"Rust Colored Hair" -- updated segment, nonfiction story draft, Cuba journeys --
Aboard the chartered plane from Cancun, Mexico, the small Cuban band rocked the cabin, playing for we, the illegals, the ones who dared to defy the United States government’s prohibition against traveling to the shunned island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. A few dozen of us. Gathered by Global Exchange to violate and repudiate the U.S. blockade and its sanctions. And for me, the refusal to allow a government to prevent me from visiting with people from another land.
This was the first of two journeys for me to Cuba during the mid-1990s. Our defiance on this trip had a penalty, the threat of 10 years in prison and a $200,000 fine. We were felonious. Troublemakers. And many of us broadcast our intentions beforehand, including me, with a local television news report and write-ups in regional newspapers. The closing shot of my TV interview showed me walking away from the camera, along a Binghamton University path in upstate New York where I was working toward a Ph.D., conveying something dramatic, maybe even exotic. Strange, I thought. The question raised in the report: “Will he get there?”
The plane landed and we debarked, many mesmerized. Immigration did not stamp our passports when we passed through customs to hide evidence of our arrival. We boarded buses, were given flowers of welcome, and rode through Havana, stopping once for deliberation between the delegation leaders, including Medea Benjamin, now of Code Pink, and our hosts. When the bus door opened, I stepped out, alone, with my flowers, crossed the road, and gave them to an older woman among the onlookers. Spontaneous. Probably a transgression of some kind. I wasn’t showboating. I had a gift to pass along. Contact. Why I came.
The trip became a gift, too. I wasn’t unfamiliar with so-called Third World circumstances, having traveled to Nicaragua twice, including to the northwest region along the Honduras border where the U.S.-backed contra forces marauded and murdered displaced Nicaraguans in the parched area, who chose to live in cooperatives, many of these radical Christian-based comunidades de base ecclesiales, thrown off their former properties by cotton and sugar plantation land thieves before the socialist Sandanista government revolutionaries came into power. That was history then, though. The Contra attacks were no longer necessary. The U.S. won. The Sandanistas were out of power. The base communities considered an aberration, condemned by the conservative Nicaragua Roman Catholic cardinal, the church. But a popular movement persisted despite that in Nicaragua. It wasn’t “communist” like the Cuban island. It was a means of survival, cooperative, collaborative in the midst of scarce resources, of a people who had known the feudal oppression of a dictatorship, the U.S. backed Somoza government.
Just a minute, though. A question. Wasn’t it the dictatorial Batista government that Fidel Castro and his band of insurgents overthrew? And didn’t these usurpers seek assistance from the Eisenhower administration before turning ultimately to Russia? A Cuba now entering its “Special Period” of increased impoverishment with the breakup of the Soviet Union at the time of our journey to Cuba?
A few features of the “Special Period” clearly stood out:
One, the second language taught in schools switched from Russian to English, including the courses of study open to teachers at the University of Havana. Walking alone away from our group through Havana streets, a small group of children followed me asking if I was a Russian. I said, no, I’m from the USA, which brought exclamations of surprise and greetings in English. One man walked alongside me, one of the new English teachers, trying out his own expertise in the language. He invited me to his daughter’s birthday party (a ruse for me to bring a gift, likely U.S. dollars). I smiled and declined. Still, we chatted.
Another feature, despite the proclamations of an egalitarian society, Cuba had two separate economies, the peso and the dollar, and the twain wasn’t supposed to meet, though it did via the underground market. Those who worked in the dollar economy – tourism and international commercial efforts – lived better off than those in the peso world, an elite of sorts. On both of my visits, my dollar lured prostitutes, vendors, restaurants, hotels and other amenities available to international visitors.
A third, though openly interracial – with Afro-Cubans making up about 65 percent of the population – one social policy analyst noted in her study indications of racism at the micro-levels of the distribution of goods and services, a distribution that at that level favored the more European looking Cubans. She did not hesitate to expound on her findings during an inter-American conference that I took part in at the University of Havana in 1995.
A fourth feature showed up as a plus, the availability of sophisticated medical care and the continued effort by the Cuban government to send teams of medical caregivers to other countries and to offer this care to victims of the massive Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine. ...
(c) 2014 Wes Rehberg