Sitting in a rocking chair on a porch the color of Pepto-Bismol, I listened as my Cuban host, Mary, told me about her life.

Mary had grown up in Viñales and never left; now a grandmother, her granddaughter sat on the ground near us, rolling a toy car around her in circles. It felt like the first time in years I’d seen a kid without an ipad screen absorbing their attention.

This was how I traveled through Cuba, casually hopping from town to town, sharing taxis that I picked up outside of the local bus stops, knocking on doors of houses that displayed the small blue triangle out front signifying that they would rent rooms to travelers.

It felt intimate, staying with these families, all of them with children, some with grandchildren that would tumble through at unexpected times. The opportunity to share space with the people who lived there – the real Cubans, the ones with individual desires, strong opinions, and a history with their island nation – gave me the best education I could have hoped for.

Last week, President Trump reversed the ability for Americans to travel to Cuba individually, an opportunity that had been granted to us only last year, after over six decades of icy relations between the two countries. It is still possible to visit with a structured group, one that will ensure that you have no free time, spend your money in specific places, and stay in designated locations. Somehow, this is supposed to be about insuring that American money doesn’t go to support the Cuban military or the Castro regime – though in reality, this move will only hurt people like the host families that supplemented their small monthly salary by opening their homes to travelers, the guides who take visitors to see the sights, and the local farmers who pulled their produce and eggs down the street every day in a small wooden cart.

My trip to Cuba occurred in December 2016, just as direct flights became available and visas were simple to obtain. Most Cubans I met were still surprised when I explained to them that I was American, but all were warm and welcoming. Many of them praised President Obama and expressed enthusiasm over the thawing of relations between our countries, which geographically are a mere 103 miles apart – a distance short enough that American swimmer Diana Nyad made the water crossing in one go. It is possible to literally swim from Florida to Cuba.


And yet, since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, in which the people around the island nation revolted against the corrupt Batista dictatorship, the United States has enforced an embargo which has crippled their economy and caused an enormous amount of suffering. No rationale can justify the economic embargo, and the United Nations has proclaimed it against international law and the U.N. Charter every single year for the last 25 years.

I do not claim to be an expert on Cuban history or politics, but I do know this: that during my three weeks in Cuba, I never once saw a homeless person. When I explained to Cubans how remarkable this was, coming from the San Francisco Bay Area where thousands of people sleep in the street, they didn’t believe me at first. “Are they immigrants?” they’d ask.

“No, they are Americans. Many of them are veterans, some of them are women and children.”

This information did not seem to match up with what they expected of the glamorous San Francisco. And this, itself, is the beauty of travel, the real reason why I uproot myself from my home and my warm and comfortable bed in order to go on these trips – because for a brief moment in time, I can have a window into another person’s reality, and the more windows I look through, the clearer my own reality becomes.

I now know that Cubans are, more or less, just like Americans.

They want to see their economy grow so that more people have opportunities for work, they want to see their children be happy and healthy, and they are both fiercely proud of their revolutionary history and critical of many things their government does. Cubans and Americans have so much in common, and are close enough to swim to each other. We were finally entering a time in history where people would be able to see this for themselves, but now we have one man standing in our way.

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