By Kara Larson '01
For two weeks in January, I visited Havana and other parts of the country with a group from Pacific Lutheran University. Cuba looks as though a slow-moving tornado hit it 40 years ago. One building might be in perfect condition with a sparkling coat of paint, but the next will be in such disrepair that you can see the houses behind it through a gaping hole in the masonry or a missing front door. Nothing seems unusual. Casey Hovis, 19, a sophomore at PLU, described Cuba as "uniquely beautiful, the way it is."
This is Cuba, so close and so foreign, so rich and so poor. It is a community that asks to be seen by American eyes. Because all trade with Cuba is illegal, Americans are prohibited from traveling there.
There are exceptions. Students, adults taking part in exchange programs and relatives of residents are sometimes allowed in, but even then the travel must be "fully hosted." In laymen's terms, it must appear to a U.S. Customs agent on your return trip that you didn't spend any money on food or lodging while you were in Cuba. Luckily, our group of 17 students, one instructor and a chaperone had no problems getting in or out of the country.
In Cuba, there is no commercial advertising. Because it is a socialist country, people are assigned jobs through the government and food is rationed. People have very little money to spend. There are no billboards for Nike or online companies, but other messages abound.
I was fortunate to be in Cuba at the time of the dispute between the United States and Cuba over 6-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez. Most billboards were plastered with pictures of the boy and statements such as "Salvemos a Elian" (Save Elian!). And other billboards, posters, murals and flags were celebrating each year of freedom since the Cuban revolution.
For an American it's almost an epiphany: they don't sell Coke, they sell "the Revolution."
On Nov. 25, 1999, Gonzalez was found floating on an innertube in the Atlantic Ocean. His mother and 10 other passengers died when the boat they were taking to the United States sank. Elian was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and brought to Miami, where he is residing with a great-uncle. [Following a raid by U.S. federal government agents in April on the Miami home of the boy's great-uncle, Elian was reunited with his father, who has legal custody of the boy and traveled from Cuba to receive him.Editor]
Between the United States and Cuba, the facts have been twisted. Most of the people I spoke with were convinced that Elian should be returned to Cuba, and many people in the United Statesespecially the students I traveled withagree.
Still, people in Cuba claim the boy was kidnapped. Elian's relatives in Florida say he should not be returned because his mother died trying to bring him to freedom. Cuba says keeping him in the United States is a violation of international law. Other Cubans say Elian's father and grandparents, who are now celebrities in Cuba, are receiving economic favors from the government for voicing their opinions in the case. And the list goes on and on as the argument goes back and forth.
It was close to the end of our first week of travels when we heard that Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, was to attend a rally at the National Assembly Headquarters in Havana. This rally was an invitation-only affair for medical professionals, but it centered on the Elian case. We were told that our chances of getting in were slim, but that our host would try.
Four hours later we were standing outside the National Assembly Headquarters. We were handed press passes and "Save Elian!" T-shirts and then steered toward the security station across the street where they inspected our cameras and personal belongings for bombs. Minutes later, we were seated in the second and third rows among Cuba's most honored medical professionals and members of the foreign press.
Castro is a powerful man. The rumors are true: He lives in green fatigues. But he acted so presidential, shaking hands and waving. I was expecting the old grump Americans describe, the man who made my parents hide under their elementary school desks.
But Castro is the most loved and honored man in Cuba. As soon as he took his seat, the rally began with several speakers, live music and cultural dances. Castro smiled and applauded for all, nodding and conversing with his neighbors.
About halfway into the rally, a speaker announced us as the American guests from Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. (She didn't say Washington state.) And he had this glare, sort of creepy and sort of privileged, that drills into your mind. He looks just like he did in pictures from his youthin cotton suits, whispering to Ernest Hemingway, smoking with Che Guevaraonly he has aged. His face is pale, his head is bald and his beard is long and gray. He just kept looking at us. Perhaps he thought we were assassins sent from the U.S. capital. Perhaps he thought we were ambassadors. Perhaps he thought we must be the only Americans in the world with level heads on our shoulders. I'll never know.
It was the end of the trip when I realized how lucky I'd been to see Castro, who makes infrequent public appearances. Joelle Skaga, 21, a junior at PLU, said, "To be here in Cuba, at all, is a privilege. But to have been in the presence of Fidel Castro? I couldn't ask for anything else."
Our trip to Cuba was a dizzying experience: new music, new dancing, new food, new smells. Still, I left in a panic. Had I asked the right questions? Did I see all of Cuba? Did I live as a Cuban or as an American? I'd had 18 days to see the country, but I wanted more time. I wanted more interaction, more conversation. I just wanted more.
Isn't that the American way?
Kara Larson and a group of PLU students went to Cuba as part of a J-Term class. She wrote this article for the Tacoma News Tribune's Young Adult Page (YAP) of March 4, 2000. It is reprinted with permission. The photographs are by Maryanne Ashton '02, another member of the PLU class.