By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Ernest Hemingway allegedly said it, and the words are true now more than ever. We are better people if we understand and appreciate the other people of our world.
It was partly Hemingway’s love of Cuba that took us this past month to the shores of that tiny country, just 90 nautical miles off the Florida coast. There, we saw sights that few Americans have enjoyed the last 60 years. Things have been unsettled between our countries since 1959 when Fidel Castro’s forces overthrew the government and Communism’s long reign was cemented.
Only in recent years have the relations between nations thawed. Now, cruise ships from American ports are allowed to dock there, and it was via the Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas that my wife Sue and I embarked on one of our most interesting adventures.
Capitalism, bit by bit, is taking hold there, and I can say with much certainty that our neighbors to the South need us more than we need them. Our investment there lifts the weight of generations that have been denied the privilege of much beyond meager existence. Today, the Cuban government controls most of the economy, and the individual entrepreneur barely gets by. Many of them serve as taxi drivers of the U.S. cars that were left there in the 1950s, before the embargo that blocked the trade of all new U.S. vehicles — and many other products that we take for granted, from medicine to soybeans.
Times are changing. Suddenly, Americans are in again. After years of Cuba’s people fleeing for better life on our shores, we’re finding our way there, and I hope it continues.
We took two organized excursions through Havana, the capital city. We saw Revolution Square where Castro gave some of his most impassioned speeches. We toured Castle De Morro, the fortress built to protect Havana in 1589. We visited Central Park, from which you can see a capital building modeled — believe it nor not — on the U.S. Capitol. And there, we saw men arguing baseball in loud, exaggerated voices — a local tradition.
In one bar, we were serenaded by a toothless man with a guitar, who ad-libbed a song tailored especially for us. I know almost no Spanish, but I understood the song’s intent, and when he produced an upturned hat, I gladly tossed in a tip.
Those are some personal stories from a country that has survived revolt and tyranny almost from its beginning. Cuba was a colony of Spain, from 1492, when Columbus landed there, until the Spanish–American War of 1898, when Cuba was occupied by the United States. It was a U.S. protectorate with nominal independence for much of the early 20th century. It was working to strengthen its democratic system when years of political radicalization and social turmoil led to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1952 and, later, to that of Fidel Castro. Since 1965, the country has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba.
Amid the turbulence, Cuba is a remarkably beautiful country. Some of the greatest Spanish architecture of our time can be found there. The Cathedral de Havana is gorgeous. The “Chamber of Commerce” in Square San Francisco is awe-inspiring. Even a tour of the bars that aforementioned Hemingway haunted is a lesson in local back alleys — La Bodeguita Del Medio for mojitos, the El Floridita for daiquiris.
Given the mind-boggling debate our planet is witnessing over immigration, I wish everyone had the opportunity to travel and find out for themselves what other countries are really like.
One of the world’s greatest writers saw something in Cubans that influenced his novels, inspiring generations of readers. The people there — like those here — are basically good people, but they have been repressed. They live in a country where time has stood still. They love Americans, they deserve democracy, and our influence will go a long way to easing tension in that picturesque part of the world.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 977-6865.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH