A Ride on the Cubamobile

 

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The question on every traveler’s lips these days is “Have you been to Cuba?” Cuba is hot – tour operators are scrambling to offer it, and long-denied Americans are eager to sign up. I listen with genuine interest to fellow travelers’ reports of visits with artists and educators, and of their delight at seeing this spectacularly beautiful island. Then my thoughts drift back to another time and another Cuba, where I improbably engaged in a game of frisbee with the Soviet navy on the beach at Varadero.

In all the rush it’s mostly forgotten that there was a brief window during the Carter administration when it was legally permissible for U.S. Citizens to travel to the island. The Venceremos Brigade, best known for sending cane cutters to help with the sugar harvest in defiance of the blockade, leaped into action by organizing a series of study tours known as “Cubamobiles.” Moved by curiosity of the unknown I signed up for the third “Cubamobile,” departing in December 1978 and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Communist victory on January 1, 1979.

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The itinerary was designed as an introduction to socialism, Cuban-style, and we predictably spent a lot of time at factories, revolutionary landmarks, and workers’ committees. At the Bulk Sugar Terminal we met with employees who eagerly explained the concept of “socialist emulation” – as best I understood it, a type of fraternal rather than individual competition among workers for the common good (those who want to know more are referred to the works of Che Guevara). We attended a meeting of a neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, dedicated to keeping ideological tabs on the inhabitants and bringing dissenters back into the fold (although, we were assured, by the most benign and constructive methods). We made the obligatory stops at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, where the first salvo of the revolution was fired, and at the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, featuring what was then known as the Museum of American Imperialism. We visited with medical personnel, literacy workers, students at the Lenin high school, and cigar rollers, among countless others. Christmas Day was a day like any other, although we passed churches where services were being held unimpeded for tiny numbers of congregants.

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And lest it seem otherwise, at no time were we minded. We mingled freely with Cubans everywhere – in their squares, at their Coppelia ice cream parlors, in their restaurants {they laughed with us at the iconic red Coca Cola signs that said instead “Coma Caca”), and outside the hotels that they were prohibited from entering (though many of these latter encounters seemed to involve attempts to purchase our American blue jeans).

And on to the beach at Varadero. Our bus broke down and we idled away the time playing frisbee while waiting for a replacement. Anchored just off the coast was a Soviet navy  vessel, and when their curiosity got the best of them a group of sailors came ashore. They joined us in our game, which just happened to feature a tour member’s frisbee in the design of the American flag. When it was time to go we gave the frisbee to the sailors and they reciprocated with little Russian bear friendship pins. A perfect moment of people-to-people diplomacy in the midst of the Cold War.

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