Courtland Milloy: For American and Cuban people, divide not that deep

Courtland Milloy
Columnist June 7, 2011

While the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was in the District recently, I happened to be pirouetting around this town with a group of journalists from the United States. Not exactly a fair cultural exchange, but the Cuban people were gracious hosts nonetheless.

We got to dine at the homes of community activists and engage in frank talk about Cuba’s social inequities. We also met Johana Tablada, deputy director for North American Affairs in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who offered tea and a critique of the high life she experienced while staying with friends in well-to-do Chevy Chase.

“I say, listen, maybe you have the 10 brands of cereal. Maybe you have the 100 options of clothing, which I like,” Tablada said. “But I don’t miss it when I’m here. I will go over at lunchtime and see my mom. Up in Washington, people do not stop; they do not look around. There is always something for you to consume, that consumes your life without you.”

More remarkable than Tablada’s take was the extent to which her country’s brand of socialism seems to terrify the U.S. government. An ongoing, half-century-long economic embargo aims to bring Cuba to her knees while a spurious designation of the country as a “state sponsor of terrorism” leaves the door open for regime change by force.

In April, The Washington Post reported that the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), told a filmmaker in 2006 that she would welcome the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

And yet, here we were for a week of eyeballing in the forbidden land, the trip sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Advanced Journalism at North Carolina A&T University. Meanwhile, up at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, the Cuban ballet was performing “Don Quixote.”

What a weird diplomatic dance.

During a visit to one home on the outskirts of the city, some of us watched a taped documentary that had run on Cuban television in 2008. It was called “Raza,” about the persistence of racism. In it, a white Cuban ballet instructor claimed that the reason blacks don’t make good ballerinas was that their “glutes” were too big and their feet “too inflexible.”

Now suppose Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe in New York could freely travel and give lie to such a notion — if only for the sake of those Afro Cuban girls who might have heard such discouraging words?

There are so many ways our countries could help one another. Instead, American arrogance and Cuban pride shortchange us all.

Heriberto Feraudy of the Cuban Artists and Writers Association told us that he liked the American people but not the U.S. policy towards Cuba. I asked what the difference is. After all, the United States is us.

“The American people don’t run the country,” Feraudy said through an interpreter. “President Obama doesn’t run the country.”

Asked who does, he said he didn’t know. All he knew was that polls show more than 70 percent of Americans favored lifting the embargo and restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba — Obama, too. And still the embargo remains.

The Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says the embargo “has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free.”

The Cubans we met were not enslaved commie automatons. Many were intrigued by Cuba’s transitioning from guaranteed government jobs to opportunities for self-employment. Just not at any cost.

“In the past, people were losing their values over tourism, doing anything for the green paper,” said Abel Contreras, our guide from the state-owned Havanatours. “This is my own opinion. One of the best things this government has done is to give us the possibility of being ourselves, of having self-respect and not being treated like a brothel of the United States.”

That said, he noted how much the people of both countries have in common.

“You like baseball; we like baseball,” Contreras said. “We like jazz; you like jazz. You want universal health care and a good education for all; so do we. Both countries are struggling to find solutions to those problems.”

And don’t forget the food. Contreras likes black beans and rice; I like red beans and rice. Hold the political hot sauce, and our tastes are not so different after all.

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