
island republic annoys us plenty. For its penance, it has had to survive
without our trade and without our aid since Fidel Castro wrested control
from the U.S.- and mafia-supported Batista regime 43 years ago and installed
a communist government. Cubas survival, despite the breakup of the
Soviet Union, its major supplier and trading partner, continues to annoy.
Our government rarely lets a year go by without some new bill to tighten
restrictions or intimidate nations who trade with Cuba, even as the United
States opens diplomatic and trade relations with some far worse actors.
But visits like ours hold a promise of change. Out of what must have been
humbling necessity the decade after the Soviet Union dissolved (dubbed
in understated Revolutionary jargon the Special Period), Castro
opened the tourist gates to the U.S. dollar. In the first six years after
that, tourism in Cuba increased 50 percent. Americans now visit Cuba in
droves, most of them illegally, some, like us, under the imprimatur of
a Treasury Departments license for cultural and educational purposes.
Marisha Kazeniac obtained UVMs license in 1999 because she saw educational
exchange in Cuba as an opportunity for UVM to be in the forefront
of innovative, international programming that can make a real difference.
The goals of the Cuba Project include faculty exchanges and collaborative
research and exchanges of community resources, as well as courses like
Lynne Bond, who designed and taught Individual and Community Development
in Cultural Context: Cuba, became hooked on international
education during graduate study in Mexico. A fluent Spanish speaker,
as is Marisha, she also conducted research in Belize and Costa Rica. Cuba,
she says, is a fascinating place to do this course for a community
Lynne brought her first class to Cuba the year before; this class was
to benefit from coming in second. Although the model of the course remained
the same, this year she emphasized reflection. I wanted us to look
at different layers, at the lenses we bring to cross-cultural situations,
and how to become more conscious of them to put them aside
or find where the lenses are similar.
We arrive at an auspicious moment on the heels of the USAs
most distinguished recent visitor. Former President Jimmy Carter had left
Cuba the day before, leaving hope in the air as well as trepidation about
President Bushs response.
I did not come here to interfere in Cubas internal affairs,
but to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people and to offer a
vision of the future for our two countries and for all the Americas,
Carter told the Cuban people. Because the United States is the most
powerful nation, we should take the first step, he said, adding
his hope that we soon would open up travel and repeal the embargo.
We follow in the glow of that visit and literally in Carters footsteps
several times, including a visit to the biotech center that welcomed his
inspection of their work. Our first shadowing of the former president
comes on our second day, at the University of Havana.
We climb the 102 steps to the universitys central entrance, a believable
stand-in for New Yorks Columbia University. Professor Delio Carreras,
a voluble source of institutional history, leads us to an imposing, church-like
hall, where both Pope John Paul II and Jimmy Carter have made momentous
appearances. Like Havana itself, the room holds an eclectic mix of clues
to its several histories from colonial through corruption to Communism:
ceiling murals of Roman and Greek figures and angels; a marble (baptismal?)
fountain topped with a cross; a Tiffany chandelier, its former crystal
glory replaced with pedestrian incandescents; and a Russian Petrof piano.
Carreras adds his own incongruity a brass hand bell that he rings
while shouting his blessing for our two countries: God save America
and make good relations between Cuba and the USA and Vermont.
Carters hope and Carreras sentiment echo repeatedly throughout
our fourteen days in Cuba. Most of the people we meet speak passionately
and hopefully, if not about solving the schism between our countries,
about building personal and professional relationships through visits
like ours. On one of my solitary walks, a young Cuban couple falls in
with me, a very common occurrence, hawking their familys paladar
(a home-based restaurant). But above all, they want to know, Do
you like Cuba? Do you like the Cuban people? Goodwill to all
regardless of governments and their leaders becomes a pervasive
and mutual touchstone during our visit. It helps us wipe clean prejudicial
spots and dismiss tired rhetoric from both countries.
We breathe in lessons about Cuba like we do Havanas humid air. Not
uncritically, but out of necessity and inevitability. When we arent
in class or listening to field trip lecturers, some of whom lay bare our
Yankee imperialist sins, there are signs and billboards and faded Revolutionary
reinforcements everywhere. September 11 inspired a new one: Cuba
Contra el Terrorismo, Contra la Guerra. At the other end of
the island, America stores prisoners from that war at Guantanamo, against
Among our teachers are four young Cubans, three students at the university
who translate for us Nora Alberteris, Sonia Hernandez Camacho and
Omar Granados and Leslie Sinclair, the photographer I had hired
via e-mail. Leslie finds us the morning after we arrive, despite our hotel
having been switched at the last minute. Wearing a Free Mumia Abu
Jamal tee, Leslie speaks impeccable English, loves American and
Cuban jazz, and easily could be mistaken for a displaced New Yorker. Like
most of the Cubans we meet, he intelligently sorts American good from
the bad and the ugly. He longs to visit the States, but he doesnt
want our culture to overtake his.
Leslie and Omar accompany us our first day for a tour of The Museo
de La Revolucion and Centro Habana. The elegant marble staircase
of the museum, once Batistas presidential palace, is pocked with
bullet holes that memorialize the 1957 assault on the regime by university
students, many of whom were shot dead.
The museum, with its photos of the Revolutions heroes, especially
Che and the youthful Fidel, its bloodied uniforms, Revolutionary slogans,
and weapons has a sad and dusty look, much like the Revolutions
promise at this stage. Nonetheless, the sense of being next to its momentous
history moves us. Writing in her journal that night, Tabitha Holmes, the
only graduate student in the class, ponders fates small turning
points. Fidel was almost assassinated at an early point in the Revolution.
His captor chose to spare his life saying, I cannot kill an idea.
With that decision, the world was changed.
Daily, we study about Cubas development, philosophy, and culture
with social science faculty at the University of Havana, but we also absorb
incidental lessons. Each morning, we arrive at the lushly treed and green
campus quad sweaty and thirsty from our six-block walk. Eventually, with
the casualness of the initiated, we accept the presence of the tank captured
from Batistas army and planted in one corner of the green. We quickly
learn the best places to get the least expensive bottles of aqua minerale,
but water at any price becomes more important than food. During the class
break, we shop in the tiny galley of a cafeteria in our building, which
has good prices on water and delicious juices and serves up a potent Cuban
coffee. One of our students, Will Veve, holds out his quavering hand to
me to demonstrate his never again experiment with two shots
of the stuff. His partial Cuban lineage apparently has not conferred immunity.
We also trawl the vendors tables lined up outside the classrooms
artisans and entrepreneurs selling bead jewelry, books about Che
and Revolutionary father Jose Marti, and artwork.
Elena Diaz, a sociologist with a doctorate in economic sciences, coordinates
our program at the university, accompanies us often, and delivers an excellent
lecture on Cuban social development. Introducing us to the faculty on
the first day of classes, she assures us, No question is bad for
us. And, she and the other faculty are true to their word; they
field all incoming. Our students ask astute questions and learn there
are no short answers in Cuba. Everyone takes great pains to explain their
country, to give context to its achievements, problems, and goals, to
answer our questions from every angle. They seldom offer opinions, but
rather lay out facts as they see them, sometimes with overwhelming doses
of statistics. [See sidebar, Cuban Lessons] Afternoons, our classes are
fleshed out with visits to various sites related to the lectures.
Those trips teach us that Cubans, if understandably subdued by their longstanding
problems, are resilient, generous, and open to Americans despite the travails
our policies have caused them. At the House of Children, part of a community
transformation project that operates neighborhood centers for adults and
children, the lesson scores a direct hit.
Our invitation to the center is unexpected. The one-room storefront looks
like a typical after-school care program anywhere art, music, a
television, even a computer, thanks to UNESCO. The students, dressed in
the red and white uniforms worn in all Cuban primary schools, have prepared
a surprise for us. Accompanied by their teacher on guitar, they sing many
songs in English and in Spanish. But it is the opening act that wrecks
us. A girl of eleven hijacks our hearts with her clear, strong rendition
of Imagine (The most stoic cynic guaranteed to crumble at Imagine
theres no countries...). Our tears dont dry until sometime
after the dancing, group singing, and mutually reluctant departure. What
linger are the final postscripts, each an emotional salvo. Our soloists
farewell: Tell the children in the U.S. to come to Cuba. They will
have friends here. And, as we gather for group snapshots, the children
hold up a sign, the Cuban and American flags dipping toward one another
over the words, Please End the Blockade. We concede defeat.
Whatever bad lessons Cuba would mete out in our remaining time, I think
everyone knows at this moment our hearts will levitate every time we remember
There was only one righteous ending to this experience. Our bus driver,
Carlos, like many Cubans we meet, is a Beatles fan. He reroutes our return
trip to stop at a small park, its focus, a metal bench with a life-size
bronze John Lennon sitting on it.
The harsher lessons and doubts come with time. Draped over the beds and
chairs in Lynnes hotel room at the end of most days, we sort out
experiences and reactions. The initial thrill of I-cant-believe-Im-in-Cuba
gives way to ambiguities about our presence. Visitors like us essentially
become the upper class in this supposedly classless society by the sheer
power of the dollar. True, the dual economy peso and dollar
set us up, but, we wonder, is it better to come and prop up the sagging
state or are our doses of dollars creating social problems? Our tips,
for example, effectively insure that hotel maids earn five or six times
the income of university faculty members.
A twenty-something Cuban man talks to me about how he and many of his
friends feel. Lots of people hate Castro, he says. OK,
the Revolution, but show me something new. If someone asked me whos
the enemy, Id say tourism, and the bullet dollars. Prices
are going up, we hear, for oil and gas, and it will be in dollars. You
cant make it without being in the dollar economy.
Tourism also is responsible for the return of pre-Revolution sins
prostitution, the black market, and other behaviors that shame most Cubans.
When two young men try, unsuccessfully, to steal Lynnes purse one
evening, a Cuban couple comes to her aid, apologizing, escorting her to
a taxi, calling the next night to assure her again that most Cubans would
never behave that way. Student Sarah Fieldsteel, who loses her purse and
camera in a similar incident, reacts calmly and philosophically, but the
experience pains our Cuban friends.
One evening, roles reverse, and we experience similar indignation and
pain. Although Cubans are not allowed in hotel rooms to discourage
prostitution, we are told we often gather in the lobby with no
problem, planning our days events with Leslie and Omar and Elena.
This night, Omar, waiting for some of the students, is escorted out of
the lobby by hotel security. Exhausted from studying for finals, translating,
and spending many off-hours with us, he reacts with contained fury, his
inherent dignity at stake. Im glad you saw this, he
says, after I attempt to sort out the situation with the head of security.
You are seeing the other Cuba. Cuba is not for Cubans.
A two-week lifetime after our arrival, the students and I leave Cuba,
and Lynne and Marisha stay for a collaborative week with UVM and UH faculty.
Onboard Cubana Airlines, inured now to the vapor flow, we read, write
in our journals, and wander in our individual thoughts.
Driving from Dorval Airport in Montreal, the closer we get to campus and
our homes, the more the conversation shifts to favorite foods, friends,
CDs, and movies, as if wed turned in Cuba at the border. However,
the recoil hits us within days, and we all continue to unpack pieces of
Abby Cassabona probably best expressed our universal reaction. The
adjustment to home has taken longer than I expected, and despite being
back for so long, I still feel like a part of my mind is in Cuba.
John Bailey, who rushed off to an internship in D.C. for the summer, e-mailed
me a few thoughts. Cuba has definitely been a major part of my mind
and subconscious since weve been back. Nobody seems to understand
the power that place is able to exert
the island and its people
are amazing examples of resilience over the petty bickering between governments
who wont let history pass.
I am both excited and nervous
as to what the future between our two countries may hold.
Carrie Shamel wrote: Ive learned more in two weeks in Cuba
than I ever could have in a classroom for any period of time.
Different memories come to me every day. Elenas words People
come to Cuba to see the perfect society. We are not. In 43
years, you cannot change everything.
My brief, lively conversation
with a clerk in a mercado. She speaks excellent English and wants to know
about Vermont. She leans over the counter and whispers in my ear: I
would like to live there.
Sonias words: We worry
about the future, not just Cuba, the U.S., both.
crumbling architecture of Havana, and how the rare sighting of a restored
cream- or peach-painted building takes your breath away.
Cubans answer to my question, What do you think would happen
if the blockade (embargo) ended tomorrow? The U.S. will just
take us over.
Our final goodbyes with our Cuban friends in
the hotel lobby. Leslie gives each of us a rose. Our last conversation
is about Louis Armstrong recordings, and Leslie breaks out in a pretty
fair imitation of Satchmo.
Give me a kiss before you leave me
And my imagination will feed my hungry heart
Leave me one thing before we part
A kiss to build a dream on.
Cuba boasts a 96 percent literacy rate. Schooling is compulsory
K-9 and is free K-university. Those who dont complete senior high
school or qualify for university have options for free technical and other
training. Professor Lino Boroto says the goal is to develop humans
who consume more culture than goods. Fourteen percent of Cubas
GNP supports education.
Health care also is free. Cuba has 67,000 doctors, half of them
women, for its 11.2 million population; 30,000 practice family care. Pregnant
women receive extra food rations and, if needed, medical and social support
services. Women at 50 are required to receive a mammogram.
On the flip side, well educated Cubans often find it hard to put
their schooling to good use. Their salaries are severely capped regardless
of education (typically, a university professor earns the equivalent of
$30 monthly, doctors somewhat less); and, with the influx of tourism,
temptations exist to work in the service industry, the fastest growing
labor force in the country.
Since the Soviet Union faded, food and consumer goods no longer
flow into the country. Only in the better hotels and public places where
tourists are likely to go are there, for example, toilet seats, toilet
paper, and a plentiful supply of soap. Food is rationed, as are household
products like soap. To buy more, Cubans must have dollars.
A critical housing shortage has no solutions on the horizon, a
fact that reverberates in social instability. Cubans marry young and often.
The country has one of the highest divorce rates in the world.