Life couldn’t be any more different for those who live on this side of the treacherous body of water that has taken the lives of untold numbers of Cubans who sought a better life in the wake of the 1959 revolution.
I met Samuel, a 23-year-old man, at Cabaret Las Vegas, an unofficial gay club in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, on my first night in his country. I was completely exhausted from lack of sleep, but we immediately hit it off and he gave me his phone number before I walked the block to the house in which I was staying.
Samuel and I met again at Cabaret Las Vegas on Sunday night, and it became immediately clear that he was going to be my Cuban BFF during this reporting trip. I returned to Havana on May 19 and I once again returned to Cabaret Las Vegas where Samuel, his friends and I watched drag queens, cabaret singers and dancers perform while drinking a bottle of Cuban rum with a Sprite-like soda and Red Bull. The four of us had what can only be described as a wonderful time in the Communist island’s capital city for the better part of three hours. We did the same thing the following night, even though a car was picking me up at 5 a.m. to drive me to José Martí International Airport in order to return to the U.S.
I learned a lot about Samuel in the week that I was in Cuba.
He traveled to Denmark with a group of fellow dancers when he was 10-years-old. Samuel recently earned a degree, but only makes the equivalent of $17 a month. He also spent five years in prison from the age of 16 because he was caught using a fake ID to try to get into a disco.
Samuel is only one of the myriad stories I have heard from Cubans who clearly deserve better from their government.
The woman who drove me to the airport on Saturday morning with her teenage son in the backseat of her car is a pharmacist who makes less than $100 a month on her state salary. She is also a friend of the woman who ran the house in which I stayed while in Havana.
I gave the pharmacist the $25 that I had previously agreed to pay her, knowing it was better to do so before arriving at the airport because of surveillance cameras. She told me shortly after we drove away from the house to say that I was her “friend who didn’t know much about Cuba” if the police stopped the car for any reason. The pharmacist then proceeded to criticize the Communist island’s government for the rest of the drive to the airport that took about half an hour.
She specifically mocked the country’s public health system that Cubans can access for free, saying it barely meets people’s most basic needs.
The Cuban people are genuinely among the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever had the good fortune of meeting in my travels outside the U.S. They deserve better than what their government has given — or not given — them.
The aforementioned reality remained with me throughout my trip to Cuba. It remains with me on this side of the Florida Straits.The Cuban people, including those who openly support the Communist island’s government, welcomed me to their beautiful island with open arms. We danced together. We drank a lot of very good and very inexpensive rum. We learned from each other against the backdrop of the normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries. I also saw first hand the struggles they must confront on a daily basis in order to maintain the most basic standards of living and personal dignity.
Samuel and I said goodbye to each other at around 3:30 a.m. on Saturday. I watched him walk away into the night with a plastic bag of things that I didn’t need to bring back to the U.S. with me: An extra roll of toilet paper from the house in which I stayed, a half-used bottle of sunscreen, a pack of AA batteries, the Cuban cell phone that I bought at the state-run telecommunications store earlier in my trip, an unopened tube of Neosporin, a box of Band-Aids, an old belt and some money to help him buy a fan for the apartment in which he lives with his mother.
I then walked to Havana’s oceanfront promenade, which was a couple of blocks away from my house and from where I said goodbye to Samuel. There were hundreds of young Cubans partying along the iconic Malecón, but I could have been there by myself as I silently gazed out into the Florida Straits.
I deliberately played Cuban-born Gloria Estefan’s song “Cuba Libre” on my iPod with headphones in my ears as I sat there and thought about my week in Cuba that was about to come to an end. Three lines from that song particularly resonated with me in those few moments as I thought about Samuel and the other Cubans who I had met over the last seven days.
No puedo olvidar
Eres parte de mi
Te quiero ser feliz
I cannot forget
You are part of me
I want for you to be happy
Samuel called me this morning on my cell phone while I was in my hotel room in Miami Beach to make sure that I had arrived safely in the U.S. The call lasted about 30 seconds before he abruptly hung up.
I wish nothing more than for Samuel and all of the wonderful Cuban friends that I made while in their country to be happy, to be to live their lives with dignity and to be able to control their own destiny.