- Associated Press - Monday, February 23, 2015

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - Fernando Gonzalez had been vacationing at a beach, but he made a special trip to meet an American friend from Terre Haute, Cathy McGuire, while she was in Havana on an educational/cultural trip to Cuba recently.

McGuire had been on a tour Feb. 10 and was unaware he was waiting for her at her hotel. “He hugged me and hugged me,” she said. “I told him I was glad to see him.”

Meeting Gonzalez, one of the Cuban 5, was one of McGuire’s primary goals in going to Cuba with 150 other Americans earlier this month on a trip organized by CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization that works to end U.S. wars and militarism.

The delegation met with high-level government officials and interacted with local people about cultural, economic, environmental and health issues. Those who were part of the U.S. delegation will use information gained “to explain to people why the U.S. trade embargo needs to be lifted” and travel restrictions eased, McGuire told the Tribune-Star (https://bit.ly/1BFXCUe ).

She also visited with family members she used to assist in Terre Haute when Gonzalez was imprisoned in the federal prison there. He and other members of the “Cuban 5,” arrested in 1998, had been accused of espionage conspiracy against the U.S.



He was released early last year and returned to his homeland, as have the rest of the Cuban 5. “They are rock stars in Cuba,” McGuire said; she brought a back poster of them she obtained in Cuba. Supporters of the Cuban 5 say they were political prisoners and had not been involved in spying on the United States.

While visiting the Caribbean island nation, McGuire had many diverse experiences. One day, she went to a high school for talented art students and a primary school. Later, she ate at a paladar, a restaurant in someone’s home. She and others met with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro; Mariela is director of the National Sex Education Center.

Also, McGuire met with two independent film makers, and they discussed censorship and the Internet. She spoke with Cubans about race relations and treatment of people who are gay.

The delegation also met with Ricardo Alarcón, a Cuban statesman who previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and president of the National Assembly of People’s Power. He worked many years to secure the freedom of the Cuban 5.

Summing up her overall impressions of Cuba, she said, “It’s a wonderful place. The people are great. Their values are good. What they need more than anything is for the United States to quit interfering in their business. … They know their problems, but they are coming up with solutions.”

They don’t want to be like the U.S. “They want to live better and they could live better if it weren’t for the embargo,” which has been devastating to Cuba, McGuire said. They are limited in the types of food they have to eat, and they don’t have access to modern medical equipment and supplies, which affects their health care. Such items as soap and toilet paper are in short supply.

“They eat but they don’t eat well,” she said. Housing and buildings are often in poor shape, and Cubans can’t get materials they need, again because of the embargo.

But Cuba is changing, she said.

Those over age 40 love Fidel and Raul Castro. While younger people respect the Castros, “They think it’s time for some changes. They’ve had their day, now it’s time for new ways of doing things,” she said.

The economy of Cuba is dominated by state-run enterprises overseen by the Cuban government, although in recent years, the formation of cooperatives and self-employment has been encouraged.

The government does allow more privately-operated small businesses now; McGuire went to restaurants and a coffee shop run out of people’s homes.

Raul Castro “is a lot more open to things than Fidel was,” McGuire said.

McGuire was in Cuba from Feb. 8 to 15. Early in the week, she participated in a press conference to describe why she wanted to be part of the delegation. “My interest was I had helped the family (of Gonzalez)” when they went to Terre Haute.

She brought gifts for the family, including two physics books for Fernando. “He was thrilled to get them. It was the perfect gift,” she said.

After meeting with McGuire, Gonzales met other members of CODEPINK and told them “how wonderful the (First Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Terre Haute) had been to his family,” she said.

Among the things McGuire learned in talking with Cubans is that they would like to have more investigative reporting; currently, media is state controlled.

The visitors also talked with Cubans about gay rights. Police do harass gay and transgender people from time to time, they were told. “Not everyone in Cuba likes the idea of gay people,” McGuire said. There are groups that work to educate people and change those attitudes.

They also learned there are issues with race in Cuba, and those who have darker skin color may face discrimination.

___

Information from: Tribune-Star, https://www.tribstar.com

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