Westporters June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel just returned from a great National Geographic expedition to Cuba. June sends this report, and some wonderful photos:
Our “people to people” visa facilitated a unique cultural exchange. We met extraordinary teachers and students in the visual and performing arts, including an 18-year-old young man in Cienfuegos who choreographed and danced a pas de deux of passion and violence in gay love.
At Isla de Juventud, an all-girl string quartet played a Telemann violin concerto. We were energized by the percussion and dance of Habana de Compas, rooted in Santeria rhythms. We spoke with cigar factory workers, farmers and a Santeria priest.
We met a librarian who ran a Google-donated internet center with computers for children, and mechanics skilled in antique car restoration. We visited open-air markets where butchers sold unrefrigerated meat, alongside fruits and eggs. We walked through a crumbling, abandoned prison for political prisoners and hard-core criminals.
Cuba is both amazing and sad. It is amazing because of the openness, compassion and joy of the Cuban people — their resilience, love of family, and music and art that infuses their world.
The sadness was ours, as we observed Cubans lacking what we consider essential to our everyday lives, like appliances, food (without needing a ration card), cars, even functional plumbing.
Yet the United States continues its embargo — not sanctions, but an embargo — an anachronism that has outlived its purpose. All it does now is deprive poor hard-working people.
For instance, Cubans can’t import US cars or car parts. As a result, Cuban mechanics in a time-warp fashion parts for cars from the 1950’s, or import parts from other countries.
One man showed us his ’58 Chevy. He was allowed to import a Mercedes engine from Germany, but not from the US. Then he pointed to a Chinese container ship in the harbor that was delivering a shipment of new buses.
Another embargo-imposed time warp is that Cuban-Americans who send money to their relatives in Cuba must use Western Union, not US banks.
So what does Cuba have to do with Westport?
Westporters and Cubanos have shared values: love of family; devotion to children; engaging in hard work; living in an inclusive society.
Cubanos do not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. They see themselves as one people — not black or mulatto or white.
Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews. “Gentleman’s Agreement” — the 1947 movie with Gregory Peck about anti-Semitism in Fairfield County — told this ugly story.
Cubanos are passionate about the arts and creativity — whether dance, music, theater, painting, sculpture, embroidery, weaving, sculpture or pottery. Life in Westport is energized by groups like Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Art Center, Westport Public Library, Staples Players and Westport Community Theater.
On the flight home I thought about transforming the “people to people” Cuba expedition into a two-way street. Charleston, South Carolina has already provided a model in its annual Spoleto USA Festival.
This event has become one of America’s major performing arts festivals, showcasing both established and emerging artists with performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz.
Imagine the positive impact of Westport hosting these gifted Cuban artists of all ages with performances over a week at different venues throughout town. And imagine how it would bring people together at a time when our country is so divided.