We’ve been itching to travel again. I saw where Iceland is allowing fully vaccinated Americans to visit without quarantine or further testing. But I’ve been to Iceland before. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful place, and I have a business conference to attend if it’s not postponed again this summer. I just don't feel it in my heart quite yet because...
Nila has been on my mind a lot. She has her own unique way of spelling things in Spanish. It must be the Cuban dialect because the words are not found in any dictionary I have access to. But we get by. Most of it is understood easily enough. I read her messages and then paste the text into Google translate to make sure I’m not missing any important details.
When we took the kids on this adventure, as the borders had officially opened up for Americans, we didn’t want to take the typical path of paying some overpriced agency out of Miami to show us a limited experience when a week’s stay in an ‘habitacion’ was less than $400 for a family of 5. We had enough Southwest points to fly for free to Ft. Lauderdale, Havana, and back to Nashville, and the $50 visas were simple to get at the airport gate.
I’ll never forget when Nila said, “No comas huevos por la noche” or “Don’t eat eggs at night.” If only she had said it before Zoe got food poisoning. She has been a vegetarian for several years, and that particular restaurant didn’t have any other options. I should have sent the plate back when I saw it sunny side up, looking a little too translucent for my taste, but we’d had no issues before that.
Nila is so funny. She now messages me all the time on Facebook with little memes, gifs, and silly videos. As soon as the Internet reached her street (bootlegged, I’m sure) from one of her neighbor’s hijacked get-ups, the pictures and notes started arriving regularly. I’d send back an update on the kids or something that I thought would interest her, but that was about it. She was doing fine, and her neighbors in Havana were okay, too.
Then the pandemic started. That’s when an already isolated and depressed nation that had been put back on a quasi-no-go list by the US government started the descent into despair.
Barbara, our tour guide in 2017, explained to us about the Special Period, the time when the Russians pulled away after the fall of the iron curtain in 1989. The statue of the naked woman holding a fork while riding the back of a rooster in one of the main squares of Havana symbolizes the struggle of women who had to feed their starving babies. Many prostituted themselves to sleazy tourists to avoid eating literal dirt off the ground.
But today is worse than the Special Period. Today there are hardly any tourists to offer their bodies to in exchange for sustenance. Today the city-dwellers are showing up at the government stores with their rationing cards to take nearly nothing off the shelves. There isn’t enough food, or it’s too expensive to get. Many are moving away from the city to the countryside to plant gardens and slowly watch them sprout and grow.
Throughout 2020, the disease was hardly even noticeable with a few cases here and there. Not many were getting infected that they knew about, but that has taken a turn for the worse in 2021. People are lining the halls of the hospital wards while COVID-19 is rapidly spreading to a nation of souls that live under a propagandic veil of secrecy about the rest of the world, except for the soap operas they can get from satellite-TV out of Miami.
It’s illegal for me to send Nila money. She needs US Dollars in order to buy black market products that come via the Dominican Republic, but a Cuban-born American must send it to her via some complicated channel of banking websites and people entrusted with the details. How to do it is lost in translation to me, but I’ve managed to get something to her at least. I just want to be able to help more when I can. $100 will feed a family of 4 for a month. It’s the least we can do.
Because I speak some Spanish, and we have personal connections, we know what to do to visit Cuba today legally. There are over 10 reasons US citizens can give for traveling there. The only option that was removed by the Trump administration was the people-to-people exchange, which was the predominant reason that Americans used when making their travel arrangements before. The Cuban government doesn’t care though. Only the US government cares, and it’s a financial punishment tactic because their government won’t allow Americans to own anything outright in Cuba.
When you’ve got big investors feeling left out while wanting to build hotels for the tourists to spend their money on, our government responds with tactics like this that have lasting effects on the people.
It’s about control. It’s about money. It’s about revenge.
Without going into all the political history, the days of Che Guevara, of Fidel Castro, the exile of so many Cuban-Americans that were robbed of their sugar-coated and tobacco-stained wealth, the Bay of Pigs, and years of Communist Russian control, the people that I know are hurting right now in this very moment with swollen bellies, no way to make money, and a desire to beat the system of oppression that dictates how they appear to operate on the surface.
What I know is that these people are enterprising, strategic, and have find-a-way, make-a-way attitudes beyond what we can imagine here in the USA. Even though we don’t have plane tickets yet, our hearts and minds are already there on that little street in Havana with Nila, the guitar maker, and the rest of her neighbors we met.
We’re fully vaccinated now, but who knows what the situation holds with quarantine restrictions. We need to wait a bit longer. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later for us to get back to Cuba. As much as they need us to visit, I need to check up on them.
If you'd like to help raise awareness about the situation in Cuba, please donate to our fund to promote this message.
Another way to help is to support John Partipilo Photography. He has beautiful photographs from his travels there. A book and prints are available.
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