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

  • December 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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.

    https://lasa.international.pitt.edu/eng/

    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
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    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
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    “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.

  • November 28, 2014 at 10:37 am
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    Because Ted Henken > USAID or DAI > the American taxpayers DO have money, and the first three habitually pick up the tab for anyone willing to speak badly or lie about their government and country.

  • November 28, 2014 at 10:02 am
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    I guess you haven’t had political discussions with many Americans and I guess you’ve never watched FOX news or listened to the Republicans in our elected congress. But hey, keep your rose colored glasses on. I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.

  • November 28, 2014 at 9:36 am
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    I make them sound like beggars? That certainly wasn’t my intention. But if that HAD been my intention, I must admit, I don’t have a problem with what you call “beggars” and it is a term I would NEVER use. I would never call anyone on this planet a beggar. Including the down and out homeless alcoholic living in the Bowery. Now let me make this VERY clear – making significant contributions to this world has nothing to do with possessing money or even, for that matter, being homeless on the streets.

  • November 27, 2014 at 10:52 am
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    Actually, the US has called for democracy in China & Saudi Arabia. I’m not saying the US is consistent in their foreign policy, but one should be aware of the facts.

  • November 27, 2014 at 10:50 am
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    In my experience, Americans tend to be warmer, more helpful & friendlier than most other people. Stop a random person on the streets of New York to ask for directions: I’ve received warm smiles, polite assistance and a helpful tip on finding a good restaurant. Now try that in Paris and you will get a shrug, a frown and muttered expletive en française.

    Isbel’s experience in Chicago is not all that unusual.

  • November 27, 2014 at 9:53 am
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    Next time go to Los Angeles – chicago is a dump

  • November 27, 2014 at 9:01 am
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    Truman pointed out to Robeson that lynching was murder and as such was already illegal. The problem was the failure to enforce the law, not the lack of a law.

    I understand the extent of systemic racism which created the problems which in turn lead to an unemployed, poorly educated, young black male robbing a store, beating up the shopkeeper, smoking drugs, assaulting a police officer and then ultimately being shot dead in the street by the police.

    To excuse African-Americans of the responsibility of behaving in a civilized manner is racist attitude. Systemic and interpersonal racism exist in the US, including inside the African-American culture.

    The African-American gang bangers who murder African-American children are just as guilty of murder and racism as are the KKK lynchers.

    The easy reaction is to blame the cops. The far tougher challenge is to look at all aspects of society and deal with the fundamental problems which contribute to and perpetuate racism. Welfare has destroyed the African-American family. Rappers who glorify gangsterism, drugs and the abuse of women should be shunned, not given Grammy awards and invited to the White House.

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:31 pm
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    As another non-US citizen, I too can speak of the hospitality and friendship I have experienced in the states. Never heard a single scream!

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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    You really have swallowed the bait, hook line and sinker. There are lots of beggars in Cuba on the streets day and night. Socialismo is a system of total control of Cuban society.
    The Cuban medical group went to Sierra Leone to join Medicin sans Frontier and its volunteer medical staff in October 2014 many months after MSF had commenced the battle against Ebola. The US and the UK had been constructing hospitals for several months. But the Cuban medical staff are to be respected just as the thousands of others from other countries deserve our respect.

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:19 pm
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    I live in Cuba and can agree with you that many Cubans have money. up to as much in the case of a teacher with a Masters degree as $30 a month, until they scrape it together to purchase sufficient food to try to feed their families. It is not the embargo that prevents Cuba producing more food. It is Castro family regime policies.

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:13 pm
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    Did you listen to the Prosecutor when he reported on the 23 days of evidence presented to the 12 members of the Grand Jury? Do you believe that contrary to the reports by both the doctors who carried out post mortems, that the 6′ 6′ 290 lb victim was shot in the back? However, the internal affairs of US society are not really appropriate in these pages.

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:12 pm
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    The difficulty Griffin is that racism is not odd incidents. Racism effects minorities in both the US and Cuba on a daily basis.It is insidious. I was told by white Cubans only two weeks ago before leaving home, that the reason that the Cuban State Police in Havana stop couples of mixed race when the female is black is because they think that it is prostitution. When I asked whether there are white Jinteras and prostitutes in Havana and in numerous couintries around the world, there was a long pause. If my wife was white, we would be acceptable as a white couple to the State Police, but because we are a mixed race couple she is assumed to be a prostitute. That is open racism, but the views of those I mentioned demonstrates the same thinking although until pointed out they had not realised that they were in fact gulty of unconcious racism.
    The build up of emotion in the US in particular is a consequence of history stemming from slavery and the concept that black people are inferior. As I once commented in these pages when mentioning the late and great Paul Robeson. he in 1948 following the lynching at that time of four young blacks, met with President Harry S. Truman and asked him to bring in a law against lynching. Truman refused, saying: “Its not time yet.” In 1949 the US Government removed Robeson’s passport and said it was because they couldn’t allow a US citizen to raise the subject of US blacks and racism in other countries.
    The problem Griffin is deep and bitter. Expecting the current black generations to behave as “law-abiding citizens” is barely reasonable when the law and those with the responsibility of administering it have themselves failed for generations to comply with it themselves.
    The media sell news, none that I have heard or seen have mentioned that the “teenage youth’ was 6′ 6” tall and weighed 290 lbs. But even if committing a crime, that is no excuse for killing a person. That in many ways reflects the gun culture of the USA where the logic is to have ever more guns in the hands of the public to defend themselves as well as having armed police. The very recent shooting of a 12 year old has been justified because the police assumed that a toy gun was a real one. In the USA such an assumption is reasonable because the general public have easy access to buying lethal weapons. It is a consequence of the failure of the US to amend their Constitution which has become a form of holy writ.

  • November 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm
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    Some folks just can’t abide hearing or reading anything favourable about the US. Living in Cuba means that one is subject to the observations and reports of the CDR president of your block. Criticism of regime policies is very risky as the CDR acts as the eyes and ears of the regime. “Society equity” in Cuba is a 200 pesos (not CUC) pension per month for which Cubans can thank the Castro family regime”
    Viva Raul !
    Viva Fidel !
    Viva los Castros !
    Que controla toda y todos !

  • November 26, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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    The so-called “free” education and “free” healthcare in Cuba are not actually free. The Cuban people pay for it by their crushingly low salaries, about $18/month on average, which amounts to an effective income tax rate of 95%.

  • November 26, 2014 at 11:24 am
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    It’s significant that you accept Wilson’s outrageous fabrication without question. It’s already been shredded. By prosecutors from all over the nation, lawyers from across the political spectrum,old FBI agents. Wilson and the St.Louis prosecutor are going down in a BIG way. Turn on MSNBC or CNN,click on the Web, check Twitter..

  • November 26, 2014 at 11:07 am
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    They depend primarally upon one another. That’s what socialism is. You make them sound like beggars.
    The opposite is true – Cubans make very significant contributions to the world.
    The small embargoed nation recently sent 120 doctors, well-trained by its own resources, to Liberia to fight Ebola. While the US is busy locking up the youth of Oakland CA, Cuba offers them free medical school training – on condition that they return to America and serve low-income communities. In fact,Cuban experts are working on behalf of the disenfranchised all over the world.

  • November 26, 2014 at 10:25 am
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    Michael Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson, punched him in the face and tried to grab his gun. Are you suggesting police do not have the right and responsibility to defend themselves when attacked? That would be a strange and dangerous society.

  • November 26, 2014 at 10:19 am
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    Really? Can you provide a single example of that? I don’t live in America, but the times I’ve been there on business or vacation, I have yet to hear anybody scream those things, let alone a majority.

  • November 26, 2014 at 10:17 am
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    How do you know Darren Wilson is a bigot? By his account, which was supported by the testimony of several eye witnesses (including that of African-Americans who saw the actual events), Michael Brown attacked Wilson, attempted to grab Wilson’s gun, and was shot while charging toward Wilson a second time.

    While I will agree with you that racism exists in America, at both the personal & systemic level, the case of Michael Brown is not one that helps advance the cause of decreasing racism in American society. If anything, the riots associated with the protests have only increased racial tensions.

    There are other cases much more worthy of outrage, which curiously get little media coverage or support from the professional activists. The 12 year old boy who was shot dead by police in Cleveland a few days ago while brandishing a beebee gun is a more outrageous case, with no justification for the police to act as they did.

    Or the case in Chicago a couple months ago, where two adolescent boys were shot dead in cold blood by gang bangers from a rival neighbourhood. Tragedies like that happen far more often than police shootings, and yet for some reason, the professional racial grievance activists like Al Sharpton ignore them.

  • November 26, 2014 at 9:51 am
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    i have been to cuba and know that many cubans have money and are running small businesses and receiving help from relatives abroad. this man had enough to buy an air ticket and should have carried enough to get by until he met his friends. i should note that there are no homeless children in cuba while the numbers are increasing here in the US. let’s not demonize cuba. our embargo helped increase poverty there. can you imagine how mexico would be if we had a 50 year embargo on it? and why do we insist on democracy in cuba and not in saudi arabia and china? we should join the rest of the world and establish normal relations with cuba. if americans were allowed to travel freely to cuba there would be many more jobs for people like the traveler depicted here.

  • November 26, 2014 at 7:08 am
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    There are hundreds of glowing accounts from throughout the world of ordinary Cubans showing great warmth, generousity, and a genuine belief in social equity to foreigners. Many visitors were NOT supervised in any way by any government presence and people DID complain pretty freely (about food rationing in particular).
    Does logic persuade you that these experiences prove that opponents of post-Revolutionary Cuba are wrong? We don’t need to ask how this argument would play in Miami.
    Yet you use that very logic to make broad statements about the United States, as if your personal experience in Chicago dispproves Cuba’s opposition to broad issues of American policies.
    There are wonderful people everywhere. Describing them is a writing project that stands on its own merits. It’s not legitimite to use them as essential props to support large, contentious political issues.
    I’m certainly not questioning your qualifications for writing political essays about this or any topic! Far from it. I’m just questioning the basis of your arguments re. this particular one.
    Thanks for reading

  • November 26, 2014 at 2:02 am
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    Simply not true. Your anti-US bias has twisted your reality but the facts have not changed. The US is the most charitable country in the world.

  • November 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm
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    As an African-American man with two young sons, I am particularly troubled but not surprised by the travesty of justice in Ferguson. I disagree that the US is a cruel country however. Unlike in Cuba, where the Castros have dictated what people are allowed to think, the cost of freedom in the US, not our brutality is what has brought about the Ferguson tragedy and the lynching of my great-uncle 75 years ago in the front yard of his Mississippi home. Our freedom permits racists and bigots, like Darren Wilson to exercise full rein of their sickest thoughts with impunity. While I deplore racism in the US, I am not ready to trade it for the mind-control tactics employed by the Castro regime.

  • November 25, 2014 at 6:46 pm
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    Isbel, we in the US celebrate Thanksgiving and I want to extend a thank you for your wonderful messages and writings. Peace to you my friend!

  • November 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm
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    The simple answer to that Isbel as a Cuban, doesn’t have any money. His surprise in finding the people of the US friendly, hospitable and helpful, is that the Cuban State media and even some of the US contributors to these pages, constantly do all within their abilities to deplore and detract from the US. This is as he has experienced, contrary to the reality.
    If you knew Cuba well, you would know that Cubans don’t have any money – fifty five years of Castro family regime Socialismo have ensured that!

  • November 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm
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    I would have to disagree. Most Americans scream, “No foodstamps for the poor, no social security for the disabled – GET A JOB.”

  • November 25, 2014 at 5:35 pm
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    But the US is a cruel country. What happened in the city of Ferguson is an example of the brutality that exists. “It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown — a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences — won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters — they exist inside society, not outside of it — and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.”

  • November 25, 2014 at 5:29 pm
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    I guess you have no experience with Cuba. Most Cubans have no way of earning money to travel so they have to depend upon the kindness of others.

  • November 25, 2014 at 2:50 pm
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    I think your experience is a common one for foreigners in the US. Americans are no less warm and friendly than any other country. Sometimes we are accused of being cold and distant when really we are just busy and careful.

  • November 25, 2014 at 1:51 pm
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    nice story but why would someone travel without money?

  • November 25, 2014 at 1:39 pm
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    I’m glad to hear you had a great time in Chicago. The Chagall stained glass works are magnificent!

    By my experience, most Americans are friendly, generous and helpful people.

    Has your experience changed your opinions about the “egotism, industrialization, barbarism, competition and dehumanization” of US society? Did you ever really believe that?

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