Tuesday, August 11, 2015

¡Nos Vemos Cuba!

“There's no one thing that's true. It's all true.”
-Ernest Hemingway

It is fitting to sum up my experiences in Cuba with a quote from Hemingway, who lived in Cuba on and off for two decades. While on concert tour in Cuba, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was provided many truths. All children are educated. Children have no food. Healthcare is free and widely available. There is no medicine. It’s the American Government’s fault. It’s the Cuban Government’s fault.

After eight days in the beautiful and crumbling Havana, I came back to the U.S. dizzy after a ping-pong of realities. In particular, two meetings during our time on the island exemplify the discordant harmony we experienced.  And another provided some ironic beauty.

Leaders from GMCW and YFU were afforded the opportunity to have dinner with the presumed U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis. Among many discussion points including housing, lack of private industry, and crumbling infrastructure, Ambassador DeLaurentis provided a candid statement on the future of Cuba. Paraphrased, he said, “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.” Self-determination is foreign to the Cuban people we met. They have little to no control over their employment, housing, or access to food. It’s a bold and hopeful statement, therefore, to say this will change.

Another meeting was with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. Ms. Castro heads up CENESEX, the national center for sex education (and de-facto LGBT rights group). The reason for her visit was to welcome and thank us for carrying a message of equality, through music, to Cuba. No one anticipated nearly 30 minutes of remarks, and it was a lot to process. An interesting moment centered on the role of the people in shaping policy around LGBT rights. She described that process as necessarily coming up from the people, rather than top down from the government. That’s the only way it will work, she remarked.

In a country where everyday people feel they have no control over the simplest things in life, I wonder how achievable this idealized process of policy change really is. There are times, Ms. Castro explained, that if people disagree with the efforts of the government, in LGBT rights or any other policy arena, then “sanctions” are necessary. Taken to the extreme, it begs the question, does the end outweigh the means?

Our delegation with Amb. DeLaurentis            Mariela Castro listening to GMCW

A third experience in Cuba provided yet another perspective. Four of us on the tour left the group to go wander the city and look at art one morning. What started as a simple adventure to bring some beauty back from the Caribbean turned into one of the most memorable days of my life. We met Americans living part-time in Cuba in a small cafĂ©. We befriended art gallery owners, and even got to know one up-and-coming artist well enough to be invited back to his flat for coffee with his wife. Here was a young man painting highly charged anti-government art and hanging it in state-run galleries with lots of zeros on the price tag. We learned that all art at the gallery level is highly political, and often anti-communist. We learned that, even so, artists are among the highest-paid people in the country and they mostly enjoy freedom from “sanctions.” We learned that the main purchasers of Cuban art are Americans, followed next by a small percentage of Russian buyers. We also learned that the government takes a cut of this art that is, without question, anti-government. The ping-pong balls were going pretty fast at this point.

These experiences did not, for me, provide opposing realities, but rather created a complex and long-developed truth. Cuba is a young nation that is still fighting itself. Even the most charismatic and learned leaders don’t agree on the answers. And there are glimmers of the future, as I saw on a canvas, which still can’t escape the past.