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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Finally Cuba!

A Two Week Tour of the Forbidden Socialist Island

Article type
GEO Original
June 2, 2017
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I woke up to applause just as the plane touched down at Jose Marti Airport in Cuba, a place I had been wanting to visit for decades.  I finally got my chance because of an educational tour organized by the Center for Global Change in Mexico.  Disappointment and grief had kept me up the night before because I wasn’t allowed to board the plane with my tour group because I didn’t have my passport on me. I’d left it on a copier at Office Max and a family friend was bringing it to me at Miami International Airport.  It didn’t matter to the airline rep that I had a copy and the original was on the way.  Now hours later, here I was after heartbreaking news on the next morning’s flight, and I had gotten up at 2:30 a.m. to travel from Miami Gardens to be at Miami International Airport at 3:30 a.m. for a 6:45 am departure.  While I waited after an uneventful check-in, I read that the Dogon religion is also alive in Cuba.  That is fascinating.  
I looked around the plane and faces were alight and heads turned looking out at their homeland.  The plane was packed with light-skinned Cubans coming home again.  Cubans, like most black people, range from white-white to black-black (very light to very dark).  In the U.S., with his brutal and barbaric racial history, there were so many issues associated with people at either end of the spectrum. One is in many circles - past and present - the closer you look  like “the master” or white people, the more privilege one had, and the more “intelligent” one is believed to be.  Conversely, the more “African” or “negroid” one looked in color (meaning black as Africans come in all shades) or facial features, the less intelligent, handsome, desirable, or wealthy one was considered to be, even among black people infected with the racism/internalized oppression virus. I wasn’t sure how much this dynamic was playing out in Cuba.  I just know as a youngster, it was the “white” Cubans who fled Cuba and ended up in the Miami area.  I only knew one Black Cuban growing up, and met one much later as an adult when I was a reporter at The Miami Herald.  
I’m sure that I was the only “black” (here I mean “melanated”) person on the plane.  I looked out of the window too.  There was an orange building (a great omen: my favorite color is orange!) with blue trim with lettering Jose Marti Airport.   I wondered at the spiritual significance of the color combination, complementary colors, both warm and cool.  What was the message that the colors portrayed?  I thought joy and peace.  It certainly warmed my heart to see the airport named for a great revolutionary leader and to finally be able to visit the island that was 90 miles away from my hometown. 
Because of its proximity to South Florida, the hot politics around it, and other social and cultural goings-on, Cuba was large in my family’s lives.  
I had grown up in South Florida, in Hallandale (now known as Hallandale Beach), a small town between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. When I was born, my mother’s sister, Virginia Valdes, gave me a Cuban middle name.  I was named Vicki Lolita.  Aunt Jenny had married a white Cuban named Maximo Valdes.  (See what I learned about that name later in the story.) Maxie was the only white man at our family gatherings.  He was loud and vibrant, laughing a lot and telling jokes and drinking.  I heard Spanish spoken early in my life.  The marriage didn’t last long, and decades later my aunt had died before I thought to ask her whether she married him because she loved him, or whether it was an arrangement so that he could get a green card.  
Like many southern cities, Hallandale was divided into “white town” and whatever whites called the black section, or the Northwest section. Where we lived few people could afford lawns, and houses were often wooden.  Interestingly, many black people owned apartment buildings and other businesses.  This might be due to many of the first black families settling Hallandale having been Bahamian immigrants.  My maternal grandparents – the Coopers -- were migrant workers who took boats yearly from Xuma Island (one of the Bahamas chain of islands) to pick tomatoes and other produce in Dania and other South Florida cities and as far north as New Jersey.  They eventually stayed to become one of about six black families to settle in Hallandale before World War I.  They settled west of the train track parallel to Federal Highway/U.S. 1 which was the divide for decades later.  Immediately across the railroad track the poor whites lived, some in trailer parks.  The closer you got to the beach, the taller the buildings were and the houses of course more fabulous, with green lawns and huge swaying palms.
Cuba was very present in our lives in South Florida
The second street over from Federal Highway – on Northwest Second Avenue – my aunt had a store called The Second Avenue Sundry that also was a front for what might be called “the underground economy” now.  One of the key ways that black people made money to survive the pitiful wages whites paid them to clean their houses or hotels and take care of their lawns was by playing “the numbers.”  Many states have taken over the business and call it the “lottery.”  Players will put 50 cents or a dollar if they were doing well on a number and if it “came out” they would win $70 on that dollar.  I’m not too sure how it worked except that it seemed to be tied to horse racing (Gulfstream Racetrack -- now Gulfstream Racing and Casino Park -- was just across the track).  The numbers were called “Cuba” or “bolita” (I’ve looked up the translation and the closest connection seems to be “wad”, like a wad of money.)  Everybody just about, except perhaps some of the church ladies, played the numbers.  (Even I dreamed a number once at around 9 and put 50 cents on it and won $35!)

 My mama ran the Second Avenue Sundry for my Aunt Murline serving root beer floats and banana splits and writing illegal bets for “the numbers” or Bolita/Cuba. I was in the store a lot and heard talk of "Cuba."  So the Baptista-led “Cuba” where the mob allegedly ruled was a source of a financial boon for my immediate family and for black folks in the city in general who might earn $70 on their $1 investment back in the 1950s so supplement starvation wages that they were paid by the more wealthy Jews and other “whites” (again the way I think of whites are those Anglos who are not Jewish, Latino or even foreign.  In particular indoctrination of American racism is the key component of the definition.) who flocked to their winter homes in South Florida during the cold months up North.  We called them “snowbirds.” Snowbirds packed the grocery stores and provided seasonal work for local black domestics.  Hotel business picked up and blacks in Hallandale provided that cheap labor.
I was six years old when the U.S. government, our then beloved President Kennedy, a hero to black people whose picture was in most of the homes in Northwest Hallandale, launched the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  A year later, as children we listened to the news and the adults talk and had the scare that Cuba had nuclear missiles from Russia that could be launched into South Florida. To deal with our childhood fears, my aunts and I built “bomb shelters” in the dirt, digging out a cavern and putting construction board on top.  We had an old bedspread from either mama’s or grandma’s house, as well as a lamp with a cord from the house and other goodies to live, acting on what we heard from the world around us.
Then a black Cuban started visiting our house when I was about 12 or so.  Carlos (not sure of his real name), played dominoes, bid whist and poker with my mother and aunts and uncles, stayed for dinner on the patio and into the night.  When no game was going on, Carlos tried to teach me Spanish. I don’t know what kind of work he did, but I think like Maxie, he rode or took care of horses racing at Gulfstream Racetrack. These Cubans likely came to this country to work, but we didn’t see a lot of Cubans. I had experience with a black Cuban, a family friend, and a white Cuban, who was my uncle.
Cubans were boating into the U.S. in Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) more and more to escape Castro’s successful revolution in 1959. Around 1968-69, when I was around 13 or 14, the adults were talking about the number of Cubans coming into the country and how they were taking jobs from black people. It was said that the Cubans would work for $2 an hour, and the white employers preferred to pay them rather than to hire blacks at the standard rate which was $4 an hour. Then once a Cuban got a job with some authority, he would systematically fire the black people and replace them with Cubans.  Black men congregated under trees talking about the problem they were powerless to change.  I bet no one has ever done a study on the effect of the Cuban migration on the employment of blacks (and/or whites) in South Florida.  (Here’s a Cornell University study on the effect of the Mariel Cubans on the South Florida economy, but this was a long time after that wave in the 1960s.  This study suggests the effect of the Mariel was small.  See also study by the Center for Immigrant Studies on the effects generally of immigration on Florida. But I would be surprised if there was one showing the displacement of African Americans in particular. (Note that I am just describing the effects as some black people experienced them, but I am not making a case for or against immigration or Cubans.)
In addition to “taking” jobs from unskilled black people (that is, employers choosing to hire Cubans at a cheaper wage; I’m not blaming Cubans for the effects of the capitalist system that had no humanity toward African people), Cubans physically moved into the black community.  It was the first time that we saw “white” (really this means “non-black”) people choosing to live in the black community.  It probably was the place to get cheap housing.
I started to see Cubans moving into Hallandale in Broward County (about 10 miles north of Miami) and was amazed that unlike our “indigenous” white folk, they would move across the track into the black neighborhood.  Once I heard a story about a carload of Cubans kidnapping a family friend at 6 a.m. while she waited on transportation to work and raping her.  
Soon I went off to college – and apparently missed a lot of the trauma that the sudden influx of Cubans caused in South Florida.  While attending college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I joined the African People’s Socialist Party.  Because of the APSP analysis, we adored Castro for taking on the American “beast” and I read Granma, the Cuban Communist Party publication, regularly. I believe that it arrived in our post office box everyday. Sending free subscriptions was a great PR move, by Cuba, to get the real news out about what was really going on in the country. Reading Granma made me appreciate Cuba more.
When I came back to work at The Miami Herald years later, I heard a lot of stories about Cubans.  There was definite tensions between blacks and Cubans, who were mostly “white” or light-skinned.  
In the Miami Lakes office I worked with one younger Cuban whose family had moved from Cuba, who I felt saw “Castro under every rock” when she ranted about Miami homeowner associations being “communist.” She was dark-skinned, darker than I was,  but did not seem to identify as “black” in any way.  In the Hialeah Office, I was in a part of Miami that experienced lots of changes because many Cubans had settled there. White families were upset and talked of leaving because Cubans had roosters that crowed and woke them up with the sunrise every morning, and brought other changes. Clearly U.S. born whites resented the white Cubans for changing their world. But I was in no way prepared for the racism that some of the white Cubans brought with them.
I had my own experience with white Cuban racism when I was leaving a Blockbuster’s store on Miami Gardens Drive and a Cuban woman entering the store gave me a look of hatred that was surprising and unnerving.  Never in my life, even at University of Florida in Gainesville where I attended college in the early 1970s, had I experienced such unbridled hatred from white people.  This made me wonder about race relations in Cuba. Why had she treated me like that?
That incident made me wonder about the racial composition of Cuba. I had also heard stories about one of Castro’s parents being black, and that most of the white Cubans who now lived in the U.S. had fled because Castro outlawed racial discrimination.  In addition, Castro tried to create an equitable society and a lot of the middle-class whites who had businesses left rather than be subjected to an economy that looked out for everyone. I noticed that whenever the U.S. media showed Cubans on TV, you hardly ever saw black people being portrayed.  Newspapers were always ambiguous about the question many black people have on our minds. (Three months ago a  video was posted to Youtube purports to shed some light on this.)
And so I’ve wondered a lot about Cuba’s racial make-up.  In Miami, I did manage to meet one black Cuban in my 10 years working as a Miami Herald reporter, but didn’t get much information about race relations in Cuba.  While at the Herald I covered Opa-locka, a small Florida town with the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the Western hemisphere.  It was once an all-white enclave but at the time was mostly black with a third of the population speaking Spanish.  (There were Spanish speakers from all over it, not just Cubans.)
Once I covered an event – I don’t remember exactly what it was -- where most of the participants were Cuban.  Although I had excelled in Spanish in high school and was taking Spanish at the Miami Herald who had their own teacher, I wasn’t able to communicate effectively.  One woman angrily told me that I needed to learn Spanish.  I was taken aback by this – usually people are so grateful to get Miami Herald coverage that they go out of their way to help reporters – but I just brushed it off as a reaction to the angry white backlash that demanded that Cubans learn English. I understood from my stint at the Los Angeles Times the importance of people speaking their own language, so did not I believe people should be forced to learn English.  (Interestingly, while one could hear black people once in awhile say Cubans should learn English, for the most part I never heard of black people being a part of any organized movement against Cubans.)
 All of these experiences combined to make we want to see Cuba for myself.  I was angry for years that the U.S. government banned travel to the country.  Wasn’t it my right as a “free” citizen to travel wherever I wanted to?  So when the Center for Global Justice organized the tour, I jumped at the chance. Now I could go on an educational trip, without the hassle of going through Canada or Mexico and worrying about having a passport with a Cuba stamp on it. I had to scrape up the “duckies,” and just barely covered my expenses. I wanted to see how a socialist country operated. I wanted to see how black people made out.  I wanted to visit the land of Castro, and see for myself his legacy.  I tried my best to tune out “those crazy Cubans” who were rabidly anti-Castro.  I knew we weren’t getting the full story.  
So there I was on the plane with a bunch of happy “white” Cubans in a American Airlines charter plane thrilled to be touching Cuban soil again.  That was interesting to me. The Cubans were not friendly, but neither were they hostile as we waited at the gate or on the plane. I thought/knew had this been a plane full of black people and there was one white person on the plane, someone would have struck up a conversation or done something to make her feel comfortable.  But then again, maybe I should qualify that and say black people my age, especially black women. Culture -- and people -- are  so very interesting to me.  As a black woman I constantly notice these differences.
From the time I departed that plane I was noticing everything. First, I wanted to see about racism in Cuba. Second, I just wanted to experience Cuba.
Cuba, because of the embargo, doesn’t have many of the amenities that we take for granted in the U.S.  When we got off the plane, we had to walk down stairs instead of the plane being pulled into the gate and you walk up a ramp.  I had noticed a person in a lime green neon vest, with some sort of baton, guiding the plane.  Then I saw that she was a woman.  A Black woman.  That was a good sign I thought.
As I walked down the stairs to the tarmac, she stood at the foot of the stairs.  But I noticed that her head hung down; she didn’t look at anyone alighting from the plane.  I thought that that was interesting.  Was she not self-confident or was she not respected, or hated, and didn’t want to see that in the eyes of the people?  I wondered.  I tried to get eye contact but she didn’t look up even for me.
Then my attention was riveted on the oddity of two dogs playing with each other – at the airport!  It was totally unlike anything that we would see in the U.S.; it really said to me that life was simple there and even dogs could be free.
The customs officer was a white woman, who was very professional and confident.  That was nice to see.  “Welcome to Cuba,” she said after asking me to remove my glasses.  She looked back and forth at me and then asked if this was my first time in Cuba.  Yes, I said with obvious excitement.
It took two hours to get my luggage after going through customs.  While waiting with hundreds of other people (I think two or three planes had landed) for baggage I looked around and counted the number of black people:  six.  Why were all of the Cuban travelers white?  What did that say about the state of black people?  I noticed a couple of people staring at me seemingly without realizing that they were staring.  I wondered if it were just my locks, but they were “up” and not hanging down and flowing.  When I wear my hair down, all kinds of people do tend to stare – black women who wear their hair straight, black men who seem to be taken by long hair, and white folks.
I noticed that most of the luggage was wrapped, shrink-wrapped if you will, in light blue plastic.   I figured that was to keep people from stealing from your suitcase.  Those bundles contained laundry detergent, clothing, food items – a bounty that those Cubans who worked in Miami and made money were bringing home to share with their families.  It was fascinating to see all of those bundles, and I recalled some pre-Cuba reading on how important this must be to the Cuban economy.  I couldn’t wait for our sessions at the Institute of Philosophy to explain what Cuban society was about.  I wondered what my group was doing now.
When my bag finally showed up, I walked out of the airport’s double door and was stunned. A crowd of what looked like 500 people were waiting on the other side of the door, apparently to meet those laden-down relatives.  The only time I’d seen that many people was at a rally or on W Street in Washington DC back in the 80s when junkies gathered to get drugs.  A sharp eye taxi driver probably spotted me looking amazed, and then looking for the Exchange, and asked me if I needed a taxi.  I told him, using gestures and the little bit of Spanish that I’d learned from my Duolingo app that I practiced diligently, that I first needed to exchange my money.  He said that I could do that at the hotel.  He was a gentle spirit that I felt that I could trust.  I got in his 1950s style car, and he gave me a tour explaining a few things in Spanish as fe drove into the city of Havana.
No chem-trails in Cuba
The brilliant blue skies were stunning in Cuba.  
Right away I noticed were that there no “chemtrails” in Cuban skies.  The Cuban skies are “free!”Chemtrails is short for “chemical trails,” the secret and unacknowledged spraying of pathogens, aluminum, barium other metals and coal fly ash allegedly by the U.S. government (and others in Western Europe) for what is believed to be nefarious purposes. The spraying results in an off-white haze to cover the skies. Apparently the Cuban government does not see a need to kill and/or sicken its people and other lifeforms like the U.S. government.  Chemtrails are so disturbingly common in the U.S. that I definitely noticed their absence in Cuba. (Start looking up to notice the crisscrossing lines that spread, and which some people claim are “contrails” -- the trails from jets.) 
On the ground, there other things we don’t have in America are great tributes to cultural and historical heroes, such as an artistic outline of the Cuban revolutionary leader Jose Marti lighting up the front of a building.  Artwork of other revolutionary leaders abounded.  Other slogans and signs extolling the revolution and its heroes abound – something that I noticed just about everywhere we went in Cuba. We have no comparison in America.  We have the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments in D.C. and probably one or two elsewhere.  But the Cuban people seems to love their heroes as evidenced by the variety of signs and slogans all over. Even out in the farming areas and residential areas outside of the city, the revolutionary fervor was evident with all kinds of signs declaring values of the socialist revolution.
We arrived at the Hotel Vedado, and the trip cost me about 38 CUC – about $38.  Wow, that was going to eat into the little bit of spending change that I had.  I went in to check in and change my US bills for CUCs and he waited.  The hotel was a “B” hotel for sure.  My group had left me a note telling me where they were and the plan to meet at a clothing co-op later in the afternoon.  But there were no CUCs to be had.  My driver was not worried.  I told him there were none and asked him if he could take U.S. bills.  I knew I would be overpaying him but it seemed the best thing to do.  Both the clerk and he suggested that I go to the Habana Libre hotel, so after taking my bags to the room, I walked over. This was my first opportunity to see Cuba by foot, and meet and interact with people.
The House of Change
I walked to the hotel which had many flags out front. I learned later on another sightseeing visit that Fidel stayed at Habana Libre.  The clerk was non-accommodating and directed me to the House of Change which was around the corner.  I walked a couple blocks up La Rampa Street and saw long lines.  From what I understood people converted their money into pesos.  There are two currencies in Cuba.  The pesos for the locals which gave them more spending power, and the CUCs for tourists and those with particular some jobs.  
 It was hot, and I waited for hours while about five people in at a time were admitted.  While I waited, it was an opportunity to visually take in Cuba.  I saw old cars from the 1950s and earlier in various states of repair.  Buses with open windows packed to the gills reminded me of D.C.  The fumes from what I was sure where old buses with little pollution control were hard to breathe.  I noticed that the black people seemed poor and desolate in a way I had not seen of black people from other parts of the world.  The whites were not that much better off.  Clothes were not stylish.  Black hair wasn’t in nice cornrows, braids or locks.  Most of it was straight. (The state of hair is so important to black women in particular!)  There was little eye contact, and very little speaking which is a hallmark of black people (I thought!) all over the world.  I thought this indifference was the effect of poverty and probably a distrust of foreigners.  I know that with my locks, American clothing, and likely mannerisms that I stood out as a foreigner.
I finally got into the House of Change to convert some of my Euros gotten at the Miami airport into CUCs.  The air-conditioning was a balm.  I thought I would get a better deal but wasn’t so sure.  I had to show my passport because all these transactions have to be reported to the U.S. government.  As it were, I still had to go to the bank next door to change the big bills.  
I waited in a line and it seemed there was one, for two light-skinned Cuban women helped me out and pointed me to the right line.  I don’t like to refer to the light-skinned Cubans as white, though I do it for simplicity sake.  When I worked at The Miami Herald, one of my Cuban-American fellow writers referred to herself as white.  I cringed.  For me, “white” had a connotation of racist, the people with the history of enslaving and oppressing my people.  I don’t to this day think of Cubans as white per se, but as lighter-skinned people, even though I know that some of them have a superiority attitude toward black people (and I am aware that many “whites” in America I have dealt with don’t exhibit attitudes or mannerism of “hidden” superiority feelings.)  Anyway, I finally got my CUCs.  It is disgusting that the U.S. government robs its citizens by forcing us to pay a 10 percent “penalty” for exchanging U.S. currency plus a 3 percent currency fee. I was on a very tight budget as it were, and I hated to part with the little that I had.
After standing in the Cuban sun (closer to the equator) for hours to change money, I was exhausted.  I slowly walked back to the hotel, going the main street, La Rampa, and noticing more of the people on the street. When I stopped at the hotel front desk for my key (there was only one and my roommate and I had to share), my group had left me a note that they would be at the first worker cooperative, a textile factory.  I caught a taxi, who put me off in the middle of the block telling me the co-op, the CNA Confecciones Model co-op (whose name I didn’t know at the time), was somewhere in the block. I walked up and down and when I couldn’t find it, I ended up having to ask a man whose building was open but with steel doors where it was.  There was so sign, but he told me where he thought it might be.  This was another thing we take for granted.  As I walked down the block I was struck by the old buildings, some falling apart, with peeling paint.  Whole blocks were seemingly desolate.  I got there early and waited for my group.  They came and they were shocked to see me sitting there, because they hadn’t heard from me.  (Cell phone usage wasn’t possible.)  
I was glad to see them: Dr. Christina Clamp, the professor from Southern New Hampshire University’s Community Economic Development program whose co-op class got me on the path to loving cooperatives, my GEO comrade Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who Chris had introduced me to, my long-time friend Beverly Judge, and Darien De Lu, who I had met at Miami’s airport, a couple of people I had introduced myself to the first day before my hopes were dashed, and the whole group of people. Before the tour, some of us had corresponded by phone and most of us had communicated by email.
There were 28 of us, led by Cliff DuRand and Al Campbell, both retired professors, who have been visiting Cuba for 25 years. Our group included mostly North Americans, including a retired professor from St. Mary’s University in Canada, the only co-op university in North America, several professors, a German, a Chinese Ph.D student, an Indian couple, but also people from Mexico, and young people from the U.S.
The first day in Havana, the group visited Lenin Square; the Malecon, the highway along Cuba’s the coast; Jose Marti building, and the Elian Gonzales statue (he was a 6 year old child who come to the U.S. in a boat with his mother who drowned. His father in Cuba wanted him returned, but relatives in Miami wanted him in the US, and they took the custody fight to court. A judge ruled in favor of the father and the child was eventually returned to Cuba. Interestingly I worked on an article about him while I was a reporter at The Miami Herald.) The group had mojitos (the Cuban national drink made with crushed mint, lime and rum) and listened to a live band at the hotel, while I was sleeping and eating away my disappointment in Miami.
After our wonderful tour of the factory, we all boarded the green and white Amistur tour bus, and I met our bi-lingual guide Raul Diaz Pomares, a black Cuban; and our driver, Angel , a light-skinned Cuban, who seemed only to speak Spanish.
The plan for the first week of the tour was that we would have a seminar at the Instituto de Filosofia in the mornings and visit a worker cooperative in the afternoon.  I will talk about our co-op visits in a separate blog. In this blog, I’ll continue to describe my impressions of Cuba and the tour. In the second week, we would participate in the 28th Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists at the University of Havana.  Twelve people from our delegation would present papers at this conference. I did not get myself organized in time to be able to do one. During that week we would visit Bosque Martiano Del Agriguanabo, an outdoor monument to the Cuban Revolution, and Fuster’s Gallery and Community Art Project, Habana Vieja (Old Havana), home of a United Nations recognized “living plaza.” Some of us went to the Museo de la Revoluccion on our own and the Cuban Ballet. One of our worker cooperatives was in Mantanza, a beautiful city with a mountainous view.
One June 21, we had our first session with the Institute of Philosophy, a sort of Cuban “think-tank.”  They would have sessions explaining how socialism operated in Cuba: the organization of the government, the electoral process and the political process.  
Olga Fernandez Rios, Ph.D explained that we were in the municipality called La Plaza de la Revoluccion which included the Institute and the hotel.  She said that the political system that they have in Cuba has been place since 1976. Four main organizations exist:  The Cuban Women’s Federation and the Cuban Organization of Farmers were both created in 1960;  the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a people’s organization, were in each block.  The Central Union Organization and the Organization of University Students. The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) has 700,000 members.
From January-June 1959, a revolutionary coalition took power to change “the social, political and economic order.”  
U.S.-backed President Batista stole all of the money.  “We were a revolution without money,” said Humberto Miranda, a staff member at  the Institute.
“Cuba is the only county where you can live without working,” said Miranda.  The Cuban state based its operation on the Soviet model of state socialism, and provided the people basic food rations, free medical care and free education.   “With the economic aid came the economic system,” he said.  The idea, I think he meant, was that with state-ownership of production, that the workers could participate in worker management.  The only cooperatives that the Cuban government set up were agricultural cooperatives as it nationalized huge sugar cane plantations and redirected the land use to feeding its people.  
I won’t discuss very much of the political system in Cuba because I didn’t understand it very much because of translations, accents and other issues. In the 1990s, Cuba went through what is called “the Special Period” after the Soviet Republic fell apart and economic aid to Cuba ceased.  Those food rations that the people had depended on were cut.  
Raising the race question
We’d heard about the great strides women had made in the Cuban revolution.  I liked that.  I was waiting for information about how Blacks had fared.  That didn’t happen, and so I raised the question, asking about the status of “Cubanos Africano” -- the African Cubans.  Were they in positions of power in the government and the Communist Party?
I had read the articles that were apart of our pre-trip readings.  While I could understand outlawing discrimination, I know from being black in America, laws mean nothing when it comes to black people.  America, which likes to police democracy in the world, was founded by slaveholders, the White House supported slavery and routinely has one standard for black people and another for whites.  I wanted to know how Cuba handled its “race question.”
Olga said that “Cuba has a strong mix of races.“ She said it has been difficult to get numbers on “mulattoes.” The racial situation cannot be analyzed “the way it is analyzed in the U.S. there can be a clean identification of black and white because historically there has been important racial integration.”  Cuba’s independence movement “was not marked by racial integration.”  From other sources I learned that many of the plantation owners released their African slaves if they would fight against the Spanish. And there were some famous black generals and historical figures.  So there the slave master and the slave united to throw off the colonialist yoke in Cuba. And despite that some decades later black people could not freely practice their religion.
“There have been experiences. Some good; others not so good,” she said.  “Some measures were taken but it difficult to eliminate individual manifestation.  Problems cannot be solved fast by passing laws.”
Dr. Olga said that black people in Cuba do not identify as “Afro-Cubans.”  I believe I had referred to them as Cubanos Africanos, or African Cubans. “Everybody is one (people),” she said. “We are all Cuban.” This is a theme that I heard from many black people on the street who I tried to talk about racism.  I would think “yeah they drank the Kool Aid.” I was looking for the objective evidence, and/or even subjective evidence:  how many black people could afford to travel (by scanning the passengers in the airport)?  How “free” did the Black people act?  What were white Cuban attitudes toward me?  Even whether blacks were in servile roles in the co-ops? How comfortable were blacks and whites were discussing race?  Numbers don’t tell it all, but behaviors tell an awful lot.  We survive by reading the nonverbal cues in our relationships and interactions. A black person especially has to learn to read the cues in a country which professes “democracy” (while founded as a slave-holding country), and which “polices” the world for “terrorism” and lack of “democracy”  when they are the biggest world terrorist pretending to be a democracy.  Here there is abundant domestic terrorism from the police and white citizens alike.  
Humberto’s response was different.  “Olga thinks there’s no racism in Cuba because she is white.” He said Blacks from America and other places get stopped by the police but whites with them do not.  He also stated that hotels owned by private companies have whites in all positions of authority but blacks as clerks.  This is not the case in state-owned hotels. He compared racism with domestic violence.  “It is violence and until you go public, it will not change. The same needs to happen with racism.
Olga said that the president of the Cuban Parliament is black -- “very black” -- she emphasized, presumably to indicate that he was more pure African and not mixed.  Of the six vice presidents, at least two or three are black, one of whom is the Minister of Labor. There are also many vice ministers who are black and female, she said. And they include Science, Education, Agricultural, Labor and Corruption. And some of mulattoes.
Humberto agreed:  “We don’t see ourselves as African.” He said at one time blacks made up 20 percent of the student population at universities. Today that number is at 1 or 2 percent.
Humberto talked about when Cuba opened up to foreigners, police asked the black foreigners for identification, something he was embarrassed about. “We should be ashamed. We cannot hide this.”  
He said a lot of racism comes from private business. For example, hotels will not have a black face in a position of authority even though they are qualified. “I feel ashamed for not talking about it,”  he confessed.  After that we didn’t see much of Humberto.  I didn’t know whether this was just coincidence, or, if like in the U.S. when blacks used to bring up race questions, they were subtly ostracized and accused of “playing the race card.”
However to Olga’s credit, she told us:  The saying in Cuba is “where is your grandmother?” because of the belief that most Cubans have a black grandmother.  
The race issue would be an ongoing discussion that came up at various times, probably mostly because of me asking questions or making a point.  At lunch in Mantanzas while eating at a co-op restaurant in training that had the best mojitos, I asked our director, if there is no racism in Cuba, why is it that people did not identify as black?.
Al suggested Esteban Morales, a well-known Afro Cuban scholar, who does write about racism in Cuba.  
I don’t want to give the impression that Cuban is alone or should be condemned for their attempt at wiping out racism by legislation and other means.  The world is racist; all one has to do is look around to see that white supremacy dominates the planet.  I have also seen one report that African people – all black people who are descendants of Africa whether in China, Jamaica, the U.S. or England – are the most hated in the world. And this also is not to make light of the wonderful work that Cuba has done to eradicate racism in the country, nor of the sacrifices that the Cuban people have made fighting for liberation of African people in Angola and other places in southern Africa, or fighting Ebola in West Africa or helping out our Haitian people.  Certainly they are not at the low level of the hypocritical U.S. government where economic disparity is built into the country and black people do not feel safe to walk the streets or drive the highways.  As one “Children of the Dream”-aged black woman (those who Dr. King worked for), it is always interesting to see the “whys” and “hows” of dealing with racism.  That curiosity is heightened when I learned that Cuba had more African people enslaved by the Spanish to feed Europe’s sugar addiction than the U.S., which was also feeding Europe’s sugar and tobacco and addictions.  In my opinion, Fidel Castro is a giant in his work to free and support many black people in the world.
Fuster’s Gallery and Community Art Project
On our itinerary was Fuster’s Gallery. This is a local artist who has done outstanding work using tile. His house is an impressive monument to his work. What is wonderful is others on his street and in the neighborhood had spin off galleries and also had homes decorated with the tile. It seems like the whole neighborhood benefits from having a famous neighbor.  When our bus pulled up many people from the street were there to meet us, to invite us to visit their home galleries or to sell us coconut water in coconut shells. To me, this also reflected a cooperative effort, an example of grassroots community economic development, and that entrepreneurial Cuban spirit.  
See video
Museo de la Revoluccion
A group of six us decided to visit the Museum of the Revolution.  That was an absolute must. Many of us felt that we couldn’t visit Cuba and not visit Museum of the Revolution. Our taxi driver of a green car from the 1950s told our group when we gushed over the car that he has three jobs.  “My first job is a teacher,” he said in English.  “My second job is as a taxi driver and to fix my car (which I’m counting as three).”

We arrived on a day beautiful with an exquisitely blue sky. The sun wasn’t bad, a good thing since the building was not air-conditioned.  A black woman there checked our bags. She was friendly, and had her daughter with her.  We had to walk upstairs and had a self-directed tour under watchful eyes of security.  I liked that many of them were women.  We learned that the huge building was formerly Baptista’s palace and was 113 years old.  Castro never lived in there, but his legacy and the story of dozens of revolutionary soldiers is told in exquisite detail:  news clippings with much detail about the Bay of Pigs attack by the U.S., photos, monuments to the dead, jeeps, a plane, artwork, and a market area to buy souvenirs. The building needed painting and repair, and its contents risk being lost because I’m sure of not being able to afford proper upkeep.
Rastas in Cuba

After an exhausting visit at the museum, our group went looking for a cheap place to eat.  A woman saw us wandering around looking at a few places and took us through a three-long block walk to Los Familia Restaurant.  We had to walk up three flights of a narrow stairway, but what a surprise: a rooftop view.  Here was the first time I saw black men with locks.  They were customers and we talked.  They were very happy to hear that we were from America.  Here I could get a veggie plate for 10 CUCs. I was so sick of eating raw shredded cabbage so I asked if they had cooked veggies. I was told they did but when my plate came back it had raw cabbage, cucumber, hard plantain and dry rice – not even some black beans.  Despite the food though I was so glad we were there when two brothers – also with locks -- got up to sing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”  They had great dance moves and it was a major uplifting to experience Rasta culture in Cuba.  Check out the video.
Out on the street a black man named Julian approached to ask us where we were from.  When we said America, he cracked:  “Oh, are we friends now?”
We all laughed hard at that quick, succinct, ironic comment on the state of our countries’ political relationship.  
I took the opportunity to try ask him -- in my little bit of Spanish -- about racism.  Luckily John Curl’s Spanish was much better than mine, and he helped me with the question.  Julian said that if black men hang out on the street, the police harasses them, but don’t do the same for whites.  That certainly sounded familiar.
Jose Marti Forest
One of my most memorable and resonating experiences was our visit to the Marti forest.  This is officially called Bosque Martiano Del Ariguanabo, in the Artemis Province outside of Havana.  

It had rained on the bus trip over so by the time we arrived, the ground was muddy, and the mosquitoes were having a field day. We had heard about Zika before leaving home.  I decided to carry a natural mosquito repellent, take B1 vitamins (mosquitos don’t like the smell of it), bone up on immune system boosters and leave it in God’s hands.  
The Forest was the idea and personal project of Rafael Rodriguez Ortiz known as “Felo.” Youthful with glowing smooth bronze-vanilla-rose skin, this robust 75 year-old who lives close to the Earth wanted to develop a monument to Jose Marti, the Cuban who led war of Independence against Spain, and to nature. Looking at him one sees a strong man, sustained by fresh air, pure food, and a passion for history. Dressed in blue jeans and a light blue shirt that looked like it could’ve come from the textile co-op we had visited when we first arrived, Felo wore a straw hat, and he was excited to have visitors from the U.S.
Before he started his presentation tour our group, Felo asked for a volunteer to ring the bell five times to start the presentation.  I was so taken with Felo that I volunteered.  On the 5th ring, he pulled out his machete and waved it in the air.
Pointing to the Cuban flag he told his visitors that the Cuban flag was made in New York in 1848 and a statue honoring Marti was in New York’s Central Park.  
“The people of the United States and Cuba should live more unified,” he said. “We have a history in common. Cuban people want to have US people as friend. The people of Cuba love peace. Today in this ... place we can live with respect.”
Felo told us that he used his own money and time to build an outdoor monument to Jose Marti and the Cuban independence struggle. Marti, a poet and journalist at the time organized the movement after being exiled to Spain when he was 16, after writings promoting independence from Spain.  He became a well-known writer in Europe for the liberation movement and traveled to the U.S.  After leaving New York to returning to Cuba to join the armed struggle in the mountains returning to help fight the war of liberation, he was killed in one of the first armed battles against Spanish colonialism on April 11, 1895.  Marti forest has a symbolic representation of the journey he led.

Felo recreated the 13 camps that Marti took with his men, even finding the same trees and using huge rocks.  Felo told the group that he went around the world searching for the trees that Marti’s armed revolutionaries experienced in their movements through the Cuban countryside.  
The forest has mango trees, and a rare tree (see video). experienced in their movements through the Cuban countryside, huge rocks, a pond with water that though has sewage nature cleans. He said the Cuban people treat  it as sacred ground; no one hunts or kills any birds or animals on his property.
He and his helper, whose name I could not remember, leads tours for school children bringing to life a key part of their country’s history. They told stories about that history, including how African slaves joined the effort, what they ate, and stories of their strength.  I don’t how others took to Marti who said he talks to trees, hugs them, naps in a shelter of rocks, talks of how nature purifies ponds and who beams with such pure love and patriotism. I loved him. He is a kindred spirit.
As far as I know we have nothing comparable in the U.S. – a passionate “grassroots” effort to create a living outdoor monument to the struggle for independence.  All over Cuba, there are murals, artistic representations and statutes, signs and other tributes to the Cuban revolutionaries and leaders and historical incidents.  It seems the Cuban people really learn and celebrate their history.  Felo’s forest seems to me the epitome of that revolutionary fervor.
Back at the hotel, I had a time cleaning mud off my shoes, but it was worth it.  What an honor to experience Felo’s real love of his country, history, nature and people.   See this video of a Cuban man, a part of the forest staff, I believe [whose name I didn’t get], speaking to us about the importance of Felo’s work.  
We visited Habana Vieja – Old Havana with its five plazas, full of shops, hotels and history.  There are so many stories there and in Cuba in general. One sees a country that has suffered much because of economic terror inflicted on them by the U.S., but has managed to survive, and in many cases to prosper.  I left wanting to visit more often, to learn Spanish so that I could talk to people and read books about the history.
A great personal gift
While we were looking around Cuba’s Chinatown, I asked our tour guide if he knew any Valdes.  Before leaving for Cuba, I had looked up my white uncle’s name on the internet to see if perhaps he were still alive, and to see if perhaps I could arrange a visit.  It was a long shot but I asked Raul if he knew any Valdes?  He told me that it was a very common name, and proceeded to tell me the story about children taken in a particular orphanage all adopted the name.  I commandeered him to tell that story again so that I could get it on video.  He was rushing, and it wasn’t as good as his first telling, but I’m glad he was so generous as to tell it again for me.  
I so appreciated having even a sliver of information that could shed some light on my uncle.
About a thousand Chinese Cubans are in Havana, according to Raul Diaz. Here is a video of Diaz explaining a plaque that we saw in Chinatown after visiting the co-op-in-training Bambu Centro. He refers to the Chinese and African roots in Cuba.

Other points of interest
I can’t write about everything but here is video of some points of interest:

  • In Habana Vieja, in a classy cigar shop, a Black woman demonstrates how Cuban cigars are made.
  • A wonderful experience was visiting a compound where African Cubans (apparently they would not identify that way, according to some) who maintain African religious heritage dance in De Hamil Alley on Sundays.  What a treat.  I was exhausted after walking around plazas in Habana Vieja but the energy of the crowd kept me going.  La Nave Del Olvido (The Ship of Forgetfulness) is posted near the “stage.” Take a look at the singing.  Here’s a little tour of the compound.

Our responsibility to Cuba
A mere two weeks in the country was enough to see the genius, hard work and ingenuity of the Cuban people.  Every morning at 6 a.m. it seems a man pushing a cart with something to recycle passed under our hotel window.  (One morning I saw a man pushing a cart full of blue plastic water bottles).  Other times at night, one would see planks of wood, appliances and other items being pushed somewhere. The University of Habana was in need of repair. Even the toilets did not flush and we used buckets of water to flush, like I remembered when I was a child.  I couldn’t help but compare the University’s state to the many universities in Washington, D.C., or the Museo de Revoluccion to the myriad Smithsonian museums there too. These housed Cuba’s historical treasures yet the buildings were in need of work, and the valuables at risk because the country couldn’t afford to put the care into them that it deserved.  People’s housing and places of businesses sometimes didn’t have roofs or windows.  Many people, like the taxi driver who took us to the Museo, work two and three jobs. (He was a teacher but did not earn enough so he worked as a taxi driver and said his third job was keeping his 1950ish car in shape.) There was the man on the street who met one of my friends who could speak enough English to invite her to his compound where they served food and alcohol – his way of bringing in customers. There was the living statue finding a way to earn some money from tourists or the guy in Habana Vieja or “Old Havana” talking about American author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in and wrote from Cuba.
It was the doormen at a local hotel asking if they could trade CUCs for American dollars. It is the musicians everywhere – in the neighborhood bookstore, the California Café and other places playing the best music in hopes of a tip. It is the hundreds of 50ish cars parading Cuba’s streets in search of passengers, a living testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban people. It is the construction co-op that repairs old refrigerators from houses or buildings they are working on for their workers. It is workers in the textile co-op working in conditions to make a living, their neighborhood full of seemingly empty uninhabitable buildings but it would be of no surprise if people were living there.  The owner of a “casa particular” or BNB-like place who wouldn’t let a visitor of his tenant in the living spaces.  There were the large blue water containers on roofs throughout – people collecting rain water to survive.
The Cuban people have guts, no doubt about it.  Our guide told us a couple of fascinating stories of how people survived during the “Special Period” when the financial support from Russia was cut off and the government could no longer provide food for the people.  “I know of some people who raised pigs in their bathtubs,” he said.  Imagine the desperation to decide to give over the bathtub to raise your food.  Other people went out into farmlands to grow food.  I found these stories of survival fascinating.  It reminded me of the stories that I heard from my mother and other black people in South Florida.  My mother said when she was growing up in the 1940s that they as children were always hungry.  The wages paid to black people were not enough to feed children so people banded together to share in all parts of a cow.  My grandmother’s yard had all manner of fruit trees so that her children could at least have fruit to eat.  The circumstances were different but it shows the human spirit and the cooperation needed to survive.

I was fascinated when Dr. Acosta told me in a conversation talk after his presentation at the University of Habana 28th Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, that the Cuban people suffered because the U.S. would penalize ships who dropped off cargo to Cuba by banning them from being able to deliver goods to U.S. ports for six months. See UN document.  This meant that in order for Cuba to be able to get supplies that the country had to pay the shipping company what it would lose in revenue from the Cuban embargo.  That is why there is a pervasive lack of building materials, medical equipment, goods, etc.  People have died because no one would bring some needed materials into the country.
This is so sad to me to learn first-hand how the U.S. economic war against Cuba has hurt the everyday Cuban.  Of course, the U.S. government did not tell us the effect of its criminal acts on the Cuban people, but I feel like those of us who failed to demand to know what that embargo means in terms of human lives have a duty now to end the embargo and to help the Cuban people in whatever ways that we can.  For those of us in the co-op movement, that could mean helping them with co-op development. We must be mindful though that Cuba has developed things that we can learn from too, like the construction co-op that enlisted the help of psychologists and scholars to help workers adapt to cooperative workstyle.  For their part, I believe the Cuban people have developed cracker jack innovation and ingenuity.  I was reminded of that every time I saw the old cars on the street. How they keep these 60-year-old cars not just running, but many of them are beautifully reconstructed. They even have taken these rehabilitation to a fine art, with forming clubs focused around maintaining and proudly showing off these cars.
Having finally gone to Cuba I have lasting images that paint the image of Cuba:
One: those classic cars and what they represent: first the kind of hard work and genius that it must have taken to keep them working, second, the “second” and “third” job that they represent to many workers as taxi drivers and fixing up their cars.  
Two:  People recycling everywhere.  At night returning to our hotel, we would often see people with carts loaded with furniture, wood, and other materials being taken somewhere to either be repurposed or sold.  I bet Cuba has a lot to teach the world about reusing everything.
Three: The hustle.  You saw different ways people made money to survive.  Like here, you had your beggars:  the blind, mothers with children, etc.  But more often than not, there were entrepreneurial - the women and men who spotted tourists and led them to restaurants and clubs no doubt for a cut or some favor.  There were the artists in the outdoor markets crafting beautiful goods, or in the bamboo shop.  There was the “living statue guy” who just amazed me with the perfection of his individual entrepreneurship dressing like a statute and being so still that he appeared to be one, and then became an actor that was so entertaining and amazing.

Four:  the passion and enthusiasm that people had for the revolution that was evident in individuals and in artwork, neighborhoods, and communities.  My best example is the incredible work of Felo.  But there was also the story told about how Cuba wiped out illiteracy in three years with the help of young people. (For more information, see the video Maestra.) Olga at the Institute told the story of how there was a tradition of a reader in the tobacco factory where someone would read to the workers as they worked. Another example is of young people wanting to stay in Cuba and build co-ops. They learn early – in elementary school about “solidarity” so it seems this is as natural as it is for kids in U.S. families learn to be selfish about their toys, their families, etc.
Physical reminders of the heroes of revolution were everywhere: roadside signs, artwork on buildings. Where is any equivalent in U.S. society?
We have commercial places like Philadelphia’s National Historic Park, Gettysburg PA National Military Park and Colonial Williamburg, VA – federal government or municipal government tourist attractions to make money. But that is not what it is like in Cuba.  Even Felo did not charge us, but I have been haunted by thinking that we should have at least offered to donate.  It is a hard life in Cuba, and he spent his time to explain Cuba’s history to us.
As Dr. Jorge Hernandez, former director of the Center for the Study of Hemisphere and U.S.,(brown shirt) said at the conference:  “Cuba is a country marked by its profound anti-imperialism.”
Four:  The Malecon. I love that coastline that is loved by the Cuban people and visitors alike.  Walking along looking at the water. I loved how on any night of the week, but especially the weekend, the people, mostly young, flock there for free entertainment and nature’s air conditioning.  Vendors sell nuts, candy apples, drinks and other goodies.  As a visitor, one of my favorite things to do was to sit on the grounds of Hotel Naccional, buy a guava juice and bask in the breeze from the ocean and watch some people on the Malecon.  I imagine people who felt they had to leave Cuba getting into that water (I’m not sure if any launched from there, but this is only my imagination). Because it is a state-owned hotel, anyone can go there and sit.  The outdoor restaurant was the only place where this vegan could find black beans and rice.

And interestingly, I came to love the Mojito, the national drink with fresh crushes mint, lime, and rum.  I drank mine without the alcohol, and fell in love with it.  
Our Debt to Cuba
First, I believe that we Americans owe it to ourselves, the Cuban people and our world to learn the truth about Cuba. Our government and press lied to us, pure and simple.  We must know the truth about Cuba, including the fact that it would’ve been a political liability for the descendants of African slaves to have  an island so close to the U.S.  We must remember how the Toussiant L’Ouverture and his successful war on slavery in Haiti shook up notions of white invincibility all over the world.  The U.S. didn’t want their black people getting any ideas or courage from the successful revolution in Cuba.  We must know the nature of the “beast.”
Second, we must to work on a grassroots level to end the embargo which has harmed the Cuban people. Many have died who had cancer and other diseases because hospitals could not get access to medical equipment or technology because of the embargo.  
Third, we must organize a reparations movement to try to help rebuild Cuba. I trust that each industry such as medical, housing, technology, etc. can be creative in figuring out what special gift they can provide the Cuban people, especially in medical equipment and services. The U.S. cooperative movement I believe can offer assistance now in educational help on what we know about cooperatives, but do so with respect and appreciation for what the Cuban people have already learned.  Cuba is a revolutionary society different from ours and they have a lot to teach us. A new tour will be happening soon. Those who can afford to go, should.  Learn first-hand what Cuba can teach and what they might need.  Then we need to organize to get it to them by helping to pass legislation to end the embargo.
Fourth, I believe it is critical to build a peace movement with the Cuban people.  We must learn the lessons that Cuba teaches the world through the attacks waged on it by the U.S. government, the people’s refusal to be starved or killed into turning against Castro.  Those who want to deny Castro’s great contribution to the world have their opinions, but we must not allow attacks on people who choose to operate in a different fashion.

Fifth, I feel strongly that African people and all freedom-loving people must especially honor the legacy of Fidel Castro.  The tiny island that he loved fought off the big U.S., despite this country blowing up bombs against civilians and 600 attempts to murder Castro.  The work that the Cuban government did and the Cuban people who suffered to create a truly democratic and humane world is beyond precedence.  Frankly, for his international work under trying circumstances, I can think of no better example. I know I’ll be on “the list” for these views, despite that “democratic” crap the U.S. uses to whip rest of the world in line while being the world’s biggest hypocrite.  But the truth is the light, and as anyone who has studied African people will tell you: Freedom doesn’t come without sacrifices.
As Jorge Hernandes said about the Cuban people:  They are more culturally akin to the U.S. than to the Russians. The Cubans eat lunch and dinner around the same time as we do.  (In Mexico, meals are scheduled similar to Spain with lunch at 3 p.m. and a much late supper.)  TV programs on Saturday are more shaped by American films, instead of Russian.  Even U.S. superheroes like Spiderman and Batman are preferred by Cubans.  “We are anti-imperialist but…Cuban culture has been modeled after the U.S.,” he said.
I definitely saw that having grown up in South Florida, I immediately feeling at home with the mango trees, flambeau trees, and the banana, guava, palm trees. But there is so much more than the island being 90 miles off the Coast of Florida.  We -- America and Cuba -- have a long history.  At the Hotel Naccional, the bars and restaurant a room stands proudly that shows all of the famous U.S. persons who visited Cuba and stayed at the Hotel Naccional. 

Cuba is an impeccable example of how people organize to help themselves and each other.  And without money in many instances.  I would love to hear stories about how Cubans survived the “Special Period.”  They remind me of how African people had to survived the worst racism in the history of the world in America.  It has a high percentage of their people with higher degrees.  I think I heard 64 per cent but have not been able to confirm that with the Cuban Embassy.  The Cuban people have a lot to teach the world about recycling, repair, and other methods of grassroots economic organizing and survival.  And it would add a significant chapter on the subject of race and white supremacy which has infected the planet.  Cuba has made some strides, and has made tremendous progress, but is by no means perfect.
At the airport returning home, we ran into Esteban Kelly, the co-director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.  He had come to Cuba a week after we had on a National Cooperative Business Association tour.  We talked about how the black people we had met denied racism exists in Cuba.  He said he had experienced the same when he visited Brazil.  We laughed about the irony of how Brazil, one of the most racially stratified countries in the world had black people believing that racism did not exist in their country. That’s probably a better brain-wash job than the U.S. Esteban  told me that their tour bus in Cuba had the video playing of a PBS documentary on Blacks in Latin America and the one on Cuba was playing on their tour bus.  
 Had I money I would have loved to buy shirts from the textile co-op, more goods from the bamboo coop, and support the independent artists all over Cuba.  It still boggles my mind when I think about Cuba having no wholesale stores and how hard it must be for businesses.  
I left the country this time with my group.  We left knowing each other more, having developed our own solidarity on the trip:  some of us had run out of money and others helped us out like Doug Orr who loaned me his cell phone when I learned that my mother was in the hospital, and money when I ran out of mine, and Dorien De Luc and Louis Mendelowitz who paid for a meal, and Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Beverly Judge who gave and loaned me money. People in the group also helped out when older person couldn’t walk.  
It changes you to know how other people in the world struggle, and the things that we take for granted in this country, such as going to a restroom with toilet paper and a working toilet. I was assured lack of toilets is common in other countries, even Italy.
Everything else aside, Cuba shows the sheer humanity of people, who have survived decades of poverty and economic suffering but while living heroic and giving lives.  It is a legacy I hope survives as one of the great treasures of humanity.


All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.


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Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo got her start in the worker cooperative movement in 2003 when she was elected to fill a vacancy on the Eastern Coordinating Council, the board of the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy, eastern regional worker cooperative organization, where she served for nine years.  A year after joining the ECC, Ajowa went on to become a founding board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives in 2004 where she participated for eight years. She has also served as Chair of the Democracy at Work Institute and trained with the Democracy at Work Network.  She has also served on the boards of NASCO and NASCO Development Services, and the Ujamaa Collective in Pittsburgh.  She had cofounded the Ella Jo Baker Intentionally Community Cooperative in Washington DC in 2002 and lived in that community for eight years, serving as its Secretary and Treasurer for most of her stay. Ajowa joined GEO in 2005 as a co-editor. She has a master's degree in Business Administration and in Community Economic Development, both from Southern New Hampshire University.  She also earned a degree in Mass Media Arts from the University of the District of Columbia.  She traveled to Mondragon in 2011 and continues to do cooperative organizing in the Washington, D.C. area where she is based. She has a particular interest in internalized superiority and inferiority, and the role of love and spirituality in changing the world.


Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo (2017).  Finally Cuba!:  A Two Week Tour of the Forbidden Socialist Island.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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