Surprise and Delight

Humanitarian mission to Cuba produces kinship among Americans

Sep 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

While I was in Cuba in July, Fidel Castro emerged from seclusion to say harsh words about the United States and to express a dark view of the immediate future. Our group didn’t know it, of course, until we read it in The Miami Herald on the way home, probably because the nice Cubans we met there were too polite to bring it up.

Cubans who ostensibly support the government — with the reservations we all have for our governments — practice a double standard in regard to Americans of the U.S.A. (We must remember, in a hemisphere that contains both North and South America, that we aren’t the only Americans around.)

Cubans don’t confuse people with their governments. Again and again, we were met with surprise and delight. Surprise because Americans there are rare, delight because Cubans are predisposed to like us.

We’re such near neighbors — the famous 90 miles to Key West, which a Cuban tried to cross in a Styrofoam boat recently — that they feel a kinship. And before we’d been there very long we felt a kinship, too.

We were in Cuba legally, as participants in a humanitarian mission, distributing medical items and other needed supplies. In the course of our distributions and from Cubans we met, we learned something of the history of the place and something of what’s going on today.

History reaches all the way back to Christopher Columbus, who set foot there in 1492. The city of Trinidad, for example, was founded in the early 1500s, which makes Cincinnati’s 1788 debut seem like just the other day.

What we think of as our 1890s war with Spain, when Teddy Roosevelt famously charged up San Juan Hill, is called by Cubans their War of Independence. Much money has been made in Cuba at various times, and wonderful architecture still reflects those times.

“We thought we would change the world,” someone who came to Cuba in 1959 told us, “but the system now just isn’t working.”

Someone else spoke of the glowing high points of Cuba’s socialism, free education and free health care chief among them. But it’s not perfect. Teachers are paid so poorly that there's a shortage of them and teen-agers have been pulled in to teach younger students, with the prospect of higher education for themselves as the carrot on the stick. But the young are leaving in such numbers that the ratio of young to old is tilting dangerously.

Something will happen in Cuba, I think, sooner rather than later. This opinion doesn’t pretend to be deeply informed but results from a quick visit among a responsive people in a beautiful land.