A New Hope

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

Today was perhaps the most enchanting part of the trip. While the mountains and the orchid gardens are certainly more picturesque, a connection was made here today that spans decades and symbolizes a new hope in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Our day started with a quick breakfast at the Hotel Nacional in their elegant underground dining room. We boarded a bus for a quick tour of ration book store and farmer’s market. The ration store was an emblem of the socialist government and how it got food to its people. A chalkboard outlined the prices in regular Cuban pesos for each item. Our tour guide, Gretyl, told us not everything was covered by the government anymore, as evinced by the market right outside. Whole pigs, produce and finished goods were available for purchase at what seemed like market prices. It seemed like Cubans were looking for more than government rice and bread, as the market was far busier than the ration store.

Our next stop was a cigar-rolling factory in Old Havana. The five-story factory was located on a narrow street and no photography was allowed anywhere but in the lobby. I cannot confirm nor deny that any extraneous video was taken.  

Here, we got a chance to look at the the factory completion of the tobacco grown by the farmer we visited outside of Vinales a couple days before. Each floor of the factory had a different role, from treating the levels until they had a soft, cottony feel to them, to rolling the cigars, sorting them, labelling and finally boxing. The sorting was interesting because they had to sort them them by shades of brown, from left to right, dark to light. Apparently it’s a skill the workers pick up from a lifetime of exposure to cigars, because to American eyes, they were all brown.  

Our tour guide was an animated fellow who told us he was half Cuban, half Spanish, as his grandmother had Spanish roots. He assured us that he was purely Cuban, without counter-revolutionaries or relatives in Miami. He said “we’re all ‘patriots’ here.” He made the air quotes with his fingers when saying “patriots.”

When we left, we passed a square full of Cuban patriotic buildings and signs, including the highest tower in Havana. It was here that Fidel Castro gave many speeches, along with other Revolution luminaries. It was also here that Pope John Paul II visited for the first time since the Revolution. I wondered what concessions the Pope had to make to appear in Havana. From Castro’s point of view, I can’t imagine how any price was worth it—the throngs of people that showed up for it radically reshaped the country that had banned religious expression in the same vein as the Soviet Union.  

It was our next stop that proved to be the highlight of the trip. It didn’t sound promising, Viviero Alamar, an all-organic farm right outside Havana. Like any farm here, it was a co-op and at 25 acres was sprawling, especially so close to the heart of the city.  

Cubans tout their organic approach to farming far more than in the U.S. It sounds like it’s a carefully planned approach, until you come to understand that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lack of farm chemicals was the only way to keep going. The Green Revolution was neither televised nor optional. 

The garden here was thriving, I’ll certainly give it that. More than 160 workers kept busy weeding, spraying water and moving plants.  I did see signs of blight, as well as plenty of insects, so I know it took a lot of man power to keep it going, but it certainly seemed thriving enough.

In the heart of the garden, we met a man who appeared to be in his 80’s named Ramon Padilla, who was breaking coconuts open with the back of a machete in his faded army jacket. His practiced hands easily got them undone and he invited us to partake. Our guide Wendy asked him if he was part of the Revolution and he indicated that he had fought. He wanted to show us some photos, and produced a small black-and-white photo of him shirtless, surrounded by members of the Cuban military from the 50’s. He asked us to wait to show his pride and joy. Ramon produced a poster-sized picture of his meeting with the Pope directly in front of him.  

Ramon was more than a coconut shucker, though, he was the farm’s “plant doctor,” meaning he used plants for medicinal purposes. One member of the tour group, Bob Mackey, 71, asked me to ask Ramon if he had any plants for his inflamed knee. Bob had had knee replacement surgery and days of walking left his right knee clearly more inflamed than the other.  With help, I was able to translate and indicate the problem. Ramon became a bustle of activity and we followed as he stooped to cut a leafy green plant. He then got some gauze and proceeded to make a poultice for Bob, and the two men chatted amicably on the bench, as I attempted to translate Ramon. I did get that Bob needed to make a tea with the other leaves Ramon was giving him. I was videoing the whole time, and I hope i can get a better translation later.  

What you don’t know is that this wasn’t the first time Bob had been to Cuba. He had a front-row seat to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as a member of the United Stated Navy.

“They had the whole island surrounded with ships, more than I’d ever seen,” Bob said on the tour bus. “It was reserved parking only. Nothing was getting through. Thank God the Cubans made the decision to back off. We would have leveled Havana.”

Havana has grown since then, not just in size but in generations. Ramon said things weren’t like they used to be as he tied off the poultice, taking care not to tie it too tight.  Bob agreed. Here they were, two old men working on healing old wounds where at one time they might have been mortal enemies. The common ground they found at a farm—across time, across politics and across approaches—created an unforgettable experience that should be a new hope of opening both countries to each other. It was such an honor to be the witness to this event, a sign of better things to come.  

Our final day of the tour in Cuba and the flight home is tomorrow.