Cuba: Assuming a New, Independent Identity

A window of opportunity shines on an island of despair


Cuba from above is all red and green. That’s what an Iowa boy sees approaching Havana for a long weekend. A first impression that shatters all previous impressions.

The world goes black and white in the airport. We are entering a former Soviet client state with those brown uniforms of comrades. An earth couple from Oregon ahead in the customs line is turned back and held up. Come forward, they command, and stare into the camera. Don’t smile. They’re not.

This is the Cuba I was thinking about under a desk in the basement of St. Mary’s School training for a nuclear winter. They never told us what to do once we got out from underneath the desk in the spring. There were godless commies at our back door, and you should not eat the snow.

Then it’s whoosh into the world of color and shattered propaganda.

First stop, Plaza de Revolucion, a gray place of mid-20th Century revolutionary sculpture imposed on hulks of buildings imported from Moscow. There, over there, is the defense ministry.

And over here is a 1925 Ford Model A with 250,000 miles and one proud owner.

With a cop.

No photos of the cop.

“Viva Cuba,” I say.

The cop smiles and fist bumps me.

We are riding in a 1955 Ford Fairlaine, Daryl Beall and I. Beall is an “involuntarily retired” former Democratic state senator from Fort Dodge and proud Buena Vista University graduate. He also is a full-time Iowa ambassador to the world. He spans the globe seeking out people on whom he can vest the title “Honorary Iowa Senator” and a goldfinch pin in the shape of the state. It’s corny, but that’s Daryl and it works.

Tattered American flags flap from the windshield left and right as we breeze down the Melancon — our Lakeshore Drive with a wall separating us from the sea. The people lined up along the wall shout out to us all along the way:

“Obama! Obama! Obama!”

He is among their liberators.

Daryl had just lost his election — a million-dollar campaign, the most hotly contested in the state — and I suggested that since the President had just declared Cuba open to Americans we should check it out.

Darned if Daryl didn’t have it all arranged about a week later. Of course I had lost my passport used only once when I traveled to Ayotlan, Jalisco, Mexico, 10 years ago. It’s where so many of our new neighbors in Storm Lake come from. All replacement documents in order, the trip commenced on Friday, Oct. 22 and we were back in Miami Monday night, Oct. 26.

So it was a whirlwind on a bus with 19 others — ex-hippies and Peace Corps volunteers, a Columbia University executive, a young mother from Michigan, a couple old Turks from the Muppets, my “Irish mother” from Rhode Island and a 76-year-old “big sister” from West Virginia via Pennsylvania with a Cape Cod state of mind. Among others. And a Cuban tour guide who could take you from Abraham Lincoln to José Martí with a stunning depth and breadth for a 27-year-old. Yojandra was her name. We called her Jo.

We were there on a people-to-people delegation. Just out to make friends.

“El Duque!” I would greet the man in the Yankees cap worn in honor of national hero Orlando Hernandez. He was the great right-handed curveballer who the broadcasters told us had defected and sworn off Cuba. Since El Duque never spoke English, we never knew the difference. He just smiled.

Turns out the joke’s on us. El Duque flipped his jillions earned from the mound in the House that Ruth Built into a children’s mental health hospital in Havana that would be the pride of the Bronx.

“Obama!” the old man said with a hug.

Baseball is the shared language of peace in the Americas.

Cuba can’t be all bad if it gave us Tony Oliva, the first truly famous Cuban player from the old Washington Senators and then Minnesota Twins. And they all love TonyO.

Obama because they’re tired of the 55-year war.

They’re tired of hunger.

The old woman begs by the Cathedral in Old Havana. She buys milk for the niños of each of her six children with her take from the day.

They’re tired of broken families.

Fellow traveler, if you will, Celia holds hands with a young Cuban wife going to join her husband in Florida. She is leaving her family on what appears to be her first flight to Miami. She does not want to leave. She fears flying. But Miami is the only place where you can afford to feed your baby. She looks at me straight in the eye and asks if it will be okay.

“Vamanos con Dios,” I say.

She rests her head on Celia’s shoulder and thinks of a New World ahead as Christopher Columbus may have.

They admit they made a huge mistake in an experiment in Soviet-style government and economics in Latin America.

They admit they did and do house political prisoners, including journalists to this day.

They admit that they have racism, poverty, hostility toward gays and that not everything is “Fraternidad y Libertad.”

That was enough to make my head spin.

Ten years ago those comments would not have scored runs with the Castros.

But they have been dumped by the Russians, dumped by the Venezuelans and find few friends with cash along the Old Axis.

So everyone gets top-flight healthcare on the government, and 99% of the people are literate. It’s just that there is no real opportunity to use that good health and education in a place where they say they don’t care if they are rich today because they will be broke tomorrow.

Agriculture is a non-factor in what stands for an economy.

The main source of revenue for the economy is renting out people. Cuba sends out doctors, med techs and nurses to South Africa, Great Britain and Canada. The taxi driver shows me a photo of his pregnant wife in London, a financial analyst. He will join her on Nov. 7, perhaps as a boot driver in Merry Olde England, which traded Cuba to Spain for Florida back in the day.

Next are remittances, mainly from Florida, and begging from tourists. Relatives bring back tires and carburetors wrapped in plastic on the baggage carts at the Havana airport. Cuba bans imported cars. Why? “Because your daddy said so,” was the answer.

Third is tourism and fourth is, interestingly, biotechnology.

Cuba is trying to capitalize on its brains. That’s all it has. No manufacturing. No meat processing plants. Cigars, yes. It is trying to get off its sugar addiction and diversify to a sustainable ag model. Iowans hope to help. The Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) helped kick open the door to trade with Cuba with the first commercial commodity purchases from the USA arranged through FC Stone in 2000. Nemaha, Iowa, farmer and ICGA staffer Don Mason helped arrange it.

They need American help.

We must admit that we blew it.

José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, made his dissident name in New York as a poet and journalist. He sought support in the USA for liberation of all Latin America from their colonial occupiers, namely Spain. He gave his life in the Spanish-Cuban-American War of Independence as a skeptical friend of the United States. His enemy was Spain. His goal was independence. He did not want the USA to buy Cuba. He was, above all, a dreamer and one of the few innocents in Cuban political history.

We gave him the Miami mob and — after a brief period of a burgeoning middle class, peace and prosperity in Cuba in the post-war 1940s — the carnage of the Batista regime. The US sugar interests propped him up, Che Guevera and Fidel brought him down with a guerilla war waged from the mountains.

Fidel came to us first.

He asked us to buy his nationalized sugar.

We rebuffed him, he went to the Soviets and the rest, as they say, is the surreal history of failed assassinations, invasions, entreaties (Jimmy Carter, 1978, which freed 75% of political prisoners and opened up free religious expression), kerfuffles and decoys, and a trade embargo seemingly conceived in absurd Marxist theatre: We will starve you so that you might see us as a beacon of liberty.

Fidel has but a few puffs left on his Cohiba and Raul does not look well.

Change is coming. The young people know it. And they know that it is coming from El Norte. They want it.

The Spanish already own 49% of our decent (three American stars) hotel. Cuba owns 51%.

We can’t own Cuba.

But we are investing. An investment attorney associated with the World Trade Center tells me they have been working in Cuba for a solid year on a big deal, and that it should be completed by November. The Cubans control the investment, essentially, with 51% ownership. Isn’t that a huge risk?

“No greater than Wall Street,” the lawyer says.


So I ask a bellman about my age how we can help Cuba.

“You really want to know? Give me 10 bucks. Please. I have kids and …”

We are in a dark recess. A grown man with shined shoes is begging me for money.

Cash is king, micro or macro. Cubans cannot buy corn unless they can trade us … doctors? Plant scientists? Biochemical engineers?

Cuba has always been a slave state, except we suppose for its indigenous days of which we know so little.

After Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 the Spanish came. Through lash and disease the natives quickly disappeared, leaving behind only a song and a couple sticks of wood to click together in rhythm. Then the African slaves came. They brought the beat. The Afro-Cuban beat.

And then the Africans came to America. They brought the same beat to a different place.

And during that brief time when Cuba and America were open to each other, it all came together in Cuban jazz and salsa and Samba. One of the nation’s leading bassists hears it in Black Magic Woman by Carlos Santana or Me and Julio by Paul Simon or even Uncle John’s Band by the Grateful Dead. He wonders what Santana has been up to, since he can’t get to it all. I tell him about Santana and legendary American bluesman John Lee Hooker collaborating.

“Oh, wow. Santana is such a genius,” he says.

They know. They tell us the hottest musical spots in the world today are Cuba, Brazil and the USA. They see a new renaissance in the New World of Latin music when we finally come together again.

The percussionist wears an Angels cap.

I am a truthful man

From where the palm tree grows

And before dying I want

To let out the verses of my soul

That is an English translation of the first verse of the song, “Guantanamera”.

The tune was written in the 1920s by a Cuban radio DJ sbout a love lost. The verses were discarded and in substitute verses were drawn from four Martî poems. It became Cuba’s patriotic song, and was popularized in the USA in 1966 by the Sandpipers from a Pete Seeger rearrangement. Seeger saw it as a song of unity between the US and Cuba.

My verse is light green

And it is flaming red

My verse is a wounded stag

Who seeks refuge on the mountain.

My “big sister” with the Cape Cod frame of mind and I are standing on a plaza near the Melancon ocean wall taking in the Saturday night breeze. Her husband and Daryl are at the Tropicana caberet.

A Mariachi band approaches. They ask me to sing with them.

They launch into Guantanamera, which my brother Bill taught me in seventh grade.

The tenor sings:

I grow a white rose

In July just as in January

For the honest friend

Who gives me his open hand.

Guajira Guantanmera! I refrain.

We exchange warm wishes and convertible currency.

“Viva Cuba!” I say.

“Viva Obama!” they reply. “Viva Estados Unidos.”

They ramble on.

Within a minute an agitated man with gray short hair approaches. He wants to know if we are American. He launches into a disjointed prosecutorial line of interrogation about the American class system. He hands Jane his water bottle and crouches. I am not sure what is going to happen. I am thinking aggression. I am thinking exit strategy with Jane across a busy four-lane street with suddenly no other pedestrians or cop — who had been ubiquitous — in sight. Good thing there are no guns here, I think.

He meant to demonstrate how his grandfather shined shoes.

His grandfathers have been on bended knee for some time. For the Spanish, the English, the Americans and the Russians. For Batista and Castro.

So do I owe this guy something? Hey, I bought a Che hat. I’m cool.

Shall I write an email to my congressman to urge an end to the trade embargo?

Must I admit that we have too many black men in prison, that you might call some of them political prisoners? Or that the poor on the South Side of Chicago, or right here in Storm Lake, may be poorer than the shoe shine mime on the plaza?

Or is he trying to leave an imprint of the face of Christ on my Land’s End by Sears button-down white-collar shirt? He had better not be. I am all begged out. Broke. No mas convertible dolares, por favor.

Fortunately for us all, especially me, Jane was thinking charity. A couple bucks from her hand bought us safe passage.

Joy and despair in a New York minute Havana time.

Violence and charity all in 10 square feet of the night.

That is where my mind wandered just past Knoke through the rain and corn stubble that is an October Wednesday in Iowa. My electric car was the only one on the road. Emmy Lou Harris sang “Would You Come to Me for to Ease My Pain.” In my mind’s eye I could see a relief from the Cathedral in Old Havana. Inside the box along the side wall Mary suspends over a boat of three copper miners trying to get home before a storm. She stands on a silver half-moon.

The Santeria woman, black dressed in all white, with white umbrella, has forsaken her former identity in a place where identity and structure morph and decay under sea wind and salt. The Germans and Spanish, and probably the Americans, will help re-engineer Havana over the next decade. That must happen. The Santeria woman will assume a new identity as well, in concert with the divine, in hopes of a better tomorrow.

The place drips with Afro-Latin spirituality.

You cannot separate it from the poverty or the reality of Latin America.

In rural Mexico, they crawl on their hands and knees over cobblestone to the shrine of St. Toribio, who watches over immigrants. He will get them across the Sonora and to Storm Lake, Iowa, where they assume a new identity in hopes of a better life.

Once here, they dance in the St. Mary’s gym to the lady who came to the poor campesino Juan Diego. They venerate her statue.

And here, they sing for the great hero of all Latin America, Martí:

With the poor people of the earth

I want to cast my lot

The brook of the mountains

Gives me more pleasure than the sea.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, where this originally appeared, and he is managing editor of The Progressive Populist.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015

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