Cuba calling: Local family explores roots in closed-off island nation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 8, 2014

In late April, two Salisbury families were part of a group who explored Havana, a city beautiful but in decay, a city frozen in time.
The trip was sponsored by Preservation North Carolina, and the two families were fascinated by the city’s architecture, art and history.
For one family, it was a chance to further their knowledge of historic preservation because they live on a street in a town that’s surrounded by it. For the other, it was a chance to explore their roots.
Here’s what they found.

By Susan Shinn
For the Salisbury Post
uke Fisher never wanted to go back to Cuba.
The last time he and his mother visited was 15 years ago. His mother, born in Cuba, wanted to see family.
“It was a bad time for Cuba,” Luke remembers. “It was the tail end of the ‘special period’ when Russia pulled the plug. It was tough. There was no food. It was just a terrible time. I didn’t feel all that safe. People were suffering.”
His mother, Sonia, who died eight years ago, never went back.
But recently, the Fishers learned about a trip to Cuba sponsored by Preservation North Carolina. Luke’s two younger children, Liza and Tom, begged to go.
“They shamed me into it,” Luke says, smiling.
“We’re all big architecture and preservation lovers,” Tom says.
“We do like to travel as a family,” Luke admits.
So in April, Luke, his wife Diane, and Tom and Liza joined the Preservation North Carolina trip.
“It was amazing how good things were,” Luke says. “I told my children, thanks for twisting my arm.”
The only other time he’d been to Cuba was when he was 9 months old, in the summer of 1959, at what turned out to be the height of the Cuban revolution. Fisher’s father, Carrol, had promised his father-in-law that Sonia could return to Cuba every other year. But that turned out to be her only trip home before the embargo was declared which still stands today.
Sonia grew up on the other side of the island, in a privileged life on a sugar plantation, run by Luke’s grandfather.
Luke’s aunt was educated in the United States, and today works as a translator, earning the same monthly salary as everyone else in Cuba: about $20 a month.
But she receives food vouchers and free housing and free medical care.
“It’s hard to communicate with her,” Luke admits, but not because of a language barrier. “There’s a difference in philosophy and a difference in beliefs.”
Tom and Liza sporadically hear from their Cuban cousins on facebook — when they can get on the Internet.
“It’s not very often,” she says.
On this trip, Luke and his family found a lot of hope, he says. They attended a morning lecture each day by professors at the University of Havana. They learned a lot about the Cuban economy, and about countries that are doing business with Cuba.
“They are experimenting with capitalism,” Luke says. “They are starting to figure out how to build the tourism economy.”
“They told us ‘We do not want to be Cancuned,’ ” Diane says.
There are Cubans who work as artists, taxi drivers, waiters and more, Luke says. “If you can get into the service industry and earn tips, you can lift your status.”
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has spent some $50 million to restore Old Havana. It’s a slow process, but necessary, because Luke says the city loses three buildings a day to collapse.
“It looks like there’s been an earthquake,” Liza says.
Tom says that the group toured beautiful museums and saw fantastic artwork — but all the buildings had their doors and windows wide open. If the air conditioning breaks, there’s no money for repairs.
“You have these incredible paintings exposed to the tropic breezes and humidity,” he says, “and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
Still, the craftsmanship they saw was unbelievable.
“Every window, every door, every façade is ornamented within an inch of its life,” Tom says.
People also live in buildings that look as if they could crumble any second, he says.
“You can tell in its prime, it was beautiful,” Liza says.
“And can be again,” her father adds.
Diane says that the lecturers tried to give the Americans perspective on the city’s state of disrepair. The average family income is $20 a month, and a gallon of paint costs $22.
Still, Diane says, there is hope among the people. “I feel like they’re resilient.”
For years, Tom and Liza, and their older brother, Ben, heard stories about Cuba from their grandparents.
Carrol Fisher calls it the most romantic and incredible place on earth, the best place for your mind, body and soul, Tom says. His grandparents met when Carrol Fisher was a Navy pilot, and married in 1958.
Diane agrees.
“You hear music when you’re out in the evenings. It’s very romantic,” she says.
“It’s kind of like being at Disney World, but it’s not contrived,” Tom says. “It’s real. That’s their real life.”
The Fishers found the Cubans to be happy and friendly.
“What are you gonna fight over?” Liza asks.
“They have nothing,” Tom says.
The country is ripe for foreign investment, Luke says. “It’s gonna be interesting to see who’s going in. They don’t have a choice, or they’ll continue to lose everything.”
Luke agrees that it was right for the Cubans to oust President Batista from power during the revolution. But it was wrong for the government to take everything when Fidel Castro brought communism to the country.
“My mother went to school with Raul Castro,” Luke says. “They were sons of a wealthy landowner in Santiago. If they would have just stabilized the country, but goodness gracious, they didn’t have to go that far.
“The communists took everything,” Luke adds. “My mother’s friends lost their houses, but they kept their keys. They thought they would be able to return.”
Those houses have been turned into museums, apartments and government buildings.
Industry in the country stopped, because everyone wanted to go to Havana to get assistance. Bacardi once made rum there, but when they left, no one knew how to continue.
The Cubans are now training craftsmen to help with the massive restoration, and Cubans are allowed to receive money from their families in America.
Tom and Liza, especially, are glad they were able to see Cuba now.
“We’ve done a lot of traveling,” Tom says, “and the only place I was really, really dying to go to was Cuba. We wanted to do it now, because things are starting to change. I wanted to see it before it changed too much, in case there’s some kind of Cancunization.
“It’s a beautiful place. I can see why people love it.”
And now Tom and Liza understand why their Nana was so sad when she talked about Cuba.
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Liza says. “We didn’t really have an idea of how she lived. It’s weird to know you’re connected to a place and not know much about it. I was actually really surprised to find anything remotely comfortable. I couldn’t have been disappointed because I was expecting it to be so bad. It was a mix of beautiful and hopeful.”
They met people who just wanted to be friends and tell their stories, Diane says. “Everyone stressed, ‘We are your friends.’ ”
“They said, ‘It’s just our government, it’s not us,’ ” Tom says.
“The Cuban people are so appreciative,” Diane says. “Those in the service industry work so hard.”
Tom points to one of their waiters as a prime example. He spoke five languages and could be a college professor, but chose be a waiter because he can make more money.
There is definitely a caste system in Cuba, and people like artists, for example, can make more money than most people by selling their art, Liza says.
Tom and Liza say they both want to return to Cuba, the next time to visit Santiago. Tom is preparing to move to Athens and work in real estate. Liza has a business degree, but has an itch to do more traveling. She’s preparing to take the GRE, and will either go to graduate school, or teach in Spain. Their older brother works in Charleston as a home energy auditor. Luke is president of Carrol Fisher Construction and Diane is headmaster at Salisbury Academy.
The family recognizes that great changes are on the horizon for Cuba.
“They’re at this turning point. How do you make it better without accidentally making it worse?”
“Where do you even start?” Tom says. “The people we talked to were educated and had traveled. The average Cuban just wants cruise ships to come in so they can sell things to tourists. But cruise ships create trash and pollution. That’s not an easy fix. That what’s scares me.”
“The people we spoke with are in favor of controlled growth,” Diane says.
“They’ve got to have other industry,” Tom says. “It just can’t be tourism.”
“You can’t import everything,” Liza says. “Time stopped for them 50 years ago, and now they have all this knowledge at their fingertips. If they want to grow in the right way, they can.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.