by Mimi George
As a child I watched news of the Cuban revolution on TV. I hid under school desks in case of nuclear attack. I wondered how the lives of Cuban people were impacted by our USA blockades and embargo. More recently I questioned whether Cubans have done better than us in Malama Honua (caring for the earth)?
I was thrilled to learn that Hokule’a and escort vessel Gershon II would visit Cuba as part of the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage. We were in the Virgin Islands when our visas were confirmed. We knew President Obama was arriving during our visit. We also knew that there were a lot of hard feelings among the huge Cuban diaspora in the USA.
Some old friends of mine sailed up to our Saba Rock anchorage in the British Virgin Isles, and I was introduced to one of their family crew. When he learned that I was going to Cuba he asked me “Do you speak Spanish?” I told him I could probably understand it if he spoke it. He then turned away from the group and sotto voce said (I now translate) “I was in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 … I have a message for you to tell Fidel.” I said “Well I do not expect to speak with Fidel, but if I should be able to do so, what would you have me say?” With his eyes fiercely engaging mine, he said “Tell Fidel I am free!”
The Worldwide Voyage of Hokule’a arrived in Havana Harbor on 18 March. There was very little wind that morning. Escort vessel Gershon II motored through a thick layer of crude oil as we entered Havana Bay. We towed Hokule’a around the shoreline to announce our presence with blowing of pu (shell trumpet) and chants (oli) of opening. Then we proceeded 8 miles west to moor with nearly 100 other yachts at capacious Hemmingway Marina.
For four full days and nights we rode a big tour bus, roving from the farmlands east of Havana all the way into the cool, scoured coral, mountain valleys of the far west. We had aircon, soft reclining seats, and a constant supply of bottled drinking water. Our tour guide Jesus (pronounced “hey soos”) Garcia, of Altruvista Tour Group, served as our eloquent and hard-working Cuban government guide. His stated goal was to help us to understand the revolutionary process and daily life of Cuban people.
Our group included 15 crew members of Hokule’a (star of joy), 6 of Gershon II (stranger in a strange land—to be treated as family), plus several members of our Hawaiian, Cuban, and international ohana. We were welcomed at the dock by people of Arawak-Cuban, Carib-Cuban, Afro-Cuban, Samoan/Cuban, and Hawaiian/Cuban descent. Everywhere we went people on the street gazed up at us with welcoming smiles and friendly waves. Some mouthed the word “Obama” as if to include us in the general excitement over the impending visit of our president.
Since 1961 our country imposed bans on communications, goods, or people going to Cuba. For 54 years Cuban people struggled mightily to meet basic needs in the face of the American embargo. Our Hawaiian/Cuban and Cuban guides told us that the average person lost 20 lbs when the Soviets left in 1991. But then, as they gradually became more self-reliant, they gained it back. Yet, they still import rice, and 80% or their food supply…almost as scary as the 85 to 90% of our food supply in Hawai’i! However, we were told that, since 1962 no one in Cuba went hungry while others were feasting.
During the 1950s American Mafia and sugar magnates made Havana an international playground of gambling and prostitution, while Cubans starved. CIA operatives attacked them at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. We threatened to make them ground zero if they installed more missiles. Our blockade kept seeds, cars, medicines, electronics, books, and many other goods from reaching them. Since the 1800’s we maintained Guantanamo Harbor as a military base. During the last 11 years Guantanamo is known for holding hundreds of mid-eastern people without any charges or legal process. We tortured many of them. But in spite of all this history between our countries, most the Cubans we met in many different venues and during spontaneous ‘holoholo’ walks in the streets, were so happy to see us! Where was their bitterness?
As we traveled between historic plazas, organic farms, museums, and art studios, we were invited to join in rhythmic dancing to incredibly exciting Cuban music. And yes, “Vitamin R” (rum) and demitasse shots of strong coffee were offered at most meals and various other gatherings. They drew us into a state of release and connection with the insight and skill or their artistry.
It was startling and wonderful to see the prevalence of 1950’s cars and the truly amazing array of architecture. Almost all the buildings were decrepit, with a heavy patina of black mold. But those that had been restored were breathtakingly beautiful. Walking the streets of Old Havana was time-travel at it’s best. We wondered amongst towering Cathedrals, ship-ballast cobble-stone plazas, fountains and bronze statuary of revolutionary heroes, including one of Fulgencio Batista that had been relegated to one remote corner. Tiny storefronts and tables between buildings displayed everything from revolutionary chachkis and t-shirts to gorgeous original art.
We peered into dark, open doorways and saw people doing their dishes or washing their clothes in a bucket with a hose. The electricity in the homes we entered was carried by ad hoc, single strand, naked wires, twisted and rusty. The unlit staircases between floors were incredibly twisted, slippery, and without handrails or grips. But, again, the people inside were cheerful, self-confident, and eager to meet us.
Nowhere did we see beggars, homeless people or mentally ill wanderers. When we did walk out of the public squares onto unlit streets, we did not feel unsafe. By contrast, when we arrived at Key West the town was full of drunken revelers patronizing 250 bars in 2 square miles. Once again there I felt that jarring presence of destitute and insane street people amongst super-yachts and exclusive mansions of the wildly wealthy. How did Cuba come to be so different?
Over a million African slaves labored in Cuba by mid 1700’s. They built the grand forts, stone palisades, and mansions for their Spanish masters. The Cuban revolution started over 100 years before Fidel Castro, Celia Sanchez, Che Guevara, and a very small band of fighters offered revolutionary leadership to the downtrodden populace. Between 1957 and 1962 the general populace rose up. They overthrew the brutal dictator and American puppet Batista, and rejected any further American controls. According to Jesus “We allowed the oligarchs to leave, and control of the Cuban economy was taken over by military and Communist Party leaders. Access to resources was re-organized.”
According to Cubans I met in my life—who escaped in tiny boats that sailed the 90 mile crossing to Florida during desperate nights— there were periodic mass arrests and executions of political dissenters. The easing of restrictions to communication has only just started during the Obama presidency. In any case it seems clear that for a long time many Cubans chose to leave and others could not risk trying.
But it is also true that millions of Cubans found that the revolution, and Castro’s Cuba, gave them their first homes. No more paying rent either! As in China, some highly educated professionals were required to work as laborers. Everyone was expected to contribute to the common cause as needed and directed. Many felt it was unjust and cruel, but most were very grateful for the changes. Is this majority of the Cuban people really to be dismissed as cattle-like followers? Many of the people we met were so happy. They spoke of their joy in helping all members of their diverse community. What did these socialist/communist islanders accomplish in the last 54 years?
It is obvious that Cubans have been challenged to care for their island and extensive reefs. Most of the infrastructure that most Americans pride themselves on is crumbled beyond repair, or non-existent in Cuba. As we motor-sailed along the north coast of Cuba for 3 days and nights we saw a profusion of fireballs from the natural gas facilities. When our bus took wrong turns into barrios I saw big piles of rubbish in some gutters. The homes were small and often structures were falling apart. But it was the lack of direct communications that most Cubans said needed to be changed. I could not mail postcards from Cuba because the USPS will not accept mail from Cuba. I only found access to working WIFI at a tourist hotel on my last evening there. Most Cubans cannot afford to spend 3 Pesos (about 3.60USD) for an hour of WIFI.
I wondered what would it take to transform Havana into a modern city, and restore Cuba to its former glory as an international center of communications…as it was since pre-Columbian times? Will most of the exquisite charm of the architecture be lost in the process? But more to the point of our Malama Honua, I wondered if it was precisely the lack of modern stuff that might have resulted in Cubans doing less long-term harm to their island, and our planet, than we have done on Kaua’i? More to the point, in what ways they might have learned to become more sustainable than we are?
We toured a 26 acre organic farm called Organopónico Vivero Alamar. This cooperative business was started during the “Special Period” of food shortages following the end of Soviet supports to the Cuban economy in 1991. Some of the farming is done between buildings. It made the surrounding community so sustainable that it is now a permanent facility and a model to other agricultural ventures in Cuba and internationally. I was shocked to hear that today, in Cuba, organic produce sells for less than half of the cost of produce that is conventionally grown!
Ms. Maria Salcines explained that “We are officially a ‘cooperative business,’and we feed and build the community around us.” Salcines introduced us to an elderly herbalist, who teaches any Cubans or international Woofers (Workers On Organic Farms) who show an interest in producing healthy food. I did not hear his name. But he said that he was a 17 year old campesino (country farmer) when he ran away to join Fidel Castro’s rebels. After the revolution he continued farming. He explained “I am only living and working in hopes that more young people would come help grow food for their communities.” After answering our questions, he said “It is now time for everyone in the world to help each other and feed each other well.” He twirled his arms above his head and said “I want to see the day when planes drop flowers on people instead of bombs.”
At the Antonio Jimenez Foundation for Man and Nature in Havana—popularly known and the “Canoe Museum”—we met with Vice President of the organization, Mr. Angel Gonzales. During the late 1980’s Gonzales was one of 16 crew members who built four dugout canoes in Ecuador, and paddled them down the upper reaches of the Amazon to the Orinoco Delta. Then they sailed and paddled them up the Antilles chain to Havana, Cuba. This major international expedition included 284 scientists and support personnel. All along the route they surveyed cultural, historical of Native people, as well as natural biota. They now hope to update this baseline data in a repeat of the expedition.
Our last evening in Havana we watched the nightly firing of the cannon from the old Spanish fort. It was a cold night, and the usual majority of Cuban spectators were not present. But hundreds of people trouped over the moat and along the ramparts to the plaza where the white-uniformed fusiliers stood ready. A ghostly regiment of soldiers bearing muskets marched in behind us, and delivered the powder and wad to the fusiliers. The fuse was very long and the guards twirled their torches to signal that it was still burning. Meanwhile wedges were pushed in under the cannon to lift it to the desired range. When the gut-wrenching boom finally happened, it shocked us out of this historical fantasy.
Until the blast I felt resentful at the seeming glorification of an ancient technology of oppression. But when the cannon fired I suddenly realized that it was like a dream that awakened me to the fact that the brutal colonial history of Cuba was still very alive to people here. They do not want to forget the past. We should not forget either.
So with this history of horrors, how does it come to be that the Cubans everywhere we went seemed to be so happy and safe? Our guides assured us that every person has free education, free preventatively oriented health care, and at least one home to live in free of rent! Raul Castro announced at the press conference with Obama that Cuba has met 47 out of 50 international benchmarks for Human Rights. I do not even know what this list of benchmarks includes, and how many of these the USA claims to meet! More than that, quite a few of us on our tour bus were wondering how it is that the Cuban people were generally not resentful of the presence of American visitors. Given our troubled history, why do they seem so pleased that we are here?
Our overwhelming impression of Cuban life was one of resilience. From our Hawaiian perspective it seems obvious that their resilience is based on a foundation of Ho’oponopono = release and forgiveness. The Cubans we met were grateful for their freedom from colonial oppression, and they simply did not hold onto their bitterness. They focused and worked so very hard on creating the reality that offered equality to every person. They are all about positive solutions to their own practical problems and the problems of other people in the world. They applied themselves to becoming the revolutionary example of a fair and just society in which people have what they need and can contribute to the general welfare. Concern for equality, health, and the arts are what most of the world identifies with modern Cuba. How did they not only survive, but actually thrive in these way, despite long-lived and virulent American belligerence?
Only two times did I see resentment expressed during our 4.5 days in Cuba. Once was when we walked out onto a residential street from a restaurant where we had eaten lunch. A man across the street from our bus was yelling at some people on his side of the street. He was upset by what he was hearing on the TV while Obama was talking as part of the welcome ceremony. He did not want Americans coming to Cuba and he did not want us parked on the street in front of his house. The neighbors disagreed vehemently. Eventually the man’s wife came out of their house, took his arm, and led him back home.
Another time, our last evening in Ernest Hemmingway Marina, I went into a hotel to try to access WIFI. The entire lobby staff was gathered at the TV watching Obama address the Cuban Parliament. “He soars!” exclaimed one man in appreciation of Obamas speaking skills. They cheered when Obama said he was “trying to end the embargo.” One citizen of the Cuban republic asked one of our crew members “How is it that your president is less important than your legislature? Then, when Obama was talking about the democratic process, he said that after a long and difficult effort 20 million more Americans had health care. A Cuban man standing next to me raised his arms to the TV and asked pointedly “And what about the rest of the people who need it?”
Our intrepid Hawaiian/Cuban organizer, Malia Everette, agreed that to be so resilient the Cuban people had to simply let go of their resentments and get to work. And that is exactly what they did. Malia ventured that the only way it could have happened was a deep ho’oponopono. I hope that the ho’oponopono that they did is now matched by our side. We all need to come together now and help each other to Malama Pono (care for the planet). A Cuban translation for Malama Pono is Amor Equidando al Planete. We are certainly different. But in learning about Cuba I was inevitably brought to the question—“Now can we all focus on loving each other, and our world?”
We sailed for Key West against a tide of international visitors who were arriving in Cuba hoping to go to the Rolling Stones free concert in Havana. We heard from our friend who sailed his yacht into Havana the next day, and waited in line for 8 hours to gain entry to the stadium. There he joined 500,000 people. Cuban bands played long before and after “Los Rollings” played their set. The music, dancing and celebration went on for 2 full days…as a sort of international version of Woodstock that celebrated reconciliation between Cuba and the USA, and steps toward a relationship that we all hope will be defined by much more mutually respectful terms than ever before.
We have a lot to help each other with, and to share…and doing that will give us all a chance to both be more resilient in our efforts to Malama Honua. As Obama said in his speech to the Cuban people, we should go forward “as family, friends, and neighbors.” Surely this is a story of hope.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Garden Isle, April 17, 2016.
Read Mimi and Catherine Downey’s article about Women in Cuba.