Relations between the U.S. and Cuba are rocky lately due to the mysterious “sonic wave” attacks on U.S. diplomats stationed in there during 2016-17, the cause for which is still undetermined. This reminded me of a time when I had students meet with a Cuban diplomat. Our visit was on December 10, 2003. Photos from the trip are here:
Almost 15 years ago, while scrolling through the list of nations on the embassy.org, site I came
across Cuba. How can that be? We don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba, so
how could they have an embassy in the United States? I clicked on the link and saw “Cuban Interests
Section,” which was hosted by the Embassy of Switzerland. I gave them
a call…and they agreed to met with us.
My other main experience with Cuba is through my sister-in-law Lourdes Graney.
Her family left Cuba in the early 1960s. First her story, which she told recently.
Following that, the interview with a Cuban diplomat in 2003.
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"Both my parents were involved in the revolution during their university
days, including my aunt who was a gun runner for Fidel and Che when
Fidel was directing his army in the mountains of Cuba. My mom became
suspicious of the new government when the currency was changed and
shortly after that all hell broke loose. There began to be militia on every
block and everyone was encouraged to report anything suspicious your
neighbor might be doing or saying.
All personal and business property became government owned. My
grandfather owned a successful sawmill which he and my mom and her
siblings had helped establish from the ground up. The militia warned that
anyone saying or doing anything against the new regime would be killed.
There were many firing squads and I did witness a firing squad as a small
child. I had buried that memory until your brother took me to go see Hotel
Rwanda which triggered the memory and I could not stop sobbing in the
After a few years of this my mom saw the writing on the wall and she
decided we should leave. My parents made alternative plans to leave
by boat in case we were not allowed to leave by plane. We were a very
close family and the thought of leaving for America was very sad for my
sister and me as we would be leaving all our cousins, aunts and uncles,
It was extremely tense and as we walked out on the tarmac, I was
screaming so loud you could hear me above the roar of the airplane
engine. We took off to Miami and I made my dad pray the whole way (I
was 5 years old). As my dad was making the plans he was contacted by a
young Catholic priest who convinced him to bring us to California.
He told my dad the people of the St. Gregory parish in Los Angeles
had gotten together to sponsor a family and there was a house, food and
support waiting for us there.
It was August of 1962 and I’m really not sure how we ended up on the
nightly news but a camera crew came to the house and filmed us as the
first wave and so, we were on tv! My parents were truly pioneers."
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And now the story of the 2003 interview with the diplomat:
Depending on the embassy, you may get speakers who will put their nation
in the best possible light for an American audience and avoid controversy.
I understand that. But I prefer the unvarnished “Here is where our nation
is right and yours is wrong” approach. That is what I was hoping for with
Cuba. My students and I prepared many questions and we rehearsed them twice.
Our bus pulled up to the Cuban Interests Section on 16th Street NW in D.C. in 2003.
There was a big fence with an open gate across the front of the building. We
were greeted by smiling Cubans, one of which was Dario Machado who would
be our host. Upon entry, we saw a cardboard display of five Cubans who, it
stated, were unjustly imprisoned in the U.S. I felt stupid when some of the kids
asked me about this, but I didn’t know a thing about it.
Mr. Machado brought us to a room with ceiling to floor windows and
seats arranged for us. He was a nice young man in a blue shirt with a red (on
purpose?) tie. I hoped he would wear battle fatigues a la Castro, but guess not.
He surprised us when he said, “I want you students to know that I respect you
and I value what you think. Because of that I have prepared a speech I would
like to say to you with your teacher’s permission.” I thought writing a speech
was a friendly gesture and said, “Of course.” I previously wrote that I like it
when embassy people tell it as they see it without trying to be diplomatic. Mr.
Machado quite sincerely criticized the U.S. and praised Castro and his nation.
He gave a fascinating speech, going over the history of Cuba from the
eighteenth century to the present day, touching on all manner of controversial
topics. He spoke of their education system, the U.S. blockade, and the
aforementioned prisoners. He fiercely defended his country's history and culture.
This is exactly what I wanted: a Cuban unapologetically praising and
defending his nation while being highly critical of the U.S. This guy was the real
deal. We applauded, although many in the room could take issue with some of
the things he said, but it wasn’t the time for that…yet. That would come with the
Q&A, which was next. A few questions:
“How is Elian Gonzales? What is his life like?”
Answer: “He leads a normal life. He lives in the same house and he goes to
the same school. He does have some protection from possible kidnapping
by the family in Miami.”
“Having lived in Cuba and now in Washington, D.C., what society do you think would be best for Cuba?”
Answer: “Cuba. We have all the rights that we decide to have in Cuba.”
All the rights we decide to have?
“If there was an election in Cuba with more than one political party,
do you think Castro would win and if so, why not allow more political
Answer: "Parties don't work in Cuba. There's no reason for parties, people
like things as they are.”
And this is when a student asked a question he had not cleared with me:
"If I offered you a way to escape Cuba and give you asylum in the U.S.,
would you accept? Because we have a bus right outside. You could hop on
and ride away with us to Herndon.”
Answer: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, no.”
I wish he had said yes. That would have been quite an adventure.
“What is your view of the strongly anti-Castro Florida Cuban
Answer: “Most of them are not against Castro. But those that are, are a
powerful minority and are terrorists.”
“Both former President Carter and former Soviet leader Gorbachev have
called on the U.S. to take the first step in bettering relations with Cuba.
Since the Bush administration will not take the first step in fixing relations
with Cuba, will your government take the first step?"
Answer: “We are under the blockade so there is not much my government
can do to reconcile this.”
Every kid was riveted with his answer and all the others. They realized they were seeing a point of view one rarely hears in the U.S. This was a defender of
Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. This was a man highly critical of U.S.
policy. The kids had a lot to digest after the discussion. And that’s not all they
had to digest. After the Q&A, the interest section provided snacks and beverages
(the first one to do that for us) which we enjoyed. Many of the kids asked if they
could have their pictures taken with Mr. Machado, which he happily agreed to.
He did a good job. Not a bad guy for a commie!
When I sent him the web site I made documenting the trip, I included a
picture of two students standing behind the gate with their hands on the bars
with a caption that read, “Are Tiny and Johanna symbolizing a policy that locks
Cubans in their own country?” He asked that I remove that caption because it
was not a fair statement to make. I did remove it…but then put it back a few
years later. If you don’t allow your people to leave a nation, there is something
wrong with your nation.
Read more adventures I and my students have had by reading my book "American Teacher-Adventures in the Classroom and Our Nation's Capital." Available at Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook and https://mascotbooks.com/mascot-marketplace/buy-books/nonfiction/bios-and-memoirs/american-teacher/