John Kennedy: A Cuban American Visits Cuba

John Kennedy – As I sit on the American Airlines regional jet cruising at 37,000 feet, headed towards home, I reflect on the week long journey which has just taken place. This past week has been one of the greatest and most informative times of my life. The food, people and places have all been phenomenal and I am thankful for the opportunity Wabash has provided to me to participate in this excursion.

John Kennedy chats with Professor Rogers at the University of Havana.

As a Cuban-American, it was interesting to see the places which my abuelos and aunts and aunt and uncle were able to see when they were children. I was able to experience the culture of my heritage, which growing up in Indianapolis, was neglected. This trip gave me an overall pride in my Cuban heritage, which I am sure will please my Cuba-loving mother.

The time spent in Cuba was incredibly educational and eye opening. We were able to prove and disprove American stereotypes of the island. Growing up, I always envisioned that Havana was defined by old 1950’s American cars and soldiers patrolling the area. The old cars due exist in great quantities and are incredibly beautiful to see. My stereotype about the soldiers was disproved as there were not many soldiers patrolling the city of Havana. The only major places where they were stationed would be guarding the ministry buildings, a massive obelisk monument to Martí and the Granma.

For many on this trip, it was their first time in a foreign nation, let alone a nation to which the United States lacks diplomatic relations with. Those who have not flown in an aircraft or experienced airport security, are now professionals at it, having flown four times since last Sunday. We have come to relish the warm weather of both Cuba and Florida, 750F is much better than the 420F which our destination is predicted to be at touchdown.

El Castile de Morro

The group which I have had the privilege to travel with for the past week is an outstanding group of 16 Wabash gentlemen. I truly believe that only schools like Wabash would be able to do this type of trip. All on the trip acted maturely and responsibly at all times during the course of this journey. My favorite moment of this entire journey happened the first night in Cuba. Our guide William (who in hind sight was quite censored by the Cuban government) led us to El Castile de Morro, a massive Spanish fort guarding the entrance to the Port of Havana. I found it phenomenal how insanely well kept the fort was, despite the Cuban government not possessing a large amount of money. As the child of two military parents and sibling to a future Naval Academy midshipmen, forts have always fascinated me. They are the true combination of where army meets navy (with the exception of beach landings and the annual Army- Navy football game). The architecture of the fort was mind blowing, and in particular, the gatehouses were the most pristine I have ever seen.

Reflecting back on the experience on the island, it is easy to see why foreigners fall in love with this country. In Cuba, it is possible for people to get whatever they wish, in the words of a Canadian tourist I met, “Cuba has lovely scenery, beautiful women and alcohol everywhere.” This being said, there still is a gross disappointment that I was not able to experience the world of the average Cuban, the world like people such as my great uncle experience on a day to day basis. As students, we only got a small taste of what life for the average Cuban is throughout the entire trip. We were able to witness several blackouts as we traveled away from Havana one night to meet with members from the CDR or Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. That night, even with there being blackouts all around, we were treated like royalty. In particular, that night was my birthday and I received the best birthday present ever, a one hour long dance show from the children of the neighborhood.

In Miami, we were able to see the lives of those who immigrated to the United States since the time of the revolution. There, we were truly able to experience a variety of Cuban cuisine (in Cuba, food shortages are common, making some food hard to come by). Whereas for a majority of the group, this cuisine was new, for me it was not. I was in Cuban food heaven and loved every moment of it. I literally ate several meals until I was physically unable to eat anymore. Upon hearing that we had just traveled to Cuba, the Cubans in Miami were more than eager to tell us their reasons for leaving and ask us about our experience in their homeland.

Tim Padgett talks with the students at the WLRN Studios.

We had the honor of meeting Jaime Sushlicki and Tim Padgett in Miami to discuss our trip and what we had learned. It was excellent to get the opinion of a Jewish Cuban immigrant (Jaime) on his thoughts about the Cuban government and Cuba. Even though he has been in the United States since 1960, he still worries about the nation of his birth and is concerned that Cuba will turn into a resort nation when US-Cuban relations are restored. Tim Padgett was the final person we met with and it was excellent to get the opinion from a writer from the Time Magazine. This allowed for the trip to go “full circle” and provided a phenomenal experience for us all.

After spending one final day in Miami looking at the Jewish influence on both Miami and Havana, we began to realize that our time was limited and we would soon have to return home to Indiana. Staring out my window on the plane into the abyss that is the sky, I encourage all those who have the opportunity to go to Cuba to go with an open mind and not as a tourist to enjoy the sights but to look in depth to where they are and truly appreciate the people, the wonderful people who are on that tiny island just south of Florida.

As I conclude this blog, I begin to feel sad. My experience is over and I may never return to that island. How I loved that island and how I was able to better understand both myself and the world around me. Finally, I would like to dedicate this blog to my abuelo, Roberto Gonzalez who left his beloved Cuba in 1963, never to return and to all those who leave their homeland never to see it again.