Telex From Cuba, 2016

First thing for you to do is go back and look at the title of this post. 'Telex' is correct, it's not 'text'. You can't text from Cuba, at least not yet. It is a four word phrase that is becoming more and more popular in this island country, 'at least not yet'.

Cuba is changing. Too fast for some, not fast enough for others. The vast majority of Cubans, the ones who live on the island, fall into the second category. The first category is mostly populated by Cuban-Americans of a certain age, or Republican political candidates. By the way, the people of Cuba likely know more about what is going on with the 2016 Presidential contest than the guy living next door to you, or your brother or cousin. They are tuned in. Their future depends on it. We visited a couple of schools and asked the kids, 'Who is the President of Cuba?' Some paused, some said Fidel, some said, Raul. Then we asked, 'Who's the President of the United States?' Every last one yelled 'Obama'.

In the few days since returning from a 12 day sojourn from one end of Cuba to the other it has become apparent that reflection is a good thing. Reflecting on what we saw, what we heard, who we talked to, and what we think about a country that has been shut out of the American psyche, or at least pushed way to the back, for over 50 years. This particular journey was made with 31 other folks, 29 Americans and two Cubans-a driver and a 'fixer' or guide. As all 'tours' of this nature are it was sanctioned by the Cuban government under the auspices of a 'people to people' interaction. Havana Tours runs the Cuban side, the U.S. side in this instance was organized by an outfit from New York, smarTours. While the entire rest of the world has been visiting Cuba forever, Americans have been shut out, except for these kinds of recent opportunities, since the Cuban embargo began in 1961. There are variations on the theme and you can go individually if you fit into one of four or five categories, or, if you go 'illegally', departing from somewhere else besides the U.S.

No matter how you go what you find is pretty much the same. It is a faded time capsule from the late 1950's and early 60's. Architecture is Spanish Colonial, the real deal, built by the Spaniards in the 1800's and before. There are indeed 'classic' American cars on every road, but these are not the cars from your twice yearly 'Cruise In' down at the mall parking lot. The outsides may look familiar but the insides are completely foreign, as in, Russian carburetors, and tractor differentials. Cubans have done anything necessary, including making their own tools, too keep these cars working. Why? Giving rides to tourists is a new phenomenon. Transportation is the real reason. I mentioned the cable TV show, 'Cuban Chrome' that has developed a following the U.S. to a couple of the guys driving these relics on the island. They laughed, 'That's TV!' they said, 'This is the real thing.'

The 'real thing' for the 11 million Cubans is the hope that with the changes that have already occurred, we drove by the recently opened U.S. Embassy, and the ones planned, lots of talk about direct flights and ferry service and cruise ship landings, that the embargo will soon be a memory--a bad one. Until the embargo is lifted Cuban life will not move forward with much speed or pleasure.

Our Cuban guide had an interesting perspective. He put it this way. 'There are three truths when it comes to Cuba and the U.S. My truth, your truth, and THE truth.' In a nutshell the history of our two countries goes something like this--the U.S. took a fancy to Cuba in the late 1800's. It went to 'war' with Spain in 1898 to 'liberate' the Cuban people, and promptly took over, if not overtly, in reality. The Americans supported a series of what can kindly be called 'dictators' through the 1900's and invested a lot of money in a number of businesses, not the least of which was sugar cane. The United Fruit Company the largest player. I should note here that my great uncle worked for United Fruit in Cuba as the veterinarian in the 20's and 30's. More American investment hit the beach, particularly in Havana, after World War II, and yes some of it was Mafia money, but it was small change in comparison to the corporate interests. And just like here at home, a small percentage of people became very wealthy while the majority of Cubans did not get a seat at the economic table.

Enter 'the beard'. Funny thing most Cubans don't call Fidel, Fidel. They call him the beard, or make a hand gesture similar to stroking your beard below your chin when referring to him. A vestige of scary times gone by. Raul on the other hand is simply Raul. In 1959 the lawyer son of a wealthy Cuban family and a medical doctor with a one word name, Fidel and Che, led a 'people's revolution' and kicked out a U.S. and big money backed fellow named Batista. Bent on spreading the wealth, Castro nationalized all the businesses, rich folks fled to Miami, Castro went to the U.S. first for recognition, we said 'Non', and Fidel ended up trying to run a theoretically based communist government. The Soviet Union took notice, became a trading partner, and at some point figured what the heck, let's export a few missiles to Cuba.
The blockade, the crisis, the embargo, the exploding cigar assassination attempts, the CIA's half baked Bay of Pigs invasion, and things couldn't get much worse between the U.S. and Cuba.

But things did get worse for the Cuba people. When the Soviet Union imploded it signaled what the Cubans called the 'special period'. There was nothing special about it. Starvation stalked the country side as Cuba lost its lone trading partner. The Cuban national past time of standing on line for everything was born. Venezuela basically saved Cuba's bacon and exported some when it decided to buck the U.S. embargo under Hugo Chavez in 1999.

The Cuban 'truth' varies a little--the U.S. is the 'bad actor', we've tried to cause turmoil in Cuba for decades, we've funded 'dissidents', tried to kill their President nearly 1000 times, the U.S. Intersection was a hot bed of CIA activity.

For our part, Cuba has been a 'terrorism' exporting country, sent troops to Africa to help over throw governments, Grenada, is a human rights nightmare, there is no 'free speech'.

For nearly two generations of Cubans they've known nothing but the embargo. 'Why are we still punished for something we had nothing to do with?' people will ask you. 'We don't agree with the reason for the embargo in the first place, but those times are gone, most of those people are dead. You're still punishing me for something my grandfather maybe did?'

And despite the embargo Cuba is still there. The Cubans are still there. Easily one of the most resilient people I've ever met--you try making a socket wrench from scratch, or standing along the road for hours in hopes of catching a bus ride, or going to a store looking for shampoo and you have to choose, wait, there is no such thing as 'choice' in Cuba. You take what you get and like it.

Just like the word 'telex', the Cuban embargo is a vestige of another time. The difference is that the telex was actually useful, the embargo has not been and will not be. End it. Let the Cubans decide what shampoo to use, which hotels to upgrade, which small businesses will succeed and which will fail. What to serve in their restaurants and whom to serve it to. Let them paint those beautiful buildings and pave their roads and buy a few new cars. Let them use those horse and carts for tourists not for transportation, and God forbid let them put up with Spring Break 2025. Okay, maybe that last part would be cruel and unusual. By the way, those 29 Americans on this trip now know more about Cuba than all the Presidential candidates combined. Why? They've been.