We wished the men good luck, left our radios and books, and started back to Havana. It wasn't long before I saw a woman trudging along the side of a dirt road. I stopped and offered her a ride. Once she was settled in the car, I handed her a radio. When I glanced back, tears were running down her cheeks. When I asked why she was crying, she replied, "Now, I have a birthday present for my son." After dropping her off and finding our way onto a paved road, we picked up two young women to whom I also gave a couple of radios. One asked, "Can I have two more?" The girls explained that they wanted radios for their brothers who were imprisoned in the large gray building we had passed a mile back. They had been sentenced to twenty years for killing a neighbor's pig.
I had now been in Cuba almost three years. The longer I stayed,the more I liked the country and the people, and the sorrier I felt for those who were forced to live under the omnipresent and pervasive control of the Castro regime. There was no doubt in my mind that Cubans were deprived of essential freedoms, but I didn't think that our policy of isolation was an effective way to bring about change. I believed that the best way to promote change in Cuba was by empowering the Cuban people. Helping to keep them poor and isolated only helped Castro to maintain control. Yet everything we did to enable the Cuban people to seek change depended on the regime's forbearance. If we were too aggressive, Castro would smash our endeavors by throwing me or my officers out of the country or by jailing the dissidents. But I was finding it increasingly difficult to assess the costs and benefits of my actions, like the radio distribution program. Sometimes I wanted to aggressively confront the oppressive power of the Cuban state, yet I knew that this was dangerous, and I was already treading near the edge of Castro's patience.
Having successfully delivered radios to supporters of Project Varela, I decided to take a six-day tour of the island, which is shaped like a shark jumping out of the sea. I planned that Victor and I would drive from Havana, at the base of the shark's head, down its spine to the second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, located on the shark's tail.
During our travels, we met with government officials, average citizens, and dissidents, leaving behind radios and books with everyone but the officials. Our first stop was the large city of Camaguey in central Cuba, where we visited three Protestant churches. I left several cartons of radios with a young, dynamic pastor of a large Baptist church. He was delighted, until the next morning when he showed up sheepishly at our hotel to ask that we take the radios back. He apologized profusely, but did not explain his decision. It was clear he had been warned not to keep them.
The next day we reached the small village of El Cobre where Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, is enshrined in a basilica that overlooks the bay surrounding Santiago de Cuba. She is known as the Mambisa Virgin because she was venerated by Cuba's independence fighters—called Mambises—who fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Jewels and small favors left by the humble and the mighty were displayed in a glass container. Ernest Hemingway gave his Nobel Prize for the story of a Cuban fisherman, The Old Man and the Sea, to the virgin. Hemingway loved Cuba, where he lived until shortly before his death in a beautiful home called Finca Vigía (Lookout House) on a hill outside Havana. We didn't leave any radios with the virgin but we did drop off a few in El Cobre.
When we reached Santiago de Cuba, dissidents were waiting for us in a wooden three-story house, likely built in the early twentieth century.
We were escorted up a few flights of rickety stairs and ushered into a room that seemed to have been set up solely to receive us. There were a few chairs, but no tables, rugs, or pictures. Before we could exchange pleasantries, one of the dissidents took the carton of radios from Victor, thanked him, and disappeared. The dissidents explained that they knew that state security was watching us and, fearing that the radios would be confiscated, planned to immediately give them to their members. I was troubled because it seemed as if we had inadvertently become involved in subversive activities. I suggested that I might stop the distribution to prevent them from being harassed or jailed. "Oh, no," they exclaimed, "the radios are well worth the risk. They connect us, so we aren't alone."
From Our Woman in Havana by Vicki Huddleston, Copyright 2018 © by Vicki Huddleston.
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