As a baby boomer born in 1955, I grew up in an era when, and a town where, people feared Communism, the Soviet Union and such political leaders as Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro to the extent that citizens took extraordinary steps.
A neighbor built an underground shelter and stocked it with food. My school held air raid drills in which students moved swiftly and quietly to "fallout shelters." And when President Kennedy, after surviving the Bay of Pigs fiasco and calling Khrushchev's bluff on nuclear arms, was assassinated, we worldly third-graders wondered if the Red Menace was behind Lee Harvey Oswald's trigger.
Much of this may sound crazy today, what with the Cold War over, Communism nearly dissipated and Khrushchev a mere footnote to 20th-century history. But memories and stereotypes linger, kindled by everything from such movies as "Blast from the Past" to the theatrics of the maverick who still oversees one of the world's few remnants of Communism just 90 miles from our borders.
Castro has ruled Cuba for four decades. It has been fascinating and frustrating to have observed him from afar through the filtered lens of an American media that mostly doesn't know him or understand life in his country. Castro always has been an enigma. So has Cuba.
But now...now I would have the opportunity to visit Cuba and, perhaps, to meet Castro.
As a member of the St. Thomas delegation to Cuba in January, I agreed to take on varied duties. I would coordinate logistics for the media and politicians, write stories for the university's daily online publication and Web site, and handle odd jobs for the baseball coach. And perhaps, I hoped, I finally would learn the "truth" about Cuba and Castro. The lens would be my own, and the enigmas would be no more.
We left Minnesota at 6 a.m. on a subzero Saturday and arrived four hours later in sunny, 75-degree Havana. During the next week, I put in 18-hour days filled not with just baseball games, cultural tours, academic lectures and receptions but also with a constant search for insight that would help me understand so many startling contradictions between our lives and the lives of our hosts.
We were told during orientation sessions that Cubans love Americans but hate U.S. policy - namely, the Kennedy - enforced embargo that for some inexplicable reason remains in force 38 years and seven presidents later. I saw scores of examples of how the embargo, meant to punish Castro, instead punishes his people. His top trade official told us that Cuba spends more than $900 million a year importing such goods as powdered mild from New Zealand when it would be much less expensive to get them from the United States. On the streets, staples that we take for granted - toothpaste, deodorant, fragrance soaps and shaving gel - are scarce.
Most Cubans, whether they are taxi drivers or university professors, earn $30 a month and receive housing, medical care, education and some food from the government. Cabbies, in fact, make considerably more because of tips from tourists. The same goes for people like the woman who cleaned my Habana Libre hotel room every day; when we left, I gave her $10 - and she, eyes brimming with tears, gave me a hug and a simple "gracias."
Others supplement their meager incomes by selling goods and services. If you are bilingual, you are in constant demand by English-speaking tourists who want to hire you for a few dollars a day. Flea markets abound, with hand-carved wood figurines and cedar cigar boxes selling for under $5, while others peddle what they claim are legitimate Cohiba cigars for the same low price.
As friendly as were the Cubans whom I met, they also were curious and even suspicious of our true political sympathies. They knew our president, Father Dennis Dease, was vocal in his support of Elian Gonzalez' return to Cuba. But they wondered how the rest of us felt and how strong our support would be when it came time for the midnight torchlight march held each year before the birthday of poet Jose Marti, who died fighting the Spanish in the 1890s. Elian's return clearly would be the theme of the march, and it would attract wide attention.
Our own curiosity and an increasing sense that Elian belongs in Cuba drew the entire St. Thomas delegation to the march. We proudly walked behind Father Dease, and side by side with Cuban students and administrators, as we carried torches through the streets. Yes, we grimaced during the chants of "Give me an F...an I...a D...an E...an L..." and when we heard the anti-American rhetoric, and we knew we would be criticized at home by conservatives who would call us "Commie lovers." But we continued to walk because we believed the cause - the return of a 6-year-old boy to his father - should transcend politics.
It was such moments, as well as the friendships developed with our Havana counterparts, that ultimately swept away my confusion and answered 40 years of questions about Cuba and Castro. I never did meet him; he didn't come to the game, as we expected, nor did we get a private audience with him, as we had hoped. But I met his people, and I left knowing they are good and honorable people who deserve better than what their leader and ours have forced upon them for so long.
"Paz, hermano," a Cuban whispered to me after the "Our Father" during Mass at San Agustin Catholic Church one beautiful Sunday morning.
"Peace be with you, too, my brother," I said, grasping his hand. "Peace be with you."