Former Milford official shares story of recent trip to Cuba

Editor’s Note: The author of this article, Lisa Bull DiLullo, is a correspondent for the Milford Mirror. DiLullo is also a former FBI agent, a local softball umpire and a former mayoral assistant and political leader in Milford. She shares her story about a recent trip to Cuba with the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program.

As our plane approached Havana a few Saturdays ago, I wondered how many Milford residents have visited Cuba.

Then I wondered how many retired FBI agents like me have made this trip. I chuckled. Cuba is, after all, a communist country that, until recently, was officially considered a threat to the United States.

Time to stop wondering. I was on the final approach to culture shock.

From the beginning of my visit to the end, Cuba was a little disorienting. It was akin to someone saying, “No” while nodding their head “Yes.” The cities were uplifting and depressing at the same time. The countryside was verdant but oppressively poor. The people seemed both careful and courageously resourceful.

The complexity and contrast were everywhere. Stunning, colorful buildings with fully restored colonial architecture stood beside crumbling block buildings that looked like bombed-out Beirut.  Smooth, paved roads carried little traffic but for a smattering of 1950s era jalopies.
Getting there

While legal travel from the United States to Cuba remains limited, I was able to visit through the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program. Under license agreement with the Cuban government, People to People offered individuals like me the chance to participate in cultural and educational exchange delegations. As a freelance writer, I was accepted into the Arts & Humanities program.

For each delegate, the key to travel approval by the United States government was our intent to interact with the Cuban people.  Of course, this would require working around the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government.

My goals were simple: to enjoy myself and to return home safely. I knew from my old job that due process is routinely denied to Cuban citizens, and that visiting Americans should expect no better. I also knew we’d be closely watched.

Upon landing, we entered Havana International Airport, a dark cavernous space with one baggage carousel randomly spinning the luggage of travelers from around the world. But the first Cubans I saw were hardly drab. The female airport guards had transformed their plain tan uniforms into tiny mini skirts, adorning them with platform heels, swept-up hair, and textured stockings.

All of Cuba would not be beautiful, but this was a foretaste of people making do with pride and flair.

In the parking lot, we boarded a tour bus with our professional guide, Amircal “Cal” Salermo. Our delegation leader, Merna Gill, was American, but Cal was our rolling source of information and history for our eight-day stay.  On our last day in Cuba, Cal told us he worked for the Cuban government. As did the bus driver, Eduardo. As did a second guide, Armando, who appeared and disappeared frequently.

Without doubt, their job was to influence us. It’s impossible to write about visiting Cuba without mentioning politics, as we were lectured about it at every turn. Cubans who lectured our group  described Cuba as a socialist country. Despite the fact that Fidel Castro long ago converted Cuba to a Marxist-Leninist society with a Soviet-style economy, the word “communism” never was spoken.

Whatever its label, the economic system provides most Cubans with free education through the university level, free health care, disability and retirement benefits, and basic necessities like housing and food at a low cost. But government restrictions abound. For example, Cubans can only stay in certain hotels, and must obtain government authorization to move or begin a new job. And I saw scant evidence of progress on a 2013 Cuban government proclamation of its “readiness” to reform state-owned enterprises and permit more private enterprise.

We saw very little private enterprise. There was no advertising, which I liked, and no billboards except those left from the revolution in the late 1950s. The paladares where we were taken to eat throughout our stay — restaurants established in private homes — clearly were state-sanctioned establishments dating back years. The food was delicious, with bold flavors, fresh produce and fish, and virtually no artificial ingredients.

Yet in many ways, Havana felt a little out of sync. The large hotels that accommodate foreign visitors were quite nice; however, electrical outlets randomly worked and didn’t work. Toilets flushed, but came with a stern warning not to put paper in them because the sewer system is antiquated. The receptionists politely promised to send a technician to replace a light, but never asked for a room number.

It was the same in the Havana streets. We saw many beautifully restored colonial buildings, replete with ornate columns and bright Caribbean colors, standing beside three other abandoned masonry buildings with crumbling gray facades. Outside of the lovingly restored squares of Old Havana, entire blocks of the city looked abandoned. Peering inside a dilapidated building at night, you might see a single lightbulb, a few chairs and a TV as clues that someone called it home.

For the average Cuban, comfort is not king. A doctor told me the biggest health problems in Cuba are diabetes and hypertension, brought on by alcoholism.
 In Havana and beyond
In Havana, we passed a government food distribution center. It was a bland storefront where Cubans crowded with their ration cards for a monthly allotment of one chicken, rice, beans, and a limited amount of other foodstuffs. Beyond that provision, we learned that Cubans use their ingenuity to find pesos for anything extra.

In fact, we saw where Cubans might get those extras while touring a farmers’ market in the commercial center of Cienfuegos. There were rows of old cement tables bearing a colorful selection of fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices. There were very few customers. Street dogs roamed in and out of the market, relieving themselves on the display table legs.

Cienfuegos was, however, a highlight of the trip. This beautiful Caribbean city was established by the French, and much of its classical architecture is restored with graceful arches and vibrant facades. There, we were lucky to hear the adult Choir of Cienfuegos at a cooperative arts center. Run by the government, this center identifies highly talented musicians for the traveling choir. Their voices were pure and strong, echoing throughout the concert hall.

But like much in Cuba, the venue was a crafty blend of substance and image. The cooperative’s interior walls at eye and camera level were beautifully restored; the paint on the ceiling was peeling and cracking.

Our tour was lucky to have a Cuban-born delegate, Ernesto, who migrated to the United States at age 6. While many Cubans understand English, they speak it sparingly. So Ernesto helped with translation.

Ernesto helped us talk to a farmer near the former Manacas-Iznaga sugar cane plantation. I had seen the farmer emerge from a bodega (store), clutching three loaves of bread. He wrapped the bread in a dirty burlap bag and stuffed it between the horns of his oxen. The farmer told Ernesto that he has to give the government one-half of everything he raises. Toothless, weathered and wiry, the farmer who looked 75 told Ernesto he was 56 years old. He was friendly and engaging, and clearly happy to chat.
 Some friendly, some not
Not everyone was so friendly. A Cuban man told one of the delegates that we Americans should go home. The Presidential Palace, with a museum meticulously detailing the history of Cuba, ended the tour at a full wall of life-sized caricatures of American presidents labeled “cretins.”

Every lecturer made time to explain the negative effects upon Cuba of el bloqueo, the U.S. blockade or trade embargo first imposed in 1960 and still in effect today. Some Cuban lecturers throughout our stay even provided the names of American legislators who probably would be receptive to Americans like us who wanted to lobby on behalf of Cuban interests. Hint, hint.

One of the few places bereft of propaganda briefings or political lectures was Trinidad.  Thankfully, for this was a breathtakingly beautiful place.

Our tour bus stopped on a one-lane cobblestone street, where, we were told, we could find it again four hours later. After a paladar lunch, we freely roamed the hillsides of historic Trinidad, the third village founded by the Spaniards in Cuba.

This was a feast for the senses. Spanish buildings awash with pure pastel color ringed the central square, from which canted cobblestone lanes drained down the hillside. In the square, a large group of middle school students and their teachers belted out lively Spanish songs that echoed throughout the center. And the humid tropical air bore smells of flowers that I couldn’t recognize.

Many residents of the cobbled streets lined their front stoops with handmade linens and artwork. You could look past the wares into the “front room” of the family’s small home, adorned very simply with dark, carved wooden furniture from centuries past.

On our ride from Trinidad back to Havana, there was plenty to see in the countryside. Every village had dirt roads dotted with low block homes where livestock grazed in the front yard.  Occasionally, we saw apartment buildings — rickety multi-story block structures built in the Soviet style of the 1950s. Streets were clean. Horse-drawn carts were more common than cars; in fact, the three-lane highway into Havana was shared by tour buses, rattling old cars, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, and pedestrians.
 The last night
As colorful and interesting as our week was, none of us were prepared for what the last night would bring. It was Cuba unscripted, looking like any American city where there is distrust between authorities and residents.

Returning from dinner this warm, humid night, our tour bus glided on the road beside the  malecon, which is a long seawall fronting Havana Bay. This seawall every night is alive with young lovers, music, laughter, and crowds of people gathering — the kind of socializing that Cubans treasure.

Suddenly, our bus braked hard. We slammed into the small white car that moments earlier apparently had struck a pedestrian. The injured pedestrian was lying in the roadway.

Cal ran out of the bus, yelling in Spanish not to touch the pedestrian, that the authorities were coming. The crowd grew louder and bigger, angry at both the car driver and Cal, the government official who had appeared from the bus. Cal came back inside.

Without warning, a dark gray 1950s-era Chevrolet squealed to a stop beside the injured man.  Several men got out, picked up the injured pedestrian, and shoved his lifeless body into the back seat of the car. The car sped off. Later, we heard they had dropped the man off at the hospital. We were told he survived; I don’t think that was true.

Eventually, two police officers arrived. The crowd was gone. The victim was gone. The officers talked for a while, looked at the white car wedged under the bus, talked some more, walked around, and left.

I wondered if we had witnessed, that night, the result of decades of mistrust of government authorities. Or was it simply, as some delegates believed, just a case of caring friends who wanted to get an injured man to a hospital as quickly as possible.

In my experience, Cuba was not easy to sort out in one evening, much less seven days. It is a place of rich community relationships and complex history, and a determined people that has faced generations of economic scarcity.

Country or city, Cuba was both colorful and gray. It was suspicious, and it was welcoming. The island has ambled through its history of slavery, oppression, opulence, revolution, and “socialism” at the casual pace of Caribbean life. And Cuba seems in no particular hurry to arrive at what’s next.