November 30, 2005

Play Ball & Be Nice

Sporting and cultural events have disappeared from the collective Cuba-U.S. experience, and we all loose with that score.

Given the potential humanizing effect on all parties involved, it makes sense for us to have yearly games, be it All-Star team competitions or games between league winners. Wouldn’t it be great if these games were on TV? During time outs and game breaks, they could show small video segments of player bios and life in Cuba. ESPN could show a repeat after midnight.

Artists nominated for awards would be given appropriate visas to attend the award shows. And while we’re being friendly, scientists would receive the same allowances.

Earlier this month, a Cuban scientist who helped develop a low-cost vaccine for Haemophilus Influenza Type B, was to receive an award at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. Two days later he was to address a gathering of scientists at the Society for Glycobiology in Boston. It didn’t happen, as Dr. Vicente Verez-Bencomo was not issued a visa by the U.S. State Department.

Dr. Verez-Bencomo is quoted in Yahoo! News: “It’s incomprehensible that a civilized nation can confuse someone who has dedicated his life to saving the lives of children with someone who goes against the interests of the United States. I wasn’t going there to talk about politics, I was going to talk about science.”

Last month, Science Magazine said the vaccine “may someday save millions of lives.”


November 21, 2005

America’s Heart & Soul

The true heart and soul of American society is not visible in the official policy towards Cuba. The kind of transactions and interactions that take place among typical Americans on a daily basis is completely absent from this policy.

Just today I saw a woman give a homeless man a sandwich, a bus driver let someone get on who was short of change, a fruit vendor ran after a woman who forgot her glasses… In a tall building someone held the express elevator for more than a few seconds for someone else they didn’t know… American society at street level. Of course, not everyone is so conscientious, and I’m aware that numerous acts of cruelty and selfishness were taking place outside my notice (particularly in the tall building in the financial district).

But if you look at the way our policy towards Cuba has grown meaner since the fall of the Soviet Union 14 years ago, you could not guess that it came from a people such as we are. You might think that society had little heart.

The separatist approach that we apply to Cuba contradicts our stated American values, and has more in common with old and faded empires than with the self-image of typical Americans today.

Going over the history of the two countries, the heart and soul of America is missing from many vital encounters with the island. That’s a trend that we can change.


November 13, 2005

Martí and Maceo: Good Baby Names

I recently met a beautiful 6-year-old boy named Martí. Not only was he as healthy and loved as the kids in Tina Panziera’s picture, but his parents explained that he was named after Cuba’s José Martí (as if there could be any doubt).

About ten years ago I attended a baby-naming party given by an expecting African-American couple, and I offered Maceo as a possible first name. I showed a few photos of Antonio Maceo and his family, and made a small presentation about their life and wars for Cuban independence.

A year and some months later I attended young Maceo’s first birthday party, and I was deeply moved by his energy and curiosity. He even looked like I might guess Antonio Maceo looked at that age.

I can only hope that the new Martí and the new Maceo can live longer lives than the heroes they were named after, and not have to fight off conquerors and self-appointed “owners” of freedom and democracy. I expect that one of these days they’ll be ready to learn about who they were named after and will be proud of their first names.


November 04, 2005

Cha Cha Cha in the Rain

Aside from a long, complex history that includes centuries of struggle for independence and identity, one of the traits that define Cubans of all shapes, sizes and hyphenations is our odd and often bizarre sense of humor. It’s not just that humor pops up at inopportune times, but that even the most outrageous situation can be seen from a humorous point of view.

Case in point. Two Cuban rebels (one white, the other a freed slave) in the Ten Year War (1868-78) are trapped in a battle they can’t win against a much larger Spanish force. They’ve stayed behind to cover an escape route for other Mambises (this is what the rebels were called). One of them says, “We’re not going to make it out of here!” The other responds, “That’s ok. They’re cooking red beans again tonight.” The first soldier breathes a sigh of relief, “Oh.” Shortly thereafter, they both die in battle. The rest of the Mambises are able to escape into the jungle, but once they return to camp each is served a plate of red beans.

Gene Kelley sang in the rain to celebrate his newfound feelings of love for beautiful Debbie Reynolds. She made him feel alive and renewed, full of life and energy. (She still has that effect on me when I think of her in this role.)

Cubans sing and dance in the rain to celebrate that the rain will eventually stop. That’s how they survived 400 years as a colony, 60 years as a pseudo-colony and forty-six years as a communist state.