Lewis Diuguid

Cuba gives visitors trip into the past

This is a view from the tower at Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar plantation in Cuba.
This is a view from the tower at Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar plantation in Cuba. The Kansas City Star

On one of the long bus rides into Cuba’s interior this month, I talked with Rita Pereira about things that fascinated me about her homeland.

Pereira, who’s a lawyer, university professor and advocate for women’s rights and gay rights, for a second consecutive year led the National Association for Multicultural Education group on its educational and cultural exchange with the island nation. Americans who go to Cuba not only enter a different nation but are immersed in a different culture where people speak Spanish and fall back into an earlier period in time.

That’s apparent from all of the 1940s to early 1960s American cars that populate the main roads and side streets of Havana. They are eye-candy to us but commonplace to Cubans.

Blame the U.S. government economic embargo after the 1959 revolution that Fidel Castro led for the time warp. Cuban ingenuity has kept the old vehicles running.

This year our group of 23 got to see more of the countryside with bus driver Alexander Turro Lemo and Pereira taking us to Cienfuegos, a 19th century example of early urban planning with French-influenced neoclassical architecture, a departure from Cuba’s Spanish dominance. We went to Trinidad and Valle de los Ingenios, the heart of Cuba’s historical sugar mills, and to Manaca Iznaga, a former sugar plantation.

Cuba’s early history mirrors the United States’ with the Europeans exploiting, and then slaughtering, indigenous people whose population fell from 112,000 in the early 1500s when the Spanish first arrived to about 1,500 just 20 years later. Africans were kidnapped and brought to the New World to work as slaves on plantations.

Also in Cuba just as in the U.S., Chinese workers were brought in to help build the railroads to get sugar, tobacco and other cash crops to seaport markets. My partner Bette and I climbed a 149-foot tower, with others in our group. It gave overseers the ability to monitor slaves.

In Trinidad, Adrian Dopico with the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples explained that until the revolution Cuba was just as segregated for blacks as the U.S. That’s changed, he said, “but there is still the prejudice mentality.”

Nearly everyone we talked with said racism is not a problem in Cuba as in the U.S. In the nearly 2-year-old talks to normalize relations with Cuba, better race relations is something the U.S. could learn from its neighbor south of Florida.

On the drive to different places, Pereira pointed out the sugar cane, banana fields and rice paddies. Much of the farm work is still done using horses and manual labor. Many of the crops we’d never see in Missouri, Kansas or other states that people in our group were from. In addition to old autos, the roads had many horse-drawn wagons and people on bicycles.

Lemo like other drivers slowed down for them on two-lane highways and waited for the opportunity to safely pass. I told Pereira that such courtesy for people on bicycles occupying the center of the road would be unthinkable in the States.

That launched her into an explanation about Cuba’s “special period” in the 1990s. The U.S. embargo, the Helms-Burton Act and the end of the Soviet Union and communist bloc in Europe cut off nearly all imports to Cuba. People couldn’t get enough food, electricity or fuel for vehicles.

Bicycles were imported by the thousands for basic transportation in the country. Just like the U.S., Cuba was unaccustomed to anything but motorized vehicles. Bicycles in Cuba — even today — are a painful reminder of devastatingly hard times that hurt the population.

What’s viewed as a thing of leisure, a fitness craze or green transportation remains a negative symbol, which Cubans universally hope talks with the U.S. will help them overcome.