When the invitation came to join a humanitarian mission to Cuba sponsored by the American Conference of Cantors, I sent the itinerary to my husband, saying, “Let’s do this!” To my surprise, given Spencer’s mobility issues, he said “Sure!” And we signed up, in September or October. The trip, scheduled for Jan. 7-14, 2019, seemed very far off in the distance.
Then came January, and the abstract became concrete. Our paperwork was complete, our necessary documents were in hand, and we had read repeatedly the scary “Travel Tips,” with its warnings to bring toilet paper and not to expect toilet seats everywhere and don’t drink the water. This was our first trip to a Third World country. We brought travel sizes of everything on the list: hand sanitizer (used once, after Spencer petted a dog), sunscreen (never applied), bug spray (ditto, and no bites). I went to the dollar store and, per instructions, bought lots of aspirin, acetaminaphen, antibiotic ointment, crayons, and markers to give to the various Jewish communities we were visiting in Cuba. Then I went to GNC and bought a lot of good daily vitamins, which I divided into leftover, relabeled prescription vials for distribution.
We met our tour group in Miami and flew to Santa Clara airport (very basic) in central Cuba. Then we got on the tour bus for the first of about 60 times and went to Cienfuegos, a city on the south-central coast of Cuba. The hotel there, where we spent two nights, was very nice, nothing Third World about it.
Cuban cities are an interesting mix of preserved colonial and pre-revolutionary buildings, crumbling colonial and pre-revolutionary buildings, and crumbling post-revolutionary stucco-box apartment houses, with a faceless high-rise here and there in Havana. The “modern” buildings reminded me of some of the crumblier neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.
Graffiti and signs praising the revolution, which just had its 60th anniversary, are everywhere, as is Che Guevara’s face. Fidel Castro isn’t depicted on the billboards and graffiti, because he thought it was arrogant to plaster his likeness all over the place. (Che, dead since 1967, didn’t have a say about his image.) But Fidel gets plenty of love on the billboards too. In fact, he is Cuba’s most beloved figure, and Cuba loves its heroes. We saw a hagiographic film about Fidel on the bus, and I kept thinking about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though the Rebbe had a much nicer beard.
Everywhere we went, there were stray dogs walking around and lying on the pavement, most of them looking very thin and tired. I didn’t see a cat until our last day in Havana. During the week we were in Cuba, I saw exactly three dogs being walked on leashes. I also saw two goats walked on leashes by two different people.
It was a strenuous trip: the steep steps on and off the bus, buildings and other sites reachable only by stairs, walking tours on cracked sidewalks and cobblestoned streets. Spencer was a champ, though. Only a couple of times did he skip a sightseeing venue because of accessibility. I’m scheduled for knee replacement in March, and because I’ve been working out pretty regularly for the past 11 months, the muscles around my knees are a lot stronger, and I haven’t been having much knee pain. I figured the Cuba trip would be the deciding factor for whether I went ahead with the surgery or postponed it. Even with knee braces, after two days I was dreading every staircase, so I’m going ahead with the surgery.
From Cienfuegos, we made a day trip to Trinidad, a little further east, which has the most really old colonial buildings. The country is green and pretty; still lots of sugar cane. Temps were in the 70s or low 80s every day of the trip. We realized the first evening that we were going to be uncomfortably sweaty the entire week and would just have to deal.
The highlight of the stay in Cienfuegos was hearing an amazing choral group singing Cuban and classical European pieces. Later, in Havana, we watched a performance by a dance troupe that incorporates percussion on drums and wooden chairs. We also visited a small art gallery, an artists’ colony covered with mosaics, and the Cuban Museum of Fine Arts. Visual and performance artists are lionized in Cuba. A dancer is paid more money than a doctor, lawyer, or university professor. Jobs related to tourism also pay well.
We visited the Jewish communities of Cienfuegos (no synagogue; five families meet in a living room); Santa Clara in central Cuba (a small synagogue); and Havana (a Sephardic and an Ashkenazi congregation, each with a building that it can’t fill). At each place of worship, we heard from leaders of the community (no rabbis or cantors in Cuba) and presented gifts of cash, OTC meds, and school supplies. There were about 15,000 Jews in Cuba before the revolution; now there are 1,500. But each community is determined to hang on. The seven of us cantors on the trip presented a concert at the Ashkenazi synagogue, and two or three cantors led very Reform Friday night services at the Sephardi center. I wonder what its regulars thought of that.
And from all accounts, there isn’t any anti-Semitism in Cuba. I believe it, because factors that feed anti-Semitism are missing in Cuba. Religion was more or less outlawed the first 30 years after the revolution, so during that time, no one was taught in religious school or from the altar that Jews had the wrong slant on faith. And everybody is poor in Cuba, so there’s none of the “Jews have all the money” nonsense you get in the Americas and Europe. Because the state controls everything, no one can accuse Jews of controlling anything. Plus there aren’t enough Jews to be on anyone’s radar.
We had very nice meals, though there was a certain sameness to them after a while. Lunch and dinner always started with a mojito or a Cuba libre with as much rum as anyone wanted. After a couple of days, the charm of free booze wore off, and I drank mojitos without rum, which are delightfully refreshing and stuffed with fresh mint, reminding me of limonana in Israel. All the restaurant meals were noisy, making it difficult to have a conversation. I would have given anything for one dinner being a pizza party at the hotel. We stayed at a five-star high-rise hotel in Havana, as nice as, say, any Marriott. Actually, by the end of the week, when we were driven to dinner in spiffed-up autos from the 1950s, I was getting a little uncomfortable with how comfortable we were.
The most important thing I took away from Cuba was sheer exasperation with the fearful derangement the U.S. has continued to harbor. The nervousness of having a Communist nation ninety minutes from Florida was understandable when Cuba was a client state of Russia (and make no mistake, Cuba Is a Communist nation; the state owns and controls the means of production, rations food, and allows residents few personal liberties). But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, it pulled out 85 percent of Cuba’s economy; Cuba has never recovered. The U.S. government missed an enormous diplomatic and economic opportunity by not filling the void the Soviet Union left. As it happens, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about this very topic a week after we got home; I recommend his analysis. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/opinion/cuba-embargo.html
The trip was exhausting, sometimes trying, always fascinating. I’m so happy we went.