Christie Hardwick is the author of “The Progressive Wedding Book” and is a spiritual guide, activist, and LGBTQ Nonprofit Advisor. Below is an excerpt titled “Otherness.”
As long as I can remember Cuba was the place where the ‘other’ lived. The place that was stuck in time, with a dictator that held his people hostage to an ideology which resulted in their imprisonment on a tiny island without resources. The place and the people who were somehow a threat to the considered most powerful nation in the world.
I knew there were lots of Cubans in Miami, but I was never curious as to why. I imagined they somehow escaped the oppressive regime. I never bothered to ask anyone or read about it. I just accepted the narrative, Cuba bad, United States good.
I knew there were Cuban cigars, I knew that once it was a playground for wealthy people from all over the world. I knew there was a man named Fidel and there was a skirmish called the “Bay of Pigs”. In all the scenarios they were the other and they were wrong.
Arriving in Cuba and looking into the beautiful sparkling green eyes of our group leader, Yohanys I prepared myself to learn. We were on an educational program with Road Scholar and it was an adventure into awareness that the “other” was another version of me and us.
As the island and its people revealed itself, I began to understand what it really means to be resilient, amazing humans. I saw the cool Chevy’s in pictures and thought it was a Disney like shtick for tourists. I learned they are blocked from getting any new vehicles by trade embargoes, so they have rebuilt engines and kept the exteriors in mint condition. It turns out tourists love riding in them, but it was a constraint that caused the creativity. I rode in a purple one with the top down and the driver had an Mp3 player plugged into the console blaring 50’s music, American of course.
We visited painters, potters and sculptors and listened to stunning jazz artists in a small venue. We met chefs who were beginning to be able to have their own ‘restaurants’ that were no longer run by the government (which mostly every enterprise is), we stayed in a home of a family in their version of Airbnb. We visited a farm and saw people on their way to work mostly on bicycles and the very rare jam-packed bus. Fossil fuels are restricted and only a few sources will let Cuba buy. So, they walk, and they ride.
We went to the food closet (their version of a store) where people use their allotted coupons to get staples. There is very little on the shelves primarily because my country threatens not to do business with any business that exports into Cuba. So, what they eat they grow or source from a few countries who do not participate in the blockade.
For a few decades Russia was their source, but when Russia stopped trading with them, they were left without gas, food, materials and everyday supplies. We call what we do an embargo, but I learned that embargoes are temporary, we have blocked Cuba and its people for over 50 years. (In 1959 Castro “nationalized” all foreign assets including 1 billion dollars of Americans primarily in oil- this was after the Spanish/American war in1898 where Spain ‘gave’ the U.S. control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippine Islands, and Guam. History says that we entered war with Spain to protect our investments in Cuba. Cuba became an “independent” country, but with heavy control by the U.S. until the Cuban revolution in 1958).
Despite these facts, the people of Cuba were warm and loving and interested and interesting and did not hold us as individual citizens accountable for our government policies. I think they were way too generous. My ignorance and apathy about the effect of our policies directly impacts the lives of millions on this planet.
Cuba is just an example of how we construct “otherness”. We buy into a narrative without checking any facts in the story. We perpetrate the treatment of the “other” through our ignorance and lack of curiosity about what is the truth and what is the full story. We make people and their government behavior one and the same.
I have a feeling that many of those we consider “others” whether for political, religious, ethnic or cultural reasons have a story worth knowing. If we were only more curious and willing to have our ideas challenged, we would be open to a world that is rich with experiences and epiphanies.
As I travel in the world I am awakened by the people and places that I did not consider “us”. Once I learn the stories of the people I see that we are inextricably connected, and I cannot unwind their story from mine. My wife and I traveled together, and we asked about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Cuba. The answer wasn’t very different from here. It depends on the political and social climate and things are becoming more inclusive all the time. When we were there, the niece of Fidel Castro, and the daughter of the most recent president Raul Castro, was on a radio interview in the States where she advocated for fair and equal treatment of LGBT people. She advocated for me and my wife. We were not other to her. Thank you, Cuba, for the welcome, the lessons and the friendship. I will continue to travel the world and be curious about how all our stories connect because they do.