From: Karen Wald
To: Maceo Carillo Martinet
Sent: Wednesday, August 20, 2003 8:47 AM
Subject: The wrong way to go:
         The Polk Family Stocks Up For Cuba Trip

I'm sending this out for two reasons. First, it is another variant of the homey, "one of our people went to Cuba" articles in local papers, and while avoiding the political debate (ostensibly) is so filled with untruths that it creates an impression totally at variance with the island's reality. All while seeming to be a warm, friendly, cuddly "lets help others" kind of adventure. [Most of the "hard to get" or "too pricey" items this family is bringing their "poor relatives" are easily available in dollars inside Cuba at prices not much different and sometimes better than they can get in New Jersey. See notes in brackets].
But the second reason is as a reminder to people planning to go to Cuba to NOT be like this. DON'T go down as the wealthy relatives (or tourists) handing out beads to the natives or tossing pennies to the kids who swarm around the docked cruise ship. Sure, if you know people well and know some of their specific needs, and know what is and is not available for purchase on the island, you should take things with you. But in general, professional and work-related materials that indicate your respect for the colleagues you will be interacting with is far preferable to handing out sample size bottles of shampoo, soaps, even aspirins.

The Ledger
Bergen County, New Jersey

Published Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Polk Family Stocks Up For Cuba Trip
Visiting family members becomes a mission to deliver basic supplies.

By Margarita Martin-Hidalgo
The Ledger

AUBURNDALE -- For their upcoming trip to Cuba to visit family and friends, Ernesto Sebastia and his wife, Ivonne, are not taking Mickey Mouse T-shirts, plastic flamingos, palm tree-shaped key chains or other cheesy Florida souvenirs.

Instead, the Sebastias' shopping list looks more like a grocery or back-to-school list: laundry detergent, lentils, black beans, toilet paper, toothpaste.[ALL of which they could buy for reasonable prices in Cuban stores]

Foodstuffs, clothes and toys are scarce in Cuba, the Sebastias said, and if the stores stock them, they are very expensive for residents, many of whom are paid $25 or less a month. [Which, the reporter neglects to mention, is somehow sufficient to pay mortgage or rent, food, utilities including gas, electric, garbage collection, water/sewer bills, phone, health costs, clothes and shoes, and still have enough left over for sports, entertainment, toys for the children, lots of books, magazines and newspapers, beach vacations or camping, an occasional night out to a symphony, opera or theatre, trips to the barber, beauty parlor, masseuse, local gym and allow most homes to not only have a TV or two but usually a full music system as well. An amazing feat on "$25 or less a month." Wish the reporter would have told us how they do that. 
But more important, the key words there are "very expensive for residents." Those items are NOT, however, very expensive for a visitor with dollars, so the logical thing for well-meaning visitors would be to wait and buy them THERE instead of trying to travel loaded down with excess baggage.]

"We try to put ourselves in their shoes and try to think of what they need," said Ernesto Sebastia, who with his wife is making his third trip to their homeland since fleeing Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1966. [I'm italicizing loaded words just for the hell of it.]

His wife and three children, including son Eddie Sebastia, who is now an Auburndale firefighter, followed four years later and settled in Auburndale.

Castro, who turned 77 last week, has been in power since Jan. 1, 1959.

Inside their small carry-on bags the Sebastias are also taking packages of ballpoint pens, writing tablets, tennis shoes, slacks, sandals and T-shirts.[All of these could be bought there; prices and variety would be better here in some cases. Although with shoes, especially, I prefer to have people try them on.]

"I have to take pens and paper so they can write to me," Ernesto Sebastia said, holding up the pens and shaking his head in disbelief.  [A slight exaggeration.  It's nice to bring pens and paper but I have had Cubans --especially children -- write to me from all over the island and lack of pens and paper was never a reason for their not doing so.]

They are also taking over-thecounter medications, such as Excedrin, and samples of blood pressure and diabetes medicines donated by local doctors.
[Over-the-counter medications can usually be bought at the international pharmacy and hotel stores, among other places, at prices similar to our own. Prescription medicines are a tiny fraction of what they cost here. But the real point in this is that whatever they bring is a drop in the bucket; if the US would simply end the blockade, the Health Ministry would continue to supply Cubans with all the medicines they need as it did before. What the family does NOT mention is that if any of the family in Cuba had a disease serious enough to be hospitalized for, THEY would get all their medical care and medications FREE. A Cuban relative with HIV, for example, would be getting the famous "cocktail" of medicines, at no cost. If someone on the New Jersey side of the family got HIV, it might very well bankrupt the family to keep him or her alive with the available drugs.]

Two other items in their luggage stick out: a brick-shaped package of Pilon Cuban coffee and a baby-blue guayabera. [That's actually insulting. Cuban coffee is available at all the stores they would buy from on the island and far superior to anything they bring in. The Cuban guayabera is sold in many shops for only $15, rarely more than $22 for a very fancy one.]

The guayabera, a man's shirt made to be worn untucked so that it hangs over the waistline, is probably the most important fashion item owned by men in the Caribbean.

Light and airy, it keeps them cool in the hot and humid weather.

But guayaberas are hard to find in Cuba now, the Sebastias said, and those that can be found for sale are pricey.
[untrue. see above.]

And why the Cuban coffee? Because that, too, is hard to find and expensive, Sebastia said.[untrue/]

In a country where drinking a demitasse of espresso or a cortadito have been social rituals for centuries, Sebastia said many use ground, dry lentils to make their coffee.

Going home isn't easy for the Sebastias, who have lived in Auburndale for 33 years.

When in Cuba, they will stay with Ernesto Sebastia's sister, Carmen, and will visit his father-in-law.

Ernesto Sebastia, 65, is a technician at Cannon-Buick Cadillac in Lakeland. Ivonne Sebastia, 63, is a nurse at Winter Haven Hospital.

The Sebastias will leave for Havana on Aug. 30.

Their oldest daughter, Annette Grudin, her husband and 5-yearold daughter are going with the Sebastias, too.

This will be the first time Annette Grudin has visited Cuba since she left when she was 5 years old.

Talking about their trips stirs up passions about their country in the good-natured couple who pride themselves on being Cuban but have a deep-rooted affection for their adoptive homeland.

"We owe this country the liberty we lost," said Ivonne Sebastia.
[And this country owes them for the health and education and housing rights THEY lost]

There are, of course, pangs of nostalgia and sadness because Cuba is in ruins.

Interviewed at home recently, the Sebastias wistfully recalled a time when Havana had all the amenities of a modern city -more than Miami back then -and supermarkets and clothing stores were fully stocked.
[If they are mourning this loss they must have been part of the tiny handful of wealthy Cubans who could actually afford to shop there. The overwhelming majority could not.]

They remember the Sears, Roebuck and Co. building, the country's first electric escalator, the first color TVs that arrived on the island.

But mostly, the Sebastias feel a deep sense of sadness for the people who don't have a future there and live day by day.

"You can't plan for the future because there is no future," said Ernesto Sebastia.

They talk of children who go without drinking milk for weeks and grown-ups who go without eating eggs for days; some who haven't eaten meat in months and kindergarten-aged children who don't know what chocolate tastes like.
[They should mourn instead for the many people around the world who NEVER get these things. At least in Cuba, every child is guaranteed a full liter of milk a day from birth to the age of 7. If the country can't afford to subsidize more than that, the relatives should look at this country's policies towards Cuba to understand why not, and try to change those policies. But as usually, instead of gratefully pointing out how much the government DOES do to make sure everyone has the bare minimum, those accustomed to excess look only at what is NOT there.]

"It's something you can't explain," said Ivonne Sebastia. "You want to cry, but you can't because you drown. All you can do is hug a loved one."

In addition to the clothes and food they are taking, they will give people cash. The Sebastias said they spend more than $2,000 each time they visit.

That includes about $400 in duties at Jose Marti International Airport and dinner at restaurants that are by law off-limits to island Cubans. [!!! This article's biases come out more in these lines than almost anywhere else. "$400 in duties" at the airport isn't, presumably, referring to the airport duties charged at every airport, including all US airports, which are even higher these days because we are forced to pay for "anti-terrorism security measures" -- a cost they don't even refer to --. Instead, they are probably referring to the CUSTOMS duties they have to pay because they are taking so many things into the country to give to their family. 

Think about it. As I mentioned before, most of the things they take with them could be bought in Cuba, at prices close enough that when you add in the overweight baggage and customs costs, the things taken in end up costing MORE. Also realize that if a few families with relatives abroad are going to get a whole lot more consumer goods, destabilizing the attempts to create a relatively egalitarian society where what you get depends on your work and efforts, at least some portion of that is taxed to give back to the needs of the society as a whole.]

But the couple said the expense is well worth it and wish they could do more to help their family and friends.[They could -- work to end the blockade.]

As the departure day nears, they are feeling a little more anxious but are looking forward to the trip.

They said it is always an emotional experience but a very rewarding one because they make people's lives a little brighter.

"It's more of a pleasure to get there and give people what you have, the opportunity you have in this country," Ernesto Sebastia said. "One appreciates more what one has."

Margarita Martin-Hidalgo can be reached at
or 863401-6967.