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 Exchanges 1999-2000

By Raymond A. Enstam, Exchange Director

Twenty one “ambassadors” have just returned from our exchange to Cuba from September 23 to October 1, 2000, hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches.

As we were preparing for the Friendship Force of Dallas exchange to Cuba, we received an e-mail from Sergeant Michael Wenzel of the Marine detachment at the US Interests Section in Havana, which serves as the US “Embassy” there for lack of direct diplomatic relations. He indicated that he was in charge of creating a “Toys for Tots” program at the Embassy, similar to one the Marines have done in other places in the world. He asked our help in bringing some toys with us since they were hard to obtain in Cuba. I accepted on behalf of the group, and sent out an e-mail to all of the participants describing the project. Everyone responded favorably and each of us brought a few toys stuffed them in the corners of our luggage.

We arrived in Havana on a Saturday night. I had made arrangements with Sergeant Wenzel that I would call him the next Monday morning and arrange an appointment to go to the Embassy to deliver the toys. Unfortunately, before we arrived, the Cuban government had selected that Monday morning as the day to hold a massive rally to harangue the United States. There is a huge platform in front of the Embassy that was erected at a cost of about $2,000,000 during the “Elian Crisis” to harangue the United States with demonstrations and speeches. It is called the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, or Anti-Imperialist Platform. The Elian Crisis having been resolved with his return, the Cuban government had apparently decided to find other uses for the platform. They had called a massive rally, with Commandante Castro himself in attendance, to protest the US Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows automatic asylum to any Cuban who touches US soil. The Cuban government has labeled it an “assassin law” because so many Cubans have died at sea trying to reach the US, allegedly encouraged by this law. Schools were closed and students were bused in from all over the area to ensure a big crowd.

Anti US sign

We decided that the Marine guards would be occupied that morning, and there was no way we could get near the Embassy in any event, so we watched the rally on Cuban television, it being the only thing broadcast on the two legal TV channels. After the rally our hosts sent us to a beach outside of Havana to pass the rest of the morning.

Upon return to Havana, I called Sergeant Wenzel and we made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon. We went to the Embassy and, after passing through intensive security, we were inside and met with Sergeant Wenzel in person for the first time. We delivered the toys and had a conversation with several of the Marines. Our gifts constituted the first delivery of toys for the program and we very happy to have been the initial contributors. At that point the Ambassador herself, Vicki Huddleston, came to the lobby to greet us. Of course, that was a great picture opportunity with her, the Sergeant and all the toys.

After that, Ambassador Huddleston invited us in for a briefing on the status of Cuban-American relations and how she viewed the situation in Cuba. We accepted gladly and went into the briefing room and spent over an hour listening and asking questions.

Group with Ambassador Huddleston

After the briefing, we left the Embassy and walked over to the Anti-Imperialist Platform. Everyone in that huge crowd we had seen on television had quietly left. It was eerie thinking that only a few hours before that platform was filled with tens of thousands of people shouting at the US, and now there was no one there but a handful of US visitors wandering around taking pictures and a couple of security guards watching us.

In all, this was only a small part of a wonderful one week trip to Cuba visiting with the Cuban people under the sponsorship of the Cuban Council of Churches. We spent three days in Havana seeing the sights, and the tragedy of large numbers of once magnificent homes and buildings now in ruins for lack of maintenance. Of course we also saw the very famous American cars of the 1950’s and older vintage everywhere. These are supplemented by old Russian Ladas from the 60’s and 70’s, and Japanese cars more recently. The latter belong to the government or to foreigners, because Cubans cannot afford these.

We then traveled to Santa Clara by private bus and got to see a smaller Cuban city and had two nights of homestay there. Santa Clara is where the remains of “Che” Guevara are buried and there is a huge monument to him. In fact, the whole of Cuba is covered with billboards with his picture and quotes, T-shirts of him, etc. You can’t escape seeing him everywhere.

From Santa Clara we took a day trip to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, two very historic cities. In the smaller cities we did not see the antique American cars as in Havana, the taxis there being mostly horse drawn carts. The trip through the countryside was beautiful. The lush tropical vegetation and the untouched seashore was picture perfect.

Finally, we ended up at Varadero, the “Cancun” of Cuba. On the way we passed by the school of Elian in Cardenas, and all appeared very normal. Varadero is a very luxurious hotel resort complex catering to foreigners. But it is not Cuba. In fact, Cubans cannot even enter the peninsula unless they have a special permit as tour guide or employee in the complex. A type of “apartheid” that I found incongruous in a communist country priding itself on equality.

I also had this same feeling about the strange division of Cuba society into those with Dollars and those without. The average Cuban works for the government, and monthly salaries vary between 200 Pesos for a laborer to 600 Pesos for an administrator. A professional such as a teacher, doctor, dentist or symphony musician makes 400 Pesos. This is about US $20.00 per month. They can survive because rent and utilities are very cheap, and because they can buy in the low price government “Peso stores.” But purchases in these stores are rationed: each Cuban is limited to five pounds of rice per month, one and one half pounds of beans (choice of black, red or white), six pounds of sugar, twelve eggs, six ounces of coffee, one pound of salt per family, and a ration of milk for children up to seven years (no milk for older children or adults). There is also a ration of meat, but it is never there, so it exists only in theory. It is easy to see that those with only Pesos to spend don’t live very well.

The government has recently created “Dollar stores,” owned and operated by the government, in which you can buy all the food and meat you want, designer clothes, Nike shoes, etc. Anyone can go into these stores, but to buy you need US Dollars, in effect limiting purchases to tourists, Cubans with relatives overseas who send remittances, and Cubans who work in tourism and get tips. In this country of highly touted communist equality, they have created gaping differences between the citizens. It is like two countries existing side by side in the same space. Those with only Pesos are living in an impoverished third world country and those with Dollars are living almost as if in the US, and these people are neighbors living side by side.  When I say they are living as if in the US, I am speaking only of material things, of course.

No one has the right to choose their government, feely speak their opinion, or even leave the country without special permission. Access to information is also limited. There are no newspapers except the official Granma, which is not news but a government sounding board. There are certainly no opposition papers or foreign papers. Don’t look for the New York Times! And only two channels of television are permitted, both owned by the government. Overseas channels are blocked. Internet and email are similarly controlled. The only ISP, or internet service provider, is owned by the government and it will allow access only to those approved by the government with special needs, such as government officials, universities, tourism promoters, doctors, etc.

In reality there are four economies in Cuba. In addition to the Peso and Dollar economies, there are the black market and the barter economies. Those who receive gifts from outside the country, for instance aspirin and other medicines that they don’t want, simply resell or barter them. A similar situation exists in medical care. Even though Cuba boasts of having the highest ratio of doctors per inhabitant in the world and free medical care for all, Cubans find their medical care is limited to tests and diagnosis of their problem. There are no medicines available and the doctors cannot do much about the ailments. Basic things like antibiotics for doctors and Novocain for dentists are not available.

We met one person who was a dentist but was working as a tour guide. That day we gave him a $20 tip for 21 persons on the tour. His tip alone was more than he would have made in a month as a dentist, and without Novocain he didn’t like doing it anyway. In spite of all these problems, I found everyone quite cheerful and friendly toward Americans. Everyone seems to have a relative in the US and would want tell us about his brother or cousin living in here. All of the shouting going on at the American Embassy seemed to be a different world from the real Cuba, for both the Cubans and the visitors.

Our return home was an adventure in itself. We were scheduled to leave at 3:00 PM from Havana to Cancun, where we would all switch to planes for various locations in the United States, with most of us coming to Dallas. The day before we all heard weather reports of hurricane Keith which was headed directly for Cancun and predicted to hit there mid afternoon the day of our travel. Obviously, we wouldn’t be flying to Cancun if the storm was there. We arrived at the Havana airport still not knowing if we would leave or spend another day in Havana, and were told that as of that moment, the plane was still scheduled to leave. It did leave on schedule, and we arrived in Cancun as they sky began to cloud over menacingly. We were told that the hurricane had turned south into Belize, but we were still getting parts of it and it was still unsure if our plane to Houston would leave. US Air had cancelled a flight coming in and all of their outbound passengers had been switched over to our flight. After much suspense and worsening weather, we did get out of there 45 minutes late.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip went as planned and although we arrived in Houston 45 minutes late, we were still able to make the Dallas connection (just barely!). I found out later that we were the last flight out of Havana to Cancun for three days! All subsequent flights to Cancun were cancelled due to the hurricane.

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