Friday, July 25, 2008

On becoming the media darling of Cuba

The 19th Pastors for Peace Cuba Caravan returned this month, prompting a few stories from my caravanista experience. This entry begins a series of four stories I've promised to share with a couple of my friends. Anyone can be my friend and read these stories.
My husband took a notion to go to Cuba with the Pastors for Peace delegation in 1998.

"Why not?" I agreed. Cuba would be my summer vacation project during my break as an elementary school educator. So I applied for the delegation and began reading everything I could to prep myself for the trip. Since Cuba doesn't get a lot of positive MSM coverage; I learned a lot I didn't know. Cuba disappeared behind a blanket of U.S. silence in the early 1960's.

The delegation flaunted U.S. law and the U.S. embargo. It didn't apply for a license for the tons of vehicles and humanitarian aid it collected for Cuban delivery; none of us applied for permission to visit Cuba. In the tradition of civil disobedience, the caravan blatantly--to this day--refuses to cooperate with an unjust U.S. system, and it refuses very publically, defiantly.

I published an article in a NE Iowa newspaper. In our small city it was easy enough to get myself a slot on the nightly local newscast, newspaper coverage, a slot on radio news. "Anything to get the word out," I thought. Most everyone I talked to knew very little about the U.S. embargo, including it's annual denunciation from the U.N. and its condemnation from the Vatican.

As you might imagine, we were welcomed as heroes in Cuba, not so much for the millions of dollars of aid we collected and brought them as for the symbol of hope and solidarity we were to them. There were stories about us every day in the national newspaper Gramma. One day, the Pastors' Midwest coordinator asked me to participate in a Cuban press conference. While honored, I was also puzzled. The press was taping video interviews. The other caravanistas were bilingual. I had studied only a couple weeks of Spanish the year before, so I was virtually tongue-tied, but I really wanted to use the chance to speak.

When it was my turn to appear before the camera, I indicated to the reporter that I wouldn't be taking questions, but I would read my statement which I had prepared with our interpreter's help. It was:
"As a citizen of the United States I would like to ask the forgiveness of the Cuban people for the suffering that my govenment is causing you. I represent many people from the center of the country--which is its heart--and they send you their love and support. Thank you for your hospitality and your friendship."

My sincerity shone through my stumbling, gringa Spanish. From the group of us, mine was the statement that they chose to televise. My stepson heard it broadcast on the radio in Havana. I was quoted by name in Gramma. A Cuban woman a month later mailed me a clipping from her city's local newspaper: it was a scan of my written statement. The reporters, who asked me to sign and date it, published it without a caption. That little piece of me had remained in Cuba and appeared even after my departure at the end of our ten day visit.

It was a highlight of my life. When it's time for me to leave this world, that simple statement may be perhaps the most satisfying thing I've ever said.

photo caption: Cuban press greets us Pastors for Peace Cuba caravanistas as we debark from the plane in Havana


Henry Louis Gomez said...

As a Cuban-American, I want to apologize to the Cuban people too. I'm sorry that my fellow countrymen are so stupid as to become propaganda tools that have helped perpetuate a Stalinist dictatorship for almost half a century.

I'm sorry that rather than fight for their rights to have a pluralistic democracy where human rights are observed that many of my fellow countrymen condone a system of government that they would never truly accept for themselves.

I'm sorry my fellow countrymen don't really believe that all men were created equal but rather that some are more equal than others.

DivaJood said...

B.E., I applaud you for taking that trip. As a US Travel Agent, I am not permitted to send travelers to Cuba; however, if I were to apply to go on an educational trip, I would be permitted to go. Many of my clients have gone, via Canada or Mexico, and have come back with great experiences.

I know a young woman, a Cuban-American, who has the same attitude as Mr. Gomez. She actually hates the people living in Cuba, refers to them as dark-skinned, low class and trash. It's rather shocking to listen to her disparage her home.

Border Explorer said...

Welcome, Henry! Thank you for expressing a difference of opinion with so much civility and respect. Cuba seems to ignite passionate emotions.

I hear you that the Cuban government is not paradise, nor did it provide a panacea. I think it is safe to say that things are better there for the poor than they were before the revolution. I'm hoping to read Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution by T. J. English. The situation was pretty bad in Cuba. I'm not a scholar, so I'm not the best person to explicate that.

I'm very sorry if your family lost significantly due to the revolution. That would be really hard.

Border Explorer said...

Thanks, Diva, for your support. Actually I hesitated to post this series because I fear it might look like I'm trying to put myself forward like I think I'm "all that." (I don't.)

I learned ten years ago that many Americans who think they live in the "land of the free" don't realize that they are not free to travel to Cuba. Thank you for clarifying that point.

The young woman you mention--that is very sad. It reminded me of the "internalized racism" I learned about when studying clinical psych. An ugly reality.

Mariamariacuchita said...

I would love to go to Cuba some day to learn about the people there. Since I do speak Spanish, it would be a wonderful experience. It is important to remember that poverty is not the fault of those who live in these countries.

Border Explorer said...

Maria, I could really see you grooving on this trip. Next year is the 20th Pastors for Peace caravan, celebrating Cuba's 50th anniversary. That'd be a good one to go on.

dada said...

B.E. - Thank you so much for posting this. What a unique experience for you and your fellow travelers.

I'm really looking forward to the next installment, and getting to meet some of this year's caravanistas and now learning more about your own experience, I am beginning to sense why you consider this trip a true highlight of your life.

Bravo...more, more!

Diane said...

Border Explorer -- I just heard the author of that book on Cuba and it sounds intriguing. I knew that Cuba before the revolution was not a democracy, but it really opened my eyes to how bad it really was.

What Henry said -- that was true of us BEFORE the revolution as well. Cuba was rich Americans' hedonistic playground.

And thanks for the comment on my blog.

I'm wondering if you have ever heard of Urban Servant Corp or Border Servant Corp. Urban.... is in Denver, and Border... is in El Paso.

Diane said...

oh, and I thought it was very civil of you not to point out that our policy on Cuba (isolating them, etc.) hasn't really worked. We have decided on a very different way of handling both the Soviet Union and Russia, and I don't think it reflects on how we think about a communist system of government.

Border Explorer said...

Dada, so glad you're back online after your computer troubles. Thanks for your comments; there are 3 Cuba stories after this one. Sometime perhaps we can all share a beverage and recall a few more.

Diane, we sure do know the Border Servants in El Paso. They do wonderful work and are cool volunteers. There will be new ones there when I return in December, I think, because the women I knew have completed their service.

And, yes, Diane: the embargo has not worked. The Cuban-American lobby is very powerful (wealthy) and influential in D.C. They direct our Cuban foreign policy. I believe we can add Viet Nam to the list of nations we deal differently with.

Finally, Diane, thanks for your post here, too--your effort especially appreciated knowing you may be dealing with some jet lag.