Cuba – the freedom to hope

Yesterday’s news is stunning: Cuba and the United States are re-establishing full diplomatic relations. The newsman’s words are hard to take in at first. It’s as if the Earth’s poles have switched. It’s not the end of the embargo, and Congress can still shut the doors once more – at least for awhile – but it might be the beginning of the end of toxic relationship.

My first clear memory of Cuba was Castro’s Revolution, and then the tense days as a college student while Kennedy and Khrushchev glowered over missiles in Cuba.  After that, Cuba vanished behind the silence of the U.S. embargo, but during the Viet Nam War, Che’s face popped up on T-shirts worn by the ideologically-minded students.

I visited Cuba exactly a year ago and this change seemed unlikely; change was a wisp of cloud along the sea’s far horizon. From e-mail posts, I know this is a cause for joy and anticipation among friends in Havana and in the little towns of Itabo, and Favorito. This is something they hoped and prayed for, yet they and we didn’t think possible. Now it is here.

What happens next depends on Congress. Some of the wannabe Republican presidential candidates are already huffing and puffing their opposition as they line up for 15 minutes of fame. I don’t expect them to speak or act on facts or rational thinking.  An early sample of their partisan reactions tastes like the stale, set-phrases and the pre-approved gruel seasoned for their political bases. We’ve all heard these rants before; they’re the hollow echoes from the long-ago Cold War.

It is time for the self-serving cold warriors to put an end to an embargo that has inflicted suffering on the average Cuban. There is neither honor nor morality in starving a population in the hope they will overthrow the Castro brothers. It’s utterly cynical to expect Cubans to shed their blood ousting a regime we don’t like. America does its best when it deals with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Cuba has been completely independent of direct U.S. interference for the first time in its history. Most Americans don’t know – or have forgotten – that the U.S. has dominated Cuba since President Thomas Jefferson tried to buy the island from Spain. Politicians from Southern states wanted to annex Cuba in order to expand the economic and political power of slaver holders. After our Civil War, American corporations set up shop in Cuba and controlled several economic sectors, beginning with sugar. And with the Americans came Jim Crow laws imposed on freed slaves.

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain to protect American economic interests more than to help the Cuban insurgents. And when Spain and the U.S. made peace, Cuban nationalists weren’t party to the negotiations. Spain ceded Cuba to American protection and governance. Before granting Cuba independence, the U.S. imposed the ‘Platt Amendment’ onto the Cuban constitution granting the U.S. the right to intervene whenever it felt American interests were at risk.

Cubans deeply resented this provision and homegrown democracy never had a chance to flourish for long. The U.S. governed Cuba until 1902, intervened and governed it from 1906-09, then in 1912, and again from1917-1922. By 1926, U.S. interests dominated 60% of the Cuban economy. Democracy had a rocky road in the 1930s. Fulgencio Batista served as President from 1940-44, regained the Presidency in a 1954 coup, and ran a corrupt and repressive government allied with the U.S. until his ouster by Fidel Castro in 1959. This is the part of Cuban history we forget; this is the part of the history the Cubans remember, and it is still relevant today.

Che is dead and the Castro brothers are now old men. Since 2006, the slow, liberalizing economic initiatives of Rául Castro are tacit admissions that Fidel’s communism was a failure. My Cuban friends know this as well. Communism failed, socialism failed. It failed, in part, because Cuba’s economy relied on one product – sugar. But world diets changed, corn syrups replaced cane sugars and the subsidy from the Soviet Union is long gone. After a difficult “Special Period” in the 1990s, Cuba increased its food production through reforms and allowing farmers to sell their produce. Cuba is also developing ‘agro-ecology’ which is more climate resilient than monocultures. Despite the austerity of daily life, Cubans are an impressively hopeful, self-reliant people.

For several days over the 2013-2014 New Year, the group I led stayed in the small town of Itabo, living in a dorm owned by the local Anglican Church. The church owns land and grows food crops it sells to the town’s residents for a few pesos; and its fields also demonstrate to others the sustainable methods of agriculture.

Frederico and I become compañeros or friends over the details of raising food crops. Between his Cuban and my Mexican Spanish, he explains how they do sustainable agriculture. I also learn he was trained as a veterinarian, was drafted into the Army, and served in Cuba’s intervention in the Angolan civil war against the U.S. and South African interventions. It was an episode in his life, something he did decades ago, but he has no ideological bitterness toward the U.S.; he is happy tending the fields run by the Church. Material life is better now, he tells me, and he believes it will get better. He is a man of faith.

Tikito is a natural teacher. As we walk along the edge of a forest, he points out the types of trees and plants, all of them new to me. He explains things simply, and well, casually using guidance and affirmation rather than instruction to inform me. In fact, he trained to be a teacher, but teachers are government employees and salaries are low. Instead, he works as a carpenter, does projects and odd jobs, and makes more money. His humor is wry, even subversive, and he takes subtle jabs at ‘government’ but says the U.S. embargo, not the Castro brothers, are the biggest barrier to a better life in Cuba.

I go into the palapa, the open, thatch-roofed shelter to get out of the sun. One of the women working in the kitchen is there, taking her cigarette break. A small woman, with a wizened face, is funny, outspoken, and laughs with the husky voice of a heavy smoker. Do I like it in Itabo? she asks. Do I like Cuba? I tell her I like Cuba a lot.

“This is a good place,” she says of the village, home to several thousand people. “Nobody bothers us here. We’re free.”

Free! Here words surprise me. Free. What does that mean to her?  Free.  American notions of freedom include a long list of liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws.  Cubans don’t have those – at least not now, and haven’t for a very long time – if ever. The office of the CRD – Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the Communist Party – is just down the street. It’s supposed to keep an eye on un-revolutionary activity. We are free she says. What does free mean?

The day is New Year’s Eve and our group enjoys a barbeque of roast pork (killed that day) with hot, fresh, chicharón (deep-fried pigskin), rice and black beans (‘moros y cristianos’), lettuce from the fields, and beer. Afterward, the church leaders set up a soundboard and huge amps for the New Year’s dance.  Dozens of people from the little town, church members and non-members, join our group, dancing as only Cubans can. The music from the amps probably reaches all corners of the town.

No one calls the police to complain of the ‘noise.’ People are free to play loud music in Cuba.  It’s expected.  Municipal noise ordinances generally prohibit playing loud music in Minnesota neighborhoods. We dance in groups, in lines, clapping and singing until the music stops at midnight.  After a moment of silence, the amps pour out ‘The Star-Spangled Banner!’ We rise to our feet, put our hands over our hearts, and sing the familiar words as our eyes dart toward the street, wondering when the local Communist officials will show up.  They don’t.  national anthem is followed by the Cuban national hymn; we stand for that, our hands over our fast-beating hearts. Now it’s a few minutes into 2014 and the dancing resumes. We don’t know it yet, but 2014 is a ‘new’ year in both countries.

In the morning, I thank the leader for playing our national anthem.  Then I add: “I hope that won’t get you into trouble with the officials.”

“No. No trouble. We were just showing respect for our guests,” he replies.  Free.

There is no white-washing the atrocities of the Castro regime. Nor can we excuse those of the Batista dictatorship. Those are facts of history, a part of the fabric of Cuba’s past and, to a degree, a part of it is in the fabric of America’s history as well. And yet, despite nearly two centuries of economic domination and political interference by American interests; and the brutality of the Batista dictatorship and the Communist regime, and despite the material austerity of the last fifty-five years, Cubans are a warm, open, hopeful, and generous people – as individuals and as a society. Although owning little, they readily shared what little they had, but asked for nothing in return. Generosity is a freedom of the heart.

Yesterday’s announcement will slowly change the relationship between Cuba and the United States, and between Cubans and Americas as individuals.  Cuban optimism and hope in the face of austerity and oppression are to be admired and, perhaps, emulated in a contemporary America that seems less open, less generous, and less hopeful than in its past.  Perhaps we can learn from more contact with Cubans something about the freedom that comes from hope.

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