Tomorrow I leave for six days in Cuba.
Some months ago, before the recent diplomatic adjustment, Cuba seemed to be calling me. I've lived in South Florida for most of my adult life. And, Cuba's culture and people have profoundly influenced Florida, despite the country's shroud of secrecy and mystery.
Knowing I'd make the trip happen, I started gathering information and sorting out my options. Ultimately, I decided to organize my own trip and get other professional mediators to come with me. There are 16 of us going tomorrow. We are traveling on a General Research License and much of our time in Cuba will be focused on the conflict and conflict management that drives mediators' work. But, I have already learned a big lesson about Cuba and conflict. Since it's putting a damper on my trip, it's fitting I share it with you before we leave.
Guess what? Not everyone thinks it's cool to go to Cuba.
In order to get my little band of mediators together I "advertised" the trip on social media and sent an email blast to the professional mediators who have attended my training programs. The feedback started coming in. It was as if I had worn a swastika in a synagogue.
"Enjoy your trip to Cuba. And, while you're sipping your cold drink, keep in mind that my father was imprisoned for years. Your dollars will further support the tyrannical regime that has brought nothing but misery to my family. Don't email me again about your damn trip."
Ultimately, I saw a pattern. There was one consistent theme -- we hate the Castro brothers. But, the feedback fell into three categories. Many of the writers won me over and raised sympathy.
"Elinor, About your trip to Cuba: As a disclaimer, I am not objective. I was born in Miami in 1961. My parents were Cuban refugees. My father fought against Castro's men in the Sierra Maestra Mountains and barely escaped the firing squad. One of my uncles died at age 19 during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Another uncle spent 18 yrs as a political prisoner. I grew up hearing stories of the hardships and cruelties endured by my people." Blessings, Nancy, V., MD
"Dear Elinor, As a psychotherapist working with the Hispanic community for over twenty two years, I have been intimately exposed to the suffering of the Cuban exile community. Just like you, I would love to visit Cuba, and I hope to do so when Cubans have the same basic human rights that we enjoy only 90 miles away. Yes, I will visit Cuba, but only when it is deemed to be a free country. I feel that I owe It to the patients that I have worked with for decades, many of whom died with the hope to see a free Cuba, to inform anyone who plans to visit the island while it is still under the grip of a communist regime, that they are in an indirect manner supporting oppression. May you have a safe trip." Liliana W
"Dear Elinor, I was deeply hurt by your "Visit Cuba with Me" email. Relations with Cuba are misunderstood. As with other world atrocities, the cruelty is under reported and ignored. Our president has painted the current situation as an opportunity to open up negotiations with a third world country. But he is ignoring the huge human rights violations that are a daily occurrence. As you know, our media and our leaders refused to investigate stories of the holocaust and the truth was not told until it was all over and the human accounts could be heard. In Cuba, hundreds of people are jailed every day for what are called crimes of thought. The government uses the internet as a weapon to spy and persecute. The real embargo is the one imposed by the Castro government. They and their families live lavish lifestyles while the people don't have sufficient food, water, electricity, or medical supplies. I'm sure you didn't know. Thanks for listening." Alina G
The second category of reactions are what I call the reptile brain responses. The writers of these emails were reacting with a fight-flight response. My Cuba email triggered a survival response in them because the Cuba trauma experience is still with them, frozen in their nervous systems. These were not emails that invited dialogue. "This is disgusting! Never email me again! You are insulting me and my family!"
Finally, others, clearly, wanted to educate me. An example of this came from my colleague, Angel Castillo, Jr. He sent me a copy of an Op Ed piece he wrote for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel "Obama's Christmas Gift to Fidel and Raul: A Win-Lose Deal" (12/18/14). As Angel sees it:
The break in formal relations between my two countries was rightfully decreed on January 3, 1960 by President Eisenhower in response to Cuba's tilt towards the Soviet Union and massive confiscations - thefts - of American properties in violation of international law. Today, the President's quest for finding his "place in history," has made Fidel Castro's decades-old dream of triumphing over the US imperialists, without giving up anything in return, a reality. If President Obama wants "to promote more effective change" and "support for the Cuban people" here are a few of the possible meaningful concessions he could have demanded from Raul Castro in return for his unrequited largesse:
- Reparations to the surviving relatives of the four Brothers to the Rescue humanitarian fliers, shot down over international waters by the Cuban Air Force in 1996.
- An independent investigation into the mysterious death of Osvaldo Paya, a leading dissident killed in a car crash in 2012.
- Granting freedom to the hundreds of political prisoners held in Cuban prisons.
- Allowing periodic inspections of Cuban prisons by international observers.
- Putting an end to the harassment, persecution, and jailing of political dissidents.
- Allowing the Cuban people freedom of assembly, freedom to organize political parties, freedom to create religious and private schools, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech.
- Granting the Cuban people access to ownership of independent newspapers, radio, and TV stations.
- Allowing the Cuban people unrestricted internet access and access to international radio and TV stations without signal jamming.
- Holding free democratic elections supervised by international observers.
According to Angel, what the Castro brothers really covet is not the end of the American trade embargo, as they already buy American goods through third countries. Instead, they want the bigger propaganda victory and access to American and international loans in order to fund their bankrupt dictatorship.
Oy. I have such mixed feelings about my trip tomorrow. On one hand, I am looking forward to the music and the old cars. We will get a chance to see the before picture - a country frozen in time before it begins the thaw-out process that seems to be right around the corner. The timing of our trip could not have been better. Even the President seemed to be supporting us. On the other hand, I feel like a traitor. My Cuban-American friends and colleagues feel so betrayed. I fear that going to Cuba may be akin to flying a confederate flag or contributing money to the KKK.