Seeing Cuba beyond politics

Visit: An Annapolis resident was part of a group of Americans who traveled to the island country this month.

May 26, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

On a warm and windy evening on the streets of Havana a couple of weeks ago, a woman walked up to Phyllis Marsh and struggled in broken English to learn something about the unlikely American visitor.

They fumbled for the right words. And then the woman, a university professor, reached out and took Marsh's hand, a simple act of human warmth at odds with the tough talk over embargoes and travel bans bedeviling relations between their countries.

"This is how you express affection when you don't know the language," Marsh reflected recently after returning from a cultural exchange trip to Cuba that coincided with former President Jimmy Carter's historic visit to the island.

Marsh, 63, an administrative assistant who lives in an Annapolis condominium, is no diplomat. The few Spanish words she knows come from a phrase book she took on vacation to Spain a few years ago, and her impressions of Cuba before the trip did not span far beyond Desi Arnaz and the Tropicana nightclub.

But as a member of Friendship Force International, a group founded with Carter's help, Marsh found herself swept up in the forces of history. At Carter's behest, the group assembled 25 Americans from around the country to join him on his visit to Cuba.

Marsh's plea to go was nothing fancy. In an e-mail to the Friendship Force official selecting the group, she wrote, "I would like a chance to know [Cuba] more realistically."

She was chosen -- the only delegate from Maryland -- and flew to Havana, through Cancun, Mexico, on May 12.

Carter was the most prominent American leader to visit the island since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. He met with the Communist leader and with political dissidents. And in a televised speech to the island, he urged the United States to relax sanctions against the country, an idea that President Bush rejected in a speech in Miami on Monday in which he called Castro a "brutal dictator."

Marsh and her group avoided such thorny questions. They just hoped that some good might come of ordinary Cuban and American citizens mingling outside the spotlight.

"We're not trying to change foreign policy," says James E. "Chip" Carter III, the former president's son and the president of Friendship Force, based in Atlanta. "We're trying to show that ordinary citizens all want the same thing: a better life for their children, food and shelter, some basic human-rights-type freedom.

Chip Carter views the trip as a success, saying that Castro agreed to let his group increase the number of delegations it sends to the island each year from six to 25.

Often, the delegates stay in the homes of local families. But time constraints on the Carter visit made that impossible. Critics of Cuba might say that Marsh's group didn't get much of a street-level view of a country faulted for denying its people democratic freedoms and civil rights.

Marsh and the others stayed at a five-star hotel, attended a private recital by the country's top opera singers and were invited by Castro to a lavish state dinner that featured lobster served in a pineapple shell and ended with a Cohiba cigar.

Marsh says she was impressed to see smiles and laughter from a man shown in photos in American newspapers as a steely faced dictator. "He is very personable, very charming."

But, she acknowledges, "We didn't ask hard questions."

When Marsh looked hard enough, though, she could glimpse signs of a struggling country.

As the tour bus roamed the streets of Havana, she saw houses with crumbling pillars and sagging balconies. A medical clinic she visited was clean but had few of the advanced instruments of U.S. hospitals. And the shoebox of charitable goods that Friendship Force had asked her to bring -- aspirin, ballpoint pens, needle and thread -- bespoke the island's privations.

Returning to Annapolis on May 17, Marsh laid her bags on the sofa and unpacked things she had brought back: a bottle of rum, silver-colored coins, a couple of woodcarvings.

But her thoughts drifted to less tangible mementos, especially the memory of the warm night when the Cuban history professor came up to her on a street corner. With effort, they managed a few words about their jobs, their children.

Later, as Marsh got ready to leave, the professor grasped her hand. For a few blocks, they walked quietly, hand in hand, until they reached the tour bus.

Marsh says that her faith in the power of such moments comes in part from her late husband, a NASA scientist. His friendship with a French space official helped bring about the 1992 launch of the Topex/Poseidon ocean-mapping satellite, a joint project of France and the United States that is considered a milestone for international cooperation in space research.

"You don't start a friendship with the idea of changing [history] -- that's manipulative," she says. "You start a friendship, and who knows where it might lead?"

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