The airport surprised me in its efficiency and cleanliness. We had an hour before our flight so I went to the bar to enjoy a rum and not enjoy a cheese sandwich. The cheese sandwich was definitely my worst meal on the trip. The rum was fantastic. I knew it would be my last in Cuba, and I felt nostalgic but ready to leave. My best friend Hunter Harvath and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Cuba. I arrived home yesterday, and I’m now realizing what an overwhelming trip I just experienced.
A gentleman at the airport bar nervously inquired my country of citizenship. We began to chat, as is common with Cubans, only this conversation was different than those I’d had before. The man wore a McCain Palin / 2008 sweatshirt, and it was amusing to tell him who they are. Our chatting was friendly enough, but his shifty eyes and skittish movements alarmed me. After the usual niceties, he revealed his travel plans: abandon Cuba for Venezuela to search for work, maybe in construction or tourism. He said he has $300 in his shoes and no plan for when he arrives. I was immediately ashamed of my narcissistic rendering of travels through his country, a nation that he feels has so few opportunities that he’s going to Venezuela, a nation of political turmoil, staggering inflation, and debilitating food shortages. It wasn’t my limited Spanish that prevented my understanding of his situation, but rather my privileged lens that limits my ability to relate. Despite my overwhelming compassion for this man, I had to force myself to continue talking as my discomfort about these realities were difficult to digest.
Cubans are transparent in their feelings, and surprisingly open with discussing their government. I did not seek out political discussions, however when I said I was from the United States, our president-elect became the topic de jour. And these conversations propelled me to wonder: “What is the United States’s responsibility to the world?” With the opening up of Cuban relations, will the U.S. begin to send aid here? Our president-elect spoke often of ending our massive support to foreign countries, and while I did not cast my vote for Trump, his stance on foreign aid appealed to me a little.
U.S. Americans (note – I identify the “U.S.” because during my travels in Panama in 2002, I replied that my citizenship is American to a Panamanian woman. She looked disgusted that I failed to realize that she too is an American, as is everyone living in North and South America) are known for believing in the luck of birth. If you’re lucky enough to be born in the United States and maybe even with the privilege of wealth, good for you. You’ve been blessed. There’s no assumption to share.
But what is our responsibility? I struggle with all aid to foreign countries from the United States because I’m frustrated with our crumbling schools and terrible infrastructure. But then I wonder if our nation’s wealth was managed better, would we have enough for our great country and aid to others? I’m not informed enough to make that call.
I began writing this piece as a humorous tale of Hunter and my travels through Cuba. I have hilarious and unbelievable tales to tell: the music and dancing; the language misunderstandings; the missed flight to Canada that took us to Mexico… I’ll save those for my journal because as I began to type, I learned that Fidel Castro died. I am stunned. What will happen to all the protest billboards claiming the “U.S. embargo is genocide” or the one claiming “socialism or death”? Will the political indoctrination change? Will the oppression and the hidden poverty continue? I say hidden because most travelers only see the charm of Havana and the stunning beaches along the coast.
My last evening in Havana was spent at a restaurant filled with locals. I spoke with a man named Peter whose English was perfect and passions were intense. He wanted to talk politics, so much so that I suggested we leave for a table outside on the street. He wasn’t nervous, but I was. His sons are in Miami, and his parents are in Italy. He has successful businesses in Havana but complained that he can’t purchase a car. He explained that if he presents money for the purchase, the government will demand business records and then demand high taxes on every peso he has, preventing any accumulation of wealth or “luxury” items. He became so animated as he told me of country clubs and 10 bedroom homes and private beaches and brand new Audis for government officials, all while he spends his business profits on food for his elderly neighbors and what little comforts he can obtain without attracting the government’s attention. I noticed his gold watch and impeccable clothes. I also noticed the very elderly woman working as the bar’s bathroom attendant who was napping on duty at 1am. As if on cue, a disabled man arrived to our table selling peanuts. Peter gave him a fistful of bills and refused the nuts.
Amy White formerly headed LandWatch Monterey County.