On Dec. 13, four Ventura locals — Patti Channer, community patroness and architect; William Hendricks, professor of photography at Ventura College; Ron Picciotti, retired engineer; and Susan Pollack, commercial interior designer, plus a few Brooks Institute students — flew into Cuba. Hendricks, who had visited the country 55 times before, and his fellow travelers were about to embark on a journey that would be, unbeknown to them, forever written into the history books.
Four days later, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize political relations with Cuba, the small Third World country that had been isolated for over half a century. With the excitement, the fervor, the hope of what this meant for Cubans, the group shared in an experience that few would ever get to. Surprisingly, however, while they all partook in many of the same experiences, their perspectives were almost completely unique.
This week, Channer, Hendricks, Picciotti and Pollack spoke of their recent journey to a land caught in time.
View a slideshow of Cuba images.
The Rincon • James Brownlie
VCReporter: What was the reaction like when Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba?
Patti Channer: Cautiously optimistic ….
William Hendricks: You have to understand that all Cubans thought Clinton would be the one to normalize relations. In 2009 when Obama was elected, the Cubans were optimistic but had low expectations, thinking he was just another bureaucrat. When this news broke on the morning of Dec. 17 it was first received with shock and disbelief … followed by a warmth that filled the streets. I had longtime friends come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying, “Now we can be friends.” This struck me both as sublime and odd. “Why would we need our president to confirm something that we have known for 20 years?”
Ron Picciotti: Church bells rang, there were joyous crowds in the squares and we were getting high-fives from people on the street.
Susan Pollack: Because we had no warning that this event was going to happen while we were in Cuba, it took us by surprise. We found out at breakfast the morning of Dec. 17. Our hotel had CNN and one of the men on our tour came and told us. Later our guide translated Raúl [Castro]’s speech for us. We ended up going to a hotel bar to watch Obama on a big-screen TV. Right when we arrived to the square where the bar was located, church bells started ringing, pigeons flew in a flock circling the square. We had goose bumps. When we entered the bar, Obama was speaking. The crowd was both American and Cuban. I was offered a glass of rum; we were all joyous, everyone together. Tears flowed down many faces and I was proud to be an American at that moment and I was proud of President Obama to acknowledge that 55 years is too long and it’s time to have relations with Cuba.
When we left the bar, people in the streets were so happy. One shop owner came out and gave me and my friends beautiful beads as a gift for her happiness. It was an amazing day with smiles everywhere we went.
Top: Sunset on the Malecon • Azaria Chavira
Middle: Boxing Kids • James Brownlie
Bottom: Fishing on the Malecon • James Brownlie
Tell us about special experiences on this trip.
Channer: This historic decision taken by the government of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations took place on Dec. 17, which was Pope Francis’ 78th birthday, the first day of Hanukkah and the feast of San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus). One might say it was all in divine right order!
Picciotti: It was special to be downtown Havana on December 17 when Raúl Castro and Obama were doing their joint press conferences announcing the normalization of political relations after over 50 years of Cuban isolation. The people were genuinely happy & looking forward to a better future.
Pollack: My husband and I plus another couple and a gentleman from our group visited a synagogue. It was Hanukkah and they were in the process of getting ready for a children/family celebration in a few days. There are 1,300 Jews in Cuba — 15,000 before the revolution — 800 Jews in Havana, three synagogues, one Sephardic, one Oorthodox and the one we visited was conservative. There is no rabbi; the congregation runs the services, bar and bat mitzvahs and the High Holy Days services. A rabbi came from Miami last Dec. 26 and married couples, mostly mix marriages because there are not very many Jews. I forgot how many couples but it took all day to marry many people. We were told that the young people leave to go to Israel and don’t return.
Havana Streets • James Brownlie
The other special day was our visit to Rincon for the Saint Lazaro. There were 10 of us who made the trip or, rather, pilgrimage. It’s a long story and a long day but we made it to the church to experience all the people who came to be saved, healed and loved. We saw people crawling on their knees for miles, one man pulling a huge rock tied to his leg while he inched his way on the ground towards the church. Inside the church were people of all ages, praying, sick, crippled, in trances, bringing gifts for the saint and happy to be there.
Havana Streets • Azaria Chavira
What do you like about Cuba and the culture?
Channer: Living in gratitude for the opportunity to experience the color of Cuba, vitality of yesteryear steeped in customs, the warm inclusive people, the architecture, the music, the art, flavorful cuisine and aroma of coffee beans being freshly roasted.
Hendricks: This culture is a riddle of resilience and vulnerability. For me it’s a place where genius and insanity argue and celebrate together.
Picciotti: The government will not allow free enterprise, yet art flourishes both in the schools and on the streets. Instead of creating businesses like we do in America, the Cubans create art. It is their form of expression.
Pollack: NO GUNS! I felt very safe in Cuba, which surprised me. We walked through some neighborhoods that I wouldn’t walk through in LA but it was no problem in Cuba.
FREE EDUCATION. We spoke to some college students at the jazz festival. They started the conversation with us — very smart, articulate young men. One in particular wanted to talk and ask us questions. His family was poor but he was able to go to college and major in engineering.
Waiting Game • Bill Hendricks
FREE MEDICAL: Being an RN I was interested in their health care. I spoke to some doctors who, by the way, make the same salary as everyone else. They live very modestly and are very committed. What was interesting is that the doctors I spoke with said they need more medications to treat specific diseases. An example would be some chemo medications that are not available to them.
Cuban barber in Old Havana • Bill Hendricks
How is Cuba different than the U.S.?
Channer: My observation is that the Cuban people exemplify the art of living together in harmony and without prejudice.
Hendricks: It’s what we have in common that is of great interest to me. Sports, art, music, Columbus and the Cold War. For years and with great energy, Washington and Havana have been clutching on to the past governed by principles and foreign policy created in the time of Richard Nixon.
Picciotti: Everything is faded and run down as if no maintenance has been done in over 50 years. Some buildings were barely standing and one collapsed just before we walked by. There were ambulances and fire trucks surrounding the area as the search for survivors began. The city is in shambles and yet the spirit of the people is strong. Cubans are extremely friendly and we never felt threatened.
Pollack: It’s a Third World country. Visually you see the difference right away in the automobiles, the clothing styles, and people spend so much time outside. They are not watching TV — [they] only have three stations. No one is texting and emailing on their phones and no hand-held video games. Children are playing stick ball on the streets or in the parks not on the iPads. That was very noticeable and I was pleased to see it. I went into a grocery market and the choices were just a few items, not 30 different breakfast cereals but four or five. I think all the differences made it exciting because you didn’t know what you would see next. Wonderful surprises!