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 6 – Thursday, July 16
No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.
We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.
I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?
The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.
To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.
The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.
Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.
Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.
We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.
As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The Day’s Takeaways:
It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!
Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.
Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?
All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?