IMG_6061We are all stamped mentally with our own personal imagery of Cuba in a peripheral way. We really cannot escape it: the epic stories of Fidel Castro’s meteoric rise, the Bay of Pigs disaster that, in the end, accelerated the communist legend overnight and created New Age Communism.

People of my generation grew up fearing the Cold War and the Iron Curtain like nothing else, often having childhood nightmares because our parents told us a complicated story at the dinner table that the world almost ended over a 9-day period, because Cuba let Russia aim active missiles right at our backyards. Literally, with only a few communist fingers tapping buttons, it would have been the end of the world as we know it.

My generation reveled in scenes from ‘The Godfather’ in Havana, where Michael left in the middle of the night because President Batista was being overthrown during the holiday gala in what is visually the coolest old city on the planet. This may have given many of us our only visual interpretation of the Castro Revolution – for me, it did!

However, my first personal experience was the 1980 Mariel boatlift, linked to the first collapse of the Cuban economy, that brought 125,000 Cubans into the U.S. on 1,700 homemade water vessels as Castro agreed for a period of approximately six months to let any Cubans leave the island for a brighter future during improving relations with the Carter administration.

The U.S. impact was really captured, in a very biased way, during the early parts of the movie ‘Scarface’ because some former criminals and mental patients were released into the U.S. as part of Castro’s plan.

As recent as 2004, Robert Redford produced the ‘The Motorcycle Diaries,’ based on Ernesto “Che” Geuvara’s 1952 memoir, which emphasized a need for a Marxist revolution in both Cuba and South America. This stemmed from Guevara’s personal assessment of the real cause of deep poverty throughout the 19 countries and his unwavering belief that if South American leaders could once build the Inca Empire in Peru, over six centuries ago, they just needed a new model to start again – and that it sure was not colonialism or capitalism based on what he personally witnessed on his epic ride.

His writings, his quest to change a large continent, and his pop culture appeal make him a more powerful world figure who still presides on the shirts of many teenagers as a counter-culture hero of socialism, before the CIA took him out years later in a Bolivian jungle, in 1967, in retaliation to his anti-U.S. acts.

Today, Che’s face is more present in Cuba than even the Castro Brothers because of his somewhat romantic journey, turning down a life of wealth to sleep with lepers and giving hope to ‘have nots’ throughout South America. Equally important, he left Cuba before the foundation started to crack years later – so to many Cuban locals, he never failed.

IMG_6197For all of us, Cuba has a complicated history in America as the forbidden place that we are not allowed to visit for over 60 years, yet we have deep compassion for the Cuban people through stories passed down from successful Americans whose parents and grandparents were forced out during the early days of the revolution.

They had to leave behind so much that tells us about the passion and potential of their people. This was captured by another local business leader on our trip with deep family ties to their hotel business in Cuba that was also lost. Even in just an encounter with a spirited Cuba today, you can still quickly see the artistic creativity, drive and perseverance of a beautiful people – regardless of what’s been presented by media and previous generations.