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Conquered by Cuba
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 island’s 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.”
You’d 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. “It’s humidity, not smoke,” they’d 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 course’s reality. They are accompanied by their teacher, Lynne Bond, professor of psychology, and two staff members — Marisha Kazeniac, coordinator of UVM’s 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, Cuba’s anxious to teach. While my fellow travelers sit on a bus outside the airport and practice the Cuban patience drill, I’ve 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 I’m carrying won’t be considered contraband. And, that the unfunny jokes I made at work about detention in Cuba don’t 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.

“It’s toothpaste,” I say.

He stares, unconvinced.

“I’m going to share,” I add lamely.

“Open it,” he commands.

I invite him to do the honors, assuming, rightly, that he’d 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 Florida’s 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. Cuba’s 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 Department’s license for cultural and educational purposes.

Marisha Kazeniac obtained UVM’s 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 this one.

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 psychologist.”

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 USA’s 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 Bush’s response.

“I did not come here to interfere in Cuba’s 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 Carter’s 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 university’s central entrance, a believable stand-in for New York’s 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.”

Carter’s 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 family’s 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 Havana’s humid air. Not uncritically, but out of necessity and inevitability. When we aren’t 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 Cuba’s wishes.

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 doesn’t 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 Batista’s 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 Revolution’s heroes, especially Che and the youthful Fidel, its bloodied uniforms, Revolutionary slogans, and weapons has a sad and dusty look, much like the Revolution’s 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 fate’s 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 Cuba’s 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 Batista’s 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 there’s no countries...”). Our tears don’t dry until sometime after the dancing, group singing, and mutually reluctant departure. What linger are the final postscripts, each an emotional salvo. Our soloist’s 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 this day.

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 Lynne’s hotel room at the end of most days, we sort out experiences and reactions. The initial thrill of I-can’t-believe-I’m-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 who’s the enemy, I’d say tourism, and the bullet — dollars. Prices are going up, we hear, for oil and gas, and it will be in dollars. You can’t 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 Lynne’s 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. “I’m 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 we’d turned in Cuba at the border. However, the recoil hits us within days, and we all continue to unpack pieces of Cuba.

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 we’ve 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 won’t let history pass. … I am both excited and nervous as to what the future between our two countries may hold.”

Carrie Shamel wrote: “I’ve 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. Elena’s 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.” … Sonia’s words: “We worry about the future, not just Cuba, the U.S., both.” …The beautiful, crumbling architecture of Havana, and how the rare sighting of a restored cream- or peach-painted building takes your breath away. … A young Cuban’s 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 don’t 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 Cuba’s 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.

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