Spring Break in Cuba!
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 • 7:11am
I am going to Cuba for Spring Break with a group of students from Drew University. We will be on a humanitarian mission to bring diabetes information and supplies to people in Havana. All my paperwork is in, my deposit has been paid, I am searching for suntan lotion in wintry New Jersey, and in other ways, preparing for my adventure to Cuba! The hotel in which we are booked has Internet access at around $9.00 per hour so I anticipate posting my experiences in this column from time to time.
I've wanted to visit Cuba since I was in high school during the years before Fidel Castro. To an adolescent male, Cuba was paradise. The women were plentiful, the rum flowed freely, gambling was a major recreational activity, the music was hot and the price was extremely affordable. Even so, there was no way my parents could or would finance a trip to Cuba for me. With the embargo during my college years, the possibility of visiting Cuba was ended but never diminished.
While attending Miami High School, I experienced three waves of Cuban immigrants, each occupying back-of-the-class seats their first year in the U.S. and soon moving to the front rows as they became more comfortable with life in this country.
The first wave from Cuba was comprised of people fleeing Fulgencio Battista, the long-time despot of Cuba. These were the days when Castro was seen as a hero, valiantly fighting against oppression from his redoubt in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
The second wave came to the U.S. soon after Castro took power. These were people associated with Battista. They were the sons and daughters of merchants, bankers and civil servants, who were stripped of their wealth and power when the revolution succeeded. As soon as Castro triumphed, many people who fled Battista returned to Cuba to enjoy the fruits of victory.
The third wave saw the return of many of the Castro supporters, who learned that the triumph of Castro would not correlate to return of their material prosperity. Though they felt betrayed by the revolution, they refused to interact with the Battista supporters. The Battista people would sit together on one side of our classrooms and the Castro people would sit on the other side. Neither group would ever talk to the other.
This was a time before the huge waves of immigration; before people commandeered boats, packed them with refugees and made the perilous ninety-mile voyage from Cuba to Key West. It was before the building that was known as the home of the city's afternoon newspaper, The Miami Daily News, became the "Freedom Tower". And it was several years before the Mariel Boatlift that Castro used to send criminals and mentally defective people to our shores.
I was fascinated by the newcomers. I was learning rudimentary high school Spanish. I was amazed at how gracious these Cuban people were. My crude attempts to speak Spanish were always greeted with positive responses. I have often said if you say “Buenos Dias” to Cubans, they will be personally complimented that you speak their language and from then on will treat you like a long-lost friend. I found the dark-haired women extremely attractive and I was impressed by the industriousness of the Cuban people. They came to Miami with nothing. They moved into vacant apartments in the old neighborhoods along 8th Street. As renters, they fixed up the apartments, mowed the lawns, cleaned the sidewalks and turned near-derelict buildings into lovely homes. Today that area is the heart of Cuban Miami, known as Calle Ocho, and though many Cubans have moved to the suburbs, it is still a picturesque portion of Miami.
Soon little coffee shops began to appear, each with a window to the street, around which men could be seen sipping small cups of strong, sweet coffee practically all day. And we were introduced to some amazing food, Media Noche and Cuban Sandwiches, Palomilla (thin beefsteak cooked quickly with spices and served covered with diced raw onion), black beans and rice, sweet plantains, and boneless marinated chicken cooked on a grill. The Versailles Restaurant is the favorite spot for Miamians to enjoy these treats to this day.
Knowing the early Cuban émigrés increased my desire to visit their homeland, but the embargo on travel to Cuba from the U.S. prevented my going there, until last year when a professor from Drew University told me about his humanitarian trip to Havana. I was unable to go because my mother-in-law, who lived with us for several years, was very ill and eventually died about the time I would have been in Cuba.
I resolved that this year I would go. I am almost 70-years-old, have had a heart attack and who knows what next year might bring? So this is the time to grasp the opportunity. I will be traveling with a few adults and a group of young people, who have no recollection of Cuba before Castro. I wonder if it will be like going to the circus with children, seeing the sights through their eyes.
Our group is visiting the Jewish community in Havana. Yes! There is a Jewish community in Havana! I imagine that some are descendents from Spanish colonial days, but I am guessing most are children and grandchildren of refugees from Europe during Hitler's reign of terror.
Our mission is diabetes information. Diabetes is even more rampant in Cuba than the U.S. due to the high carbohydrate diet. The Drew students have held two fundraisers, baking and selling sugar free cookies and cakes. The group has received some outside donations and I am in the process of putting together an information and recipe booklet that will be duplicated for distribution. Most of us also plan to carry personal hygiene items, over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and Ibuprofen, and other products that are in short supply in Cuba.
I am delighted that I have this opportunity to see Cuba, much as it was in my youth. The old cars and colonial-era buildings are likely to disappear when the embargo is lifted and investment resumes, but I am sad that the embargo continues. It has done nothing to overthrow Castro's regime after more than fifty years and has only had the effect of impoverishing ordinary people on the island. That just doesn't make sense to me from a diplomatic or humanitarian perspective. The Soviet Union, Fidel Castro's financial support, has collapsed, so there is no longer a threat to the U.S. from foreign intervention in the Caribbean. And when I examine the Cuban embargo that was supposed to encourage the Cuban people to revolt but didn't, I wonder if other embargoes our leaders are imposing on other countries will have any greater effect. Maybe I will learn differently when I get there, but that is how I feel today.
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Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years, has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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