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Visiting the Forbidden Island

Fri, Dec 27th, 2002
Posted in Features

A fifteen year old Havana girl is pictured for her coming out party, a big celebration in Latin American countries. Photo by Joy Johnson

The US government doesnt exactly say that we cant visit Cuba; they just make it mighty hard to get there. And if you do figure out a way to get to the island, a mere 90 miles offshore from Florida, the US prohibits you from spending money there. Spending money for such items as food, cigars or a hotel room, under the current "Trading with the Enemy Act", makes you subject to a 10-year prison sentence, a $250,000 criminal fine, and a $50,000 civil penalty.

So when I heard that two Harmony-area women, Joy Johnson and Marcia Love, had recently returned from a visit to Cuba, I wanted to find out more.

Did you have to break the law to get there? I asked them.

"No, no," Marcia laughed. "We went with a group called Neighbors East and West. It was totally legal."

The tour was organized by Sam and Ruth Neff of Whitefish, Montana, who have led numerous groups to Cuba since 1992. With education as the reason and focus for traveling to Cuba, the Neffs have been granted a license by the US Treasury Department to visit the forbidden island.

"Its a people to people experience," Joy said. "We did not meet with any government officials."

Marcia is a retired school administrator and Joy is a retired dietician. While it was Marcias first trip to a Latin American country, Joy lived in Chile in the 1960s and has made numerous humanitarian trips to Nicaragua over the past several years.

For eleven days in November Joy and Marcia, along with 23 others in their group, visited schools, medical facilities, an Aids clinic and a communal farm. They also visited a hospice where young victims of Russias Chernobyl disaster are still being treated. Both Marcia and Joy report that the people they met everywhere in the country were gracious and that they were treated wonderfully.

"I wanted to go to Cuba to see what was so terrible about the place that weve had to embargo it for the past 42 years," Joy said.

The purpose of the embargo, Joy explained, is to isolate and weaken Fidel Castro, who has been Cubas El Jefe Maximo (The Maximum Leader) since 1959.

"Weve had ten presidents since then," Joy said. "So it doesnt look like the embargo is working too well."

Before 1959, Cuba was ruled by the dictator General Fulgencio Batista, who turned Cuba into a playground for gamblers, international funseekers and the American Mafia. But the majority of Cubans were not able to share in the fun and profits. Batistas brutal dictatorship was backed by a secret police force, which routinely dealt with its opponents by torturing them and then hanging their corpses from lampposts around Havana.

So what do people think about Castro? I asked.

"People dont really talk much about Fidel," Joy reported. "Though they still hold his fellow revolutionary Che Guevara with high regard. You see his picture everywhere."

They found Havana to be a stately city of faded elegance that was slowly falling apart from neglect and disrepair. There just is no money or material to keep things up. They noticed that shelves in stores were sparsely stocked, but in spite of the poverty and the perpetual shortages of consumer items, the people they met seemed genuinely happy and carefree.

Joy said that there was no evidence of the vast shantytowns that surround most Latin American cities. "Everybody has a place to live now and that has happened since 1959," Joy continued. "The Mafia had a iron grip on Cuba back then and everybody I talked to said theres been a big improvement in the past 40 years."

"I think most of the people are satisfied with their educational opportunities and their health care," Marcia said. "But they do not have great economic opportunities."

"Thats true," Joy agreed. "We talked to one doctor who said he earned around 35 dollars a month and he was one of the best paid in the country. But he also said that he agreed with the socialistic principals of the government and would not welcome capitalism to Cuba."

"The embargo works both ways," Marcia said. "It gives Castro an excuse to say that things would be better if there was no embargo. But it also gives the US an excuse to indoctrinate us against the Castro government."

Marcia was surprised that Cuba seemed so open and safe, not the sinister Communistic netherworld of danger that she had always heard about. They even visited a large Methodist church in downtown Havana, where the service was held in English.

"We were free to walk around and talk to anybody we wanted to," Marcia added. "I really think Cuba is one of the safest places Ive ever been. We walked the streets at night and even at that large political demonstration we did not feel threatened at all."

The demonstration was an anti-US protest that took place a few blocks from their hotel. It came about because of an incident in which a small airplane had been hijacked in western Cuba, a few days earlier by an asylum seeker who landed in Miami. Instead of being arrested for air piracy, the US government granted the hijacker and his family political asylum. On the stage, Fidel Castro, accompanied by little Elin Gonzalez, told the 150,000 in attendance that the US was guilty of harboring terrorists and hijackers and called for their return to justice in Cuba.

The Cuban people are very fearful of Bushs foreign policy," Joy said. "They have been tagged as the second tier in Bushs axis of evil, and they worry that after Afghanistan and Iraq the US might invade Cuba next."

Among the places the group visited was a medical school housed at a former naval station. The school trains doctors from around the world, including sixty students from underprivileged areas of the United States. The training is free and after returning to the US the young doctors promise to practice medicine in their communities.

"Theres so much good being done down there," Joy said. "But of course you dont hear about those things from the US media or government."

Statistics show that Cubas life expectancy at 76 years, is in league with the United States and other developed countries. This compares to a Third World average closer to 57. Another priority of the Cuban government is education. A recent article in the New York Times said that a regional task force had found that Cuba leads other Latin American countries in test scores, completion rates and literacy levels, at the primary school level. Cubas literary rate is 96% and its university students pay no tuition.

"Cuba really does focus on doing so many humanitarian projects," Marcia concluded. "I never realized that before and it was really an education to find that out."

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