Via con Dios, Cuba

This is the eighth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

We flew back to Havana without incident and checked back in to our dark, quiet-as-a-graveyard hotel.

Here’s another thing I didn’t get while I was there and I can only make up an explanation for you now: I attended a Passover Seder in Havana—Seders remained legal after the revolution. I also attended an Easter mass—and was told that masses had just been legalized. Why would Seders be legal but not masses?

It could be because almost the entire Jewish population of Cuba fled the country after the revolution. After all, we’d seen this movie before. Why wait to find out the ending? Only 1,500 Jews remain in Cuba, compared with 60% of the population that is Roman Catholic, or 6.5 million people. Which would you find more threatening?

The Seder was a community one at a synagogue. It was packed, as Seders always are; there were Jews from the Bahamas, Texas, Israel, and lots of American students. I sat across from a pudgy, red-headed oaf from Indiana or somewhere in the Midwest who was married to a Cuban woman who looked like Bianca Jagger in her heyday. I’m sorry to say that my people are not immune from the syndrome where misfit western men snag beautiful wives in the developing world. But that sounds mean. I only sat across from him for an hour. Maybe he was usually courteous and kind.

On our last night, we were invited to a “Defense of the Revolution #62 Block Party.” Other members of our group had been to these before and told me that neighborhoods organized them to thank visitors for their donations. This in no way prepared me for what I saw when I stepped off the bus.

I thought there must be some mistake. Had we stumbled upon a protest? A wedding? A baseball game? No, these hundreds of people were waiting for us. There had to be at least 200 people out on the street, with precious, expensive electric lights strung up festively, a band and a dance area, and tables laden with food.

Ed and some of the other guys unloaded the medical supplies we had brought; I have no idea where they had been stored all week. Our donation consisted of bandages, cotton balls, and Q-tips—granted there were crates of them, but still … here were hundreds of people lined up to greet us as though we were foreign dignitaries or rock stars.

I was stunned and embarrassed. Our donation was puny compared to the effort they were putting out. Plus, I had agreed to interpret Ed’s remarks into Spanish. I had pictured half a dozen people, not hundreds.

Mi en Cuba

I managed to stammer out a few remarks into a microphone. Everyone applauded as though they had understood me. I fell back into a chair and they brought me a plate of food. It all tasted like dessert because even the savory foods were loaded with sugar. The music and dancing started, and our group was forgotten. I realized this wasn’t about us—it must have been the case that Cubans are allowed to hold big gatherings like this if they had a patriotic reason. I don’t know for sure, but maybe we had given them that reason. Bringing gifts gave them an excuse to show us their stuff, and stay up all night having a good time. Who knows?  Another mystery.

On our bus ride back to the hotel late that night, our guide explained that there were no extremes of rich and poor in Cuba. Yeah, I thought, because all the rich people skedaddled to Miami. He kept referring to “the special period” and I asked Ed to explain. “That’s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost all its subsidies,” he said. “It can’t survive under the U.S. embargo without a patron.”

When we checked out the next day, the guy at the desk offered T-shirts for sale, as modeled here by Vince. It’s an extra large. Right—for a Cuban, maybe.

Cuba Tshirt

I hope this series has been food for thought as Americans consider electing Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, for President.

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