Reflections on Cuba, Colleagues, and Cancer

By Angie Willis, Department of Hispanic Studies

June 1, 2018: Written, Journaled, the Day after returning from our trip.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas Second Plenary Session in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.

A few years ago, the Bacca Family Foundation generously gifted a hefty wad of money to Davidson College for those interested in dreaming up creative ways of approaching the study of the Humanities (the sciences tend to get more $; Humanities folks, well, not so much). At that time, Obama was president and recently, he had really reopened relationships with Cuba—as in for the first time since the Cold War, a sitting US president and a Cuban president (then Raúl Castro had taken over for his brother; as I write this, just a few weeks ago, Raúl stepped down) met; Obama and his family had even visited Cuba; the US embassy was reestablished in Havana. Around campus, I had heard numerous rumbles of interest about traveling to Cuba with these magical funds. As a person who works with contemporary Cuban writers and one who wanted and needed to return (I had been a few times before, when diplomatic relationships had not yet been reinstated), I thought that seeing Cuban culture through the interdisciplinary perspectives of my wise colleagues would be worthy of a grant attempt. Over the course of a few weeks, in conjunction with a few other colleagues, I wrote a grant proposal to travel to and study Cuba in a transdisciplinary way. We ended up adding non-Humanities professors too, and our group was all the richer for it.

Months later, finally, we were elated to learn that we had received the grant.

Laundry hanging off a porch while classic cars drive by on the street
A street in Cuba in 2003

But, shortly thereafter, our hopes were crushed. First, President Gloom and Doom was elected; then, diplomats at both the US and Canadian embassies complained of bizarre sounds that reportedly caused physical damage (though many Cubans think that this was made up by Trump’s people to have an excuse to maintain the embargo and to undo Obama’s good deeds. There have been all kinds of theories about what caused the strange noises—the effects of Cold War era type spying, psychosomatic symptoms, and even crickets. Yes, crickets.). Relationships with Cuba started to spiral and to deteriorate anew. It looked iffy that we would go.

Angie in an infusion chair

Then, my own personal tragedy struck. I was diagnosed with breast cancer early in September of 2017. My vision of going to Cuba with friends and colleagues began to not only to blur, but to vanish.


Fortunately, my colleagues decided to persist, hoping for the best. Some incredibly generous colleagues, a few in particular—Amanda Ewington, and later, Sharon Green and Cara Evanson– stepped up and took over all of pre-trip coordination. I read the planning emails from afar, often from my infusion chair in a semi-drugged state, and from home, melancholic, resigned to the probability that I would not be going, despite my oncologist’s cautious optimism. I was thrilled for my peers, while tremendously sad for myself. I am thankful that my doctor continued encouraging me.

But here I was, months later, on the last night of a 10-day trip, sitting around a shared table at a community art center, Lawton, in a poor part of Havana (“poor” by Cuban standards), enjoying the company of my American and Cuban friends. Tomorrow, I would have to head back to the infusion chair, but for now, I was treasuring my last hours of forgetting about cancer.


All over again, I fell in love with the Island and its people. It is simply too difficult to put succinctly into words. Cuba always breaks my heart in both new, and repeated ways. I have heard Cuba described as both enthralling and haunting. It is just that.

Mosaic-covered sculptures
Fusterlandia, a neighborhood in Havana filled with artist José Fuster’s mosaics

I must first reassure my Cuban exile friends that I have not been “duped,” as some may say. Though I am not Cuban, I do know that Cubans, Cuban-Americans, those both on and off the Island, those “living on the hyphen” (Gustavo Pérez-Firmat) have suffered in ways that I can only imagine. I mourn their loss. I mourn their lost childhoods, as they were separated from their families to work in the fields; their lost careers, lost fortunes, and lost potential of all kinds; and most importantly, I weep for their lost families. Cuba and its descendants are often divided, broken, irreparably damaged families and people. Scarred permanently. They have been destroyed for ideals that were not shared by all. I mourn for the writers, the activists and dissidents that were (and are) silenced, sent to concentration camps, even killed. I weep for those who kept waiting to return, but never could. I feel the ache of those who gave up on living on the Island, but who at least wanted to be buried where they were born, but whose bones still await interment here.

Books piled high in stacks inside a narrow entrance
Bookstore in Havana

I see the cities that were once splendor, and are now in ruins, like old, washed up whores, waiting for the good times to return. I have squatted over the countless toilets without lids, without paper, without water, without soap. I have been on the roads that are washed away, generally eerily empty of cars, instead filled with horses and carts, as if we were still in the eighteenth century. I have seen the bridges that lead to nowhere. I know.

And, I know that this is not my country, that this was not my house, my job, my family, nor my home. But I still see the loss. And I mourn.

But I also see the beauty just below—and above— the surface. I am hypnotized by the flight of the Cuban emerald hummingbirds, locally known as zunzún because of the noise that they make, endemic to Cuba (and some parts of the Bahamas). I, too, drink up the sugar-nectar-rum, the flowers, the rainfall, even the Cuban state propaganda Kool-aid, if just for a bit. I sincerely admire the gains that the Revolution did make for some of the poorest and most neglected, for the starving children, for the illiterate, for those without access to health care, for women and those of color —though much remains to be done. I applaud the public art that serves to feed and educate its communities. I hear the constant beat of the simultaneously tragic and amused/-ing music. I have tasted the mangoes grown with so much pride on the small farmer’s plot/ sculpture garden, where art decorates the landscape, right beside his crops and bee boxes, as both agriculture and art are seen as of fundamental importance, as interlaced. I am endlessly impressed by the ingenuity of Cubans engineers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs, their ability to make everything out of nothing (el invento cubano). I am infinitely amused by Cuban choteo, or as it is now more commonly described by our young Cuban guides, jodedera, ironic and playful humor that helps to counter the often impossible realities of daily life. I deeply embrace Cuban generosity, kindness and warmth.

Six men stand in front of a low red wall with a green valley behind them
Our drivers and guides, Yasniel, David, Ramón, Ernesto, Daniel, and Fredy

I —we, my fourteen colleagues and I—have made new, fast close friends, in particular, our 20-30- something -year-old guides and drivers. They kept us safe, fed and even entertained during a tropical storm, bringing us a spontaneous salsa lessons and a band when we were rained in, thanks to Tropical Storm Alberto. During our trip, Cuba experiences its greatest rainfall in thirty years. No matter. Our first-world caution went out the window as we drove through waters that are at least a foot deep; we danced unabashedly until late; we drank rum and smoked cigars; and most importantly, we forged and cherished our new friendships. Our guides also gave us their all. We really hope that they know that we will be there for them going forward. You see, that’s why so many of us cry when we leave. We go back to our easy, planned, organized sanitized lives, filled with American optimism and “can-do” attitudes, leaving it all behind. Effortlessly, we hop on a plane, and instantly, enter a new, easier reality. They do not.


Angie smokes a cigar in Viñales, Cuba

Besides the Cubans, my relationships with these fourteen colleagues have grown in new and immeasurable ways. We have traveled, shared, broken bread and communed, groused about bathrooms, and danced (generally laughably, but, hey! We tried!).

 I am part of a new community, one that transcends stale militant and political boundaries grown out of Colonial and Cold War diplomacy, divisions strengthened geographically in seas that provide natural and often impenetrable borders (Virgilio Piñera’s infamous description of Cuba as “la maldita circunstancia de aguas por todas partes” {“the damned circumstance of having water all around me”} in “La isla en peso” comes to mine). This new community is both international and local, as it has also fortified previously tepid relationships with colleagues, ones only ever so slightly initiated in the hallways of my campus … We are a circle forged in mutual understanding, respect, and intellectual and cultural curiosity. May it endure.

Appropriately, the voices of Cuban-American Camila Cabello, alongside Young Thug, haunt me “Havana, ooh na-na…half of my heart is in Havana, ooh na-na….”


Tonight, part of my heart and mind are still there.

A green hummingbird perched on a branch
Cuban Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii) in Viñales

I will watch North Carolina’s ruby-throated hummingbirds on my porch tomorrow, after perching for a while in the infusion chair.


By Anne Blue Wills, Department of Religious Studies

Part of my desire to travel to Cuba was to see something of the Santería religious tradition up close. When I teach about African-American religious history, I try to help students understand that the contemporary scene in the U.S. has deep roots in African belief and practice – roots that, given the routes of slave-trading, pass through the Caribbean. But any expertise I have about Afro-Caribbean religion is from reading about it. I hoped to see something of Afro-Caribbean religious practice during our trip.  

Santería grew from the encounter of West African traditional religious practices (specifically Yoruban traditions) with Spanish Catholicism. Enslaved Africans were expected to embrace their captors’ Catholicism. One result of this forced proselytization was Santería, a syncretic integration of West African and Spanish Catholic belief and practice. Santería layered and braided together the concerns, preferences, and personalities of the orishas – the pantheon of West African deities – with those of the saints – revered souls from the European Catholic tradition. 

Two women in colorful yellow clothing looking at a cell phone beneath an entryway reading "Callejón de Hamel"
Entrance to Callejón de Hamel, home to Havana’s Santería community

Early in our visit to Cuba, we visited the Callejón de Hamel, which our guides described as the home of Santería in Havana. Color, found-object art, and collages abounded in the two-block district. I found the experience puzzling. Some of the symbols of Santería appeared in murals. But nothing ceremonial seemed to be “happening.” The Callejón struck me as a tourist trap, a set-up for tourists in search of the exotic – and being there made me feel like a tourist. (Moi?) As I walked around, I kept thinking, Watch out, don’t fall for it! Not real Santería! – meaning, it wasn’t the Santería that I’d (only) read about. Looking back on the visit now, I’m embarrassed by my professional desire to control and dismiss what I saw; I was reacting like some of my students do when asked to think about “religion” that differs from their expectations. Reflecting on the Callejón now, I wonder if its profuse, multisensory, commodified energy was part of the point. Spiritual power manifests as incommensurate with expectations, beyond calculation.

Two women and one man dressed head to toe in white in front of a red wall and foliage
Cubans dressed in white in Regla neighborhood of Havana. Practitioners of Santería wear white as part of their commitment to a year of purification practices

We visited another site where Santería is part of the residents’ life – the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla, a ferry-ride across the harbor in Havana. It’s a Catholic church but Our Lady is also worshiped by Santeros as Yemaya, the Yoruban ocean goddess. The Regla neighborhood, away from the old city, struck me completely differently at the time than did the Callejón. Where the latter was garish, crowded, hot, the former was pastel-colored, quiet, cool. A group of women sitting inside the church entrance monitored visitors. They loaned a skirt to one shorts-clad female entrant; she needed to be properly dressed to come into this space. In contrast to the Callejón’s commercial bustle, the Regla church was full of people recognizable as pilgrims – lighting candles, praying, petitioning specific saints stationed around the church’s walls. This, this was more like it. I could fit the Regla church more easily into my categories. Being there moved me in a way that I could recognize.

Yet even there, I encountered another jolt to my expectations: at a side chapel I watched as a woman asked one of our group to take her picture. She wanted to be photographed as she lit a candle in front of the altar to Our Lady/Yemaya. She wanted to capture this moment on film, preserve it, reproduce it, share it. The ladies at the door carefully managed sacred boundaries. Sincere devotees with cameras created their own relics. Even now, somewhere, the woman’s photograph circulates the news of her devotion, the power of that place, and the unpredictability of holy things.

Life, Liberty, and Property

By Daniel Layman, Department of Philosophy

“So, what sort of research do you do?”

Ever since Nicolás* sat down across from me for a late lunch in the sweltering mid-day Havana heat, I had awaited this question with some trepidation. There was nothing to fear in the question itself: As a junior academic, I answer it constantly and, usually, happily.  Rather, I was anxious that afternoon because I did not anticipate a warm response to the reply that I knew honesty required me to offer. My work focuses almost exclusively on interpreting and, in large measure, defending the tradition of Anglo-American liberalism that began to emerge during the early enlightenment and which for almost two centuries now has been subject to trenchant Marxian critique. Since Cuba’s official state ideology is explicitly hostile to this tradition, I expected that Nicolás would greet my ideas with contempt or even anger. He would, I worried, see me as the enemy.

“So, what sort of research do you do?”

With an internal sigh, I came out with it: “I work on Locke’s conception of freedom, especially its implications for market structures and property rights.” Braced as I was for a hostile exchange, Nicolás’s reply caught me off guard: “That’s so interesting! I’ve always considered myself a Jeffersonian. If we Cubans can just throw off the broken model of governance we inherited from the USSR, I think our revolution might come to embody the principles of enlightenment liberalism more than any other society in the world.”

I have to admit that I was initially a little embarrassed: How could I have made assumptions about what this fellow scholar would say based solely on pronouncements by his national government? But however well-deserved it might have been, that embarrassment melted away as our conversation quickly developed into one of the most fruitful and enlightening exchanges I’ve ever had. Nicolás and I were largely on the same page, we soon discovered, about the basic structure of liberty and its relationship to the dignity and equality of individuals. Moreover, we also agreed that markets can threaten that liberty. We disagreed, however, on the role the state should play in securing equal freedom. While I argued for a society based on markets operating against a backdrop of extensive social insurance, Nicolás argued that only public ownership of firms and other capital could do the job. By the time 3:30PM rolled around (yes, lunch runs late in Cuba), I was sad for our conversation to end. I had learned a great deal, and I could have learned much more.

Six people talking at a table with food
Colleagues at lunch

So, what did I gain from my afternoon with Nicolás? Most obviously, I walked away with the insights and reflections one always acquires from a careful and sensitive intellectual debate. But more importantly, I left with a renewed conviction that ideas really can bring us into exciting and rewarding contact with others, and that cultural and ideological divides might not be so wide as we are sometimes inclined to assume.  

*Name has been changed

Stuck in Cienfuegos

By Sharon Green, Department of Theatre

“1, 2, 3. Pause. 5, 6, 7. Again! 1, 2, 3. 5, 6, 7.”

In one straight line, with the furniture cleared to the sides of the tiled living room and torrential rain outside, 15 colleagues and I dove into salsa lessons in our temporary home in Cienfuegos, Cuba. “Mujeres, cintura! Hombres, abrazos!” We laughed as a young couple tried to teach us the basics of this national dance and learned firsthand how deeply cultural knowledge can be embodied. No place was this more obvious than in Cuba where streets oozed with music and a direction like “mujeres, cintura,” yielded confusion and giggles from a gaggle of American academics.

Two salsa instructors demonstrates steps to a line of people behind them
Learning steps from our salsa instructors

Step forward, step back. Step side, step center. Within 30 minutes, most of us had conquered, perhaps not mastered, this basic footwork of salsa dancing. Feeling confident in our ability, we were quickly dispelled of any feelings of mastery and delusions that we might look like locals when the instructor tossed in the next element – “Mujeres! Cintura!” Our feet could certainly follow the basics, but our hips were another story. Umm, what exactly were we being asked to do with our waist? The female instructor demonstrated. Precise and easy to follow directions were provided for the footwork, but what we ought to do with our hips – a smooth swivel that was equal measures sensual and athletic – was described simply by naming the body part that ought to move. Fifty-five minutes of instruction guided our feet to the right position and rhythm, and gave us some very specific and concrete instructions to follow. We could do that. But the key to salsa dancing it seemed lay elsewhere. Steps can be taught and learned (in 55 minutes!) but the accompanying hip movement was presumed to already be known, something we would just “do.”

A rain storm – well, let’s just call it a tropical storm because it was one – kept us indoors all day. We had arrived in Cienfuegos, after a day of travel from Havana, the previous evening…just as the rain began. By morning the small area around our house was flooded, as were the roads out of town. Our original plans to depart that morning changed and we found ourselves stuck in Cienfuegos; card-playing gave way to journal writing, napping, rum drinking, and eventually a salsa dancing party. How the dance instructors and band managed to show up despite the flooding, who knows, but they did so in good spirits.

A four-year-old girl dances to a live band
Four-year-old girl showing off her dance moves

Prepped with an hour-long lesson, taught by professional salsa dancers who also happened to be new parents, we found ourselves, suddenly attending a salsa party at which we were the honored guests. We were joined by members of the family who ran the inn – several adults and one four-year-old girl – our guides, drivers, and the musicians. It was the young girl who taught us the most that evening. It took several hours, and the dedication of several members of our group, but she finally felt at ease with the mob of Americans that had descended upon her house. As the music played and the dancing became more enthusiastic, she took several of us by the hand to the dance floor to be her dance partner. With the exuberance of a child who suddenly finds themselves at the center of adults’ attention, she entered the dancing circle that had formed around her for a solo. With glee, she demo-ed her dance skills which featured expert execution of the hip swirls the American adults struggled to master; the applause she received confirmed her mastery of embodied cultural knowledge. If a four-year-old can do it, no wonder the salsa instructors felt no additional instructions were necessary; “cintura!” revealed precisely the ways in which cultural experiences and knowledge can be embedded in bodily practices that can neither be learned nor understood through non-embodied study. This is precisely why our study group’s learning can’t be reduced to narrative reports, nor to historical records. We learned with our bodies; dancing, tasting, smelling, and feeling our way through Cuba.

Making Sense of Cuban Reality

By Matt Samson, Departments of Anthropology and Latin American Studies

The day when we returned from Cuba, I was struck (even more than when we left) by the short two-hour flight to a place that in many ways could be another planet because of the 60 years of political tension that separates the two nations.  The difference between the neo-tropical vegetation in Cuba and the temperate vegetation in North Carolina is striking–the texture of the air and even the smells contrast–and the physical, human-constructed landscape IS vastly different not only because of the different cultural contexts, but, I suspect, in many ways because of the restrained consumerism in Cuba’s socialist economy.  There is little propaganda (one Spanish word for advertising) encouraging you to buy or sell, and this plays into the image sometimes of a depressed landscape.  At the same time the beauty of Havana, which itself bespeaks of a bygone era, is itself part of the double-edged consequences of relative poverty where, seemingly, most people have enough–at least in terms of basic material goods.

To be clear, we heard other stories, including at least one mention in an ad hoc interview of how to include dissident voices in Cuban society.  And without minimalizing or making excuses for the Cuban system, it is important to reflect on the “other” stories in our own context–about our policing and prison system and the injustice embedded in it, about our own rates of children who grow up in poverty and the consequences of such a start in life, and, even as I post this from Guatemala, about our views of migration and the lengths to which our system will go to preserve the “rule of law” and, one suspects, some mistaken notion of cultural purity.  This was my third time in Cuba, and first since 1990.  I thought then, and I think now, that the only way to really begin to understand Cuba is to stay there for at least three months.  Reflecting on Cuban reality reminds me of an anthropological (and sometimes even theological) admonition of the dangers embedded in “assuming unwarranted familiarity with cultures not our own.”  This includes the manner of critique at times, as well as the temptation to speak for others.  I’m still in the stage of formulating questions about the South-North conflicts of our day and what kinds of questions we should be asking each other about such a brief exposure to Cuban reality.

A curved road with a car, horse-drawn carriage, cyclist, and pedestrians on it
Cuban street

Learning about Cuba’s Literacy Campaign

By Cara Evanson, Library

As a librarian, I was particularly excited to learn more about Cuba’s Literacy Campaign. Carried out in 1961, it was wildly successful. In just one year Cuba’s illiteracy rate fell from 23.6% to 3.9% (Benson, 199). I was thrilled that the Bacca Cuba trip provided multiple opportunities for me to connect with this part of Cuban history.

A woman with gray hair and a pink shirt seated next to a man with gray hair, glasses, and a beard, in a blue shirt and blue suit jacket.
University of Havana professors Marta Núñez and Alberto Faya

On our third day in the country we got the chance to speak with professors from the University of Havana. Two of them, sociology professor Marta Núñez and music professor Alberto Faya, shared memories from the Literacy Campaign as part of their remarks. Núñez told us she had participated in the literacy campaign as a teenager and that taking part in it helped her to understand what poverty was – that you “can touch and smell it.” She also told us she had never before encountered Afro-Cubans, and that the campaign provided her with her first opportunity to get to know them.

Faya recounted his sister’s participation in the Literacy Campaign. As a 14 year-old she had volunteered for the literacy brigade and had gone into the countryside to teach illiterate Cubans how to read. Hearing Faya talk about this experience was the first time I realized how young these literacy teachers had been, though I later learned that some had been as young as 10 years old (Abendroth, xi). Faya told us that when his sister returned home from the campaign it shifted their family dynamics. She had become used to being independent and so began opposing their father on certain issues when she returned. One sticking point in particular was that she began dating an Afro-Cuban she had met during the campaign, and her father was not supportive of the interracial relationship. Faya said it was ironic because his father had been an organizer of the revolution in his town, and part of the revolution rhetoric was about everyone being Cuban together, regardless of race.

As the trip went on our group heard more about the Literacy Campaign from other Cubans we met. While it was fascinating to hear the perspective of those who had lived through the campaign, it was clear it was still a source of pride for those in the younger generations as well. Even though it has been more than 50 years since the literacy campaign ended, it continues to have a lasting impact. The current Cuban literacy rate is over 99% (“Cuba”).

Museum display of a uniform, flag, lantern, plaque, and book
Museo Girón Literacy Campaign Exhibit

Towards the end of our trip we toured the Museo Girón (Bay of Pigs museum). While much of the museum focused on the military invasion, I was delighted to find that some of the exhibits were dedicated to the Literacy Campaign.

A group of young literacy teachers hold a flag in a museum display photo
Flag in Museo Girón exhibit declaring Cuba free from illiteracy

There was a uniform with an official alfabetizadores (literacy teacher) seal, a window plaque to be displayed by families providing housing for literacy teachers, and a flag celebrating the success of the campaign and freedom from illiteracy. There was also a photo of a 14 year-old alfabetizadora, Dulce María Martín Angulo. Sadly, the caption said she was one of the civilians killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was sobering to realize she had died at such a young age while participating in this volunteer literacy work.

Photo of a young girl with a caption in Spanish underneath describing her death during the Bay of Pigs invasion
Museo Girón photo and caption of Dulce María Martín Angulo

Two booklets, one titled Alfabeticemos and the other titled Venceremos. The covers each have photos of young Cubans.
1961 Literacy Campaign Manuals

On the last full day of our trip I was browsing through a used bookstore when I came across a set of two booklets published by the Cuban government for the Literacy Campaign. One was the instruction manual for literacy teachers, Alfabeticemos, and the other was the workbook for students, ¡Venceremos!. Using Davidson library funds allocated for the trip I purchased both for the library’s collection. They will be housed in our Rare Book Room, and I’m thrilled that current and future Davidson students will have the opportunity to hold them in their hands and directly engage with this part of Cuban history.

Works Cited:

Abendroth, Mark. Rebel Literacy: Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign and Critical Global Citizenship. Litwin Books, 2009.

Benson, Devyn. Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

“Cuba.” UNESCO. Accessed 17 July 2018.

Cuba Reflections

By Maggie McCarthy, Department of German Studies

As many of us murmured among ourselves upon return to Charlotte, I didn’t and still don’t really have the words for my Cuban experience. At the risk of sharing too much, I cried for a full five minutes after walking in the door at home. Given that response I can say for sure that it was a remarkable time. This brief reflection will try to sift through the emotions, while looking back to my application proposal as a point of reference. Initially, I had expressed interest in Cuba as a projection screen in recent films, if not the locus of pre-emptive nostalgia for a disappearing world. While that frame remained throughout, and the creative in me could have spent ages soaking in all the visual stimuli, I’ve come back with deeper questions about the end-point of Enlightenment values shared by Cuba and the U.S 

Three-story building in Cuba
The House that Wenders Photographed

My academic self brought a decidedly German filter along. Thank you, Wim Wenders, (I guess) for providing the checklist of all things authentically Cuban: colorful, decaying building facades; the pastel hues of 1950’s Chevy convertibles; and of course The Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. (It did sound odd, at first, to hear “Chan Chan” without Ry Cooder’s twangy slide guitar.) Encountering all that – practically on a platter and within the first few hours – raised the first unanswerable question: when does the “authentic” pass into the realm of commodity offered up for tourists? I kept thinking about the fact that you can still buy bits of the Berlin Wall and GDR military paraphernalia that have surely been manufactured in more recent times. On our final day I discovered a Moorish-style apartment building that I had seen a few years ago in a Wim Wenders photo exhibit in Düsseldorf. Another box checked, even if I was, in fact, utterly transfixed by it.  

It was in moments like that – where I couldn’t stare long and hard enough to satisfy some kind of obscure desire – that my filter was far less German than personal, though in still mysterious ways. I remember staring out the station wagon window at the urban blight of Philadelphia in the 1970s and experiencing for the first time the melancholy in knowing that some people have far less than me. I remember witnessing dreary landscapes from an overheated bus during a brief trip to the Soviet Union in 1986. Then, as in Cuba, I experienced something analogous to being part of the 1% that has ridiculously more than so many others. I thought abstractly about the class anxiety I’ve experienced from a very young age, which may be a form of cross-generational trauma from parents with impoverished, Depression-era childhoods. American-style Socialism – the Aid for Families with Dependent Children my grandmother received when she became a widow with four small children and the G.I. benefits that financed my father’s education through graduate school – ensured my stable middle-class childhood. I also became ruefully aware of the middle-aged version of my middle-class self who wants some HGTV home fixer-uppers to parachute into Havana and begin restoring homes with love and respect. Their highly individual, sometimes quirky architecture was a balm to this sub-division dweller. What also deserves mention is the basic mechanism of one’s own identity being thrown into relief when displaced to new terrain. I’ve spent enough time in Germany to feel a little self-conscious about my stereotypical American exuberance. Cuba made the same feel more than a little overwrought given how deep divides separate Americans right now from our loftier ideals of freedom and justice for all.  

That’s where my reflections move hesitantly towards something more intellectual, for lack of a better word. Our meetings with Cuban professors were extraordinarily resonant for me in different ways. First, we all observed how the answers to some of our most basic questions traveled along highly circuitous routes, with the same pattern repeating itself: an extended history lesson topped off with meditations on Cuba’s island-based identity. Only in the last breath did one start to get the beginnings of a concrete answer. After witnessing this strategy numerous times I started to wonder whether I use my own intellectual wherewithal to parry and side-step blind spots, while remaining confident in the ultimate rightness of my values. As a German scholar, I was genuinely interested in the possibility of a Cuban “third way,” what East Germans considered all too briefly before Capitalism swallowed them up. This would have been some sort of a corrective to the shortcomings of Socialism but one that nonetheless retained its ideals. I think many of us asked, in numerous and polite ways, how the Cuban professors imagined the future, but again the answers were frustratingly evasive. Then again, if someone asked me to imagine an alternative to the excesses of Capitalism, I wouldn’t know what to say. Somewhere during the trip I heard that change will happen slowly given that an old guard still remains despite Raúl Castro’s departure. That slowness might open up the possibility for something genuinely different.  

The best discussion – frustratingly just out of acoustic reach since it took place in one of our many tiled restaurants that dialed up the volume on American exuberance – happened between Dan Layman and one of the professors who traveled eleven hours on a bus from Santiago to be with us. Both of them shared an extensive knowledge of the Enlightenment values that Americans and Cubans share. For Walter, the Cuban professor, Socialism was their logical extension because no one can be free, he said, in a country without universal healthcare and where the gap between the rich and the poor is so pronounced. Dan reproduced the basic points of their discussion later on and elaborated on his notion that the right has largely defined our American understanding of freedom, which I take to mean that individual liberty has been elevated above the fight for freedom and justice for all. Unlike the Cuban professors in our first session, Dan spelled out for me his own utopian view of the future – one that blends Socialist-style benefits like health care, free education, and a basic income with an otherwise laissez-faire government invested in the autonomy Americans tend to crave. I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful thing it would be to stage an exchange of ideas between Dan and Walter in front of a Humanities class. 

In what felt like the cracks we started to get a fuller sense of Cuban views on the future. In the open plaza beside the Museum of the Revolution, with its tanks and planes and Fidel’s boat under glass, our guides off-handedly shared with the handful in their orbit at that moment how Obama gave Cubans hope for a brief while. All three of them had university degrees but went into the tourism industry because it offered better wages. I admired their low-key pragmatism, goes-without-saying generosity of spirit, and seemingly spontaneous capacity for joy. But then again that could all just be projection on my part that wants some Cuban authenticity as the salve for my own antsy American-ness. At the same time, something definitely rubbed off on me. Even though Kevin Smith said our mini-vans, with their missing seat belts in places, reminded him of the “death trap” vehicles he knew from Africa, I got very attached to my seat at the very back, furthest from the door. I think I felt cocooned by my 14 cohorts’ unflagging cheer and collegiality, especially towards an introvert mesmerized by the scenes unfolding outside my window. For better or worse, much of what I saw may soon be gone.