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U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation


When President Barack Obama announced plans for the United States to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba the news reverberated throughout the world.  The two nations were once friends but have officially and often tangibly been antagonists and flat-out enemies for decades due to Cold War tensions that found them on opposite sides of the doctrinal divide.  Their respective governments have remained bitter foes despite the passage of time and despite the fact the two countries are geographically close neighbors with shared history, culture, and interests.  The prospect of letting bygones be bygones has deep import for people with a vested interest, personal and/or professional, in seeing relations renewed.  Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is one of those people. He’s not Cuban but he’s made the study of Cuba, where he’s traveled extensively, a big part of his academic career.  He’s a strong advocate for the U.S.-Cuba letting go of the past and finding a way forward together.  Lazaro Spindola is another person for whom the prospect of renewed relations means a, lot but this native of Cuba is cautious and downright skeptical when it comes to trusting Cuba to live up to its part of any diplomatic measures that encourage cooperation and reconiliation.  My El Perico story was originally published a couple months ago in the flush of this international development.  The piece provides a micro look at a loggershead issue that may finally move beyond vitriol and impasse to a sustainable, quid-pro-quo relationship based on mutual respect.  Only time will tell.
U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

 

President Barack Obama’s announcement the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba holds promise for healing between conflicting nations that were once friends.

Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the United States and Cuba have tread a cycle of acrimony and treachery. These Cold War antagonists became distant enemies despite their close proximity. In response to perceived human rights abuses, America enacted economic sanctions that blocked commerce. Cuba retaliated by jailing dissidents and expelling “undesirables.”

An American embargo cut-off a much-prized Cuban export to the U.S. – cigars (except those smuggled in) – and denied Cubans U.S. goods and investments. Cuban exiles bitter over losing land and businesses to Fidel Castro’s communist regime generally oppose U.S. concessions. However, most Cuban-Americans support the countries doing business together, says University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. Neb.’s small exile community reflects the idealogical-generational divide among this population, with many younger, liberal Cubans favoring restored relations and many older, conservative Cubans resisting it.

Stalemate critics have long contended the countries share too many mutual interests to not have full relations. Benjamin-Alvarado lauded the intermediary role Pope Francis and the Vatican played in bringing the two sides together for diplomatic talks that broke the impasse.

Renewal of natural geopolitical-cultural-historic ties may signal a move past angry rhetoric and punitive policy to find conditional avenues for resuming free travel and trade. It won’t come easy, though.

“The fact is we didn’t have to become the type of enemies we were, but we have been, and so that’s going to take some work,” Benjamin-Alvarado says. “This is a clear indicator to me it’s always been possible and that it’s been a choice we’ve made as opposed to something we couldn’t avoid.”

 

He echoes Obama in saying this new approach is an admission that America’s policy of isolating and economically strangling Cuba failed and that Cuba’s made positive changes.

“Cuba’s changed remarkably in the last 20 years. They’ve transitioned from Fidel to Raul, they’ve reintroduced private property and the ability of individuals to serve as owners of small businesses, they’ve given people more economic independence. Does that mean they’re going to have more political freedoms and liberties? I’m not exactly sure…but the fact is change is afoot, and I think by making changes in tandem with the Cubans we’ll begin to see that happening.”

Nebraska Latino American Commission executive director Lazaro Spindola is a skeptic.

“Diplomacy will obviously have a better chance with this new approach,” says Spindola, who was born in Cuba and fled with his family in 1961 at age 9. “On the other hand, free trade is a very arbitrary definition, and all I see is free flow of American dollars to Cuba – by way of remittances or purchasing Cuban goods. As far as free travel, I see the same one-sided approach of free travel from the United States to Cuba but not from Cuba to the U.S.”

He’s willing to support restored relations “provided there is a mutual concession of benefits that favor the Cuban people,” adding, “”If the Cuban government is willing to yield some ground, I would be willing to meet halfway. Compromise is the base of democracy.”

Some view Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners as a sign it is serious about doing the right thing. Spindola cautions that regimes like Cuba’s “have a knack for softening or hardening relations with other countries depending on their political convenience.” He fears renewed trade might provide Cuba “with an injection of resources and energy that could further delay positive reforms.”

He and Benjamin-Alvarado agree renewed trade with Cuba could benefit the Neb. ag industry, though Spindola questions Cuba’s capacity to live up to its end of any deals.

What happens going forward, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “is a dance” where each side looks to the other for concessions.

“At the end of the day it’s going to have play out through Congress, The Cuban government, in order to have full normalization of relations with the United States, has to right now subject itself, unless the law changes, to certain provisions of U.S. law contained in the Helms-Burton Act. It says essentially the Castro brothers have to be out of the government, there have to be free and fair elections, there must be a free and open market economy and other requirements must be met.

“I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon and so that will slow the process of a full normalization, but there is still a lot of room the Cubans could operate under in order to facilitate trade.”

Meanwhile, Obama may use executive action to speed things along as ambassadors lay the groundwork for more exchanges.

“The president will have the ability to kind of tailor certain interactions,” he says, “Having embassies where we can have an actual voice and opportunity to directly interact on an ongoing basis will help to establish a baseline and foundation for better relations across the board.”

Finding a new normal falls to new leadership in 2017, when Raul Castro is to step down and Obama’s elected successor takes office. Benjamin-Alvarado says whoever inherits this reunification needs to proceed in a fair and bilateral way.

“It’s going to take a lot more for them to trust us. I mean, we’ve been trying to screw them for the last 54 years and now all of a sudden we’re friends. I think that trust is a combination of confidence and reliability. But it will take time. They have to have confidence in us we’re going to be an honest broker with them, that just as they’re going to be transparent we’re going to be transparent, and that we’re going to be above board and open in our objectives and not try to undermine and engage in subterfuge as we have.

“It has to be an organic process generated by both sides so there isn’t one dictating to the other. It’s going to have to be a measured, step-by-step process that allows both sides to become comfortable with how they function and operate and to develop confidence over time.”

Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s traveled extensively in Cuba and plans going again in the spring, says he will measure progress “by the extent to which the Cubans begin engaging formal U.S. government bodies like the Department of Commerce and the Department of State,” adding, “It’s going to depend on how do we get each other on board and accustomed to how each of us does business, not only in terms of actual trade, but the areas in which we begin to relate to one another as regional partners and neighbors.”

Sports fans like Benjamin-Alvarado also can’t help but wonder what thawed relations might mean for the deep pool of baseball, boxing and track talent in Cuba, many of whose best athletes have defected.

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UNO/OLLAS resident expert on Cuban and Latino matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

July 18, 2012 3 comments

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world.  That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research.  I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges.  In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders.  He’s even met Castro.

 

 

 

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

 

UNO/OLLAS resident expert on Cuban and Latino matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.

His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.

Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”

From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.

“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.

“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”

Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.

“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”

His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.

“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos.  All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”

Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”

Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.

Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.

A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.

“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”

When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado introduces an event speaker“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”

Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.

He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”

His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”

Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.

 

Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

July 4, 2011 10 comments

The vast majority of my journalism is accomplished far away from other media, but once in a while I end up as part of the pack when reporting a story, as was the case when I covered a May address by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba during a visit he made to Creighton University in Omaha. Actually, there was just one other journalist there to my knowledge, but he was representing the local daily and so I needed to be on my game with tape recorder rolling and notepad and pen at the ready capturing Ortega’s remarks. As the leader of the Catholic Church in that island nation, he has navigated an uneasy relationship with the Communist regime. In recent years he’s presided over a revival of the church there and entered a dialogue with the hard line government, which has considerably softened in what can only be called a reform movement that’s transforming Cuba into a freer nation. Critics of Ortega contend he hasn’t pressed Cuban officials enough, but the evidence suggests a major change is underway and basic human rights are being respected in ways not see before under the revolutionary banner. My story appeared in El Perico, a weekly Spanish-English newspaper published in South Omaha.

 

 

Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

During a May 12 commencement address at Creighton University, Havana, Cuba archbishop Rev. Jaime Ortega described the uneasy journey the Catholic Church has navigated in the Communist island nation.

At a separate weekend event, Cardinal Ortega received an honorary law degree in recognition of his humanitarian work.

In introductory remarks last Thursday Creighton president Rev. John Schlegel, who’s visited Ortega in Cuba, praised the cardinal for “working relentlessly to mediate between the government of Raul Castro and the families of prisoners of conscience…Above all, Cardinal Ortega has proven to be a great pastor, a great leader, especially through challenging times, and a great priest.” Schlegel described Ortega as a “diplomat” seeking “the greater good, truth and justice.”

The estimated 125 attendees included Creighton faculty, Archdiocese of Omaha officials and members of Nebraska’s Cuban and greater Latino communities.

Speaking through a translator, Ortega charted the repression that followed the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Ortega sounded hopeful about the new, freer Cuba emerging. He referred to frank, cooperative exchanges between the church and government authorities that recently brought the release of 52 political prisoners.

This avowed son of Cuba proudly declared, “I am a Cuban who lives in Cuba. I never wanted to live outside Cuba. It is a country I love with all my heart.”

He drew parallels between early Christian religious leaders serving their flocks amid oppression and clergy and pro-Democracy dissidents finding their voices suppressed under Fidel. He said rather than take a militant tack, the Cuban church followed a pastoral, passive approach.

“The Cuban bishops have tried to be shepherds in this way in Cuba,” he said. “Its role is not to confront the established powers.”

However, he says “the church is always asking for religious liberty, so that its followers can live their lives in peace.”

He outlined where the church and Cuba are today in comparison with the post-revolutionary period. “Initially,” he said, “there was a great acceptance of the revolution because of finding so many points of value with it.”

Within two years though, he said “very strong confrontation” and persecution  distanced the church from the regime and the revolutionary fervor. He said priests were expelled from the country, Catholic schools closed, ministries and other expressions of religion curtailed and various “attacks” made on the church. He was among many young men in the church sent to labor camps.

The harsh measures, he said, “had a negative impact on the Catholic faithful” and “marked the memory” of older Cubans. He said, “This is a mark that is hard to erase.” While the bishops decried human rights violations, he said “the church as an organization was very diminished and had no means of communicating with its people.” He characterized the Cuban church then as “a church of silence,” adding, “The attitude of the church then was one of patience, perseverance, prudence.”

He said despite restrictions imposed on social, political, religious practices, fear of arrest and economic hardship, many Cuban Catholics remained faithful and risked much to speak out.

A turning point was a reflective, renewal process the Cuban Bishops Conference initiated in 1981, extending to every diocese, culminating with the 1986 National Ecclesial Encounter Cuba. “This constituted a very decisive moment for the history of the church in Cuba,” he said. It laid the groundwork for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. As a result, he said, “the church in Cuba let itself be known to the world and Cubans themselves realized there was in Cuba a church that was alive and dynamic.”

Since the conference and papal visit, he asserts the church has taken more of an active, public, missionary role and today is a church “that lives for its people,” rather than “wrapped up in itself,”” welcoming whoever comes to it.

 

 

Framing this empowerment, he said, is a new spirit of dialogue between the church and government, which he describes as “more fluid” under Raul Castro. In a Q & A after his address, Ortega said, “It has been much easier to find somebody with whom to dialogue. There seems to be a greater openness to changes.”

He’s encouraged by greater religious freedom, whose public manifestations include massive crowds for outdoor rites and a recently dedicated seminary.

On the activist front, he said an intentional process of “pastoral action” with authorities negotiated improved conditions for political prisoners, who were allowed to have contact with their families before finally gaining release. “Our humanitarian gesture was accepted,” Ortega said. He also alluded to recently announced Cuban social-political reforms.

With Cuba now thriving, he said its experience demonstrates “the human spirit should not be endangered or limited” and that liberation needs to come in both the spiritual and social life of people, adding, “It should never be necessary to negate God in order to enjoy human rights or to be active citizens.”

Ortega acknowledges that for victims of Cuban injustice “the baggage” and “suffering” remain. For “true reconciliation among all Cubans,” he said, there must be forgiveness and understanding — only then will the wounds inflicted under the old regime heal. Cuba, he insists, is moving on in acceptance and he suggests the rest of the world move on, too.

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s extensively studied Cuba, admires Ortega for “toeing the line for the purposes of advancing the church and its teachings and its ministry.”

Referring to criticism by some that Ortega’s been slow to press for more reforms, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “His approach perhaps wasn’t as quick as some would have liked, but the fact is it’s been successful. I think what he’s understood perhaps better than most was the limitations on what the church actually could do. He moved when he could and didn’t try to deal with issues he wasn’t able to have any answer or response to.”

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

May 11, 2010 3 comments

Sailboat in San Francisco Bay

Image via Wikipedia

A couple acquaintances introduced me to Doug Hiner and he immediately got on my radar as someone I’d like to profile when I learned he regularly sailed down to Cuba on missions that were partly about delivering medical supplies and partly about secreting back contraband, as in cigars.  Hiner is a wheeler-dealer type who denied the illegal trafficking at the time I interviewed him, then expressing upset at my story’s suggestion that he engaged in anything like that, but subsequent events confirmed his smuggling activity because he got caught in the act down in Florida and faced serious federal charges.  He pleaded guilty to one count and received 36 months probation.

Aside from the intrigue, which occurred after my story appeared, his story is really a classic tale about his taste for adventure and his passion for all things Cuban.  A version of the following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

More than any other country, Cuba both seduces and vexes Americans. This island of paradoxes is at once a natural paradise fulfilled and a socialist promise unrealized. In a place where bare necessities do not go for want, chronic shortages make hustlers out of peasant and professional alike. Within a closed society and controlled economy, anything, for a price, is a black market possibility.

Fidel Castro may or may not own Cubans’ hearts and minds, but the land and culture definitely hold residents and exiles transfixed.

Social/economic problems don’t change the fact that Cuba, at least geographically, is a tropical island idyll. Sun, ocean, jungle, mountains — much of it pristine. Politicians/bureaucrats aside, the people embrace life with a live-and-let-live Latino insouciance. Music, dance, food, art, love, sun, surf. Fun prevails, if not for all, for tourists.

Omahan Doug Hiner sees the schizoid nature of Cuba every time he sails there on his 53-foot cutter, the Vitamin Sea. He captains the Tampa-docked boat on voyages that transport medical equipment to hospitals and clinics on the island. He’s been making runs like this to Cuba for seven years, a period when official American policy toward that intransigent Caribbean nation has gone from rigid to ultra hard-line. Embargoes of one kind or another have limited trade with Cuba and, in some cases, denied aid.

 

 

Doug Hiner

 

 

 

With Fidel’s recent stomach surgery making his mortality and his grip on power a renewed subject of world interest, Hiner prepared for a late December sail to bring in another boatload of supplies. But the gringo’s boat blew an engine, pushing the trip back until this month. He arrived February 10 in Havana, where the gear still sits, waiting for the red tape to be cut so he can move stuff inland.

His artist wife, Christina Narwicz, usually joins him on these maritime adventures but she wasn’t feeling up to it when he shoved off this time around.

The Man and the Sea
Hiner, 67, is a former hair dresser and a retired real estate developer and landlord. He made and lost a fortune. He’s not oblivious to the political realities that hold Cuba hostage in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. He has strong views on what Cuba and its paternalistic neighbor to the north should do to ease restrictions and tensions. His awareness of Cuban medical needs drives his missionary trips there, even as he brings in and takes back his share of contraband.

His journeys go well beyond idol curiosity. Hiner and his wife feel they have a fair handle on Cuba by virtue of not only having traveled there several times — it’s 15 trips and counting for him and about the same for her — but their stays usually last weeks or months at a time. They get around to different parts of the island and really immerse themselves in the place.

“We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Hiner said. “A tourist wants to have MacDonald’s no matter where he’s at. We like to enjoy the cultures of different countries and not live like Americans. We try to blend and be friendly with the people, and that’s all it really takes to be accepted. They love Americans, especially if you’re friendly to them. They don’t like the ugly-American types.”

Whatever motivates him, he ultimately makes these journeys because they put him in touch with three of his favorite things — sailing, the sea and people.

Though he grew up in landlocked South Dakota and Nebraska, Hiner long ago felt the call of the open sea.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea,” he said, “and I’ve always had this dream of having a boat to sail around the world.”

Years ago he and Christina “were planning to do a sail around the world …” when his “business fortunes changed,” making such a trip “impractical.” Circumnavigating the globe is not such a passion now, not with the expanse of warm southern waters to explore. “You can spend your whole life in an area like that and never see everything,” he said. “The Caribbean is a whole chain of islands. We’ve never been to Colombia or Central America, so eventually I’d like to do that.”

Besides, it’s the carefree, unrestricted, port-of-call lifestyle he enjoys, more than the challenge of seeing how far Hiner can push his sailing skills.

“A boat is like your home. You’ve got everything on it. You’re totally self-sustaining … It’s a real nice feeling,” he said. “You can anchor anywhere you want for nothing. We spent a couple New Years Eve’s anchored off of Key West, one of the liveliest New Years places in the world.”

Still, the allure of cruising wave and wind is like the call of the sirens — hard to resist. Half the challenge is dealing with weather and the other half comes with the inevitable mishaps.

“Weather on the high seas — that’s your biggest danger,” Hiner said. “We’ve gone through some pretty turbulent stuff, some accidentally, some on purpose because we had to. But it’s never been a safety issue. You’re never really out of ear shot of weather” reports via radio/radar.

Nature-related or not, things do go wrong. Take the couple’s 1999 trip to Cuba for instance.

“Going down on the second trip we blew out the sail. We ran into some bad weather. We had to have it repaired. It’s usually mechanical problems. It’s like, not if it’s going to break, but when it’s going to break. The last time we left Cuba the autopilot failed and we had to hand steer for 40 hours. Oh, and coming back from Cuba once we lost our fresh water pump, so we had no engine. There was no wind and we drifted for a day-and-a-half or two days before we finally got close enough to Key West to get a boat to tow us in.

“Our boat is about 20 years old and it needs extensive rewiring and stuff and I really haven’t been able to afford that, so we just kind of patch things together. It’s safe but it’s always a little bit of an adventure.”

Sea-faring is an apt avocation for an inveterate beach bum who, whether inland or coastal, enjoys kicking it with friends over drinks in the Old Market, where he developed some of the first condos, or partying on his boat.

He enjoys the simple, well-done pleasures of good food, good drink and good company. His wife’s the same. The residence they fashioned from an old brick-faced bar and parking lot on South 13th Street reflect their shared interests. The grounds’ richly decorated Great Wall that fronts 13th Street has a gated entry whose mammoth door opens onto a large courtyard filled with her plantings.

Hiner’s no stranger to graceful living, as he once owned a Fairacres mansion “back,” as he likes to say, “when I was rich and famous.” He made big bucks and moved in tony circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it all crashed. He alludes to a business partner running his development company into the ground.

The house, featured in the Spring 2000 edition of Renovation Style magazine, is designed with walkouts along the length of the courtyard that connect to a wood deck, creating a veranda. The interior opens up to a loft master bedroom and guest quarters, revealing a 32-foot-high ceiling and a bank of large windows that stream light in. At one end of the property is a screened-in porch. At the back of the lot is Christina’s well-lit studio. It all works toward a cozy hacienda feel.

As soon as he laid eyes on the spot he knew “it was exactly what I had in mind.” When he bought the former Glass Front Bar it was only a shell. But, he said, “I had this vision.” He designed the place himself. The work fit neatly into his years of “retrofitting old buildings. I’ve always had a knack for design and style and just living comfortably.” The result, he said, adheres to “the European concept of zero lot lines…where you basically use the whole property. We don’t have a back yard or front yard or side yard — we have a court yard. The same with our house. We utilize the whole house. We don’t have formal spaces. It’s just more practical and creative in my estimation. It’s just a feeling of well-being.”

His passion for this getaway within the city dovetails neatly with his ardor for Cuba. It always comes back to communing with people.

“It’s just a wonderful country. The people are so friendly and so caring and loving,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve traveled all over the world and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that is so warm and safe. There’s virtually no crime in Cuba. It’s true there’s a policeman on almost every corner, but the people there are so law-abiding. They’ll steal, but their attitude is, ‘If you don’t lock your bicycle up with a chain or padlock, then you must not want it.’ I’ve never had anything stolen off my boat in the marina and I can’t say that in almost any other country.”

Years living under the thumb of a dictatorship has its palliative effects.

“If a policeman on the corner points to a driver and signals him to stop,” Hiner said, “he’ll almost come to a panic stop to obey the order. They wouldn’t even think of not [stopping]. A police chase over there would be unheard of.”

Back to the contradictions bound up there, he said Cuba can seem chaste one minute and carnal the next. “It’s a real straight-laced island. Pornography is totally illegal. Drugs — zero tolerance. One marijuana cigarette would throw you in jail for a week before you’d be expelled from the country and told never to come back.” On the other hand, he said, “Cuba’s a very sexually open country. Even though prostitution is illegal…a lot of people are shocked by the young women that are readily available for sexual encounters. One, there’s a serious lack of men on the island. And two, their culture is not uptight about sex at all. I mean, geez, if some foreigner wants to give you twenty bucks, that’s even better.”

Besides, he said, “Cuba’s all extended families — there’s four-five generations that live under the same roof, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to help support the family group.”

While Cuba prides itself on a system that accounts for citizens’ basic needs, rampant poverty compels most everyone to be on the make.

“You see very little begging, yet the young Cuban kids and the old folks are out hustling for the family,” Hiner said. “Everybody is sort of doing whatever needs to be done to provide extras. They have to have some access to dollars to really have any quality of life.”

Amid all this naked human need, Cuba takes great pains to put on a good face. “They sweep each block of Havana every day. If you don’t have anything to do, they’ll put a broom in your hands,” he said.

By Western standards, he said, Cubans lack everything we take for granted. He tries to give friends there some creature comforts otherwise unavailable to them.

“I’ve taken personal things down for people, like a microwave oven or VCR or DVD player, because all that stuff is illegal. Everything’s illegal in Cuba. Mainly, if it plugs into the wall, it’s illegal. They have an energy problem and they’re just trying to keep people’s lives basic.”

 

 

Even more basic than that, he said, he brings items like toothbrushes and razor blades that are “not a big deal here, but are a big deal there.”

He’s also brought back, on consignment, works by Cuban artists he and Christina sold in Old Market art shows, the proceeds going toward supplies for the artists.

Beat the Bushes, ‘Bend a Few Rules’
He’s sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people, whose deprivation goes deeper than a lack of material things, to essential services. Sure, Cuba provides free health care, but many clinics and hospitals lack equipment and technology that can not only improve care but save lives. And while average Cubans and natives of nearby Latin American countries have access to free care, some medical centers are reserved for the elite. It’s why he got involved as a medical supplier in the first place. His awareness began on his inaugural visit to Cuba in 1998. The marina in Havana introduced him to fellow travelers, including many Americans, some of whom became a model.

“I met a lot of people that first time. A lot of just normal people. Some were bringing medical equipment on their boats down there,” he said. He soon discovered an informal network of doctors and suppliers. “As I met people in the marina and friends of theirs I was put in touch with various doctors and got lists of things they needed.”

Over the next year Hiner beat the bushes and made contact with “various organizations” that run aid into Cuba.” He cultivated the names of key suppliers, like Jack Oswald in Chicago, and key recipients, like surgeon Gilberto Fleites in Havana. When Oswald, who works with a group called Caribbean Medical Transport, ran a check on Hiner’s then-fledgling medical mission activities he was duly impressed.

“The medical equipment he gets is a cut above most of the stuff humanitarian aid groups get and I’ve been doing this a long time. His stuff is absolutely flawless,” Oswald said. “I went with him on his last trip because he was packing some really heavy equipment…I came from Chicago to help him figure out a way to put some of this stuff on the boat without it sinking. We put thousands of pounds on the bow…and you no longer could see to navigate…so we had to have somebody at the front of the boat calling instructions out to the captain just to avoid the reefs and boats and weather we came across on our way to Cuba. It got a little adventurous here and there.

“I’ll tell you, the guy’s fearless, he really is. He’s mission-oriented, there’s no question about it. Almost militaristically I might add. He doesn’t really let anything get in his way. Some of the stuff he does is a bit risky. And sometimes he doesn’t have the money, the equipment or even the plan…but he just keeps doing it. I think both sides are willing to let him operate, maybe even bend a few rules here and there…because they know what he’s doing is valuable.”

 

 

Joining Oswald, Hiner and his wife Christina on the voyage was a Cuban American physician who brought medical supplies to a cousin physician in Cuba. The Americans also brought art supplies for an artists collective there. Oswald said of Hiner and Narwicz, “They just know a whole lot of people and they just really enjoy Cuba. The folks I met that know them are like family.”

On Hiner’s first supply run in 2000 he was introduced to Dr. Fleites. “I met Gilberto and his wife Teresa and they were really neat people and we became really close friends and we had a really wonderful time there,Hiner said.

Hiner calls Dr. Fleites “a bit of a renegade. He ran the national cancer institute in Havana. He was on the Cuban ethics board. He tried to get some doctors removed from practice because he thought they were killing more people than they were saving,” Hiner said. “But his superiors kicked him off the board because he wasn’t ‘a team player.’ He still performs surgeries … but only on important people because they know he’s very, very good. He’s sort of like freelance. It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”

The Omahan’s “become sort of an emissary” to Dr. Fleites. “I get lists of stuff from him” the Cuban medical community “needs,” he said, “and come back and hustle my friends. I know a lot of doctors from when I used to be rich and famous.” As Hiner’s refined his networking, tons of things get donated — once, an entire operating suite. Omaha’s Children’s Hospital donated an anesthesia machine. He works with established humanitarian nonprofits that authorize him use of their license for delivering free medical goods abroad. Much of what he takes there goes to Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, an AIDS hospital directed by Dr. Jorge Perez. It’s not an impersonal process for Hiner, who’s visited there and other sites he’s supplied. He’s impressed by Cuba’s “incredible medical system.”

What began as annual trips became twice-a-year voyages. Their last trip, in 2005, they were in Cuba four months.

He’s transported medical gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including mechanical operating tables and surgical instruments ranging from forceps to retractors to endoscopic devices. The goods ship to a central location and, when there’s enough for a full haul, he loads a truck and drives it to his boat in Tampa. After everything is securely stored and lashed aboard, he rigs his boat and sails for Cuba. Once there everything must be checked and approved by customs officials, a process that can take weeks. Various government stamps and seals are needed. From start to end, a single supply mission can take months.

He cuts what red tape he can with “gifts” to marina workers and ministry officials.

For the current trip, he amassed a large inventory that includes an entire delivery room donated by a hospital, complete with delivery table, incubators and monitors. So large is the haul he left half the load in Florida for a return trip next month.

Donations have never been better, but he said navigating the bureaucratic waters to get them to Cuba has become more problematic. He blames the Bush administration for “tightening travel restrictions,” especially since 9/11. He said the feds have made it harder for the nonprofits he works with to obtain or renew licenses. The main clearance he needs is from the U.S. Coast Guard that grants free passage through “an imaginary security zone between Key West and Havana that no one can define.” Without the permit, he said, “they can seize your boat, fine you $250,000 and put you in jail for 10 years.” When things were more “more relaxed,” he could slide by. Not now.

There are also new Commerce Department and Council of Foreign Currency Control approvals needed.

Cuba’s hardly immune from bureaucracy, but the tropics make the paperwork and graft more bearable. Besides, as “well accepted” as Hiner is there, he can play Lord Jim. He hopes a meeting he’s been angling for with Fidel, whom he admires, happens one day. He knows just what he’d say to the dictator. “I would tell him he needs to make more opportunities. The people there are very industrious but he keeps stifling any kind of private enterprise,” Hiner said. “He’s getting old and overly restrictive. I would tell Fidel, ‘You’ve got to loosen up. If you were a young man today you’d start a revolution against yourself.’”

To Cuba with Love
Ironically, Hiner’s romance with Cuba may never have happened if not for an accident. It was late 1998. Doug and Christina were on one of their Caribbean sailing jags and had put into port in Jamaica. There, Christina took a fall and broke her ankle, putting her in a cast. He hired a young Jamaican boy to help him crew. The trio sailed to the Camyan islands, where Christina’s pain worsened. Doug sent her home by plane. That left Doug and the boy. The idea was to make for Florida, but Doug knew the boy would be denied entry without papers.

“So, we decided to go to Mexico,” Hiner said. “I got in big trouble there because, unbeknownst to me, a Jamaican needs a visa to get into Mexico. They almost threw us in jail. I talked my way out of that.”

Next, Hiner set his sights on Key West, but learned that, too, was off-limits. Desperate, he asked officials, “Where can we go?’ ‘Cuba,’ they told him. “So, the next morning off we went to Cuba. That was my first time. We were there almost 10 days before I was able to get a plane to fly him out to Montego Bay. And while in Cuba I just loved the country. When I got back home I told Christina, ‘I loved it so much we need to go back there.’” Go back they did.

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