By Devin Foxall
Boris is a gardener at a seminary outside of Havana, the capital of Cuba. He presides over a sweeping wash of green, with lettuce and cucumber plants rippling down a hillside overlooking the aquamarine of the Caribbean Sea. The evening I went to see him, however, he was more interested in talking about what happens when things fail to grow.
“People have no hope,” he said of his countrymen. “They believe the government is lies.”
In truth, Boris was taking a great risk by criticizing the government of Fidel Castro, which has placed strict limits on free speech. But he said that he did not believe the government had the power to control what he thought. “God gave me these rights,” explained Boris, a devout Christian. “Only God can take them away.”
But what concerned him most was the belief held by many Cubans that their future was already in ruins. Instead, as Boris described it, Cuban life had become a well-worn cycle of working for little pay - Boris makes $20 a month - in order to buy meager portions of rice and beans for his family. Any possibility of improving one’s situation had been stolen.
At night, Boris prays that things will be different when he wakes up, that time will have moved forward. But this did not seem likely to happen, he admitted.
Boris watched in the distance as the sun cast flower petals onto the water. He sighed and offered his hand to say goodbye. He had to get back to work, preparing compost for the next flowering.
With Washington tightening restrictions on travel to the socialist island, it’s near impossible for an American to enter Cuba legally. I arrived in Havana with a charity group to help plant a vegetable garden for a school in Guasimas, a small town about two hours east of the capitol.
During our nine days in Cuba, we talked with religious leaders and government minders, with small-town doctors and big-league baseball players. On the cobblestone streets, I talked with strangers to gauge their belief in the future. Taken together, these experiences help illuminate a society - at once stagnate and lively, weary yet proud - that for most Americans is forbidden from view.
The Rev. Dora Arce, one of the leaders of Cuba’s Presbyterian Church, has helped her community make sense of an uncertain future. Over ham sandwiches and watermelon juice, she explained that the structure provided by the government, which the people had long relied on, could no longer provide the deeper meaning necessary in human lives.
“People are coming to the church,” she said. “They’re looking for something more.”
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what this more might be. For an American easily seduced by lands that operate at a 90-degree angle to reality, Cuba offers much to love. There are no commercial billboards along the highways, only signs celebrating the glorious revolution; purple Chevrolets from the 1950s still prowl the roads; and everywhere the face of Che Guevara, the most charismatic of the revolution’s leaders, beams down from above with the watchful eyes of God.
But more than any of this, there existed a facet of Cuban life quickly noticeable but impossible to explain: people seemed to undertake the most common and everyday tasks with a special sense of purpose. To enter Cuba, then, is to cross a frontier.
But there are also second impressions of Cuba, and they develop quickly when talking with the people who actually have to live there.
Arien is an artist who spends sunny days painting by Havana’s waterfront. One afternoon, as I walked along the promenade he spotted my Red Sox T-shirt and exclaimed, “John Kerry!”
He saw that I was confused. He explained that the Red Sox were from Boston, as was John Kerry. He said he dreamed of visiting Boston, or anywhere in America, for that matter. I told him how beautiful Havana was and he smiled sheepishly, unsure if I was just being polite.
“I don’t like it here,” he said finally. He told me that most people were sad with their lives and they believed that making their situation better was out of their hands. He agreed that the city had some nice areas but what he mostly saw were the people, who seemed to wander without care or purpose.
He went back to his painting, a spreading tree licked with red flowers. “This is how it looks in the springtime,” he said.
I said goodbye and spent the rest of the day walking around the city. Arien’s words stayed with me, though, and I couldn’t help but notice how many of the grand cathedrals were pockmarked with age and how rubble seemed to litter the gardens.
It must have been so beautiful, once.
On our last night in Matanzas, a gray city east of Havana, we went to a baseball game. We sat behind home plate and watched the underdog home team keep even with the powerhouse Havana Industrials through seven innings. Late in the game, Matanzas intentionally walked the cleanup hitter to load the bases and it was hoped force a double play. The next batter hit a triple and the game broke open, ending, mercifully, at 12-2.
We spent the game’s last moments in the dugout of the winning team and when the crowd began to roar we rushed the field with the players. For a few moments, we forgot who was who; neither Cuban nor American we surrendered to the sillier forms of bliss.
We sprinted around the bases. We imagined ourselves the heroes of an epic game. At home plate, I swung a phantom bat and watched a ghostly ball sail into the stars.
And then the lights went out. I peered into the darkened stands. Not five minutes after the final out, and everyone was gone.