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Steve Novotney Says, "An Unspoiled Cuba"

It was on her bucket list, so she went to Cuba.

Wheeling resident Jeanne Finstein joined her friend Hydie Friend for the trip to the country that rests about 90 miles away from the shores of Key West at the end of November through an organization that encourages cultural exchanges between the natives and visitors.

What they experienced was an unspoiled Cuba, a country that has been sort of stuck in the 1950s after the United States placed trade sanctions on it in response to the revolution orchestrated by Fidel Castro. The U.S. and Cuba severed political ties in 1961, Castro partnered with the former Soviet Union, and then the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October 1962.

Finstein recalled that time in history.

"I was pretty young back then, and I didn't really pay much attention to Cuba or any other country then," she said. "But I remember hearing about the revolution, and I certainly remember the missile crisis. We were all pretty scared.

"No one knew what to expect, and no one knew how it was going to end," she said. "That's when we had to start doing those drills at school. It was that big of a threat."

By unspoiled, I mean not Americanized by capitalism the way I expect it to be in five years if President Donald Trump does not reinstate the embargos and travel restrictions. Cuba could become just another Caribbean island, but that's not what Finstein witnessed.

She saw one modern car during her two weeks, and the rest were older models but modified because of the limited access to proper parts; toilet paper was not permitted to be flushed, but there was a bidet; the natives seemed accustomed to tourists, just not American tourists; the pork and beef in the dishes they tried wasn't as spicy as expected; and the folks gave her the impression that they were intelligent and healthy and educated.

"But there's still a need for food rations to be distributed by the state," Finstein explained. "It's not enough to survive on, so it's a supplement. The people in Cuba are not afraid to work, but what they are paid isn't enough.

"I found them to be very proud of their survival with all of the economic challenges and the restrictions mandated by government. They are very proud of that," she said. "I met one person who raised a pig for slaughter in a fourth-floor apartment. That's what some have to do."

Early in 2016 President Obama, through executive order, eased restrictions concerning travel to Cuba, and when Finstein and Friend landed, the country's people were still observing the traditional nine days of mourning following the death of Castro.

That meant, at public venues anyway, there was no music to hear and no booze to guzzle.

Until his death on Nov. 25, 2016, Castro remained a mainstay opponent of the United States and publicly disagreed with the embargo relief and Obama's visit to Cuba in March. Castro composed a full-page column for the country's communist newspaper and he stated within, "We don't need the empire to give us anything."

The empire. That's us.

"But the people of Cuba we had the opportunity to meet told us that they are happy about what President Obama did," Finstein said. "What I found really interesting was that, anywhere you could shop for souvenirs, you never saw anything that was made in China."

Unspoiled. For now, anyway.

"It will change in the future, I'm sure," she said. "That's what happens, and it will be good for the people there, I hope, but I am glad that I was there before it happens."

Novotney Note: Finstein will be the featured speaker on Feb. 21 during the Ohio County Library's "Lunch with Books" series, and her presentation will include a slide show of the photographs she captured during the venture.