this quote from a NYT column brought me back to my travels in Cuba- first in early 2012 and then again in December of 2015 almost four years later-
We’ve all been waiting, waiting for this to happen. All of us tethered to Fidel: staying with Fidel or leaving Fidel. Loving Fidel or hating Fidel. In a cab in Istanbul, the driver asked: “Oh, you’re Cuban, what do you think of Fidel?” At a laundry-mat in Chicago: “You’re Cuban? So what’s Fidel really like?” In a classroom in Honolulu: “All I know about Cuba is Fidel.”
My travel buddy Jennifer and I had talked for several years about going to Cuba and when the first OFAC licenses were issued to visit on "people to people" cultural exchanges we immediately signed up for a trip. The very first ones left in December 2011 and were booked so quickly that the first we could arranged was early April 2012. They didn't go that frequently because they were still in process with the details and ironing out kinks - American travelers in these kinds of numbers were a new thing to Cuba.
The pull quote I took from the Achy Obejas column went right to the heart of our decision to go as soon as we could- it was Fidel... we wanted to visit when Fidel was still "around." Of course, even then he had "retired" from the presidency and Raul Castro was "running" things but of course we all wondered how true the "retirement" really was an whether Raul was just Fidel's puppet.
By my second trip to Cuba, things had changed a bit for the travelers- better restaurants (the paladars had multiplied by the dozens - so we no longer ate in only government run restaurants with a special meal at a paladar) we no longer ate in government restaurants. And there seemed to be more upscale hotel choices. But for the people, it wasn't clear how much headway they had made in the four intervening years unless they happened to have opened a paladar or were selling souvenirs on the street or in a shop. There were virtually no souvenirs except at the "handicraft" market in Habana Viejo when I first went but there were plenty of enterprising folks by the second visit- how fast this growth had come over the four years I had been away I couldn't say.
But to get back to my point- and the columnist's as well, it was Fidel and the spectre of Fidel, and the history of Fidel and his revolution that had drawn us there in the first place.
In preparation for my first trip I had taken an eight week class on Cuba at USF (University of South Florida) and I had quite a bit of context for the things we were told on the trip. The class was taught by about ten instructors (each with their own field of expertise: politics, art, geography, history, medicine, feminism etc...) and I learned a lot - much of it seemed quite well balanced despite many of the instructors being Cuban-Americans from Florida.
On Fidel's death a friend of mine posted this on Face Book-
"Yeah Castro did some evil shit, but what people don't remember is that his revolution overthrew the corrupt & more heinous Batista dictatorship which was started by a military coup which unseated an elected government. Batista was a pawn of the mafia & USA and worse in every way than Fidel. Now maybe we will lift our immature sanctions and Cuba can move into a democratic renaissance."
And while I may not have been so black & white in my assessment - I found my interactions with everyday Cubans quite enlightening- and I wrote about them extensively in prior blog posts-
these from the 2015 trip-
and these from the 2012 trip-
and these links have a lot of photos about those journeys-
but in the end I think the Achy Obejas' column's penultimate paragraph puts it as well as anyone could- because Fidel is a part of our history- Cubans and Americans both...
Fidel didn’t merely contain multitudes: He took all of our destinies and redesigned them. Who would I be if Fidel’s revolution hadn’t happened and my parents hadn’t left? Who would those who remained on the island be if those of us who left had stayed by their side? Who would any of us be if Fidel hadn’t caused this rupture in our lives?
and that is saying something....
and the iconic image of Cuba from the American tourist perspective- a collage of photos of cars I saw on the first trip-
so - new adventures coming up - off to Colombia in less than a week- stay tuned...