I often go by the shortened name of “Lisa Q.” It’s because my married name is Quintana, and most folks (particularly in the Midwest) don’t know how to pronounce it correctly. (It’s pronounced “keen-tah-nah”, just in case you were wondering.)

Embarking on our Cruise to Cuba

I married a man who was born in Cuba in 1958. One year later, Fidel Castro would declare a victory over the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Promising a revolutionary socialist state to help the commoner, my husband’s parents stuck it out to see what might transpire. There was talk of how this new form of governing would be the best thing for the people. But those promises soon became nightmares for my husband’s family.

Both of my in laws, Hank and Elsie (now passed on to be with our Lord) were teachers at a Presbyterian Missionary School (one of the few Protestant denominations in a predominately Catholic area). They loved their jobs and their faith was very important to them. Yet soon after Castro took over, it was apparent that their faith and their careers teaching at a Christian school were in jeopardy.

Castro’s government began a program of nationalization, and when Hank and Elsie saw their toddler, Mario, marching in the street with a toy rifle to the indoctrinating chants of Castro’s Cuba, they knew that this was not how they wanted their son to be raised.

There were rumors that all religious beliefs would be stifled. Some had heard that the Cuban State was conducting school trainings telling the children to close their eyes and pray to God for ice cream. Upon opening their eyes, of course, no ice cream magically appeared. Then the children were told to close their eyes and pray to the State for ice cream. The workers rushed in, giving all the children some ice cream when their eyes were opened, telling them that the State would now be their providers.

Huge statue of Jesus Christ, overlooking the city of Havana

This was unacceptable. The Quintanas had to make a radical, life-changing decision. There was a short window of time to leave the country before that iron gate completely shut. Hank and Else, owning two homes (one in the city and one beach house that Hank had built himself), had to make a choice: to stay under this terrible regime, or to leave everything they had known and to loose everything they had owned.

They left in 1961. Mario was only three years old. They were ‘allowed’ to leave with one suitcase. All their life belongings in one suitcase? Yes. They truly were starting over with nothing but themselves and their faith.

Thankfully, because they had worked for the Presbyterian missionaries, an organization called Church World Service, was taking in Cuban refugees and finding them places to live and to work in the USA. Hank told his family that the first place that comes up for placement “was God and we are going there.” It was a small town in Indiana. And that is where Mario grew up.

By 1965, Castro’s so-called “socialist revolution” had capitulated to the Communist Party, further deteriorating relationship with the United States. The “people’s revolution” turned sour and it was the Cuban people who ended up suffering for it. The Quintanas had truly made the right decision to leave that country.

It wasn’t until this year, 2018, that Mario finally returned to the place of his birth. What an eye-opening experience it was for the both of us! I had pictured a beautiful tropical island, with white sandy beaches and cool, old American cars. The cool old cars were there, but the white sandy beaches we didn’t have the opportunity to see. We only visited Havana. But what we saw broke my heart.

© Mario Quintana

A once beautiful city was in such disrepair, I couldn’t help but think of the dystopian movies I have seen of late. Havana, for the most part, has been drastically uncared for, along with its people. The buildings are dirty, with many broken windows (possibly due to recent hurricane damage), and electrical wires are strewn from window-to-window; people often using them to hang wet laundry.

Typical residence in Havana

Air conditioning units are sparse, mainly reserved for government buildings or tourists’ hotels. Don’t drink the water! (The rum is good, though.. not that I’d know, of course – ha ha.) There are only eight TV channels — all government run (propaganda). There are just a few WiFi hot spots where young people stand outside to get reception from, what I presume, heavily-filtered WiFi connections.

We took a bus tour and our guide was excited about the upcoming election (April 19, 2018 is when Cuba will “elect” a new President). But there will only be ONE person on the ballot. How is that an “election”?

We sat and listened to her stories about life in Cuba, and said little in return. She seemed so optimistic that none of us wanted to burst her bubble. She simply doesn’t know what she is missing.

Our tour guide, educated in the ways of Castro’s ideology.

The tour guide went on to explain that all the citizens pay 49% taxes. Most people don’t make that much money and are paid a flat rate. To leave and visit another country is nearly impossible, as they are charged about 5,000 Cuban dollars to obtain a visa. Considering that is more than a year’s salary for most, visiting anywhere outside of their country is simply too expensive for the average Cuban.

All the men must serve at least one year in the military after finishing high school. If they don’t do well on exams, then they must complete three years of military. The University of Havana is free, but it only offers ten majors. Medical care is also free, but they only recently just successfully completed an open-heart surgery. (I am thinking that Cuba is not a place where I’d want to be really sick.)

One thing made a lasting impression on my husband. The Cuban people did not treat him badly for leaving. Instead, they welcomed him sincerely and were glad he came to visit. The Cuban people are good folks, and they deserve more. They deserve to know the truth about their history (they’ve been indoctrinated against the US), and what they are missing. It is my prayer that someday Cuba will be truly free.

My husband sings with a Cuban group. The locals embraced him as one of their own.

Both Mario and I wish his parents were still alive to tell them: “Thank you!” They had made the right decision to leave Cuba, even though it cost them everything. But it only cost them everything “materially”. They still had their faith, their family, and their freedom. Those are the things that, in the end, really matter.