Some 30 years of Canadian tourists enjoying new mom-and-pop restaurants have prepared no one in Cuba for the coming clash of political, religious and social cultures.

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Havana, Cuba

About 15 years ago I stood in the back of a Havana Catholic church and tortured a poor, defenseless woman.

Almost no one was putting anything into the plate she was passing, and the few who did — in a country where the average monthly salary was less than $10 — were dropping in occasional coins. As a tourist chancing my Uncle Sam’s ire, I was shocked to discover that the Western Hemisphere’s most famous Communist nation traded primarily in U.S. dollars.

Even I, a nonbeliever, could feel the power of faith in that decrepit church. The 30 or so people in the pews treasured the soothing presence of a superior being. The peeling paint and anguished papier mâché Jesus attested that no one was making a business connection or showing off a new hat. Not in Fidel’s homeland.

Surmising that I might make a difference, I reached into my belly bag and pulled out an American hundred-dollar bill. As a small Bahamian college journalism professor, my offering wouldn’t bankrupt me, but it would shake the collection plate. Only one bill, a Cuban peso, was nestled in it when the usherette reached the last pew.

Then, reality hit: With no other witnesses I was about to tempt her with an entire year’s salary. Having 40 yards to combat the guilt of stealing from her church or her children, the 15 seconds to the altar might torment the rest of her life.

After a flash of self-debate, I switched and dropped in a twenty. To my horror, anguish still seemed to surge into the usherette’s eyes. For less than I spent on dinner and drinks, she still might be beating herself up today.

I don’t claim to have insight into President Barack Obama’s new policy toward Cuba, but I do know that whatever we bring to Cuba won’t be heard the way we intend. Some 30 years of Canadian tourists enjoying new mom-and-pop restaurants have prepared no one for the coming clash of political, religious and social cultures. The deep gulf across the Florida straits will create currents that few can comprehend.

Perhaps it’s always been that way, as a trip to Key West should remind us. Remember the 250 unknown USS Maine sailors who came home for burial, Fulgencio Batista’s testing American-made napalm on his people, the Key West mayor promising to water-ski to Havana, the Mariel boatlift, the shooting down of two American missionary planes and the Elian Gonzales affair — in short, Americans and Cubans have a stirring history of misunderstanding. Public buildings in Castro’s town are, after all, copies of Washington landmarks, although the Cuban economy collapsed after Russian support pulled out as the Cold War ended.

Today, when American business salivates over new markets in a nation with a GDP limited to the size of West Virginia’s, we seem to forget that only Congress can eliminate the embargo. We forget that almost no one in Cuba enjoys the Internet and only a handful of people have cellphones. We forget that trade and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world hasn’t brought modernity to Cuba.

When I flew on Cubana Air, it was in a C-47 that America had left in Havana in 1960. The seats in the former military cargo plane were bench seats jerked out of buses and the stewardess brought only penny candies.

Natural to us isn’t natural to them.

One Cuban shrine I recall was the luxurious sports fishing boat that Fidel and Raul used to begin the revolution, because photos of Cubans fleeing to Florida in inner tubes and homemade paddle boats were ever-present in my mind. I wasn’t allowed to bring a Cuban into my Western hotel bar for a drink, and he may have ended up arrested after I tried to slip him past the doorman.

In the poverty stricken Communist nation, children on Havana streets were too proud to beg for money, instead seeking tiny bars of soap from hotel bathrooms. They played baseball in the streets with sticks and rolled-up rags soaked in asphalt.

A few months later, I returned to Havana with a bag full of ratty baseball gloves and a handful of balls picked up in Miami thrift shops. The ecstatic kids turned on each other and I created, to my shock, a small riot of 10-year-old baseball lovers.

To this day I wonder: Was the chipped Louisville Slugger I gave the littlest player a trophy? Or a tribulation?

Randy Salzman is a writer and former journalism professor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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