Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 2 – Sunday, July 12
We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.
We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.
The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.
Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.
After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.
The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.
We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.
It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.
The Day’s Takeaways:
Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country. Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.
One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.
Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.
Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.