This October we approach the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and have just recently passed the 50-year mark of the U.S. embargo against our island neighbor. Fewer and fewer of us remember those harrowing days and with ever-diminishing clarity.
Still, our nations’ relationship, forged under the threat of nuclear destruction, the contagion of communism, and Cuban nationalization of U.S. interests, seems stuck in the 1960s, along with our memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Woodstock and Bob Dylan. We are hardly aware that Cuba suffered a different crisis in the early 1990s, a hunger crisis when the USSR fell and ceased to trade sugar, coffee and cigars for staples. The Cuban cupboard lost 75 percent of its contents in about a week.
With a desire to bridge these decades of restricted contact and communication, 12 other instructors of Spanish and Latin American history and I secured a license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to travel to Cuba this past July. We worked hard on this opportunity because we knew it might be our only visit. And once we arrived, two collaborative organizations packed our days with discussions on Cuban social structures, philosophy and history, guided by experts in fields as varied as medicine, politics, religion and the arts. But between visits to various institutions and museums, we, being fluent in Spanish, found our own informants on the streets, in markets and at churros stands, and peppered them with questions.
Were Cubans free to be honest? With the Pope’s visit in 2010, Raúl Castro arranged for the release of almost all of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. Among our contacts, only a few of the elderly looked over their shoulders first, before enumerating their government’s successes and failures, promises kept and broken. Some Cubans spoke of complaints matter-of-factly; a few railed against the government with no apparent concern for who was in earshot.