From Cuba, With Love

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.

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

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.

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

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.

'58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

’58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

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.

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

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.

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

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.

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

22 responses to “From Cuba, With Love

  1. Sandy and Peter Nathan got on the boat the Wifel’s were on for the same trip in reverse and returned home yesterday. What the Wirfel’s said was all correct except the Cubans DO discriminate on race. I have been to Cuba more than a dozen times for work, and as was emphasized by our guides (at least moderately) there is discrimination which is quite visible in the countryside (not so much in Havana). Incidentally, one does not encounter any “black” Cubans in the government hierarchy.

    Peter W. Nathan
    PWN Exhibicon International L.L.C.
    70 Terra Nova Circle
    Westport, CT 06880-4749
    Tel: (203) 227-8343
    Fax: (203) 222-8335
    Mobile: (203) 515-1224

  2. Lawrence Zlatkin

    I have been to Cuba on a similar program and agree that it is a fabulous country. I also disagree with the embargo, which has outlived its usefulness (compare though an important embargo of North Korea).

    That being said, please put this and our relationship with Cuba in its proper context. The Castro regime expropriated all private property in Cuba. Everything you see in Havana, including the “Hilton” and the tunnel to the Citadel with historic toll booths, was built with foreign capital and nationalized. The Cubans do not have political freedom and have lived under various forms of economic and political dominance by a one party state since 1959. Today, there continues to be a lack of human and political rights in Cuba under a Castro dynasty– no free elections, no political dissent, everyone stays poor except for those with access to dollars and the political elite. Anyone with ambition and skills outside the political elite has left Cuba, mainly for the US– Cuba has succeeded in one party rule largely by exporting anyone who disagrees with the regime.

    So, context is important.

    I think at this point we should be trading and investing in Cuba, recognizing the risks and challenges. We should be building closer relations to help change the country into a modern and advanced economy and polity. But, that won’t happen overnight, and the political class that rules Cuba remains committed to communism and totalitarian rule.

  3. I was in Cuba in 2002, with a license from the Treasury Department, so I got my passport stamped. But my real opportunity came in December 1976 when I was invited to visit Cuba, for three weeks, and to travel there on Castro’s personal plane! The invitation came from Prime Minister Michael Manley’s second wife, Thelma Manley. She and Manley had a son who was in his freshman year at the University of Havana, and the trip was designed to visit him, and she could bring a small group. I worked with Thelma and she asked me to be a part of the group, but I respectfully declined because it was over Christmas. I went back to Westport instead for a month and spent the time with my family instead.

  4. Carmen Castedo

    I was surprised that the only sad thing they found was the lack of material things. Nothing noted about the brutal illegal government that controls every aspect of the peoples’ lives. Of course, the government does not lack any of those material things and live quite lush lives. Cuba’s situation is not due to the embargo but to their failed economy. They could buy goods from many countries but have a very bad credit rating due to non payment. Americans should be wary of investing there as the government can decide at any moment to take over their businesses or declare them against the interests of the revolution (this has happened)- and there is no legal recourse.

  5. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    We went to Cuba on a medical mission to bring medical supplies there for humanitarian purposes Thru the UJF in Stamford. This was in about 2005.

    We also met wonderful and talented people throughout Havana. We were not allowed outside of Havana to see the rest of the country.

    We found the people happy, welcoming and inclusive of us all over Havana. They were so accommodating and offered us whatever they had, they had very little. Food was bought on ration cards for everyone, except the elite in government.

    We found it to be a “country of extremes”. Extensive Poverty vs extreme wealth for very few. Beautiful architecture and for the tourists beautiful accommodations and for most of the citizens they were living in unsafe apartments with few utilities and no safety. For instance living in buildings that would be condemned in the USA they had large families living in without fire escapes and living on the higher floors with no railings on exterior staircases that looked like they were detaching from the buildings. They are not allowed to fish without a fishing permit and they are on an island with little food but it is very expensive and difficult to obtain a fishing permit.

    It was a beautiful country. Not sure if it is a good idea for Americans to invest in this country as the government there does control everything and will take what they want from everyone else if they find they have something that the people in power want or need. There are many well educated people there that are not allowed to make them or their families situations financially improved.

  6. I appreciate Peter Nathan’s comment on racial discrimination in Cuba, particularly in government hierarchy. My observations were limited by our experiences.

  7. Nice photos!

  8. Cubans are wonderful people that have suffered under the Castro regime for 58 years. Americas’ embargo has little to do with their deplorable conditions. It’s a Socialist Paradise run by The Castro brothers who just happened to have made themselves Billionaires in the process. Hopefully that will all change in the near future.

  9. Peter Gambaccini

    “Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews” is not an accurate statement. Yes, the situation in places like Darien and New Canaan was deplorably restrictive. But Jews could buy homes in Fairfield and Stamford, to name just two places.

    • I just read the Forbes article and there isn’t one iota of proof to any of the claims! Castro died. Where are the hundreds of millions? Where’s the beef?

    • Thanks, Peter. I stand corrected and should have written that Westport was one of the few towns in Fairfield County where Jewish families could buy homes. June

  10. Bonnie Bradley

    I, too, am one of those who visited Cuba, on a U.S.Treasury “Cuban Assets Control Regulations” permit, in 2003 for a two week tour with Smith College.

    It was a wonderful and enlightening tour. Certainly, I second the terrific insights and descriptions of the Commenters above! Our trip was so early and uncommon (evidently) that some people in our group thought that we Americans might be followed or even harassed by Cuban police or security. There was no sign of that at all. In fact I have a funny photo of myself (I look totally startled!) with the arm of a military guard around me when we had asked if it was ok to take a picture at the Presidential Palace and I guess he wanted to be in the photo too. I’ll agree: the Cuban people we saw & met were totally friendly and welcoming. I’ve enjoyed comparing the many photos I took then with the current ones on the blog. Not too many physical changes to be seen.

    We spent the first 4 days in Havana, staying at the Parque Central Hotel (very obviously for foreign tourists, it could have been dropped down in AnyCity, USA – but the water petered out halfway through your shower) and went one night to a terrific Cuban ballet at the National Theater. Then on to Trinidad and Cienfuegos,the Bay of Pigs and, later up a steep goat path in the bus (scary!) for an overview of Guantanamo Bay (a stunningly beautiful sight, sadly marred by its current, horrid use) in the far distance. We flew on a Cuban charter from Trinidad to Baracoa on the southern coast, where Columbus landed, the historic center of Cuba – well worth the trip if you can get there – and beautiful historic Santiago de Cuba, with “the Americas’ oldest house,” nicely restored but not “improved.” It’s a trip I will never forget.

  11. Jack Backiel

    I went to Cuba in 2002 with a group, and visited a few schools. However, in December 1976, I passed up a chance to visit Cuba as a guest of Fidel Castro, for three weeks. I worked with Thelma Manely, the second wife of Prime Minister Michael Manely. In 1976, they had a son who was attending The University of Havana, so Castro invited Thelma, to be his guest for three weeks, and she could bring up to fifteen guests. She asked me to go, but since these three weeks were during Christmas, I politely declined her offer.