During the spring of 1980, I vividly remember walking the streets of Prague after Czechoslovakia had recently unshackled itself from the political stranglehold of the Soviet Union. As cliché as it may sound, I could feel freedom all around me. In the expressions on everyone’s faces. In the handshakes, greetings, and hugs that explicitly told me I had arrived at a rare moment in time and history. A time when an entire people were awakening to the beauty of what it meant to be free.
During the spring of 2017, I walked the streets of Havana, Cuba, and instantly remembered that amazing sensation of a people awakening. Optimism was in the air. You could feel the sense of possibility and purpose. After more than 50 years, Cuba was emerging into the modern world and what a brave new world was awaiting them. Only two years ago the entire digital universe burst into their existence as the internet finally became public. Entrepreneurship exploded through home businesses setting up Airbnb’s, now surpassing the 10,000-listing mark in Cuba. And most wildly of all, Americans were now, once again, allowed to openly travel to Cuba.
Since President Obama opened relations with Cuba in 2016, Americans can’t seem to get to Cuba fast enough. We are tied to Cuba in a thousand cultural and historical ways. And even though time stopped our friendship with Cubans in 1958, the desire to reignite our old friendship seems unstoppable. Until now. The cold water of politics has been thrown upon this new relationship as President Trump recently announced plans to roll back our newfound relationship with Cuba by cutting back on Americans ability to travel there freely.
As an author, I work hard to communicate the inspirational message of my book, The Legacy Letters, by walking my talk and living my life to the fullest. I do so not only through my words but through my “I Love to Read” video series that inspires kids to read; through my “First-Ever” book signings; and through all manner of radio, TV, news articles and blogs. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that when people talk to each other and with each other, they learn from one another. That’s when the magic of people reaching each other begins.
After Castro’s death in November 2016, I thought about Prague again. I knew that “magical moment” was arriving for the Cuban people, much as it did for the Czech people. I wanted to be part of that extraordinary moment again. And personally, I was carrying a little bit of extra magic to bring to Cuba as the first American author to do a book signing since Castro’s death.
After five months of difficult planning due to very spotty communication, I finally boarded Alaska Airlines newly-minted direct flight from Los Angeles to Havana, bringing The Legacy Letters to the Cuban people. Everyone, including the flight attendants, were excited. (When was the last time passengers were excited to fly, including the flight attendants . . .)
As an author, I experienced the great love that the very literate Cubans have for books and authors (with a literacy rate of 99.8%). “Papa” Hemingway is still beloved by all Cubans and that love for reading was evident in the warm welcome I was given at the book signing. I was told a much larger crowd than the thirty or so people that attended the signing would have been present were it not for a late afternoon thunderstorm that deluged the entire city. Having done hundreds of book signings, I’ve never experienced such enthusiasm and genuine affection at a signing. They asked questions about the book, myself, and America. At this point, I truly felt like an “author ambassador.”
Not only was the book signing a great success for me, I also was moved by the outpouring of enthusiasm for the children’s books I brought to Cuba. Kids from schools in Washington, California, and Arizona participated in writing letters and gathering books to give to Cuban kids at a school in Havana. If you want to experience the honesty and eagerness of children wanting to meet other children, just read their letters. This is how you change hearts and minds—one letter, one book, one conversation at a time.
The Cuban people are happy that the Americans are back in town. Apparently our competition—the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese—take a back seat to our enthusiasm, openness, and big heartedness (and yes, we even tip the best). Everywhere I went people wanted to talk about America and I, in turn, wanted to know more about Cuba. What surprised me time and time again was how open people were about their government and their lives. Good, bad, or indifferent, they all had an opinion and were anxious to give it.
But it took the Cuban people, and my many conversations and interactions with them, to enlighten me about my own country. I’m now convinced that our best export as Americans is our American spirit—that can-do boisterous optimism that inspires so many in the world to be the best they can be. Why would you want to deny the world the best of who we are?
After dinner one night at a local restaurant, I passed by the bar and heard some Rolling Stones being played on acoustic guitar. I had read about how music and dancing, and all the arts, infuse themselves into the daily lives of the Cuban people. Only moments before I had heard these gentlemen playing Spanish love songs for their patrons. I couldn’t resist asking— why Rock ‘n Roll? Their perfect reply, “How else do you learn American? From America.” I grabbed their spare guitar, and for the next hour, we played and sang our way through the Eagles, Creedence, Elvis, and the Beatles. People danced around us. Sang with us. And smiles were everywhere. Now we were changing hearts and minds one song at a time . . .
Are there still problems galore in Cuba? Of course. But by shutting down our best export—the American spirit, we lose our greatest strength to truly affect change in Cuba. I’m no foreign policy expert or geopolitical scientist but it seems pretty straightforward to me that if the Americans aren’t on the dance card for the Cubans, then they’ll have to look to others to dance. I’m sure the Chinese would love to salsa with the Cubans.
Want to export knowledge, business, and happiness all at once? Want to start a conversation to truly change hearts and minds? Want to really see change in lives of all Cuban people? Then don’t stop the conversation. Keep it going. And add thousands of conversations more. And more singing and dancing. Want to really start a new revolution in Cuba? Send in the Americans and their wonderful spirit, and then watch how hearts, minds, and lives can truly be changed for the better.