Sent: Wednesday, August 20, 2003 8:47 AM
Subject: The wrong way to go:
The Polk Family Stocks Up For
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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.
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
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,
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
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.
this country owes them for the health and education and housing rights THEY
There are, of course, pangs of nostalgia and sadness because Cuba is in
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.
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
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
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
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 email@example.com