When my plane touched ground in Havana, Cuba, my body reacted with ecstatic joy with three exciting things in mind … language immersion, cultural exposure, and improved salsa dancing skills.
On my first day on the island, I met a voluptuous woman named Luisa Cepero who begged me to bring her back to the U.S. To deflect her vehement pitch, I told her that I'd rather stay in Cuba and help support the revolution.
Luisa was crushed by my apparent naiveté as she, her two children, and so many others on the island were struggling through an economy that had not enough basic necessities to go around for everyone, and thanks to a stubborn U.S. trade embargo, everything is rationed hurting innocent men, women, and children much more than it is hurting the Cuban government.
My primary reason for approaching Luisa in the first place was to practice my Spanish and be immersed into the culture by interacting with her family, friends, and members of her community, and in turn, I would gladly help with food, entertainment, and other economic needs as my U.S. dollar went a long way on this island.
I also met Dee Fuentes whom I felt could help improve my salsa dancing skills. After dining in an Italian restaurant, she and I went dancing at El Palacio de la Salsa (The Salsa Palace) in Havana's famous Hotel Riviera. Dee was someone whom I would have been proud to bring home to mom and pop, which I seriously thought about doing at the time. She is highly intelligent and is made of sweet, dark chocolate.
When I came back to Oakland, I felt so culturally uplifted and refreshed that couldn't stop talking about my Cuban experience. My Spanish zoomed to such a level that I was able to pass a Spanish-speaking job interview with flying colors, and there was also a marked improvement in my salsa dancing skills.
As I continued babbling about my trip, I inadvertently came upon many Cuban immigrants in the U.S. who were very upset with me because they assumed that I was not only supporting a regime that is oppressing their loved ones back on the island, but also to engage in sexual tourism. Little did I know that this island was a haven for such activities as I had blinders on looking only to dive into the music and dancing while improving my Spanish.
Hell, if I wanted to pay for sex, I could have stayed in Oakland and saved myself airfare and lodging expenses. I later learned that the economy in Cuba is so bad that in order for many decent people, with good hearts, to make ends meet, they have to get a hustle going in addition to their regular jobs serving as guides, entertainers, venders, or as prostitutes for tourists. I even met engineers moonlighting as cab drivers.
One evening, I was at a party where there were a large number of folks, like me, who were foreign students studying Spanish at the University of Havana. Feeling the music, I asked a young black Cuban woman to dance, and she quickly glanced over toward a male leaning against a wall on the other side of the room seeking his approval. He shook his head indicating no, not me.
That was her pimp and they were not there to "party!" They were seeking to hook a rich, white guy. To the woman and her pimp, I appeared “too Cuban,” i.e., not foreign and wealthy enough to meet their needs. In fact, almost every Cuban stranger I met took it for granted that I too was Cuban until my accent inevitably revealed otherwise.
Jesus Diaz, a popular Afro-Cuban musician in Oakland, asked me sarcastically upon my return if I had a "good time?" In other words, how was my experience with the women. Jesus was pleased and relieved when I explained my real motive for the trip, language and cultural immersion. Many of the resentful Cuban immigrants that I met have seen too many North Americans, Europeans, and Australians traveling to their homeland for none other than sexual pleasures.
Yes, I had a good time in Havana; a culturally, rewarding good time, but a naive one that was reflected in my communication with concerned Cuban-Americans.