Midnight Call in Cuba

In 1961, 200,000 Cuban students—half of them girls—volunteered to leave their city homes and go live in remote villages to teach adults to write their names and read.

two girl volunteersGirl volunteers

I learned about this when our group visited the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the  place where, in 1953, Fidel, who was 25, and his younger brother, Raul, staged their first armed attack, on the second largest military barracks in the country. Fidel had 120 rebels in a caravan of cars, but the cars got separated and the one carrying the heavy weapons got lost. The men who did reach the barracks started firing too soon and were outnumbered ten to one. They lost the battle and 61 were killed, but the revolution was on.

As we tour the Moncado Barracks, now a museum, I stop before a wall on which is written: “Every revolution has 3 phases: conspiracy, insurrection, and ultimately, the phase where it truly begins. Here was born the liberty of Cuba.”

Below are large black and white photos of the faces of the 61 killed. They’re so young—the average age is 18. Each has a unique expression, with singular eyes and set of mouth. I look at each face, sounding out the young man’s name. I can imagine what they felt: the rightness of their cause; the passion to transform an illiterate, poor country into a society where every person would learn to read, have free health care, education, housing and a job.

It was this passion, I suspect, that spurred so many Cuban teenagers, after Fidel triumphed in Havana, to take a year off school to go teach campesinos to read.

And it came to me: if I’d been a Cuban in my teens or 20’s at the time of the revolution, I probably would have been with Fidel.

That evening in Santiago, we’re invited to the launch of a book that our tour leader, Trish, helped publish, at the Cuban Union of Intellectual and Creative Artists. As the author speaks, I take notes on my iPad. After the talk, an unusually tall Cuban man in the audience, about 50, walks up to me before I can stand and asks what I’m writing. He says he’s a journalist for a local paper, and his name is Charles Dickens Romero-Lopez. I ask how he got that name. “My father is a writer and loves Dickens,” he says.

There’s merriment and mischief in his eyes, as we begin to debate the merits of Dickens vs. George Eliot and Cervantes vs. Tolstoy. We commiserate about the state of journalism and publishing in Cuba and the U.S. We’re both divorced, we learn, and have children about the same age.

“Are your kids named Garcia Marquez or Pablo Neruda?” I ask.

“How did you guess!”


“No.” He takes hold of my arm as we laugh.

I notice that our group is preparing to leave. Charles Dickens asks where I’m staying, and if I’d like to continue talking? I go to find Trish and ask if he can come back to the hotel on the bus with us, expecting her to say, okay. The stated purpose of our trip is people-to-people interactions. But she looks at me a long moment. “I’m not sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know who you’re talking to in Cuba. He wasn’t on the guest list of people we invited.”

Chastened, I say goodbye to Charles Dickens and we exchange contact information, although I don’t imagine we’ll ever speak again.

That night, I’m jarred awake at 4 a.m. by a loud ringing sound. Disoriented, I try to figure where it’s coming from. As the ringing continues, I turn on a light and trace the sound to an old-fashioned rotary phone in a corner. I haven’t used a phone since I’ve been in Cuba and hadn’t noticed there was one in the room, and then it stops ringing. My mind races. You don’t know who you’re talking to in Cuba. That afternoon, we’d met with a district official and I’d asked my perennial question: “Is Cuba’s government changing?” Irritated, he snapped, “There are things that will never change. The political system—socialism—will not change.” He pointed a finger at me. “The government can’t provide everything, especially during a financial crisis.” Later he’d asked Trish why I was taking notes. She took me aside and suggested I be more discreet.

I lie awake, worrying, am I being watched?  Was Charles Dickens a government plant?  I have a friend in New York, a writer, who went to Cuba after the revolution to teach, and was arrested, accused of being a spy, and imprisoned for 18 months. If I should be carted off to jail, nobody would know where I was or what had happened, and there’s absolutely no one I could call for help.

The only way I can calm myself to sleep again is with the thought that if that happened… I’d have a hellacious story.


This is Part 4 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba just before President Obama announced that relations between our countries would be normalized. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.



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14 thoughts on “Midnight Call in Cuba

  1. Ken Thompson

    We take our freedom for granted. It’s important to be very careful what you say in countries with governments not especially fond of the U.S. I was in Russia for 17 days on a Friendship Exchange program with Rotary International. I was home hosted by wealthy Russians while there, and for the most part things were very cordial and upbeat. But it was clear that they were distressed by the conflicts between the U.S. and Russian governments. One Rotarian in Crimea made it clear to us that Crimea wanted to be annexed by Russia, that it was a free election, and no one was coerced into voting for Russian annexation. Another Rotarian in Moscow made it a point of saying “we are not the enemy”. Our passports were meticulously inspected by Customs Control when we were leaving the country just because we were Americans. I was on a mission of “promoting good will and better friendships”, but my own government was making that difficult.

  2. naomi zwengler

    Fascinating Cuba. You really make me want to go. A few years ago, I had signed up for a trip to Cuba with
    Elderhostel. We were set to leave on a Sunday AM flight. On Saturday, I was all packed and anticipating
    a unique experience. That evening the phone rang. Elderhostel was calling to tell me the trip had been
    cancelled due to hurricanes. What a disappointment. We never tried again. I really enjoyed your blog.

  3. gracetrofa

    I was in Cuba in 1978, a group of journalists and intellectuals wanting to see how the system was doing, I remember being at a club and I noticed this couple who were dressed in the latest fashion, I went over to them and asked how was that, she was wearing jewelry that was very popular in Europe at the time, anyway, the NEXT night, we were at a beach location, no longer in Havana, and a guy asked me to dance, turns out that he was the guy in the couple we spoke with in Havana, they remembered we said we were headed to this resort the next day. Anyway, they did not want to be seen talking with us, obviously, so they asked us, me and a guy journalist, to meet them down at the end of the beach, they wanted to talk. Looking back we may have been crazy to do it, but we did and they provided us with info for our article.

  4. Madge

    The U.S. Intersection is there for the purpose of helping Americans in Cuba. When we met with the man who runs it, he explained he is always there for Americans who get into trouble and get arrested. I was under the impression that everyone is being watched. When I accessed my bank in Cuba, Chase and our Homrlsnd someone wouldn’t allow me to access my accounts when I got home. It was a big deal and I was placed on a list. It took a notarized copy of my personhood to allowed be to go on internet and access my money. Okay to go into bank to get money but nothing by Internet. Innocent mistake ony part but because Cuba was on terrorist list not good. As to the guy, he probably wanted to hook up with you and find a way to travel to US. Most people are good.

  5. Arlene McCarthy

    I just returned from Cuba We stayed in Havana because we were with a school of photography. I was shocked at the conditions there. There is free education, but no jobs. Free medical but no drugs. Although the country has a company that does stem cell research. Free housing but in terrible condition. There is garbage in the streets, debre all over the people are delightful and are very interested in Americans. There is definitely different standards of living. Cubans who interact with travelers have a much much better standard due to tips. The poor are really poor. Food is rationed. One egg per person per week. If interested, I have poctures

  6. ChaCha

    I love reading your stories! I feel like I am living serendipitously lthrough your life and your words. Each time when you say “more is to come”,I think I want more immediately! Keep it up! I’m enjoying your adventures and reading your blogs! Thanks for keeping me on your list!

  7. Mike Bowler

    The Cuban literacy campaign is truly inspiring and one of the reasons I visited during the annual International Book Fair, held every February in Havana and several other venues. I had written for the Baltimore Sun about the museum dedicated to the campaign — literally the Museum of the Alphabet — on the outskirts of Havana. When people learned how to read and write, they wrote letters of thanks to Fidel, which are housed in the museum. Today, the grandchildren can come and read those letters. As my grandson would say today, awesome! Three years ago, the museum was run by one of those young people who went on the road in the name of literacy. Some did not survive, but many did and made Cuba one of the most literate countries in Latin America. Awesome!

  8. Allegreta Blau

    I read with interest your Cuban experience. I have one of my own. Seven or so years ago I entered Cuba “illegally” with a friend through Jamaica. We were able to wander the streets of Havana and enter areas otherwise closed to tourists. We were not fearful, everyone was friendly and eager to show us their way of life. Having had that experience, and Fidel supposedly lifting the embargo, I told my husband Peter that we should go now before it all becomes Miami Beach. I wrote a lengthy article about our 10 day trip which is being published in the Malibu Chronicle, but sadly it will be cut, from 1200 to 500 words. Thus, I am writing the whole unedited version for my webpage as a blog. We are not naive Americans, understanding that the tour (only way we could enter from the USA was with and “educational” tour) would show us the best of the country. But we saw a lot more. We used our nomadic wandering Jews skills to see into homes and businesses, countryside dwellings, talked to people young and old. Hopefully you will read my blog — I will let you know when it is up and running. Thanks!

  9. Greg

    Sara, you do tell interesting and colorful stories. And I have enjoyed your “visions” over the years in their various incarnations. But, like others who have commented here, I have been to Russia in the era just before the Fall of Communism, and witnessed firsthand the “results” of the so-called “Glorious Revolution”.

    There were lines everywhere for everything! In the State Run and businesses there was no such thing or concept of “customer service”. There was no incentive for anybody to “try” to better their situation because everyone was “equal”. That is everyone but “those in charge” the Party leaders and big shots, who it was discovered, in the late ’80s and early ’91, had luxurious dachas and summer retreats with spas and all the “western” conveniences. So much for “power to the people”.

    It must be remembered that all of these so-called Glorious Revolucions took place at the cost and “reeducation” of the murder and torture of millions of people who got “in the way” of their despotic leaders. The countries left in their wake were neither freer or better off, except perhaps for the chosen few who had the power or the big guns. As your commentor, “Arlene” pointed out, clearly, few things are better since the revolution in Cuba.

    I too, being of a certain age, remember the passion, excitement and the idealism of the ’70s and ’80s unfortunately much of its was shortsighted and left greater disallusionment and alienation in its wake. It seems that perhaps, we failed to understand the lessons that were, in fact, at the core of one the few Revolutions that did succeed…the one we all just celebrated…The American Revolution. The one whose core principles was “we are endowed by our Creator (what ever you perceive Him or Her to be) with certain inalienable rights…” By our Creator, not the State. Therein lies the distinction.

  10. Allen Bahn

    I am a survivor of a German concentration camp where I spent 5 years (4 -9).I can never forget the sences of trials in Cuba conducted by Fidel Castro and Che.Nothing could justify what they did.These people almost started a nuclear war.

  11. Sandra Harmon

    I hope the next chapter brings the return of the journalist with whom you fall in love or with whom you have a passionate affair. You think the affair is the last you see of one another but he cannot live without you and he leaves Cuba to come to the states and be with you in lust and/or in marriage and talk of literature and Castro and amour. ..

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