Whenever I am invited to Cuba, if possible, I jump at the invitation. After the first time I visited in 2007, I was pleasantly surprised that I loved it here so much.
The first time I came, it was for the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay by the US as a prison camp for those rounded up in the Middle East by the Empire.
I was part of a delegation that included Asif Iqbal, a released detainee whose story was told by Mat Whitecross in the docudrama Road to Guantanamo, Mat himself, a mother and member of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows Adele Welty whose firefighter son was killed on 9/11, and a mother whose son Omar Deghayes was actually being detained at Guantanamo at the time. Fortunately, Omar was finally released. Rounding out our delegation was my assistant Tiffany Burns, Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Ann Wright, Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans of CODEPINK and Tahir Deghayes, the brother of Omar.
In January of 2007, most of the delegation met in Cancun to fly over on Cubana Airlines.
True story: the week before we were to go to Cuba, Sean Hannity phoned me personally to ask me if I would appear on a new show of his called, Hannity’s America on Fox News (first and last time I agreed to appear on any show on the Faux channel). I was to be “honored” to be his first guest in what he called the “Hot Seat.” Anyway, Sean said, “Cindy, I will fly you and your assistant to New York, put you up in a nice hotel and then fly you anywhere in the world you have to go.” I said, “Great Sean! I am flying to Cuba the next day!” So yep, Sean paid for Tiffany and I to fly to Cancun to meet the rest of our group. (Thanks, Sean).
When we were pulling out of the gate in Cancun, there was a dreadful noise and the plane whiplashed to an abrupt stop. The cockpit and cabin crews went hauling ass to the back of the plane, and we found out that the back stairs had dropped. A member of our group Medea was perched backwards on the seat in front of me talking to me, when the plane took off—her seat fell back and she was nearly in my lap. Despite all odds, we arrived safely in Havana to a gaggle of national and international media.
That first trip, we stayed in the Cuban version of a B and B. Mostly private, very bare, and dormitory style. The food was plain, but delicious and organic. Almost bottomless bowls of Cuban rice and beans awaited us after we checked in. The prices are very cheap, about $15 per person, per night. However, there was no way I could sleep like that. I am a horrible, light sleeper, and I was married to a buzz saw for 27 years. I cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot, abide snoring and a member of our lady’s room group snored like a lumberjack. After a few nights of this, I was incredibly exhausted and many demands were made on our time that I had little energy for.
Also, on that first visit, our delegation was taken to many places like chiropractic clinics and neighborhood initiatives. I still have the bizarre, yet sweet, little figurine that a senior citizen made in a craft class and presented to me at a neighborhood senior center.
The centerpiece of our trip was to go to Guantanamo and protest the US prison camp there. Of course, now over six years later, it is still there and over 100 prisoners are still being illegally held. Obama promised to close Guantanamo, but over 30 prisoners are on hunger strike and most of them have already been cleared to be released. What a hopeless situation? I have heard from the lawyers of the detainees that the prisoners believe the only way to get out is to die!
Our group flew from Havana to Santiago and then took a very rickety bus from Santiago to Guantanamo—I remember lying in the back of the bus on our luggage with Asif, Mat, and my assistant, Tiffany, while we sang old Beatles’ songs. A couple of times we flew up into the air as the bus hit epic potholes. It was a long and bumpy three-hour trip, but it was fun.
Before we get to Gitmo, a very bucolic little Cuban village, I need to talk about the physical pain that I was enduring the entire trip. I was suffering from a condition that wouldn’t be diagnosed for several more months as frozen shoulder. I have since learned a lot about frozen shoulder, a condition which the Europeans call, 50-year old woman disease. For some reason, probably due to hormones, the shoulder blade begins to fuse to the spinal cord by cartilage. I finally got rid of it in physical therapy, but it was a long and painful process and now I know dozens of women who have had it.
My left shoulder throbbed when I held it still and screamed when I tried to move it. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t stand, sit, walk, or breathe without being in severe pain and with the hard beds and physical hardships in Cuba the condition was brought to a climax during my trip there. Nothing alleviated the pain, massive does of ibuprofen only took the sharp edge off.
My hosts, ICAP (International Cuban Friendship Society) whisked me to a hospital where I met with the best orthopedic surgeon in the world, who did exercises and found arthritis in my neck, but no diagnosis of frozen shoulder. Some electro therapy at the hospital helped it feel a little better, but by the time we arrived in Gitmo, from the jostling of the bus, and exhausting schedule, I was miserable and missed a meeting because I had to stay in bed that day because the pain had prevented me from sleeping at all the prior night.
So, my trip that time was cut short. After we protested at the gates of Gitmo, I was driven back to Santiago, and then flown to Havana. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly met me at the airport and we were able to chat until I boarded my plane back to the States.
What surprised me about my first trip is that, after 50 years of overwhelming negative propaganda aimed at undermining the Cuban Revolution, I have to admit that I was a tiny bit nervous to go there. However, what I found was almost 180 degrees to what my perception was.
I discovered a beautiful country with beautiful and sweet inhabitants. Contrary to what I saw in Israel in 1999, there were no military patrols roaming the streets with automatic weapons. In Israel, we were told by our tour guide not to “look the soldiers in the eyes.” There are no checkpoints in Cuba, and one may walk into the office of Alarcon without going through a metal detector.
Cubans have been the victims of counter-revolutionary terrorism and, of course, CIA interference for decades and the reason that I have grown to love the people is because my own family became victims of US imperial aggression and we continue to struggle, with the people of Cuba for peace and justice.
I have become involved in the case of the Cuban 5, five Cuban anti-terrorism agents who went to the US to infiltrate counter-revolutionary groups that had been responsible for thousands of deaths and destruction to try to prevent more acts of murder. On September 12, 1998, the Cuban 5 were captured by the US in Florida after Cuba shared some intelligence with the US. Four remain in US prisons and their families and nation have rallied around them for their release ever since. The Case of the 5 is why I am in Cuba today: It’s the 15th anniversary of their arrest and their families and countries want them home.
This morning, I left LAX at 6am. For the first time, I was not flying Cubana and COPA air carried me Southeast to Panama City, Panama, then back up North and more East to Havana.
The first flight was practically empty, so I claimed a row and lied down and slept for a couple of hours. That’s what I call “Traveler’s Paradise.” Empty planes and personal rows!
I had a short layover in Panama City and I looked around the gate area and there was an older white woman, who could have been Cuban, but I thought not. When we were boarding, she asked me, “Are you from the UK?” (She sounded British, but was from Australia).
I told her that I was from the US. She said, “I thought your government banned you from going to Cuba.” My standard answer is, “I am a grown woman, my government can’t tell me where I can or can’t go.”
“So you have to use the ‘back door’?” Yes, we do. She was going to Cuba for the first time and for a 12-day adventure. I assured her that she would love it. I hope she’s having a good time!
When I arrived in Cuba, I was met by Kenya, the head of ICAP and she said, “Welcome back to your second house,” read, “home.” Kenya has excellent English skills, but the idioms can be difficult.
As I traveled the 20 miles from the airport to the hotel I am staying at (an upgrade from the B and Bs), I noticed a few changes. It seems like structures are being spruced up a little, and as a matter of fact, the Jose Marti International Airport is also going through a facelift. Also, I noticed about four or five new restaurants as Raul Castro has lifted a few restrictions on small business—but I did feel at home and there are few places that I travel to, now, where there is a fresh bouquet of roses waiting for me in my hotel room. AND I am using Wi-Fi in my hotel room. I didn’t even have Wi-Fi in Japan two years ago when I was there.
Because of the blockade, Cuba has many shortages, small things that we take for granted, like toilet seats and door handles, but going to Cuba has made me a better human. Cubans are masterful at the very needed skill of reclaiming, reusing and repurposing. Classic car collectors in the states can’t match the well preserved Chevys and Fords driving around the small island nation. Cubans even reuse “disposable” lighters. Here, in Cuba, nothing is disposable or taken for granted.
The town squares are always filled with people in community enjoying the company of each other because when consumerism and capitalism are absent, community is necessary. School children walk to and from school together secure knowing that their nation puts education and their safety as a high priority—there are no disposable humans here, either.
No society is without problems, but most of Cuba’s come from the decades long asinine US blockade.
End the blockade!
Free the Cuban 4 (5) and all political prisoners.
I will write everyday on this trip and each day I will also write about my previous trips and what I learned on them.
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