For two decades, the Chamber of the Americas trade missions earned applause and recognition for its past explorations of Latin American and Canadian under the guidance of COTA CEO and Interim Chairman Gil Cisneros. Cisneros introduced American business people to untapped opportunities courtesy of the enhanced knowledge and connections the trade missions facilitate. In 2013, COTA veered from its traditional travel ventures to embark on a people-to-people cultural mission to Cuba. The half century (and counting) trade embargo and travel ban preclude a traditional trade mission, which allowed COTA to engage in the educational arena, a focus that is forefront in the nonprofit organization's long-term visionary endeavors and expansion.
The broad American perception of Cuba is that of an anachronistic government and country; exiled to a bygone time and discarded ideology. The forbidden fruit allure and film noir romanticism retain a potent pull on the American imagination through bohemian bromides and celluloid visages of Hemingway and fedoras, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and berets, and vintage automobiles last seen with regularity in the Eisenhower era. Remnants of those perceptions remain throughout Cuba, but the island nation has progressed past America's stereotypical imagination of Batista's decadence and Castro's severity. These days, Castro's sweeping and soaring sermons under the monumental pillar in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución are seen and heard only on historical video and audio recordings; the state no longer has monolithic business and communication exchanges. Indeed, the general population eagerly trade words, goods and services with foreigners.
COTA's Cuban cultural mission exposed both the holdouts and the passing of Castro’s communist Cuba. While the government's economic reforms and expanded freedoms and allowances appear slow, even begrudging, the newfound permissiveness appears everywhere and every day. The Cuban government's long-awaited and anticipated surrender won't come courtesy of military strikes or economic embargos, but through pragmatism and compromise. Democratic and economic reform will occur through evolution rather than revolution.
COTA's seven days spent in Cuba was a complete and continuous immersion in Cuba's everyday existence – culture, cuisine, education, communications, artistry and business development. The itinerary dominated the participants' activities and attention from morning well into the evening with a non-stop schedule of meetings, lectures and tours throughout Havana and beyond into the Cuban countryside. The people-to-people purpose of the one-week trip facilitated a fast-paced but in-depth insight into contemporary Cuba’s people and circumstances.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, co-organizer of the COTA Cuba cultural mission and a Cuban native, described the week's events as a multipronged and multifaceted excursion into a country, its people and its resources. Through a host of Cuban religious leaders, academics, farmers, nascent entrepreneurs and even American representatives in Havana at the U.S. Interests Section, COTA experienced Cuba in a people-to-people cultural exercise program that went well beyond what a typical tourist excursion would allow. COTA gained upfront and unique insights into Cuban lifestyles, opinions, changes and experiences. The average Cuban citizen on the street who shared and exchanged small talk with COTA members completed the cast of compelling characters in the cultural odyssey.
The Cuban people not only hosted lectures and meetings for COTA. They invited COTA into their homes and confidences. Rather than a simple series of formal exchanges of lectures, meetings and tours, COTA members and Cubans interacted, conversed, socialized and dined outside the rigid structure and stricture of the standard lecture and Q&A template.
An example featured a relaxed roundtable exchange between COTA members and Dr. Carlos Alzugaray Treto at a private Cuban home of his friend in a relatively upscale neighborhood just outside Old Havana's periphery. Dr. Alzugaray Treto, a professor and former Cuban ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, discussed historical and contemporary events and circumstances of Cuban governments and economies, and explained the changes that are slowly but surely altering the Cuban political and socioeconomic landscape. He also opined on the various factors impeding change, including the hesitancy of Cubans to discard completely old conceptions and practices, the Cuban government's resistance to swift, sweeping and seismic transmutation, and the elephant circling every discussion on Cuba – the American embargo.
The overall lesson learned is that Cuba, its government, its people and its future are more nuanced, complex and dynamic entities than disseminated through commentaries and news reports in either Cuban or American media. And the revolutionary precepts of the late 50's and 60's appear more on billboard slogans than in everyday existence. Following the roundtable exchange, COTA members invited Dr. Alzugaray Treto to lunch at a local paladar (privately operated restaurant) where the discussion shed what little decorative vestiges of formal presentation appeared at the scheduled presentation with the easy spontaneity and comfortable interaction typically encountered at dinner conversations of old friends and business associates. Instances and examples of presentations transformed into conversations occurred regularly throughout COTA’s Cuba cultural mission.
While not as intimate or lengthy, Miguel Coyula's presentation candidly informed the COTA group about a contemporary challenge, even a crisis, for Cuba and its citizens. While government subsidies keep homelessness to a minimum and a substantial percentage of Cubans own their residences, the lack of financial and material means to maintain homes leaves many Cubans residing in squalid structures that would attract condemnation notices in any American municipality. Coyula, an expert on Cuba's heralded colonial architecture, emphasizes the need for responsible legislation and practices to restore and preserve rather than merely improvise and develop (although Coyula advocates for green building designs and development). The discussion on housing revealed an ironic occurrence in contemporary Cuba at odds with the historical conception and aspirations of the revolution’s communal ideology. Remittances from foreign relatives, mainly Cuban Americans, have created a significant socioeconomic disparity among a nominally egalitarian society.
As Coyula stated in a lecture at American University in 2010 (reported in the America Today), "Poverty and privilege exist side by side." He places responsibility for remedial solutions on both the state and homeowners with government intervention and subsidies and enhanced citizen education and practices.
Free speech and expression in contemporary Cuba is neither as restricted nor as ubiquitous as conflicting reports assert. While the Internet is still a luxury item and the Cuban population doesn't enjoy easy and affordable access to mass communication technologies, cell phones have become relatively common among the general population in the past few years. A burgeoning blogging community, largely comprised of intellectuals, has become increasingly insistent in demands for expanded reforms and opportunities. Ironically, the breeding ground for the revolution – the University of – has become a hotspot of activism. Cuba has joined the digital era as commentary and protests spread through networks congregating online rather than in streets and squares.
COTA met with several of Cuba's digital commentators who scribe online missives agitating for greater freedoms, rights and opportunities. Harold Cardenas Lema, a professor at the University of Matanzas, blogs for Joven Cuba, Yasmin Silvia Portales, a Observatorio Critico member advocating for Afro Cuban, gender and LGTB rights, and Elaine Diaz, a professor at the University of Havana's School of Communication all disseminate opinions and propel awareness and action through digital dissemination. Obviously, in the last century, the Internet and activism weren't tools and options that today's Cuban activists use without fear and reprisals.
The cultural mission introduced COTA to Cuba's growing entrepreneurial class, a disparate set of small business people eager to expand income and opportunities following Raul Castro's allowance of limited capitalism in communist Cuba. Havana teems with taxi drivers, restaurant owners, street corner merchants and Cubans modeling in period costumes for a paid photo op. Filmmaker Rafael Rosales owns and operates the Cafe Bar Madrigal, a watering hole reminiscent of Hemingway’s and Hollywood’s ideated and idyllic Havana. A couple of hours outside Havana, COTA visited a Cuban entrepreneur who transformed the family home into a quaint bed and breakfast operation, a common occurrence in rural villages. A few miles away, COTA toured a family tobacco farm, exploring the organic origination of the fabled Cuban cigar. COTA also visited the Ludwig Foundation, situated on the top floor of a Havana highrise, where curator Wilfredo Benitez lectured on Cuba’s artistic culture and trends. Examples of Cuban artistry of the avant-garde variety adorned the walls, each piece displayed with the option to buy.
Cuba's innovative and energetic entrepreneurial efforts, while limited in relative scope and returns compared to American standards, firmly signal that the severe and stark austerity of Soviet-style communism appears today in history books and dated conceptions more than the contemporary Cuban mindset and reality.
Religion has endured through 50-plus years of communistic rule. COTA experienced two temples of Cuban devotion – a Catholic cathedral frequented primarily by Havana's black population and a synagogue serving the city's Jewish population. Regla claims the Black Madonna, a shrine to the Virgin Mary cast in a complexion corresponding to the black worshippers paying homage and seeking solace and guidance. The president of the Cuban Jewish Community, Adela Dworin addresses the spiritual and material needs of her constituency at the Beth Shalom Synagogue. The diversity of Cuba’s open and vibrant religious expression contradicts the notion that the nation is largely atheist and non-denominational.
COTA member Chrissy Lynch summarized the cultural mission as a fascinating learning experience. “Thank you Gil and Chamber of the Americas for an outstanding trip,” Lynch wrote in an email. “I feel very fortunate I was able to experience Cuba in this way and with such great people. The group leader's experience, connections and passion were priceless and I am unable to express how impactful and thought provoking this trip was for me. I would highly recommend this trip program to anyone interested in Cuba.”
The friendliness and openness of the Cuban people impressed COTA Communications Director Wayne Trujillo. “The Cuban disposition regarding Americans is one of great curiosity and a visceral desire to interact and experience American traditions and lifestyles,” Trujillo noted. “As excited as we were to learn about Cuban traditions and culture, the Cubans we met seemed even more eager to learn about our lifestyles and communities. Cuba’s people are truly its greatest national treasure and natural resource.”
On behalf of COTA, Cisneros extends gratitude to the members who participated in the Cuba cultural mission, tour organizers Arturo Lopez-Levy and Colin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, the Cuban presenters and hosts, and the Cuban people for their warmth, generosity and assistance. “It’s been 51 years since I’ve been to Cuba,” Cisneros stated. “It’s a great, beautiful country with wonderful gastronomy and friendly people, but a government that leaves a lot to be desired. I felt overall that there are positive changes happening in Cuba, but change is slow. However, Cubans remain hopeful. I would go back in a New York second if I have the opportunity to be in a position to help the Cuban people with their economic development efforts.”
Additional information and online resources about the speakers and hosts of the 2013 COTA Cuba Cultural Mission:
Ambassador Carlos Alzugaray
Roberto Veiga Gonzalez, Editor Catholic Magazine Espacio Laical.
Vice Editor Catholic Magazine Espacio Laical.
Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva
Yasmin Silvia Portales, Activist LGTB, Gender and Afro Cuban rights. Member of the Observatorio Critico.
Professor School of Communication University of Havana. Blogger. "La Polemica Digital"
President Cuban Jewish Community
Beth Shalom Synagogue.