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  • John Hildebrand

Bridging the gap to Cuba: 110 miles & a world apart

Stepping off the airplane and onto the jet bridge, a blast of steaming, sultry air instantly plastered my clothes to my body. Why the hell am I wearing long pants? I thought to myself as I frantically searched my backpack for shorts. A sweaty guy like me really should have known better.

The air in the terminal hung heavy with the smells of airplane fuel, perspiration and fast food grease. Months of travel preparation and years of anticipation were finally becoming a reality as I followed the line of disembarking passengers through the maze of airport hallways.

Cuban flag hanging from the Museum of the Revolution, Havana. © Michael Turnbull

As I nervously waited in the immigration line labeled Extranjeros, I ran through the Spanish conversation I’d spent half of the last flight rehearsing one final time. One last hurdle and I’m in, I told myself, as I approached the stern-faced agent seated behind the counter.

“Pasaporte” she stated flatly. Just as I’d anticipated. I handed over my passport, open to the photo page. After typing slowly for a minute on her Dell desktop, she asked without looking up, “Vininste de Africa?”

Huh? Surely she didn’t just ask if I came from Africa I thought as I glanced confusedly down at my pale, freckly arms. A meek “Cómo?” was all I could muster as I cocked my head to the side questioningly.

She looked up at me with a hint of a smile. “Viniste de Africa?” she repeated, this time a touch slower.

“Uhhh, no. De los Estados Unidos.” I replied, uncomfortably.

“Bueno. Dónde te quedas en Cuba?”

Damn! I didn’t think she’d ask where I was staying. I fumbled with my phone and pulled up a text conversation I’d had with Michael, my travel partner, a few weeks before. It’s here somewhere… I know it. Got it! I handed her the phone and she peered over her glasses to key in the address.

“Bueno. Sólo eso. Bienvenidos a Cuba.” she said as she handed me back my passport and gestured past the counter.

And like that, I was in.

Locals walk in the streets of Havana. © Pedro Szekeley

Havana, Cuba lies just 110 miles southwest of Florida Keys. In less than an hour you can take off from Miami International and touch down at Jose Martí International in the heart of Cuba’s diesel-choked capital city. In 2013, a then 64-year-old Diana Nyad proved that it was possible to swim between the two countries when she braved sharks, jellyfish and extreme exhaustion to complete the Havana-Key West journey in a grueling 53 hours. With a quick glance at a map and a little imagination, you can easily see how the island once fit snugly along the gulf shore in the prehistoric Pangaean supercontinent.

Geography tells us that Cuba is one of the United States’ closest neighbors. Recent history tells a different tale.

Beginning in 1953, a revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara fought to overthrow the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Upon Batista’s surrender and flee from Cuba in 1959, Castro consolidated power and instituted a socialist state in which his government immediately enacted dramatic reforms. The Castro government nationalized large private corporations, enacted land reforms, opened tons of schools and nationalized health care. They also shut down dissident news outlets and brutally repressed political opposition and freedom of expression. Castro’s moves were celebrated by working-class Cubans, students and those who had been overlooked or victimized by the Batista regime. The majority of the Cuban middle class, however, fled the island. A mass exodus of doctors, lawyers and other trained professionals escaped to the United States where they established some of the most prominent Cuban-American communities in Miami, New York and Chicago, to name a few.

Not too fond of Castro’s vision for Cuba, Washington halted diplomatic relations with Havana and imposed a trade embargo in 1960. Concerns over Castro’s close ties with the USSR and his anti-American rhetoric led the CIA to fund counterrevolutionary measures and plan covert operations to assassinate Castro. Those attempts proved unsuccessful, and with Castro firmly entrenched, hostility boiled between the two governments. After culminating in a near nuclear conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis, tensions continued to simmer throughout the subsequent decades.

Over the following 65 years, the two countries developed a mere 110 miles from one another in two completely different worlds.

Growing up in the United States, Cuba always held a particular intrigue largely because it was so close, yet felt so far away. At family reunions, I’d listen to my Canadian relatives’ stories of their visits to the island and their jokes about it being a preferred travel destination because they didn’t have to deal with Americans there. I’d seen pictures in books or clips on TV of the 1950’s taxi cabs on cobblestone streets in front of dingy, crumbling colonial buildings. I’d thought it was so strange when visiting Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands how the plane would fly directly over Cuba, but couldn’t land there. I gazed out the airplane window on those flights and daydreamed about parachuting down into the lush rolling hills and catching a glimpse for myself of what was a forbidden and exotic land.

My curiosity was further stoked when I took an undergrad course on Latin American history. For the first time, I read about the leftist revolutions of Latin America in the mid-20th century and the American government’s involvement in funding counterrevolutionary crackdowns in an effort to maintain regional control. I was fascinated and disturbed by covert CIA operations like Operation Mongoose that had stoked US-Cuban hostilities since the revolution. As many university students do, I bought my first Che Guevara t-shirt and began exploring the ideas of different political ideologies.

I was beginning to realize that there was more to the story than what my upbringing had taught me. I knew that the only way to understand the truth was to experience it myself.

Classic cars from the 50s are popular among taxi-drivers, as well as other locals. © Pedro Szekeley

With former President Obama’s move to re-open diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015, we Americans were afforded state-approved options to visit the island for the first time since the revolution. Presented with an opportunity to live those airplane daydreams (minus the skydiving), I jumped at the chance and booked a flight for an eight-day visit this June.

I was told countless times by family, friends and co-workers to “stay safe” and “be careful” while I was in Cuba. Beyond normal pre-departure pleasantries, these warnings echoed a prevailing sense of distrust and danger amongst Americans in association with visiting the country. I’d brush off their comments with a quick “don’t worry, Cuba’s safe” which did little to assuage most of their concerns.

Exactly as I’d hoped, my eight days in Cuba provided me with chance after chance to learn, adapt, challenge myself and improve my understanding of the world. In reality, Cuba is one of the safest and most welcoming places I’ve ever visited. Michael and I, conspicuous tourists with his DSLR camera and my Panama hat, routinely strolled around the crumbling streets of Havana late at night without the slightest concern for our safety. Cubans either greeted us with a smile and quick “hola”, a curious lingering glance or complete and utter indifference. We were offered unsolicited suggestions for places to visit or unprompted directions when we looked lost. We were shown unparalleled displays of emotional authenticity. When the Cubans we interacted with were happy, we knew they were happy. When they were pissed, you’d better believe we knew they were pissed.

Nearly every restaurant we ate at had live music which, space allowing, was usually accompanied by furious dancing. We had fascinating conversations about pelota (baseball), the right way to make a mojito and cuba libre, how Cuba is changing and how important tourism has been for the country. We witnessed fierce loyalty to family and community, both of which are strong by necessity. We saw displays of tremendous resilience, generosity, passion and selflessness and experienced for ourselves the pride Cubans have in their heritage and their national identity.

Hosts Juan and Deagnis posing for a portrait with their dog Tito. Viñales, Cuba. © Michael Turnbull

I don’t intend to portray life in Cuba as a rosy, carefree paradise — that’s certainly not the case. Living conditions for the majority of Cubans are very harsh and there are very few options available to those to improve their situation. Food resources are scarce and extreme poverty is painfully prevalent. Access to information is tightly controlled and internet access is expensive and unreliable. Opportunities for real financial gain are limited to the tourism industry, as even the most well-educated doctors and lawyers earn less than some homestay hosts and taxi drivers.

But look, Cuba also has a lot of things figured out. The country maintains a 99.7% literacy rate. I saw absolutely zero evidence of homelessness in the country, which is so commonplace to those living in big American cities. Hospitals and clinics are everywhere and some statistics indicate life expectancy and infant mortality rates are about equal to or better than those of the United States.

Experiencing life in a place like Cuba firsthand opened my eyes to the farce that popular culture plays out and instills in those who are too quick to believe. We must critically examine the messages we receive from the media and politics regarding those from places unfamiliar to us and seek to experience them ourselves. Human to human connection is what breaks down the stereotypes and misconceptions of others that are so easily propagated. Face-to-face diplomacy humanizes what is so easily dehumanized. Conversations with people teach you the things that the news or textbooks won’t — that things aren’t as black and white as you may have always believed. While we can disagree about the systems we build to seek prosperity and happiness, we must agree that isolation and ignorance only widen the gulf between our understanding of one another.

Our culture’s narrative tells one side of the story. It’s our responsibility as humans who seek to bridge the gap to a more peaceful and prosperous future to challenge ourselves and those we influence to consider the world from other perspectives. Once we’ve done that, we’ve already succeeded in the most difficult task on the road to a better future — getting outside of our singular, comfortable experience.

Locals gather in the afternoon to play dominoes in the shade. © Michael Turnbull

As I’d expressly feared while anticipating my return, I logged on to the internet on Friday after an 8-day tech cleanse to disturbing headlines. Indications are that the Trump administration is planning to reverse Obama policies on diplomatic engagement with Cuba within the next week. These changes are expected to include provisions making it more difficult for Americans to visit Cuba. This kind of isolationist, hegemonic approach that Trump has championed is exactly the opposite of what this world needs. We desperately need person-to-person citizen diplomacy to do what state diplomacy has failed or refused to do — find common ground on which we can build for a better future for all people.

The Cuban people must have an opportunity to improve their lives and learn about the rest of the world. Americans must have the opportunity to visit Cuba and experience a reality that is far from what most hold true. The only way this can happen is if we allow and encourage people to learn from one another directly. We must demand this from those who represent us and we must live these truths in order to set an example for those who don’t yet know. With that sense of purpose and determination, we can continue to work together to bridge the gaps that divide us.

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