American traveler: Encounter with ex-spy was like meeting Abraham Lincoln

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Some Americans hope to improve U.S.-Cuba relations even as the Trump administration steps up efforts to strangle the Cuban economy.
In December, I met with members of a U.S. delegation that went to Havana to learn how American policies affect ordinary Cubans.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, a women-led anti-war organization, spoke to delegation members after they arrived.
“This is a very difficult time for Cuba, a very difficult time for Latin America,” she told the crowd. “The Trump administration is making things miserable for progressive governments around Latin America.”
The group had gathered that night at El Atelier restaurant near Hotel Cohiba. Restaurant owner Niuris Higueras conceded that Trump administration sanctions were beginning to hurt her business.
“Many businesses are being closed now because they don’t have American visitors,” she said. “El Atelier, thank God, has survived.”
But recently, she said, the restaurant had lost money for the first time.
Even so, “we’re happy here, from the person who cleans and the person who cooks to myself.”
Asked what made U.S. visitors special, she said her American customers were “kind and generous.”
Americans are understanding when the electricity in the restaurant suddenly goes out. “We bring out the candles and there’s no problem,” Higueras said. “But if the customers are French, they get all depressed.”

Higueras said she hopes U.S.-Cuba relations will improve sometime soon.
“If I were the U.S. government, I’d lift the embargo,” she said. “And if I were the Cuban government, I’d stop talking about the American government.
“I want peace in the world, not war, not selfishness.”
CODEPINK and a Havana group called Proximity Cuba sponsored the delegation’s visit to Cuba. I joined the travelers on their last night in the country. This time, we gathered at Casa de la Amistad along Avenida del Paseo. It was taking a while for the food to arrive and so Benjamin asked that one person from each table share their impressions.
A woman with gray hair and a checkered shirt said, “The spirit of the young people knocked me for a loop.” She said she didn’t expect young people to be so upbeat.
Lida Martin, an petroleum engineer from Las Vegas, said she was impressed by efforts to rebuild after a rare tornado ripped through eastern Havana, killing six people.
“It really touched my soul,” she said.
She said she also enjoyed her visit to Fábrica de Arte, a popular club and art venue in Havana.
“We can learn so much from Cubans,” she said. “I am just so glad I came. I was pleasantly surprised.
Everything I had heard about Cuba turned out to be a lie.
“The U.S. is so afraid of socialism succeeding. They’re doing everything they can to make it fail. It breaks my heart. The world needs to wake up. Socialism is the destiny of humans. That’s why we work with Bernie Sanders.”

Members of CODEPINK delegation pose for a photo with Ramón Labañino, a member of the Cuban Five.
Medea Benjamin and Gerardo Hernández

A woman in a flowered shirt said Cubans’ solidarity impressed her.
“We want to overthrow imperialism,” she told the crowd of Americans and Cubans. “If we could do it the way you do it, imperialism would be out of here.”
Other delegation members were struck by their meeting with a member of the Cuban Five, the intelligence agents who served prison time in the U.S.
“It was like meeting Abraham Lincoln and giving him a hug,” said one woman, who wore a black blouse.
“Cubans still love and honor Fidel,” she added. “That gave me so much hope for Cuba, that Cuba will continue to be an example of love and solidarity for all of the United States.”

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