Feb 152012


It comes as a shock to think that I have known Robin Hemley for over thirty years. I didn’t think, honestly, that I was that old. We met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980, across a workshop table, I recall, with the then program director Jack Leggett chairing the proceedings. Robin looked too young to be in graduate school, and he still carries himself, even writes, with a kind of wide-eyed, cheery openness to EVERYTHING that is both charming and compulsively readable. Nowadays he’s achieved that remarkable state of being able to turn almost anything that happens in life into something worth writing about. He is an indefatigable world-traveler, prolific author, inspired teacher, and an amiable friend. Here he is taking a group of American undergraduates to Cuba for a winter course. Academia, life, politics and art merge.

Robin Hemley is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction, and the recipients of many awards for both, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes.  His most recent books are A FIELD GUIDE FOR IMMERSION WRITING: MEMOIR, JOURNALISM, AND TRAVEL (University of Georgia Press, 2012) and REPLY ALL: STORIES (Break Away Books, Indiana University Press, 2012).  Indiana University Press is also reissuing his novel THE LAST STUDEBAKER in 2012.  He is also the author of the popular books, TURNING LIFE INTO FICTION (Graywolf Press) and DO-OVER (Little, Brown), and the BBC is currently at work on a feature adaptation of his book INVENTED EDEN: THE ELUSIVE DISPUTED HISTORY OF THE TASADAY (Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press).  He is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, founder of the NonfictioNOW Conference, a senior editor of The Iowa Review, editor of the online magazine DEFUNCT, and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts .



The eighty-three-year old Cuban poet grasped my arm, whispered, “I love your people.  I feel a spiritual connection to them.”  I didn’t know what to say.  I had just met him.  He had spent a dozen years in New York, much like the Cuban National Hero, Jose Marti, who, before dying in battle against the Spanish in 1895, spent fifteen years in New York.  I had spent a total of two weeks in Cuba, and what was I to say?  To lie?  “Right back atcha, Cuba! I feel a spiritual connection to you, too.”  I didn’t.  But neither did I feel a spiritual connection to my own country. I thought that he and nearly every other Cuban we met idealized the U.S. the way Americans idealize Cuba.  The Columbus Syndrome works both ways. Columbus spent a few days in Cuba and then sailed back and said it was the loveliest place on earth, and certainly my students had an enormous case of Columbus Syndrome.

I and a colleague had brought thirteen undergraduates with us to Havana for a Winter term course, as had, it seemed, nearly every other U.S. university.  A bellman at the Presidente Hotel, Gringo Central, told me there were more Americans now than ever, but “they will all go when Obama loses the election.” True, the restrictions have lessened over the last year, allowing more short-term visits by educators, researchers, and students.

Every day, it seemed a new group from George Mason or Randolph College or American University showed up at the Presidente and we compared notes on our respective itineraries: who was going to visit Che’s grave or the hot springs at Las Terrazas or the beaches of Varadero. Canadians, Brits, Russians, Germans, Chinese, Argentines, Colombians, and Japanese have been coming here for years, but for the throngs of young Americans now legally entering Cuba, the approach is not unlike the hordes of shoppers awaiting a midnight sale at Target on Thanksgiving. And what are they waiting so impatiently to purchase? Authenticity, of course.  It’s what the country trades in when all is blockaded.  Cuba es autentica, the commercial warbles.  Tom Miller, a travel writer and Cuban expert along with us, warned my students never to use the words, “quaint,” “nestle,” or “local” in a travel piece, but his warning was of no use.  Any traveler infatuated with a new country sees nothing but quaint nestling locals.

And that’s not the half of it with Cuba, where a powerful strain of Columbus Syndrome, resistant to any known ideological antigen, infects most American tourists who find their way here legally or not. It’s not just the antiquated American cars from the fifties and sixties, belching smoke and plying the uncongested streets of Havana.  Or the two and three hundred year old buildings, some being restored, some too ruined to save.  It’s also the view from the rooftop of the Presidente Hotel at night – the modest skyline with only one or two signs lit by neon.  My colleague and I had wondered if our students would miss the Internet and Facebook and Skype and their cell phones.  Instead, they worshipped the lack of it.  It’s not the U.S. blockade against Cuba that blocks the Internet, but the Castro government, though nearly everything else seems the result of the blockade, including the cars and the crumbling buildings.

What the elevator operator in the Presidente Hotel said about the U.S. elections is true most likely.  If Obama loses the election, the Blockade will undoubtedly continue at least four years more.  No one, American or Cuban alike, could give me a good reason why the Blockade, in place since 1960, continues, except for the most obvious political reason, that the Blockade serves the interests of a minority of Cuban Americans in Florida.  And there’s too much money being made in the maintenance of the Blockade, (including spending 500 million taxpayer dollars annually on Radio and TV Marti, the latter which is blocked by the Cuban government in any event).  The word I heard most frequently was “inertia.”  The Blockade has been in place so long, no one has the energy or will to end it.

Romney must be a little embarrassed by a 2007 speech on Cuba, which he mistakenly ended with the phrase, “Patria o Muetre!  Venceremos!”  It means “Fatherland or Death, We shall overcome,” a phrase that Castro used for decades to end his speeches, and which my students and I glimpsed occasionally on banners strung across Havana’s streets (Gingrich has had a lot of fun with that Romney gaff).  Our tour guide admitted unabashedly as we passed under one such banner, “It works, growing up with those slogans, seeing them everyday.”  Of course, it works, but blockades and embargoes don’t work, unless we hope to push the blockaded country into war.  When was the last embargo that worked?  In the forties, we wanted Japan to leave China and stop massacring its population.  A noble desire on our part, but not an easy solution.  After we imposed an oil embargo against Japan (at the time, America supplied 80% of Japan’s oil), Japan asked FDR for a summit to discuss the matter, but the U.S. said Japan had to withdraw first from China and instead Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Go figure.  Why didn’t they just do the right thing and obey us?

Throughout World War Two, comics routinely portrayed Japanese as monkeys, inhuman, not worth a moment’s thought, but now of course, we’re the best of idealizing buddies again.  It could be so again with Cuba.  In his youth, Fidel Castro wrote to FDR addressing him as his good friend and asking him for a ten- dollar bill.  I’m sure he doesn’t give this youthful faux pas a moment’s thought now, and it means nothing because he was a child.  But grown men like Romney and Gingrich should at least be a little realistic when they ask the Castros for something.  They don’t want ten dollars from Raul or Fidel Castro.  They want, in Gingrich’s words to “promote democracy” in Cuba.  They want “free elections.”  Sure, we all do.  We want them in China.  Let’s blockade it.  We want them in Iran.  Let’s embargo it . . . oh, we are?

This just in: Cubans don’t want to drive junker cars.  They’d rather drive new cars, which they now get from China, along with scores of new Chinese busses.  They long to eat Pringles.  But I don’t want them to eat Pringles!  Or Big Macs.  I certainly never want to hear any quaint Cuban locals ordering skinny lattes.  Then all hope for humanity will be lost.  For this reason, I find myself curiously conflicted about the Blockade, on the one hand wondering what good it serves (beyond reasons to do with a small minority of Cuban Americans in Florida).  On the other hand, I was delighted to see so many old American cars so well preserved.  The country seems so real!

During our visit, a rumor spread in the Miami Cuban community that Fidel had died, relayed to me by Tom Miller, who added that such rumors crop up every eighteen months or so.  “Assassination by Twitter.”  I mentioned the rumor later to our Cuban tour guide who assured me it couldn’t be true because if it were, her mother, a well-known journalist, would have been in tears that morning.  Cubans mourning Castro?  Actually mourning him and not in the official North Korean way, in which a family of bears reportedly sobbed by the side of the road upon learning of Kim Jong-Il’s passing? Undoubtedly, few woodland creatures will mourn Castro’s passing, and not many more Americans, but now I wonder if even his passing will signal a change in our policy toward Cuba?

Honestly, ask yourself, don’t you want to visit Cuba before Fidel dies and/or the Blockade ends?  Of course you do.  You want to see Cuba as it exists now, poor and blockaded, but resilient and proud, one of the lone anti-U.S. bastions that’s any fun. If North Koreans had conga lines and made Pyongyang Club Rum, maybe they’d have more visitors, too.  But North Koreans don’t salsa.  At least, the Cubans know how to resist the U.S. with panache.  When the American Interests section, a tall building along Havana’s famous seafront, the Malecon, streamed electronic anti-Castro messages around the building’s rooftop during the Bush administration, Fidel retaliated by erecting over a hundred flagpoles flying enormous flags to block the messages.  The messages are gone now, but the Cuban flags remain, as well as an adjacent plaza, “Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Plaza.” It was here, on January 1st, the anniversary of the “Triumph of the Revolution,” that my students and I listened to a Cuban singer belting out tunes with a string of young women straight out of a USO Show, as one of the savvier of my students remarked, line dancing on a stage before which thousands were gathered, most of them dancing too.  And between sets the enormous anti-imperialist video screens played the latest American music videos.

 —Robin Hemley


See also Stanley Fogel’s ¿Que Coño Pasa? Snapshots of my Wonderful Cuban Life, a book length essay on living in Cuba published earlier on NC.

  4 Responses to “The Columbus Syndrome Redux: Robin Hemley in Cuba”

  1. A fascinating glimpse, Robin. I want to visit while Cuba’s still authentic, while it’s still blockaded, before cans of Pringles crowd the supermarket shelves!

  2. It makes me wonder what other embargo-like items we keep in place, just because the proverbial political capital isn’t worth risking. Special interest rule our little world, which leads me to believe that the Cuban car market must not be big enough or else Detroit would be lobbying to open the shipping channel. But, I can’t believe that the potato farmers haven’t jumped on the “Open Cuba for Pringles” bandwagon.

  3. I enjoyed the humor and honesty in this, Robin, especially regarding the “inner conflict” of the embargo, how we don’t want Cubans to descend into the rest of “globalization’, sipping lattes with the rest of us.

  4. well said, now I MUST go soon before Castro’s demise and Raul’s capitulation to the US.

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