A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home.
Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.
Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”
I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.
Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.
Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.
Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.
Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.
There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.
One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba. That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”
Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.
Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.