Trying to experience a little bit of living history, local Malibu girls Jaala, Jordan and myself, go to controversial Cuba. A country that has had no commercial, political or cultural relations with the United States in almost 50 years.
We had just arrived. Forty-five minutes earlier the three of us had been sitting in the waiting area of Cancun’s International Airport. Now, Jordan, Jaala and myself were in Cuba. The first thing Jordan noticed once we landed in Havana, or La Habana as it’s known in Spanish speaking countries, was a total absence of signs in English.
The second thing she pointed out was the absolute scarcity of other American travelers and the exclusive use of fast paced Spanish around us. Most airports in capital cities around the world usually provide relevant information in the local language as well as in a second major language, generally English. Not in Havana. And then it dawned on us: We were in Other than the notorious incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, that in 1962 brought the world as close to nuclear war as it’s ever been, Cuba-US relations have been virtually non-existent for the last half century.
So what were two local Malibu girls and myself, an aspiring writer originally from Mexico City now living in Malibu, doing in Havana, Cuba?
Trying to experience a little bit of living history; Visiting a country where the fruits of economic progress we take for granted every day can only be dreamed of; Observing the real consequences of the socio-economic experiment called communism that has already been disproven in most parts of the world; And enjoying one of the most hospitable islands in the Caribbean.
My two friends had earlier in the year moved to Playa del Carmen, a small beach town close to Cancun on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. They had until recently worked at the Planet Blue store in Malibu’s Cross Creek shopping center but in an admirable decision to fully experience the world beyond the Santa Monica Mountains they had presented their resignations, packed a few belongings and gone to live in a foreign country. The Cancun tourist corridor is a haven for many Cuban exiles trying to establish a new life. The strong presence of American and European tourism makes it a smart alter- native that allows them earn hard currency and prepare for the final part of the journey most of them will eventually take to Miami, Mexico City or Europe depending on where their friends and family who left earlier established themselves. Well, it had probably been in a conversation with one of these Cuban émigrés when the idea of travelling to the island became a definite and irresistible possibility in Jordan and Jaala’s mind: “It won’t be like that much longer you know. Soon there’s going to be a McDonalds in every corner and it’s going to be just like everywhere else. All you really need is a Mexican cred- it card and someone who speaks good Spanish, because not many people speak English over there” one of Jaala and Jordan’s new Cuban friends probably said. That’s where I came in. When I got the phone call from them trying to convince me to put up my Mexican based AMEX to purchase three tickets from Cancun to Havana it didn’t take much for me to agree. I also believe that Cuba’s economic reality is unsustainable and that once that reality forces its leaders to moderate their political views, economic progress should slowly start melting away the 50 years worth of cultural, social, political and economic standstill that has kept Cuba frozen in time.
We had decided to stay at a “Casa Particular” as the tiny inns that serve as Bed & Breakfasts are known in Cuba. Fidel Castro’s regime has over the past few years licensed a number of these small businesses as concessions for independent owner/operators. They give a lucky few the opportunity to earn some much-coveted hard currency. The Casa we were staying at was in downtown Havana and was operated by a woman named Mayra.
Mayra was in her 50’s and had the beautiful dark olive skin of most Cuban people who have a mix of Caucasian, Latin and Black influence in their blood. Her B&B, although clean and comfortably appointed, had a decor that was perhaps best described by Jordan as looking like “that old people’s home I visited in the Valley once”. They had been told not to expect air conditioning or Television but nobody warned them about the toilet paper shortage. They could live without TV and could deal with the heat but they immediately confronted me about the toilet paper issue and let me know that I had to make it clear to Mayra that that was the one thing that was unacceptable. Acting in my role of official translator, I expressed their position to Mayra and she said: “It’s not just here, it’s a National shortage but don’t worry, I already talked with my neighbor Laura who has extra toilet paper supplies and she’s agreed to trade it for use of an extra fan”. The crisis was averted. We had toilet paper.
Over breakfast one morning, a conversation started between us and Mayra: ”Who is that?” asked Jordan pointing at a framed picture of a handsome young man holding two infants in his arms.
“That’s my boy Enrique and my two little grandsons Pablito and Nestor,” said Mayra with the wide smile of a proud grandmother. “They’re very cute. Do they visit you often?” asked Jaala. “No, my boy is in Barcelona. I haven’t seen him in eight years, and I’ve never met my grandsons but Enrique sends me pictures often” said Mayra fighting the tears that started to show in her eyes.
“He left Cuba?” I said in the most neutral tone I could muster, knowing that “leaving the island” can be a very sensitive subject for many Cubans.
Economic hardship and political repression forces many Cubans to seek asylum in other countries. The only link they usually leave behind is family.
“He was a very talented pianist. He studied the piano ever since he was a little boy and that allowed him entry at the Academia Nacional de Musica here in Havana. He won the first prize for piano in the 2000 Cuban National Classical Music Awards. He got a letter from Barcelona after that offering him a full scholarship to study at their Conservatory” said Mayra.
Jaala and Jordan were close to tears as well “How did they let him go?” they demanded to know.
“It took almost a year of bureaucratic paperwork and a lot of perseverance on Enrique’s part but they finally granted him a travel permit” said Mayra. “Once he got there he met a nice Spanish girl and got married. He finished his studies at the conservatory and after he got married he found a job in construction there. Now he still finds time to play once in a while but the important thing is that he’s safe and happy. I know my boys will have a much better life in Spain. I would much rather have that, than have them here next to me. Although it does break my heart every time I get a picture of one of the blowing out candles on his birthday cake “ We left Mayra’s house in a pensive mood. ”Why doesn’t Fidel let them go? asked Jaala. ”Why don’t we (America) help them?” replied Jordan. ”What does the dumb embargo have to do with these poor people?” fired Jaala.
“Does anybody in our government actually think that Cuba is still a communist threat to the United States for crissakes! They don’t even have toilet paper!” exploded Jordan.
Cuba’s beauty is mostly due to its people. Cuban’s are extremely upbeat and cheerful. Just as they have laboriously maintained the beautiful 1960’s Oldsmobile’s and Cadillac’s that were imported to the island before the embargo, so they have maintained their spirits. Once a little bit of ease comes in the way of economic aid and political freedom, the true potential of Cuba’s artistic and culturally oriented people will truly emerge. I look forward to the that day.
Published previously in issue 72 of the Malibu Chronicle