There are a couple of important things you need to know before visiting Cuba. First is that Ernest Hemingway apparently drank at every bar in Havana. Second is that if you have not been offered rum by 10 AM, Cubans feel they are failing in their hospitality.
Whenever I mentioned going to Cuba, the question most frequently asked was how I'd gotten a visa to go there. Well, pretty much the US Government no longer really cares. Cuba belongs to a distant cold war past. Our continued embargo is simply the product of influential people in Florida still mad that the government took their property fifty years ago. They live with the hope that the Cuban government will return it to them if we maintain an embargo.
What other reason can we have for freezing this tiny island out of full participation in the world's economy? If it's because they are a communist country, then explain our very tight economic relationship with China or why we lifted the embargo on Vietnam. If it's because of their human rights record, well, see above and toss in Saudi Arabia if you're a woman.
Cubans seems to be acutely aware that their experiment with socialism is a failure on some levels. On some levels, however, most Cubans would say it succeeded. Everyone has access to free medical care and education. Under the old regime, those were the privileges of only the rich. Everyone now has something, if only a monthly food voucher that assures them they will not starve.
The Cubans we met on this trip made it clear that they never hated Americans despite the embargo. They were warm, welcoming and willing to talk about their hopes for the future. But that future can only happen if American politicians can get over the donations from those rich Miami exiles and extend a hand 90 miles across the sea to a country longing to participate in a competitive economy. Seriously, what do we have to lose?
Next week, the look and feel of Cuba.
Elise Patkotak is currently traveling in Cuba. Her latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at anchoragecalendarsandbooks.com and at local bookstores.