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Minnesotans found muted hope among Cubans

Len and Carol Levine
Courtesy of Len Levine
Len and Carole Levine with some of the school and medical supplies they brought to Cuba.

With serendipitous trip timing, former Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Len Levine found himself in Cuba last week, just as Fidel Castro resigned as president of the tiny nation just 90 miles south of Florida.

Now he’s back, and says he found rather muted reaction on the island to the Castro news, at least among those Cubans he met.

“People went about their business, but they did say they wondered what the future would hold. Most people seem to feel that with his brother [Raul] still in charge, things would be pretty much the same,” Levine said.

Levine and his wife, Carole, were in Cuba with 39 members of the Jewish Community Center of Chicago; it was a humanitarian visit to bring medical and school supplies to the small Jewish contingent in Cuba.

CNN gave him the news
Levine learned about Castro’s Feb. 19 resignation while watching CNN in his Havana hotel room.

“We didn’t see any English-language papers and the Internet usually didn’t work,” Levine said. “You could tell the headlines in the local Spanish papers said something like: ‘Castro steps down.’ “

He did talk with many Cubans, particularly in the Jewish community there, using an interpreter.

“People seemed puzzled about what it will all mean. Everyone we talked with hoped that there will soon be normalization with the U.S.,” Levine said. (Most of the stories I’ve read, though, indicated close observers don’t expect that any time soon.)

A taxi driver in Havana told the American group in broken English: “America, America. Oh, free, free. I would like to be free. I hope someday to be in free land with you.”

While in Cuba, Levine got a good look at the infrastructure there, a topic close to his heart because of his years as transportation commissioner in the Rudy Perpich administration. Levine has also been a Metropolitan Airports commissioner and a Metropolitan Transit commissioner.

Life in a time warp
“We could see Cuba very, very slowly moving into 21st century. Life there is in a time warp; since Castro’s revolution in 1959, almost everything is the same. There’s just not been much development. We had lunch at the old Hilton Hotel, which was built in 1958 and hasn’t changed at all.” (Castro and Ché Guevara stayed there after the revolution, Levine said.)

Levine saw toll booths on the highways that had been taken out of service decades ago, but still remain. “Some roads were so bumpy you could barely drive on them. And we could see rebar sticking out of the concrete on the bridges and overpasses,” he said. (Sounds familiar.)

On the trip, Carole Levine found a cousin’s grave in a Jewish cemetery; they visited a kibbutz-like farm on the outskirts of Havana and saw museums and public buildings, in addition to delivering the supplies to schools and hospitals. But the buzz of the trip, and upon their return, was the Castro news.

The Levines said the timing was especially eerie, because they had been in the Soviet Union in 1991 when Gorbachev resigned and the USSR dissolved.

For international policy watchers: No, they don’t have plans to visit North Korea or Iran any time soon. 

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