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AMY WHITE: On leaving Havana


img_2719-jpgThe 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.

img_2737-jpgA 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helga Fellay November 26, 2016, 2:36 pm

    Re: “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.”
    I could reply in several volumes of books, but I shall refrain from that. Just a small reality check here: The United States has no responsibility to the world, other than treat the rest of the world with respect (which it does not) and stop exploiting their natural resources and stop deciding how other nations should be governed, in other words, stop interfering in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations.
    Re: “will the U.S. begin to send aid here?” The question should be: will the U.S. lift its crippling embargo against Cuba? According to Obama, the answer is no.
    Re” “Our president-elect spoke often of ending our massive support to foreign countries” –
    You may be imagining that “our “massive support to foreign countries” which costs us $trillions, comes in the form of charity to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick, but let me disabuse you of that fantasy. Our “aid” comes in the form of bombs raining from the sky, bombing entire nations back to the stone age, and killing millions of men, women and children. The only ones benefitting from our “massive support to foreign countries are the defense industry, or the “military industrial complex” President Eisenhower had warned us against so many decades ago, as well as of course Israel.
    Re: “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.” I did not cast my vote for Trump either, but his stance on foreign aid appealed to me, not a little, but a whole lot, enough to make me sigh a big sign of relief. I am hoping that he will also end the crippling embargo against Cuba, which serves no purpose and helps no one, but is apparently nothing more than vindictiveness against the Cuban people for supporting their own government. He just might do that, because it makes business sense, because lifting the embargo would benefit both Cuba and the USA.

  • Amy L. White November 26, 2016, 3:09 pm

    I appreciate your response, Helga. To be clear, I have no assumptions that our foreign aid is simply humanitarian. I did live in north Africa for a time, and I have a Masters degree in Public Policy. I am well aware of the different varieties of foreign aid, and I’ve seen the destructive nature of some varieties first hand. I question all foreign aid the U.S provides. I very much appreciate that you do, too.

  • Ann Hill November 26, 2016, 4:15 pm

    March 21 2016 President Obama called on Congress to end the embargo. There are at least 6 laws enacted by Congress which keep the embargo. Congress – not the president, must end the embargo. In the meantime the U.S. is already the 5th biggest exporter to Cuba, thanks to President Obama’s enlightened policies.

  • Luana Conley November 26, 2016, 5:47 pm

    I’m going to take the liberty of sharing this post here, for a bit different perspective than the heartbreaking horrors experienced by a successful Havana businessman who cannot buy a car. Cuba must live the hollow consumer culture mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” We could take a lesson from them.

    from Maribou Latour
    “I’m a Miami Cuban (and Puerto Rican). My father and grandmother, who fled Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution and both who died this year as well, considered his name a bad name. And Cuba a bad word. I was raised with the fear and hatred of Cuba, but I never knew the full truth… in my early 20s, I saw Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and it completely opened my mind to learning more about Cuba’s history, and the revolution. I studied the horror of Batista and the relations with U.S (and I studied how U.S. imperialism shaped both Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s histories, as two wings of the same bird). Then how Castro changed the country through universal healthcare and education, how literacy rates skyrocketed among the impoverished and Afro-Cubans, the work Cuba was doing to help other Latin American countries, and much of the controversial ideology of communism and effects of dictatorship. I absorbed everything I could about the Revolution, the good and the bad and the middle. I then won a scholarship to a Caravan to Cuba in the summer of 2008, to end the embargo and travel ban, before Obama started re-establishing relations. When I visited for the first time, at 22, it was one of the most refreshing experiences I’d ever had. Never had I met such bright, happy, generous people! It was like nothing my family could tell me. The food was amazing, and permaculture and sustainable agriculture was feeding the island’s communities after the Special Period in the 90s caused mass starvation due to lack of petroleum products to fuel machines. They had switched from tractor-run monoculture fields to livestock powered organic agriculture and urban gardening. There were gardens everywhere in Havana. I visited the Latin American School of Medicine, a free university for aspiring doctors, with people studying from NY, Cuba, Central and South America… I visited places where the elderly were cared for, and the organic cooperatives, and met with hip hop artists during a mutual collaboration of the caravan. I remember being swallowed up into a bus over-full of people, and I could barely get in, but they held me in.
    Yes, the police followed us Americans and watched us. I hung out with many of the young Cubans. Like anything, there is always a mixture of good and bad. I did not tell my family I was going to Cuba… I’ve spoken with exiled Cubans, Marielitos, and the more conservative Cubans in and out of Miami, my hometown. So many mixed views, but I can say that Cuba did prove that an island with so many odds against them, especially due to the U.S.’s embargo and travel ban which hurt Cuba dearly for over 50 years, can still thrive in a unique, regenerative way. They are a model for sustainability in the world, and an inspiration. I don’t believe communism is the answer, and they will have to move towards democracy, possibly democratic socialism (with capitalism built in with checks and balances) but there is a lot to learn from Cuba, a country far from perfect, but still beautiful and amazing in its triumphs and achievements…In fact, Cuba inspired me so much–traveling there was the biggest reason I got into Permaculture and ecological design.”

  • Karl Pallastrini November 26, 2016, 7:24 pm

    An interesting perspective from Amy. Perhaps a “signature” accomplishment for Obama was the renewed relationship with Cuba. The embargo, and the ridiculous continuation of negative relations over the past 50+ years will hopefully continue to come to an end…regardless of the elected administration. It should be clear that Cuba, under the Bautista puppet government endorsed by Eisenhower and then Kennedy, was the product of many U.S. capitol investments. The policy is known as colonialism. With the help of Che (Ernesto) Guevara, Castro was able to challenge American capitalistic interests in Cuba with the goal of returning the country to its own identity, regardless of productivity measured in dollars. Take a good look at what we have done to Latin America. Take another look at the middle east and tell me that democracy was the intent of our involvement rather than oil reserves. Castro was not perfect, but Cuba became a model of resistance to American corporate imperialism. We are a great nation, but we have a history of meddling in the affairs of other countries, both large and small. Cuba serves as a prime example.

  • Jean November 26, 2016, 10:41 pm

    I spent Thanksgiving in Phoenix and was fortunate to find Arizona PBS’ interview with Scott Pelley. He was selected as the 2016 honoree by the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. His speech to the school was outstanding and offers great suggestions to anyone attempting to report a story.

  • Ed Mitchell December 1, 2016, 9:12 am

    I believe the U.S. has shown great respect to many other nations and has also led us into unnecessary wars. The respect spans WWI, WWII, Korea until today where many men and women in the military fight, get hurt, and come home wounded from the Middle East. I take great pride in how I and my fellow enlisted and officers respected the people we met and helped defend in foreign countries. I take great pride in the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin air lift, the Defense of Europe from Russia, the occupation of Japan and helping it move toward a more democratic country. I’m proud of what the U.S. has done for many countries. I’m not proud of how our country left a vacuum in the Middle East and the increase in conflict and huge flow of refugees. out of that region. The U.S. is not perfect no matter what political party is in power. But we are not all bad.