Short Story: Between Dream and Reality: My First Visit to Cuba

This is a story of my first visit to Cuba in June 1994.
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  Short Story: Between Dream and Reality: My First Visit to Cuba By Kamran Nayeri May 21, 2019  As the Cubana de Aviación's Antonov An-24 44-seat twin turboprop plane took off from the Cancún airport for José Mari International Airport in Havana I was filled with a feeling of joy.    A dream of my political life to visit revolutionary Cuba was about to be fulfilled.   Suddenly, smoke rose from the floor of the cabin. My heart sank! “Would we make it to Havana?” I asked myself instantaneously.   One look around the cabin and I saw flight attendants busy going after their post take-off tasks. A few of other passengers had a look of concern on their faces. But others seemed unconcerned. A man across the isle from me   s loudly said: “Sorry but that is how it is!”   I did not understand what exactly he meant until later when someone explained to me that the collision of the colder air pumped into the cabin by the air conditioning system with the hot and humid Cancùn  A festive May Day crowd on the Malecon, in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, 2004.  air that had filled the cabin when we boarded the plane from a ladder on the tarmac had caused instant condensation that appeared as “smoke” rising from the floor of the cabin.  With my mind at ease once again, I returned to my dream dreaming about what I am about to witness when we arrive in Havana just as the plane made it across the blue sky over the Yucatan channel where Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea meet.   I was on my way to the Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, a five-day event at the University of Havana, in June of 1994. Professor of philosophy Cliff DuRand, a member of    Radical Philosophy Association, organized these annual conferences in collaboration with some Cuban philosophers and socialist scientists.    While such conferences did serve an academic purpose, they also provided a  venue to circumvent the inhumane U.S. embargo laws that were meant to suffocate the Cuban people and their revolution while at the same time taking away the right of U.S. citizens and resident to travel as we please. Only a very limited number of U.S. citizens and residents could have visited Cuba legally for family, business, journalistic, or academic reasons or they would have to ask for a special permit to travel from the Treasury Department. Thus, many thousands of Americans visited Cuba illegally every  year. Not an hour had passed when land appeared in the horizon and the plane circled and landed in the modest José Marti International Airport just south of the city of Havana.   The customs and immigration did not take much time as the airport was not busy.   Knowing full well that some U.S. residents may be traveling despite the embargo laws Cuban immigration officers asked us whether we want their visa issued on a separate sheet. Hotel Colina  More than a dozen conference participants were on the same flight. As Cliff had suggested we had made reservations to stay in the same hotel in Cancún for the night  before our departure for Havana.   For decades there was no direct flight to Cuba from  the U.S. due to the U.S. embargo. So travelers from the U.S. had to take a plane to Cuba from the neighboring countries with Cancún being the most favored airport as both Cuban or Mexican airlines have regular flights to Havana.  As I walked out the Jos "  Marti airport building, I took in the hot and lightly musky air that was more humid than in Cancún.   Two Cuban guides, Eduardo and Ramon, holding a sign welcomed us one by one and boarded everyone on an air conditioned bus that traveled nine miles through to the north side of Havana to Hotel Colina, a budget hotel frequented by visitors to the University of Havana that was just a couple of blocks away.   The hotel has five floors with guest rooms and the lobby floor include a small restaurant and bar on the left side. Located at   calle L e/ 27 y Jovellar, in Vedado neighborhood in the norther part of Havana, it is strategically as they are many cultural locations for a  visitor to explore nearby.     At the hotel lobby we were assigned to a room, typically two persons to a room (except for those who paid extra for a single occupancy room). I was assigned a room with a  young philosophy student named Mike who I came to like a lot as we spent a lot of time discussing not only the Cuban revolution but also U.S. politics.   It was still early afternoon and after lunch we were invited to go for a walk in the historic Habana vieja (Old Havana), a gem of colonial architecture    with a number of hotels, restaurants and bars, but also cultural, political, and administrative institutions.   Because it is the hub of Cuban tourism there are also street artists and vendors who try to make a living off the tourists who go by. For me the entire experience was a novel  journey as experiencing minutia of daily happenings is to a toddler.  Alas, there were also small boys who followed us around asking for our pens and pencils. I found it extremely distressful despite having prepared for it on an intellectual level. I knew fully well that I was traveling to Cuba in the midst of its great depression caused  by the collapse of the Soviet bloc which had provided it with two decades of favorable trade and credit relations as a member of the Council of Mutual Economic Cooperation (CMEA).   Later I learned that the real GDP had contracted at an average annual rate of 10 percent from 1990 to 1993 and that June 1994 when we were in Cuba the economy had hit the bottom.   The impact of the economic crisis was comparable to the Great Depression in the United States except Cuba was also facing an intensification of the U.S. embargo that Washington hoped would hasten the collapse of the Cuban revolution. It was later that I learned about the extent of hunger and malnutrition that set off the epidemic of optic and peripheral neuropathy which occurred in Cuba during 1992–1993 affecting over 50,000 people.  A conversation at the bar    A map of Vedado neighborhood   After dinner I accompanied Mike and another U.S. participants to a bar nearby for a mojito. It must have been about 9 or 10 o’clock at night and there were no table seats. I sat by myself at the bar next to a young Afro-Cuban woman and ordered a mojito. After exchanging pleasantries in my very limited Spanish, the young woman began to speak in English asking me why I was there in Havana. I briefly mentioned the conference but  went on to express my admiration for the Cuban revolution in part because I wanted to ask her about   the children I had seen in Habana vieja.    As if she too was glad to find "an American" to ask her questions about Cuba, she quick  went from the question about the children to her view about the failure of socialism.  Alluding to my reference to Che Guevara’s vision of socialism, she dismissed it as a dream that has failed miserably not just in the Soviet bloc but also in Cuba. She told me that she is at the bar looking for men who want to have a good time.   In her view, socialism was a lie perpetuated by a regime that had enriched itself at the expense of the Cuban people whose basic material needs are not met. She dismissed my argument about the gains of the Cuban revolution from achieving independence from  Washington to provision of education, health care, housing, and culture for ordinary Cubans.   But to her mind, Cuba had exchanged one master for another--United States for the Soviet Union. To her mind the U.S. has proven resilient and successful in providing all that a consumer could demand. While the "communist" model followed by Cuba has proved in crisis as in full display now and where the population's needs for consumer goods are not met and can not be met.   Not being able to voice their grievances, she claimed, dissident like her had no choice but try to escape.   Meanwhile, she said she was selling the only thing she had that was marketable, her  body. She was looking for a man to take her out of Cuba, preferably to the United States. Of course, I was not the right pick for her.   I left the bar in a daze to return to my room. That night I did not sleep well and when I did fall asleep, I had anxiety dreams about Cuba and about socialism.  
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