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A Corner of my Mind: Elect ‘To Keep Democracy’ Day

My young husband Marty and I rode through the beautiful Cuban countryside, where fruit grew wild, on two motorcycles borrowed from John, the Dutch owner of a motorcycle shop in Havana, who rode with us.

I’m not certain of the year, but it was in the late fifties and newly ensconced President Castro was giving yet another one of his long-winded speeches in Havana. Banners draped across the boulevards announced: Cuba Si, Yankee No!

We were in Havana to visit Marty’s mom and Cuban stepdad. She and her family had come to Cuba from Hungary years before as a gateway to America. But the gate never opened and when her husband died, two-year-old Marty was sent back to Hungary to be raised by his grandmother.

While the individual Cubans were kind and polite to us, as a country I suppose they were through with our overbearing ways. Apparently the Ugly American had been pretty ugly in Cuba, and so had its former president, Batista, who was overthrown by Castro and his rebel forces.

The day before our ride, Marty and I had boarded a bus and Marty had called out our stop, which is how it was done in Havana. But the bus driver purposely passed our street. When Marty objected, the people began to shout, “We don’t have to listen to Americans any more!” Then the whole bus chanted: “Cuba si, yankee no!” As a young naive American, I was outraged. Marty, who’d been through WW II in the Hungarian Army, and thrown into a Russian POW camp from which he escaped, was a lot more street-wise than this Brooklyn-raised kid.

“We’ll just walk back, Kilcz,” he whispered.

We had been through other incidents and a rumor that children could turn in their parents for speaking against the government. Apparently Cuban jails were yet another one of those mouse hotels so favored by dictators, where the dissidents go in, but they don’t come out.

This Sunday, as we rode out of Havana, crowds of Cubans in the backs of pickups waved bottles of booze and called out to us in Spanish, which is Greek to me: “Are you going to hear Castro speak?”

“Si,” Marty called back in Spanish, ”We’re going to hear castro speak.” Then he turned to me as I rode beside him, “Like hell we’re going to hear Castro speak!”

But John, who knew his motorcycle shop was doomed since he could no longer get parts from the U.S., was himself outraged when police, dressed in the Castro uniform and sporting beards, refused to allow us onto a beach where John owned a cabana. They told us to go hear Castro speak.

Castro had yet to admit that he was a communist, but his ties to Russia were strong, which infuriated John. “If I see a duck,” he shouted at the police, “and it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, I call it a duck!”

Good ole street-wise Marty grabbed John’s arm and gently urged him away.

We left Cuba without ever finding out what happened to John, but I’m afraid that with his anger and frustration, he may have ended up in jail.

Marty and I came close to being thrown in jail ourselves when Marty tried to pay our hotel bill with pesos, traded on the black market for American dollars two-to-one by Marty’s stepdad. The hotel manager didn’t see it that way, and claimed it was a one-to-one exchange and he wanted American bucks. He called in the police and they accompanied us to the airport where Marty had discreetly set aside American dollars in a safety deposit box. Only then were we allowed to board our plane.

I’ve heard of U.S. citizens who return from some dictator-run country and get on their knees to kiss American soil. I was young and self-conscious, so I didn’t do it, but that Miami dirt looked appealing. When we boarded a taxi, the tough-talking woman driver asked where we were coming from.

“Cuba,” I said.

“Cuba?” She pulled over. “Get out!”

“Wait. We’re Americans,” Marty told her with his Hungarian accent, and explained that we’d been visiting his mother in Cuba.

She pulled out into traffic again. “I get Russians in here that have been to Cuba,” she explained. “I kick them out!”

If this staunch American woman is still alive, I’ll bet she’ll vote in this mid-term Election Day. She knows first-hand what a tenuous grip a country has on democracy, and how it must be nurtured like a delicate flower among the weeds.

So this coming Tuesday, Nov. 2, even if it’s an inconvenience, please try to make it to the polls. It’s the only thing that stands between us and the mouse hotels.