A Cuban in the Land of the Selfish

Isbel Diaz Torres

I arrived in Chicago on a cold, rainy night and suddenly found myself in the middle of a derelict street – without money, without a public phone at hand and without a concrete address to head to.

HAVANA TIMES – Today, I want to share with you a number of very surprising experiences I had in Chicago this year, for they contradict the idea that Cuban schools and media have constructed regarding the egotism that a country like the United States – the epitome of industrialization, barbarism, competition and dehumanization – allegedly encourages in people.

I didn’t want to share all of my experiences outside Cuba too soon. I wanted to think about them and develop a more balanced opinion. That is why, as readers have noticed, my posts about Brazil are separated by long periods of time, and I hadn’t written anything about my experiences in the United States until now.

I arrived in Chicago on a cold, rainy night and suddenly found myself in the middle of a derelict street – without money, without a public phone at hand and without a concrete address to head to. After nearly an hour of dragging my suitcase down the wet streets and not seeing a single soul, an African American woman, evidently working class, suggested I went into a nearby hotel (belonging to the Marriot chain) and asked for help there.

Chicago bridge.

Used to being treated like a pariah at Cuban hotels, I decided to try my luck, convinced I would be kicked out of the premises like a “dirty Latino immigrant.” To my surprise, not only was I cordially welcomed by the doorman and the lady at the reception, they also allowed me to make all the calls I needed free of charge.

When I headed outside to wait for the people who were going to pick me up, the hotel people didn’t let me. They insisted I sit and wait at the luxurious and warm lobby, where we had a lively conversation for the almost one-hour-long wait.

Days later, while skipping a LASA conference, another Cuban and I arrived at the entrance to the monumental Art Institute of Chicago by chance. I was happy enough to have gotten there and to be able to take photos of the incredibly beautiful façade and surroundings.

My friend and I ventured into the lobby to take a furtive picture of the inside when something unexpected happened. A man we had crossed at the door asked us: “do you want these two tickets I’m not going to use?” We couldn’t believe that was happening.

At the Chicago Art Institute

This way, I was able to see the first great works of art of a long list of pieces I enjoyed there. Some spectacular stained-glass pieces by Chagall, a large collection of Hindu art and models and sculptures by Picasso were particularly striking – and we enjoyed them free of charge!

Without a cent to my name, I was able to visit Chicago for a week thanks to the kindness of friends, colleagues and new acquaintances, among whom I should mention Jesus Guanche, Armando Chaguaceda, Ted Henken, Stansfield Smith and even a pair of would-be Cuban “security agents” who invited me for a snack in order to obtain information about my treacherous plans in the land of egotism.

To all of them, both friends and acquaintances, I say thank you. You helped me rid myself of yet another cliché and I feel a little bit freer for it. You also helped reaffirm my “faith in human improvement”, as Marti said, and to see that not even a heartless superpower like the United States can rid its own citizens of goodwill.

Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

40 thoughts on “A Cuban in the Land of the Selfish

  • January 8, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Well, since Batista took the nation’s entire treasury with him …

  • December 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Of course it is an atypical example. Likewise, this sort of thing happens all the time in Cuba. Dissidents have been beaten in full view of the public and even their closet neighbors have watched and done nothing. They probably even said something like “that’s your problem, not mine”.

  • December 1, 2014 at 11:24 am

    A person has a good experience and a bunch of screwball pundits show up to tell them why they are wrong. I hope all of you had a swell Thanksgiving.

  • December 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

    A friend of mine got robbed and beaten up in New York years ago. Left injured on the ground he told this to a passerby and asked for help the reply he got was “that’s your problem, not mine”. This is probably not representative of everyone or everywhere in the US, but I’m really can’t believe that this would ever happen in my country.

  • December 1, 2014 at 4:11 am

    Shooting someone who is unarmed is not self-defence. Why wasn’t he tackled to the ground or whacked on the arm with a truncheon. At the very least why didn’t he shoot him in the leg. Once again you show your complete support for everything that happens in the US.

  • November 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Isbel was attending a conference sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association. LASA has over 6,000 members, in the US and abroad. Many of the members of LASA are in fact quite critical of US policies in Latin America.


    It will come as a surprise to Professor Ted Henken to learn from you, Dan, that he is a paid agent of USAID. Ted is an outspoken critic of the US embargo and a contributor to the (if not openly pro-Castro, at least somewhat sympathetic) blog The Havana Note.

    One of Ted’s fellow contributors to The Havana Note, Arturo López-Levy, also attended the LASA conference. In case you don’t know who he is, he’s the cousin of Raul Castro’s son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodrigues Lopez-Callejas.

    Gen. Lopez-Callejas is the director of GAESA, the FAR controlled holding company which owns all the tourist hotels in Cuba. I suppose he’s on the USAID payroll too, Dan?

    Fail Dan.

  • November 28, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    If you would be honest, you would admit one can find “screaming” political pundits on all sides of the debate. Not just Fox, but the liberal media outlets like MSNBC & CNN have their fair share of screamers.

    On any given day, Ed Shultz, Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann can out-scream the worst of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly or Anne Coulter.

    Ditto in Congress. The Democrat screamers don’t take second place to even the most extreme GOP pols.

  • November 28, 2014 at 10:45 am

    “Yet you use that very logic to make broad statements about the United States, as if your personal experience in Chicago disproves Cuba’s opposition to broad issues of American policies.” Claire, where in this article has Isbel said or inferred this? He hasn’t. I suggest you reread his article.

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