Seeing Cuba after 57 Years

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by Tom McMahon

My two weeks in Cuba reminded me of the comment Churchill made of another country: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That seemed to sum up the impression made on me by Cuba…the forbidden fruit of my generation, which my wandering spirit pined for over the past 57 years.

The backstory:  As a young Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1962, I was called into the Governors office to explain what my president was up to during the Cuban missile crisis. (Apparently in the Governor’s mind, my US State Department role was sufficient legitimacy for comment.) My brashness in telling him that “President Kennedy did not usually seek my advice” should alone have been reason enough to put me on a plane headed back to the US. But we had a good talk and he asked me to convey his concern, which I did.  From that point on, Cuba held a place in my mind and heart… but I never thought I would live to see her.

Tom working with two children in Sancti Spiritus

Tom working with two children in Sancti Spiritus

Fast forward:  I joined a Global Volunteers service program to Cuba in February.  It will take months for me to process all that we saw and did…from my shock on discovering that almost everyone earned only about $20 or $30 a month, to the incredible resilience of the people, and the examples of caring for each other that our group witnessed among the Cuban people. The attainment of success on a par with the US in education, health care and life expectancy that has eluded so many developing countries…many with more resources than Cuba, seems almost surreal in light of the challenges they face.

For the people of Cuba to be able to separate our government’s policies from the personal good feelings between them and ourselves, is even more of a mystery to me. Add to that (their) response when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the end to subsidies and the beginning of a second level of austerity for Cuba.  They faced this period not with despair, but with a degree of agricultural innovation and sustainability that justifiably is a model for the world.

I reflected with one Cuban man I worked with that it was about time we got back together…as if a family feud set us apart…that we were like cousins. He replied “not cousins…..brothers.”  Maybe two million Cubans in the US with 11 million on the island, along with our shared history qualifies us as immediate family…one that has been estranged far too long.

February Cuba team in Sancti Spiritus

February Cuba team in Sancti Spiritus

We were a group of seasoned travelers for the most part, and Global Volunteers gave us the unique opportunity to spend two weeks in Sancti Spiritus, off the beaten path…. A beautiful little city which, in my opinion, is unfairly given short shrift in guidebooks in favor of flashier Havana. Two days in Havana was enough at the end. It was in Sancti Spiritus where we met and worked with our “brothers and sisters,” pulled weeds, carried water, painted walls, sanded ceramics and taught children. It is where we sang silly songs, danced, dined and shared stories and connected again with people we should never have walked away from…. over disputes that should never have lasted this long.

Global Volunteers seems to have the right formula for a certain type of American traveler …people who look beyond minor personal travel annoyances to find the spirit of the Cuban people; volunteers who are able to face history. Thanks for providing me the opportunity to experience again the dignity of labor with the fellowship of others in the pottery shop, and the camaraderie of a group of happy, non-complaining volunteers who made it all great fun. And for satisfying an old hunger to visit the country of my dreams.

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