Cuban Dissonance

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange recently visited Cuba with forty other VPR listeners, and was intrigued by a point of view quite different from that of most Americans.

(Lange) The people of Cuba have always called Americans Yanquis. So it was difficult to explain to them that the forty Vermont Public Radio participants on our recent tour were what even Americans call Yankees. But it didn’t matter. After the difficulty we’d had disentangling ourselves from the United States’ restrictions on travel to Cuba, it was a pleasure just to be there.

Our two governments have been grumpy toward each other for well over a century, but especially since the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution. In 1963, President Kennedy signed the Trading with the Enemy Act, forbidding further commercial intercourse. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba without a patron. Hoping to topple Castro, the United States has tightened the economic screws ever since. But I met almost no one in Cuba who didn’t consider Fidel a hero.

Cubans clearly understand the motive behind the embargo. They never refer to the United States government; they personalize it. “Bush does business with China where the government is killing its own people, and with Viet Nam and North Korea. But Bush needs those Cuban votes in Florida. So he starves our people to get them.”

We traveled one day to what used to be the United States Embassy in Havana and received a briefing. Then we drove to Radio Havana Cuba and listened to an almost totally dissonant take on the situation, from a Cuban commentator and the director of the government radio station. As everywhere we went, we heard two competing versions of reality.

The main difference between the two was the Cuban sense of humor. Questioned about their lack of freedom of speech, one of them asked, “Did you ever write anything that upset a prominent advertiser in your medium? I’ll bet you never did that again, right?” He was right. “You see,” he said, “we have our kind of freedom. You can sit on the president’s lawn with a sign that says, ‘Bush is a crook!’ and they can’t arrest you for that. I can do exactly the same thing: sit on Fidel’s lawn with the same sign, ‘Bush is a crook!’ and nobody will touch me!” Their message was, in effect, we’re happy, and proud to be Cuban; get over it.

Uniformed schoolchildren crossed the squares with their book bags – heads up, smiling, confident they were loved; interested in talking with us, even singing nursery rhymes with us if we asked. They’re proud to be children of the most literate nation in the western hemisphere. Elian is doing just fine.

Not far from the Bay of Pigs, we visited an old man – the novelist Tom¿s ¿lvarez – who with his hands across his breast and tears in his eyes pronounced a benediction: “I wish I could give you my heart to take home with you. That is not possible, but you have my heart. We– the Cuban people – love you, the American people, and wait for the day when at last we can embrace each other.”

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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