My Summer in Havana, Cuba: Friendship, the Government and the Embargo

San Cristobal Cathedral in Havana

By Bill Smith

I was in Cuba that summer to attend a Spanish-language immersion program at the University of Havana. One Saturday morning, on a quiet street in the El Vedado section of Havana, my classmates and I mounted our bicycles for a guided cultural tour of the city. I noticed an attractive Afro-Cuban woman watching us from across the street. When I went over to introduce myself, her eyes lit up like a neon signs – I heard a virtual cash register ringing in her head. To her, I was a black American relative of Bill Gates or Donald Trump, more than able to give her whatever she wanted. In turn, I saw Luisa as an opportunity to practice my Spanish and immerse myself in Afro-Cuban culture.

I met her two children; seven year old Miguel and Ingrid who was five. I was also introduced to her mother Isabel, her brother Ronaldo, and other members of her family. They lived in a rough-looking housing project across the street from where I was staying. After visiting Luisa numerous times, I realized that although the people were poor, there was hardly any crime. The Cuban government is very hard on crime. What might get you a slap on the wrist in the United States can easily get you 10 to 20 years in Cuba.

The first time Luisa and I were alone, she asked that I take her back to the United States. The last thing I wanted to bring back from Cuba was a wife; especially one who couldn’t see past my wallet. She told her family that I was going to take her back to the United States of America with me. I told her I wanted to stay in Cuba with her, and together we could support the revolution. That shut her up! But the trade embargo looms large in the lives of the Cuban people. Later, as we went shopping, she lured me over to the appliance section and tried to persuade me to buy her a refrigerator – way over my vacation budget!

As I got to know Luisa better, I realized she wasn’t being devious. Instead, she was desperately trying to make ends meet for herself and her children. The unrelenting trade embargo against Cuba wasn’t hurting Castro nearly as much as it hurt people like Luisa and her family. For that reason, I felt good about helping them in ways I could afford. The day before my departure, I gave Luisa’s children gifts. Exhilaration and appreciation are the words I used to describe their reaction. After I returned home to Oakland, Luisa and I stayed in touch by phone and by mail. My Luisa, her children, and her mother are friends separated by the politics of the revolution, friends to whom I can’t send money or gifts without the Cuban government’s greedy interference.

About Cuba itself? My trip was a vacation from heaven. There was something about the energy of the Cuban people that made me feel like a long lost son who had finally come home. Words cannot express how happy I was to walk around town hearing salsa, merengue, and Afro-Cuban music blaring from homes and businesses. One day, as a group of us walked through Central Havana, we heard a loud salsa song coming from a restaurant. I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached out and grabbed a woman, and we danced right there on the street.

Of the 12 countries that I’ve visited in my life, Cuba is the only one from which I returned feeling homesick. In fact, many Latin-American people believe me to be Cuban. Even Cubans think so – until I open my mouth. I can’t even fake a Cuban accent. At a popular Havana night spot, I was totally flattered when a lovely woman asked my date if she could cut in to dance with me. I took her into my arms and busted one of my favorite salsa moves. She was NOT impressed, and she blurted out in astonishment, “Tu bailas como extranjero /you dance like a foreigner!” She thought I was Cuban too.

Cubans have a name for people like me. It’s “Yuma,” a slang word for American, and rightfully so. I was born in St. Louis, MO. I lived in what was then a closely knit African-American community called “The Ville” before moving to New York City. There I was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors to learn Spanish and love salsa music. Perhaps I was Cuban in another life? It just might be true!

billsmith My Summer in Havana, Cuba:  Friendship, the Government and the EmbargoAbout Bill Smith: Bill Smith is a hobbyist who explores black cultures in Latin-American countries through reading and travel. He keeps a blog entitled African American-Latino World.

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