When Rodrigo González met us earlier this month in Havana, Cuba, he put the 23 members of our group at ease.
“We don’t have people come here and spray a nightclub with AR-15s like Orlando,” said González, speaking about a gunman who killed 49 people and wounded 53 on June 12. “We only see it on the news. Havana is safe.”
But by the end of our nine-day, National Association for Multicultural Education tour of their country, González and Rita Pereira offered us their condolences for the gun violence in our homeland. They showed us how recurring U.S. shootings roil international sensibilities and are foreign to Cubans.
Their sympathy was for the July 5 shooting death of Alton B. Sterling, 37, by two Baton Rouge, La., police officers. It was captured on video and made international news. Then on July 6, police fatally shot Philando Castile, 32, in a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. His death was streamed on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her daughter.
The killings sparked nationwide protests, which we saw on TV in Cuba. The police shootings added to the growing importance of the Black Lives Matter movement begun nearly two years ago after the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. Brown was black.
Then on July 7, our hosts were shocked again when a sniper opened fire in Dallas at a protest over the police killings of black men, fatally shooting five police officers and wounding several others. Before he was killed by a robot-delivered bomb, the 25-year-old, African American Army veteran said he wanted to kill white cops in response to the police killings of blacks.
And I can only imagine the horrified reaction of González and Pereira to a shooter from Kansas City gunning down police on Sunday in Baton Rouge.
We were in Cuba for a second consecutive year to witness the changes in that communist country since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, agreed to talks to normalize relations between the two nations. Both governments last year reopened embassies in the other’s country.
Tourism to Cuba from the U.S. soared in 2015. The government of Cuba reported that about 161,000 people from the U.S. visited Cuba. That was an increase of 76.6 percent over 2014, the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. reported.
González said it was expected to top 200,000 this year. To Americans, Cubans for more than 50 years have been the communist bad guys lurking 90 miles from Florida in the shadows of Cold War politics.
The U.S. economic blockade was meant to squeeze Fidel Castro from power after his successful 1959 revolution ousting Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. It impoverished the island nation but made Castro stronger.
Talks to normalize relations have resulted in cruise ships docking in Cuba, U.S. companies signing agreements and airlines soon to begin direct scheduled flights to Havana. But only Congress can end the embargo.
Obama visited Cuba in March, becoming the first president to do so since President Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
More internet hotspots recently have sprung up in Cuban hotels and parks, where mostly young people intently focus on their laptops, tablets and smartphones. There also is an openness from Cubans everywhere to share their pride and love for their country. Nowhere did we encounter hostility toward the U.S. or for us as Americans.
“Our country is economically poor but socially and culturally rich,” González explained.
Unfortunately the impressions that Cubans and the rest of the world are getting from the news of America isn’t as positive.