Saturday, June 6, 2015

Our Trip To Cuba – What An Experience!

We just returned from a cultural “people-to-people” 8-day tour of Cuba. It was a very different kind of tour. Not your typical monuments, museums, historical buildings, etc. Although there was some of that, it was more focused on meeting various segments of the population – the elderly, pre-school and medical facilities, the art community, historical renovators and social service organizations.  Some of these were government-sanctioned organizations and some of them were private or entrepreneurial efforts. When combined, they constituted the “good, bad, and ugly” of Cuba, as our tour director described them. In other words, there was little sugar-coating going on.
What we witnessed was the impact of our 50-year embargo and it was shaming. What we have done has not affected the government that much – it has targeted the elderly, the children, and the poor. Food, medicines, tools, and equipment are still hard to come by if at all. Farmers still plow with yoked oxen. I believe we had hoped the embargo would make the population rise up in protest and overthrow the Castro government. That didn’t happen. All that happened was the people for the most part learned to simply ignore the government and survive the best they could – being creative, innovative, and making-do. It did expose the major flaw in the Cuban society, however, which is their economic system. Their health care, education, arts and housing efforts are going strong, although housing is beginning to be an issue. Many homes are beginning to deteriorate and the residents have neither the money nor the tools to handle the repairs on their own.
Everything is changing.  We felt fortunate to be there in the midst of the beginning of their transition. The government understands the need to focus on the economy and is recognizing the importance of entrepreneurism. It is recognizing the need to embrace change in how they have done “business” with foreign governments. It understands the need for better agricultural practices to grow more vegetables because their traditional diet – starches and meats – is leading to diabetes. It understands how it needs to provide more incentives so neighborhoods will begin to improve themselves. Some have. Many haven’t. We saw both.
But through all this the people themselves are genuinely happy, gentle and very friendly. They love their country, its emphasis on education (Cuba’s literacy rate is about 95% - one of the highest in the world), arts of all kinds (visual, graphic, dance, music), health care and their diversity. Real diversity is relatively new for Cuba. The traditional Latino “macho” culture is waning. Gays and lesbians are openly entering politics, the military, and business.  They want more women in the workforce, but to do that they have to meet child-care needs, which they are doing. They are truly in transition. Our Cuban guide believes it will take another 5-6 years for all these social transformations to settle in. [While we were there it was announced that a ferry will begin operating from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Havana and Jet Blue has been approved to begin service to Cuba in July of this year.]
Although we were in some very, very poor neighborhoods – barrios, if you will – with piles of trash, local government-sponsored ration stores and houses that resembled hovels rather than homes, the expressions of subdued rage were absent. I don’t think they were “Putting on the Ritz” for us. I believe they are a happy people. They were excited to see us, meet us, and talk to us. They wanted to show-off – whether with their wares, activities, art or especially with their Cuban music.
I really was amazed.  I expected to see a lot of repressed anger and frustration – either at their government or – especially – at the USA. It just wasn’t there. Several times people on the street approached me and said, “Are you American?” “Si.” I replied. Then, with 2 thumbs up and grinning broadly, “Obama. Obama.”
I read recently in a novel Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane, [Harper Collins, 2010] a description of the repressed rage that exists here – elements we have seen rising up in the form of an angry Tea Party, para-military groups, the NRA and gun carrying, voter repression, virulent hatred of the government and especially Obama, and the popular promotion of fear, anxiety, conspiracy and distrust for political gain. Not just hatred of policies – but of the people who espouse them. If someone disagrees with a policy position I favor, I am vilified. I’m sure you are too.
Lehane writes of a woman who knew a run-away girl who was smart enough to enter an Ivy-League school: “So she could, what, enter some cubicle at a slightly higher rate of pay? Hang her f***ing diploma on the partition wall? She spends the next thirty-forty years learning how to short stock and steal people’s jobs and houses, their 401(k)s? But that’s okay…. She sleeps like a baby at night, tells herself she’s not to blame, it’s the system. Then one day she finds a lump in her breast. And it’s not okay anymore, but nobody gives a s**t, honey, because you made your f***ing bed. So do us all a favor and die….The woman had never raised her voice, but the rage she’d expelled into the atmosphere had been so torn and pitiable it rattled us all. And it wasn’t rare. Quite the contrary. You asked a simple question lately or made an innocuous aside and suddenly you were the recipient of a howl of loss and fury. We no longer understood how we’d gotten here. We couldn’t grasp what had happened to us. We woke up one day and all the street signs had been stolen, all the navigation systems had shorted out. The car had no gas, the living room had no furniture, the imprint in the bed beside us had been smoothed over.” [pp. 212-213]
That’s what’s happening here. That’s not what I saw in Cuba.
Bottomline? I think we can learn something from Cuba’s government whose policies mirror the country’s values. I also think they can learn a great deal from us about general economic issues. If you can go to Cuba, please do.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#1 June 2015

Copyright 2015

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