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Saturday, July 11, 2015

To Havana I Shall Return Someday


My travel group and I entering the José Martí terminal 
of Havana, Cuba after off-boarding our plane

 Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco, had a legal partnership with the University of Havana where people like me can improve our Spanish-speaking skills through an immersion program where the instructors, tutors, and host families speak only Spanish. And being the salsa music lover that I am, which is an offspring of Cuban music, this program with Global Exchange was right on time. 

Upon arrival in Havana, I was deeply touched by the culture and the vibes of the people, which made me feel like a long, lost member of the community who finally came home. It was pure joy to just walk the streets hearing the music of son-montuno, charanga, and timba blaring from cars, homes, and businesses. 

 
I had the pleasure of dancing with a smooth salsa 
dancer in the Callo Hueso District of Havana

In a city of over two million people, I found the Habaneros (Havana residents) to be very neighborly and down to earth. You don't feel that sense of paranoia and fear among the people like we are so accustomed to here in the US. Havana is much, much safer than any US city mainly because the crimes that can get you a slap on the wrist in the US can easily get you 10-20 years in a Cuban jail—first offense.

One day in downtown Havana, a street hustler, who saw me as a mark, aggressively approached me, and my not being in the mood, I snapped, ¡ya, no me moleste! He immediately backed off, not because he was afraid of me, he was afraid of those who were watching me. In Cuba there are hordes of undercover agents on the street known in as Seguridad del Estado (security of the state), making sure, among many other things, that visitors like me, were safely circulating their money into the Cuban economy. Castro did not want any of us messed with!

Although, Fidel Castro is no angel, I have to give the man credit for being the only Latin American leader to openly address racism in his country versus sweeping it under the rug. Since he took office there has been a surge of black professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Castro developed a 100% literacy rate in Cuba.  And in addition to free healthcare for all citizens, he sponsored a free medical school for anyone in the world who is willing to practice medicine in poor communities, and that includes the US. 

I attended the University of Havana through a cultural 
exchange program to improve my Spanish

When the time came for me to leave Cuba, I was acutely heartbroken and homesick for an island that I only visited for two weeks. I felt there was much more to the island that I wanted to experience, but missed. This leads me to a bad side of Cuba that I want to address.

I’ve met many Cuban Americans who bitterly resented me for going to their country having the time of my life, when people are suffering under an oppressive government. Cuban citizens are working their tails off for an average of $20 per month. To make ends meet, people have to hustle after work by selling goods, driving cabs, and practicing vice with tourists as the government looks the other way because that too is income that eventually gets into government hands.

Vladimir a Cuban neighbor of mine, who among thousands of others, risked his life on a rickety raft sailing through shark invested waters where unknown numbers of people perished to escape Cuba. And when he saw the glow of joy on my face upon my return, all he could do was shake his head and laugh because he knew all the distasteful things that I missed out on because I was only a visitor and not a citizen.

In the late 1960s a thug who turned Black Panther by the name of Tony Bryant, hijacked a plane to Havana in solidarity with the Cuban revolution. And in doing so, his thug instincts kicked in as he and a couple of his fellow panthers robbed the passengers, which included a seguridad del estado, a security of the state personnel. Once he arrived in Havana preaching the revolution, Cuban authorities, who had the utmost respect for the Black Panther Party, sent him directly to jail.

In Tony Bryant’s book, Hijack, he wrote how the Cuban prison makes San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom State Prison, where he also did some time, appear to be luxury hotels. Tony learned so much about the harshness of Cuban life that by the time he returned the USA, he was no longer the leftist revolutionary, but a right wing, anti-Castro Republican. Tony Bryant, after 12 years saw more than I could ever see in my two weeks in Havana.

 
An Afro-Cuban dance class in the El Vedado District of Havana

But my love is not for the Cuban government, but for the people whom I connected with. Despite all that I didn’t see, I saw  first hand the effects of this US trade embargo against Cuba that has been going on for more than 50 years. A lot of the little things that we take for granted like cooking oil, meat, and bread, are hard to come by for the average Cuban citizen. I remember a family serving me spaghetti, which had no meatballs, but chopped up frankfurters because they had no access to beef.

 
Relaxing on a hot summer day in Havana

This embargo is not hurting the Castro government nearly as much as it is hurting innocent, everyday people, especially children. On my last day in Havana, I gave a 7-year old kid a set of ink pens and a ream of writing paper. The way that boy high-fived me with so much excitement and exhilaration you would thought that I had given him a $100 bill.

I truly appreciate Obama for taking the steps that he is taking to restore relationships with Cuba, as did the US with Communist China back in 1971. I just hope that when this is all over that Cuban people do not veer too far from their wonderful, seductive culture to embrace ours.  

I say this because when I was in Havana, I noticed an insatiable hunger among the people for anything American; t-shirts, CDs, old clothing, whatever. A dance instructor gave me an hour’s worth of private lessons in exchange for an oldie, but goodie jazz CD. And to return to see a Mc Donalds restaurant on every corner will be a painful eyesore.

When will I return to Havana? Well, I love the way it is put in a song recorded by the salsa music icon Eddie Palmieri:  ¡Pa la Habana, voy a volver algun dia volvere —To Havana, I shall return one day!i