By Eileen Sosin Martinez (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES – The glittering American antique auto honked its horn. That’s when we realized that they were here: with blue eyes and pink cheeks, they took pictures at every turn. To that point, it was stereotypical. We were just beginning our ‘people-to-people’ exchange.
Cubans often complain about the frequent misrepresentation of the Island’s reality. This in spite of the fact that we ourselves have many prejudices about people from the US. So it was a pleasant surprise to greet this group of men and women who looked me straight in the eye, smiled and shook hands firmly.
Dinner was almost ready, and the group arrived just in time to help with the finishing touches. We received them at my friend Ernesto’s house. They wanted to see how an average Cuban family lives: what we eat, how we cook, what we talk about when we are all sitting at the table.
Gradually, the place became enveloped by the conversation. “This is a beautiful house,” said someone. Another asked: “Who is this little boy?” pointing to a photo of a child. Before the meal, we prepared mojitos and toasted.
Mari was very affectionate with Cleo, the dog, and had already learned to greet the puppy in Spanish. I think most everyone knew some words in Spanish, like thank you, please, and “nice to meet you.” They probably had been practicing because they laughed at some of the jokes. Or maybe not, and they laughed anyway.
Lisa was tasked with crushing garlic for the cassava’s dressing. “Oh, it smells so good!” she said, as if she’d never done this before. They seemed to be enjoying everything, even those simple details.
“Tourists from all over the world travel to Cuba, and it is now that US citizens are learning why so many people are delighted with Cuba,” Conner Gorry, a New York journalist based in Havana, told me in 2016. She has written 20 travel guides for Lonely Planet, so she knows of what she speaks. “You don’t know what a place is like until you touch it with your own feet, with your own hands.”
What impacts most from the US is the joy of the people, and how safe the cities are, unlike other Latin American countries, explained Gorry. In her opinion, it kind of shows how propaganda works. “They come here and say: ‘Cubans are so cheerful … I expected North Korea’. Sometimes they are so surprised that they regret not having read much more before coming.”
Of course, certain labels do not help. Dick Cluster, a Boston writer and editor who translates Cuban literature, explains it this way: “A specific problem about US readers (and worse, publishers), is what they think they know about Cuba. It could be the ‘communist island,’ the dance and the party, the glamorous fifties … but it’s always a stereotyped Cuba.”
In 1998, Cluster wrote an article pointing out that US visitors used to see Cuba through one lens: either a paradise or a hell. Much later, in 2015, he said that this manner of thought had changed quite a lot because more of his fellow citizens were coming to the Island. He stressed, “I think it is now much less bipolar than before.”
Carmen and Ana, Ernesto’s aunt and grandmother, were the stars of the evening. They spoke no English, so we translated the crazy stories of their youth, which captivated the visitors and made them laugh.
As expected, dinner was delicious: white rice, black beans, chicken casserole, vegetable salad and fried plantains and the yuca. Something like a typical local meal. But what made it truly memorable was the fact that food tastes better when you enjoy the company.
In fact, that mutual friendship is not exactly new. In Louis A. Perez’s book, “Being Cuban, Identity, Nationality and Culture,” he states that US citizens and Cubans, from the beginning, developed the type of familiarity frequently reserved for people of the same nation.
“Imagine the party we could have here,” Amber whispered when we climbed to the roof. “Definitely! I’ve always said that!” I replied.
I was impressed with how easy-going our time together was. We discovered we had so much in common. For example, none of us like Donald Trump. Funny how he gives Cubans and US citizens another thing to agree on.
For some reason, issues such as human rights or freedom of expression — the major media’s agenda when it comes to Cuba — usually puts me on the defensive. However, they did not rub it in like others from abroad I have met. Their questions were always polite and respectful. We talked about politics, the Internet, the government, uncertainties and expectations about Cuba’s future … and about family, work and even diets.
Adam, a shy engineer in the group, confessed to us that he was wondering why people stayed in Cuba if there were so many difficulties. “But they also have good things. Now I understand,” he said.
I know these were not ordinary people from the US. Perhaps we, the people they met here, were not ordinary Cubans either. Finally we all said goodbye. There were hugs and kisses. Everything felt right. They were strangers no longer.
The group arrived in 2018, when the travel warning issued by the State Department was still in effect. Undoubtedly this measure put a halt to many exchanges. However, there we were, chatting, looking at the landscape in a popular neighborhood of Havana.
At the beginning of 2019, the harmful effects of the negative publicity seemed to have diminished: from January to April, the island received more than 250,000 visitors from the United States. According to officials of the Ministry of Tourism, it represented a 93.5 percent growth over the same period the previous year.
Then we got more bad news.
On June 4, the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce prohibited cruise ship travel to the Island and ‘people-to-people’ trips.
The first thing that came to mind were the thousands of restaurant owners and employees, taxi drivers, AirBnb hosts, local guides … who would lose their jobs. As the saying goes, happiness has a short stay in the house of the poor.
During the days that followed I kept up with the repercussions from this meaningless policy. There was powerlessness, irritation, dejection.
After a while a ray of hope appeared when I saw the reaction of the Pastors for Peace. “We should be outraged by what Trump is doing, but we must turn that outrage into action. Trump does not want us to travel to Cuba, so we must travel to Cuba. He is putting obstacles in the way, so we have to overcome the obstacles,” they declared.
On the other hand, experts and executives from the travel industry have argued that the 12 categories which allow to travel to the Island legally still exist. “Please, don’t think you can no longer travel to Cuba despite this news. They just have to travel under certain guidelines,” said Kenna Klosterman, a photographer who directs educational groups to the Island. There was also a bipartisan effort in Congress from a group of senators who presented the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019.
And again, the endless Trump administration nightmare continues to try to stifle the Cuban government and also destroy bridges that had been built. Since December 10 of last year, flights from the United States can only land in Havana. And now the same restriction applies to charter flights.
But many voices have risen to criticize these measures. “However, the new regulation[s] does not affect flights between the United States and Havana. So if you always wanted to go to Cuba, or have been and want to return, you can!” insisted photographer Alain Gutierrez, director of Thru Cuban Eyes.
His persistence reminded me of that afternoon on the roof, when the conversation turned to the saying that the human ties that bind Cubans and US citizens are broader and deeper than the political relations. They are like water, which always manages to flow.