A journal, 1994
Tuesday, October 25, 1994
In the bus on the way to the seaside neighborhood of Tarara, for our next meeting, I made a point of sitting with Paul to get some clarification on the differences in some of the Christian sects. Rev. Suarez, last night, had identified himself as an "Evangelical" Christian, and with the various movements within the Christian faith, I sometimes get confused. The evangelical movement, or belief, Paul says, comes primarily from the Protestant American South and derives from (I believe) the Letters of Paul, who urged believers to go out and "evangelize." Thus, an "Evangelical" Christian is one who has a requirement to reach out and proselytize by spreading the "Good News" of Christ's story and making new converts. Many in the Protestant mainstream are evangelicals, but that does not make them "Fundamentalists," or, as they sometimes call themselves, "Bible-believing Christians." Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and often subscribe to the notion that anyone who doesn't agree with them and their interpretation of what it is that the words mean, is condemned to the fires of hell for eternity. Fundamentalists can be evangelicals, but evangelicals are not by any means necessarily fundamentalists. Another group, which grew out of the fundamentalists but now seems to be reaching into some of the more mainstream sects, is the "Charismatic" Christian. Again from Paul's letters (I think), the charismatics believe that when one truly gets the infusion of the holy spirit that is referred to in the writings, its presence is made known through some physical manifestation such as speaking in tongues, shaking, quivering, passing out, writhing on the floor, etc. Charismatics also tend to be a bit exclusive, as I understand it, and often have more in common with other charismatics of a different sect than non-charismatics of their own religion.
Suarez's use of the terms "vertical" and "horizontal" to describe a religious viewpoint is instructive. Vertical Christianity would be that in which the individual is concerned only with his or her relationship to God. An exclusive concern with one's own personal salvation, a vertical Christianity, would then describe the fundamentalist or the charismatic. Horizontal Christianity, such as Rev. Suarez's evangelical faith, would be that which is more concerned with the general social good. (Interesting stuff.)
About 45 minutes East out of Havana we come to the community of Tarara (or Tarana?). A seaside resort community, it was the property of the wealthy classes of Cubans before the Revolution - much of it was owned by or rented to wealthy Americans at that time. After the Revolution, the State used it as a boarding school. The area looks run-down, as is the case in the city, and is made up of a large number of one and two-story houses plus the occasional larger apartment house-style building. Everything is badly overgrown, with the grass a foot high or more on many of the lawns and the bushes and other plant life untended, making it look like a deserted area. It is not, as we see when we step out of the bus and are greeted by members of the medical staff.
It's a hot day and we're taken inside the large office or clinic building to a conference room. The doctor who is our host tells of having himself been a student here when it was a boarding school. Many of the professionals in the country studied here, he says.
In 1975, the facility was opened for use as a Pioneers camp (The Pioneers is the Cuban youth group which is intended to spread the lessons of the Revolution to the younger generation in the hope, I assume, of seeing it continue.) and has since trained thousands of children here. (260,000 per year)
In 1978 a school was started here for diabetic children. They were educated and trained to deal with their special needs in order to allow them to fully integrate into society.
It has now become a rehabilitation center for asthmatic children, the Celia Sanchez Manduley Asthma Treatment Center.
And, in 1990, it became the center for the Children of Chernobyl Program. So far 12,635 child victims of radiation and 2,222 of their adult companions have been brought here from Russia, Belorusse and the Ukraine with the intention that they be given total physical care
The primary concern, the doctor tells us, is the thyroid gland. Hormonal studies and ultra-sound tests are done, as are ontological (oncological?) studies and a general search for illnesses related to radiation. Much testing and research is done looking for infections of the immune system and the endocrine system.
There are 350 beds in the center. They have fairly sophisticated diagnostic equipment here, but when needed can use other facilities like the Hematological Institute or the Endocrinological Institute. The are also studying contamination rates and levels of persistence, etc. Cesium, for example, has a half-life of 70 years. Iodine 131 has a half-life of 9 or 10 days.
A complete dental examination is done and they find much tooth decay in these kids, he says. Also periodontal disease, diseases that have nothing to do with radiation but indicate poor primary health care. (This, however is a point with which Stephen has some disagreement. He feels the jury is still out on whether or not dental and periodontal problems are in fact the results of radiation poisoning.) Here these children are provided a safe place, good care, study and all kinds of help - one of which is their physical removal from possible sources of continued exposure.
They are classified in four groups: 1) children with cancer (3%), 2) children with less serious diseases but who still need hospitalization (17%). Groups 1) and 2) are hospitalized for treatment and more research, either here or in one of the other facilities. Group 3) is made up of children with diseases that qualify them as out-patients (60%) and group 4) are children who are apparently healthy but who are monitored with regular physical exams (20%). Groups 3) and 4) reside here and are attended to by staff and by members of the Family Doctor Program.
Children from groups 3) and 4) stay in the country for 45 days. Groups 1) and 2) stay longer, depending upon need. A few have been here for the entire four years of the program, some because they continue to need treatment and others because their parents don't want to return home.
One child was diagnosed in his home as having three months to live and has survived here for 4 years.
Children over 8 years who are brought to the program are grouped with one adult to every ten kids. Those 8 years and under each bring a parent with them.
90% of these children have a high incidence of tooth decay. Those 12 years of age have an incidence of 5.2, while comparably aged kids in Havana have an incidence of 0.8. (Cuban kids he says, get a fluoride wash every fifteen days. Ugh!)
58% of these kids have endemic goiter. There is little iodine in their diet, so they show "thyroid hyperplasia" (I don't know if that's the same as goiter). A nuclear "incident" such as Chernobyl releases, among other elements, Iodine 131. Since the human system can't distinguish between this and good-for-you iodine, it takes it directly to the thyroid, causing the large incidence of thyroid cancer.
Another finding, one that fascinated Stephen, is that "the lymphoid tissue in the body is growing in volume."
Q. - Is the lymph system responding in the same way? A. - Possibly.
Q. - I haven't heard of this. You can feel the tumors on physical exam?
A. - Yes.
Q. - What percentage of the kids have these lymphoid lumps? A. - About 30%.
Q. - Does this suggest that the immune system is weakened? A. - Possibly. With the introduction of radioactive elements, we suspect so.
Many of these kids have skin disease as well. Alopecia (total loss of body hair), psoriasis, vitiligo (loss of pigmentation). Stephen mentions the "tanning effect" medical observers have noted on the skin of radiation victims, possibly a sign of a kind of radiation burn. He wonders if this vitiligo is a secondary stage of that process. The doctor mentions that they have had some success in applying a specific type of skin lotion - some re-pigmentation.
The patients they now have include 119 leukemia cases (who have not had a recurrence), many tumors, bone marrow transplant cases, birth defects, many psycho-somatic diseases, immune system problems, paralysis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
The program for these kids includes trips around the country, sports and a regular program of physical exercise, aside from the medical treatment.
Q. - Is there counseling? Psychological support?
A. - There is a team of psychologists, who speak Russian, who work with the children.
Q. - This is obviously a drain on your country's medical system. Is there any international assistance?
A. - None. A World Health Organization team visited us and promised assistance, but none has been forthcoming.
Q. - How are the children selected to come here?
A. - We have teams who visit the affected areas and find them. In the early years we brought more of those who were the worst cases.
This begins a discussion of why they are now avoiding bringing some of the more serious cases. After a bit of confusion it becomes clear that it is a question of Triage. They know what they can do, but have to be realistic about what they can afford. Again, the embargo.
They have found, the doctor says, that the process of decontamination is measurable over time. This suggest, he notes, the advisability of bringing all children out of a contaminated area for prescribed periods of time.
As we are preparing to leave for the bus one of the staff makes another one of those speeches of appreciation. This one is slightly different, however, in that it is given by a medical man of some sophistication, and one who is obviously very much emotionally involved in working with these children. He speaks movingly of the program, of the children and of how important it is to them that we have come to see them. At the end of it he passes out to each of us a rose from their garden. It is a very lovely moment.
Back in the bus we're driven through the compound. Compound really doesn't describe it fairly - there must be hundreds of houses in this village, all looking a bit seedy and almost all of them with overgrown lawns, but just about the time you're sure it's a deserted area someone will step out of a door or you'll see signs of house-cleaning or laundry. It's a bit surreal.
After driving through the streets a bit, as Ivonne tells us that the government is considering renting out some of the seaside homes here as part of the attempt to build up tourism, we pull up outside a corner house and are invited to get out. Walking up to the door, we're welcomed by a man and woman who are doctors on the staff of the center and work with the youngsters in this particular home.
The interior of the house is the other side of the moon compared to the seedy exterior. Though in no way plush, it is neat and clean and obviously well cared for. The doctors are a bit embarrassed that the children are not here to meet us, but they're out at the beach. As we're talking, however, five of the kids show up (three girls and two boys) and shyly say hello. God, they're gorgeous! With the round faces typical of Slavic ancestry, they could as easily be from parts of Pennsylvania or Ohio as from the Ukraine or Byelorussia. Sweet, shy faces light into warm smiles as Walter breaks out his apparently endless supply of candy and gum.
After a bit we go out into the sunlight to take some pictures of the troupe. More kids come up with two women, mothers or guardians from home, and we struggle to say hello. Some in our group speak a bit of Russian, some of them speak a bit of English. Ivonne, it quickly becomes clear, speaks Russian very well and soon has the kids laughing merrily. (Ivonne tells me she went to school in Moscow. Says she was there with a group of Cuban kids, most of whom chose not to come back. Some of them are now in Miami.)
These kids are really a kind of "Our Gang" group, all sizes and shapes, some in shorts and tee shirts, some in dresses and jeans. A little one who can't be more than four years old wears a pretty dress and a ribbon in her hair. She is so gorgeous and has such a sweet smile it's hard to hold back the tears. Many of these kids have the stark white patches (Vitiligo) that was talked about earlier. Some have angry red puffy lesions on arms, legs, on their faces or in the hair. One of them, who seems to be a favorite of all, is totally bald (Alopecia - not even eyebrows or eyelashes) and appears, at least, to be completely comfortable with all of it. Jack pays particular attention to him. Watching the behavior of those in our group in relation to these kids is quite something. They're obviously tremendously moved and just as obviously unwilling to show it in any way except to be warm and friendly and gracious as they shower attention on these children and the attending adults. Casually, without an indication that it's in any way out of the ordinary, Jack asks someone with a camera to take his picture with the little bald-headed boy to whom he's been talking. Arms around each other, they smile beautifully for the camera. After a moment Jack turns away and spots me watching him, enchanted. He smiles, shrugs and says, "That's a picture I want some people to see. If it costs me a lifetime or two, it's worth it."
With a schedule to keep, the children move away, waving and smiling to us and we gather our wits and climb back into the bus. Our people are quieter than usual after the encounter...
Ivonne moves it right along, pointing out some of the homes closer to the seaside that will be (are now?) rented out to tourists as we head toward a large, institutional-looking cluster of taller buildings on a small hill. Once there, the bus stops and we again disembark and head up the steps into the Celia Sanchez Manduley Asthma Treatment Center.
Welcomed by many of the evidently large staff, we're told the Center was opened in 1985 and has since then treated 1135 children between 7 and 14 years of age, most of whom suffer from severe (what they call "refractive") asthma. Here, they say, they're prepared to deal with all the needs of the severely asthmatic child in need of physical, psychological and/or emotional rehabilitation.
We're shown a classroom of 8 year olds, all in uniform, who sit quietly as we're introduced. The teacher tries to coax a bit of conversation or some questions out of them, but they're pretty shy.
These kids board here, and though everything they need is provided, this facility is suffering from the same shortages as the rest of the country. The program, we're told, includes not only a good education but regular physical training, medical attention and training of the parents in an awareness of the special needs of the asthmatic child. (Asthmatic children who don't perform well physically without the benefit of treatment are sometimes ignored and at other times singled out for scorn or abuse by parents, particularly fathers, who don't understand the situation.)
The kids who are attending now have been here anywhere for from one to six years, our guide tells us. They live here Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends.
We're shown one of the dorm rooms, which reminds me of a military barracks, complete with metal framed bunk beds and foot-lockers. It's very Spartan, with no rugs and not even a single poster on the wall. When we ask why, it's explained that anything that can collect dust, which includes rugs and even posters, is excluded for reasons of health. For the same reason the mattresses are foam pads and not stuffed with feathers. The air conditioning, which operates erratically because of the fuel shortages, has a specially designed filter and is a prized feature.
Obviously every precaution that can be taken to ensure the children's well-being is considered. It seems a shame, especially for kids who want to be active by nature, that it all has to be so regimented.
In another classroom we meet a group of 8th graders who, though initially shy, warm up a bit and eventually respond to the group, which then breaks up into small pockets, each attempting to include one Spanish speaker, and talks to them. I listen in on one conversation with five great looking girls, at least two of whom are going to be stunningly beautiful. One says she intends to be a psychologist, one a lawyer, one an artist, one a stewardess. The fifth isn't sure yet. Wonderful, impressive kids. Poised, bright.
I wander over to a corner where three boys aren't getting any attention and struggle to have a conversation. Between their limited English and my rudimentary Spanish, we manage to talk about how they look forward to going home each weekend, how the school provides a bus to take them to the center of the city where they're picked up by family(or take public buses on from there, in the case of at least one).
Asked about what they like to do here, one of the kids warms up and starts talking about how much he loves basketball. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are big heroes. Asked what position he likes to play he indicates he's not all that good. Pressed, he says he's not tall enough. I tell him not to forget Spud Webb, but it's not a name he seems familiar with so we talk for a while, all in pidgin-Spanish, better English and sign language, about building leg muscles and learning to soar like Michael. Nice kids.
Heading through the halls and thinking about Walter's apparent facility with Spanish, his ability to communicate well with the Chernobyl kids in Russian and his stories of the other places he's traveled to and written about, I ask him how many languages he speaks. He says he's better at some than others, but "I can get along in about eight." (!)
We're next taken to a meeting room where much of the staff seems to have assembled and cookies and juice are laid out. Like the hospitals we've seen, this whole place is fairly clean and neatly kept, but the neatness is weirdly juxtaposed to the crumbling facade, cracked plaster and generally run-down appearance. What's clear is that they do their best with what they have.
This is, we're told, the only center of its kind in Cuba - that is, the only one which combines a medical and an educational regime.
Asthma is a growing problem in the country. The kids here have the worst kind of asthma. 40% of them are on cortico-steroids - some for so long that they've developed negative side effects. A frustration here is that they don't have some of the alternative medications they need (especially for those cases) and don't have the equipment necessary to do certain tests, so have to end up sending some of the kids to the hospital in Havana.
There have been no deaths here. There was a recent cardiac arrest, but she overcame it in the hospital.
Asked about the long grasses and the possibility of pollens aggravating these conditions, we're told that they are the result of the rainy season and are cut monthly.
They ask our impressions - all are appreciative and upbeat. Steeve offers that he sees "so many advantages to taking the child out of the (home) environment." He has worked with asthmatic kids and says "we used to joke about an operation called a 'parent-dectomy,' the taking of the child out of the environment and away from parents who can't understand the problems and can't deal with them." Says he thinks this is a terrific program and will do what he can to support it.
Again it's time to head out, so we say our good-byes and get back on the bus. Before heading back to the city, Gail wants to show us one of the "Farmer's Markets" that have cropped up with this new economic opening. Set in a community of modern apartment-style houses (this is where she lives, in fact), this market is similar to what one might find on the side of the highway in the States. Inside a wire fence enclosure, covered by what appear to be tarps, a number of people are sifting through bins of corn, avocados, squash and other kinds of vegetables. Some are plentiful, others not so. Off to one side, Earl and I walk over to a popular area and find a kind of fly-ridden open-air butcher's stall. Small blackboards advertise the prices and give us a vivid example of the chaotic economy. A single avocado goes for 7 pesos. Ivonne's entire salary for a month is 246 pesos.
Heading back toward the hotel, we have a chance to try to sort out what we've seen as we rest our eyes on the beautiful ocean to our right. Ivonne points out that they regularly (during the season) have storms at sea that cause the surf to breach the sea-wall, so the areas closest to the wall are subject to flooding. During the "Storm of the Century" mentioned earlier, water was up to a meter (39") high in some of the areas through which we're passing.
Because some of us are leaving tomorrow instead of on the regular weekly charter Thursday, Ivonne has set aside some time this afternoon for shopping for those so inclined. Jack has been after her to take him to the cigar factory. He says he wants to give a box of Cuban cigars to a producer friend who is very close to Bill Clinton. His idea is to have the friend smoke them with Clinton and possibly use them as an entree to a conversation about the craziness of this embargo. Cigar diplomacy.
Because the aforementioned charter is the only legitimate way in and out of Cuba and it only goes once a week, those of us who are leaving a day early (Paul, Mary, Janet, Stephen and I) had to get a special dispensation from Washington to be able to fly Cubana Airlines to Nassau so we could connect there for Miami and from there on to our destinations (mine is Louisville, Kentucky, where I'll be picked up for my speech the next morning in Indiana. Paul is speaking in Cleveland or somewhere that same evening. Janet is simply dying to get back to her Olivia, Mary has twin boys, school, a home to deal with and a foundation to run and Stephen, given what we've come to know about him, is either heading off to some other medically needy place or going to re-introduce himself to his family.). On the assumption that flights coming in from Nassau won't be as closely inspected by Customs as the one from Havana, Jack decided I could take the cigars out for him. "And if I get arrested for you," I told him, "you'll have to get me a damned good job to pay me back!"
The shop for the cigar factory is an interesting place, one that reeks not only of tobacco but also of a kind of history (and romance, in a funny way). The man behind the counter, in response to a number of questions from Jack, takes us into an incredibly well-stocked and furnished back room and shows us a number of different types and grades of cigar as well as humidors, lighters, cigar cutters, etc. Here is evidence of a whole cigar culture about which I know absolutely nothing.
Jack buys a number of very expensive beautiful wooden boxes of the best cigars in the place and I can't resist and decide to buy a small packet for a friend. Real honest-to-God Cuban cigars! It's kind of a hoot.
From there we go to another marketplace, this one clearly designed for the tourist trade, so we can pick up some things for spouses and children. Browsing through a bookstore there I find a book written by Gail Reed, the journalist who is acting as our host/liaison here. It's a report on one of the major political developments here, a Communist Conference of some sort. Between Gail, Janet, probably Walter and possibly Earl, I'm in a company of authors. For all I know, Stephen has probably written THE book on exotic medical problems. It's enough to give one an illiteracy complex. And I can't even find the damned book on the assassination of JFK that Fernando mentioned to me.
Once finished at the marketplace we all head back to the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation for a last meeting with (debriefing by?) Vice Minister Raul Taladrid. He's as pleasant as ever and is interested in our reactions to what we've seen and what our report is likely to indicate as far as future efforts are concerned.
Paul has asked that a couple of people respond for the group -
- Stephen talks about how impressed he is with the health program we've seen, calls it "near perfect" in design and function, but says it is now, using the metaphor of a tree, "losing its leaves." He says he wants to find a way to be involved in the repair of the system. Sort of a rave review.
- Earl gives a very thoughtful analysis of the programs we've seen. He is respectful of what they've done and mindful of the problems they face with or without opposition from the U.S. In a reference to the mindlessness of the kind of international antagonism in which the U.S./Cuba relationship is currently trapped, he cites an anthropologist who spoke at a conference he recently attended who said that science now knows that no human being in any society on earth is more distant from any other than that of a relationship of 50th cousin.
- Janet says its her 5th time here and speaks of her work with the Arca Foundation, of trying to find ways to bridge the gaps in understanding between the two societies. She tells the story of her mother coming here years ago as a tourist and returning home filled with admiration for what she had seen. Her father, she said, reacted by saying, "I sent you there as a tourist and you came back as 'cadre'." She then says how pleased she has been to find no sign of the anti-Americanism one might expect here due to the conditions resulting from the embargo.
- Paul (who has been here 17 times) then describes the nature of the process of evaluating the legality and effectiveness of the projects that are being considered by this delegation. He says that it appears they will be able to move forward with these programs but it will likely not be with the Christian Children's Fund; rather it will be under the aegis of a new and separate NGO, likely to be called Children First. He is hoping, he says, to be able to bring another delegation, probably in January '95, which will include some members of Congress.
- Gail takes a moment to express her appreciation of the experience of working with the members of the delegation and of what it means to her hopes for the future. She refers to the hopeful signs that she sees of "space" in this country for movement which suggests real possibility, with the proper response from the U.S., for the "building of bridges."
- Taladrid expresses his gratitude for our having come to his country. Keying off Gail's "bridges" theme, he says it's important that we all do what we can to make for better relations because, like it or not, we're neighbors. He offers his unconditional support for the furtherance of the efforts of "Children First," but asks Paul to consider putting off the January visit to February because he and many of the government leaders will be in New York in January for meetings at the United Nations. Paul asks if there is the possibility of meeting while he's there. Taladrid says it will have to be worked out because he is limited in what he can do by State Department restrictions on travel. They have to allow him to come to New York for the UN meetings, but they aren't always willing to allow him to travel beyond a certain designated area around the UN complex. (This all sounds so juvenile!)
Finally we take our leave and head for the hotel. We're scheduled to have dinner this evening with Abel Prieto, President of the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers. Gail says he's "extraordinarily open" in what he says, so it should be interesting.
Once back at the hotel I get a call from Fernando Garcia, who says he has found the book he mentioned to me and would like to bring it by. Unfortunately I'm not in a position to invite him to dinner, so have to say I'm about to head out. He agrees to bring it by in the morning and perhaps to have breakfast with me before we leave for the airport.
Paul mentions quietly that there is a possibility of a late-night meeting tonight, which means the chance exists that we'll be able to meet with Castro after all. It's been talked about, mostly in hushed tones, but so far hasn't developed. Paul knows him well, evidently (or at least has met with him a number of times), and has been in touch with people throughout the trip who have been trying to arrange a meeting. The complicating factor - other than that the man has a country to run - is the current negotiations that are going on with the U.S. about the status of the refugees in Guantanamo. My sense is it's iffy, but it would be an exciting thing.
Waiting in the lobby for the others to gather and board the bus I have a chance to talk to Earl, whose calm, quiet presence has been one of the consistent strengths about the delegation. A reflective man, he asks good questions and invariably offers thoughtful comments. There is a depth of
character about him that is comforting.
The restaurant, about a half-hour away to the East, is another of Hemingway's hangouts. This one is either owned by or uses the name of the man who was the captain of Hemingway's yacht. As a matter of fact, the very fellow is sitting by the door as we come in; a very old, grizzled man with big, callused hands and a weather-beaten face. He has a cane by his side, one of those serious, four-pronged walking aids that suggest a stroke or crippling arthritis or the like.
We're situated in a back room beside open windows that look out over a beautiful lagoon. Pictures of Hemingway, the captain and his yacht cover the walls in the room, showing them hard at work torturing game fish. The old man and the sea lives. Can't imagine why anyone would want to kill one of those glorious creatures.
Our guest doesn't turn up. It's unclear whether he's involved in one of the U.S./Cuba meetings we've been hearing about or if it's something else, but whatever the case, he can't get here. So we have a chance to have our own quiet de-briefing. Jokes are told and reflections are offered, though the long table doesn't allow for the kind of all-inclusive conversation that might be wanted. The food, at least for this diner, leaves much to be desired. The specialty here, it turns out, is lobster. If one doesn't want lobster there are plenty of other kinds of fish. If one doesn't want fish, there is, finally, meat. When it's made clear that all I want is vegetables, preferably something simple like rice and beans, the waiter goes off to see what he can do. After a while he returns with an oval plate with a pile of rice on each end and what look to be boiled potatoes in the middle. Not too thrilling, but with a little ketchup I can make do. It turns out, however, they aren't potatoes. They are evidently a kind of tuber, or root vegetable, that Earl recognizes from Africa. Manioc, or something. Very nutritious, Earl assures me. Unfortunately, they taste like paste. Add ketchup and presto, they taste like paste with ketchup. So I'm happy for the rice. And for the bread.
It's a nice evening in a nice spot. And it's good to have a chance to slow down a bit. Mary and I get a chance to catch up on her impressions of the trip, on the issue of human rights, on life in general. A nice woman. Smart. Frank and Walter are having a kind of undeclared contest as to which one is funnier. Walter wins, but Frank is game in the attempt.
Back to the hotel and a kind of end-of-the-journey fatigue has begun to set in. No word yet on the possible meeting with Castro, but if it comes about we'll get a call (he's evidently a specialist on middle of the night meetings). If the call comes in, I think, as my head hits the pillow, I'm sure I can get it together, but I can't say I'm completely disappointed to awaken and find out it's morning.
Paul is disappointed and a bit apologetic about the lack of opportunity for us to meet Fidel. While it certainly would have been a special event, I assure him, as do the others, that he has nothing to apologize for. This has been a full and powerful experience as it is and in spite of the sense of an opportunity missed that would have been significant, there's nothing about the trip that is any less impressive and/or authentic for the lack of that occurrence.
Fernando shows up and we breakfast together. He's very kind to have found and brought the book, but I have to confess to a level of skepticism that has me wondering what's next. He is, after all, an official in the Foreign Relations Ministry of the government and did at one point volunteer for one of their Fast-Reaction Battalions. And doesn't everyone have an agenda these days? The conversation is pleasant, though, and seems to be without ulterior motive. The one curious piece of information that comes out of it is that he knows, somehow, of the work I've done over the years with Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Somehow it's always surprising to me when people who live in other countries have knowledge of what seem to me to be rather esoteric or arcane details about our own.
Then it's time to get the bags and head for the bus one last time. Earl is there to see us off, as are Walter and Pauline. They're off tomorrow for their respective homes. Thanks and good wishes all around. I catch up to Jack by the pool. He's ready for a leisurely day and home tomorrow. Frank is off with an old friend who he feared might have been at Guantanamo, but who turned up OK.
Off again through the ever more familiar streets to the airport. Ivonne takes us through the necessary procedures and bids farewell. She'll be OK, that one.
I keep trying to figure out what I'm going to say to the US Customs guys about all these damned cigars. It's the story with the money all over again. I'm certainly not going to declare this stuff. They'll grab it in a hot minute. Oh, well, I'll deal with it when I have to.
In the departure lounge an American says hello. A boxing coach, he's been here working with the Cuban team. A very soft-spoken, peaceful type, he's been trying to figure out how to help ease the tensions (seems to be the primary concern of about anyone who comes here and gets a feel for the situation) and has an idea he wants to know if I'll help with. He says there's a famous Cuban boxer, Teofilio Stevenson (I think), who is or was considered the world's greatest amateur fighter when Muhammad Ali was champion. He says the dream match-up that never took place was for the two of them to fight. What he says he'd like to do now is to bring them together in a ring to discuss the world's situation and particularly that of the U.S. and Cuba. He figures it would get enormous TV coverage and could be a dialogue that might really start something since these two would have an appeal that's beyond the norm. How, I ask, do you get beyond the problem of Ali's inability to articulate? This fellow says that his understanding is that Ali's capacity to think is still fine, that it's just his speech that's a problem and that this discussion could be sub-titled, if need be. Well, I think the whole thing is a bit out in the stratosphere, frankly, but this man is so earnest in his desire to do something helpful and in his willingness to work it out himself that I say, of course, I'll help if I can.
The flight on Cubana Airlines is uneventful, except for the smoker who insisted on ignoring the no-smoking sign. The plane was full and, though it got off late, only took an hour to get us to Nassau. Coming into the neat and bright-looking airport building one has the feeling of flying for an hour and traveling through years from some impoverished past to the bright and shiny present.
As I'm busy conniving, I suggest to Mary, who is first in line at passport control here, that if they don't stamp our passports as we come into the country there's no way of US Customs in Miami knowing we were ever in Cuba. We can say, or let them think, that we've been here in Nassau the whole time. That being the case, I suggest, it's likely we'll breeze through Customs and I won't have to spend years in jail for trying to smuggle in Jack's goddam cigars! (Not that I'm obsessing about it or anything.)
Well, saints be praised, the sweet, kind, decent, good-natured, beautiful, rich and obviously intelligent woman behind the counter at Nassau Passport Control wishes us a good day and sends us off to pick up our baggage without stamping the passports! Grabbing our bags we head for the American Airlines counter to check in for the flight to Miami where we're processed through without a problem and told we'll go through U.S. Customs here. (One of those extended U.S. Customs availabilities set up to allow tourists to avoid the Customs jam-up at the port of entry - in this case, Miami! What a good idea!) Due to another time change (we're now back on East Coast time), there are some schedule screw-ups - Paul's flight has already left and Janet and Stephen's flight has been canceled, but they get sorted out. Then we walk through Customs without so much as a wayward glance and its back to the U.S. of A.
Reflecting on the way home on the impact of a trip such as this I'm mindful of the confusion that is sown in our lives by those who fashion policies on the basis of ideological fixation rather than simple human understanding. For 35 years we've lived with the notion of this horrific beast, this terrifying force, this threat to our existence that lurks there in the Caribbean, 90 miles from our Southern shore. In fact, it's simply a collection of people attempting to order their lives in a manner somewhat different from the one we've chosen and who, whether we like it or not, will continue to do so to the best of their abilities. There are some things I'd like to see changed in Cuba, but what's clear from the trip is that there are a great many in the country who will see to it that the necessary changes, from their perspective, will take place in time - are in fact, some would say, in process now (and perhaps have been from the beginning). And the best, smartest, and most effective way for us to facilitate the positive developments we'd like to see in that country is to get out of their way, to end this moronic embargo, to establish the same kinds of relationships with them that we have with every other country - politics notwithstanding - and are today pursuing vigorously with thee remaining Communist giant of the world, China.
The alternative, of course, is to continue our present relationship in the vain (some would say racist, colonialist, imperialist) hope that this government that is not to our liking will fall and those who want to see a return to the old ways will be able to go back and take over. Not only will this not occur, but every day we spend continuing to be the primary force attempting to bring it about through economic strangulation means another day that children will suffer without necessary medicines, hospitals and businesses will labor in darkened halls with Rube Goldberg contraptions attempting to replace their lost technologies, school kids will lack paper and pencils, the social fabric will continue to decay and the people we say we're trying to help will continue to go hungry.
Shame on us.