Article23 Cuba Hokulea_nwhi_sail

On Dec. 17, 2014, President Obama made the historic announcement that the United States was about to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and eliminate some of the harsh sanctions imposed by the U.S. more than 50 years ago. I was overjoyed. Reasonable people and governments around the world praised the decision.

Ben Chavis Jr., president/CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the 73-year-old federation of more than 200 Black community newspapers in the United States, called upon the Black community to support full normalization of relations with Cuba. This announcement is resonating positively throughout Black America. It is in the economic, cultural and political interests of 42.7 million Black Americans across the United States to focus on the new emerging opportunities to strengthen relationships with the people and government of the Republic of Cuba. Chavis said, “Only the people can force Congress to do the right thing. Now is not the time for Black America to be silent.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, with the assistance of Pope Francis, worked on an agreement quietly for more than 18 months in Canada, while the rest of the world was focused on the Middle East.

My first reaction was to be proud of President Obama—and then I had second thoughts.  Since 1959 Cuba had eluded the strong arm of the United States. Was this just a way to take Cuba from the inside?  Well…let’s not be silent.

Jesus Puerto

Jesus Puerto, owner of the Soul de Cuba Cafe in Honolulu, Hawaii, and New Haven, Conn., as well as president of Cubanakoa Foundation, is one of the people who has never been silent.  Jesus was born into an Afro-Cuban family in historic Ybor City just outside of Tampa, Fla. Ybor City is rich with a history of pioneering Cuban, Italian and Spanish immigrants and is where Jesus’ great-grandfather, Santiago Gonzalez of Guanabacoa, Cuba, first settled his family in 1894 just after the Cuban War of Independence.

In response to President Obama’s call for American citizens to engage with citizens of Cuba in “people-to-people” relations, the Cubanakoa Foundation has worked to improve relations between the United States and Cuba by way of working to establish a sister city relationship between Honolulu and Havana, by conducting people-to-people exchanges and by leading exploration of linguistic connections between ancestral peoples of the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The great majority of people in the United States know little about the situation in Cuba before what they have been told was a “communist takeover,” which is not true. From 1511 until 1959, the people of Cuba fought for independence from the Western powers.  That is a large factor explaining Havana’s intense commitment to national independence. So for me, Jesus and Soul de Cuba Café was the embodiment of and doorway into a world that I had never known.  

“Cubans had begun immigrating to Ybor City as a result of the flourishing cigar industry,” Jesus said. “Many of the Cubans of African and indigenous descent, including my great-grandfather, the Gonzalez family brought with them traditional methods of preparing food and traditional ideas regarding spirituality.”   Jesus still has family in Cuba which has allowed him to travel in and out of Cuba.

It is that deep spiritually which lead Jesus on the journey from Ybor City and Cuba into the communities of North America, the Peace Corps and the islands of the Pacific. Living in Samoa and Hawaii he discoverd the vast similarities as well as related traditions, language and crops.

Jesus Puerto believes Cubanakoa’s mission to celebrate humankind’s shared history, stories and journey. Therefore, in May 2014, Jesus and Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society – parent organization of the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a – serendipitously met and had a conversation about the Hōkūle‘a making a stop in Cuba during its worldwide canoe voyage.

The Hawaiian name for the voyage, Mālama Honua (which loosely means “to take care of our Earth”) is meant to draw attention to the global movement toward a more sustainable world and also celebrates the rich history of Polynesian sailing.

Guided only by the stars, winds, waves, birds and other of mother nature’s patterns of navigation to chart their course, early Polynesian seafarers ventured  far beyond their shores and explored more than 10 million square miles of open ocean  with no maps, no compass nor GPS.  When the Europeans still believed the Earth was flat and they would fall off the edge, the Polynesians had a variety of sailing craft which they used to travel long distances across the vast Pacific Ocean.    

For thousands of years they had the world’s only blue-water maritime technology and navigational knowledge. Over about a 2,000-year period they covered the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the Americas, and they crossed the Indian Ocean to at least as far as Madagascar, Africa, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.  The last of these voyaging canoes disappeared in the 1400s. In 1973 the dream of sailing the ocean by non-instrumental navigation in the double-hull voyaging canoe was reborn. In the past 40 years the Hōkūle‘a has traveled more than 150,000 miles.

Cuba Is the Place To Be This Month

President Obama will visit Cuba just a few days after the Hōkūle‘a’s arrival. The Tampa Bay Rays are expected to play a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Cuba on March 22, and the Rolling Stones are scheduled to perform there March 25.

The itinerary for the Hokule‘a’s visit to Havana was arranged by Cubanakoa and Altruvistas, a travel service that handles People to People tours of Cuba. Puerto, who is of Cuban descent, will be in Cuba with a contingent of Hawaiian folks as part of a long-term cultural exchange. The Hōkūle‘a crew will be hosted by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos), which was formed in 1960 and focuses on international outreach. The Hawaii team will learn about Cuba’s marine conservation, urban sustainability and environmental efforts, and explore cultural connections between Cuba, Hawaii and other island societies. Nainoa Thompson called the visit an extraordinary opportunity for the Hawaii residents.

“Cuba is an amazing place,” Thompson said in a media release. “They have the best coral reefs in the Caribbean because they use no pesticides in their agriculture and their tourism footprint is small. It’s a really big question what they are going to do when they open up the doors. What are they going to open it up to?”

The country has a chance to continue protecting its environment while strengthening its economy, he said. “Because of the country’s political situation over the last few decades, Cuba has developed sustainability practices that are now considered a model for the rest of the world,” Thompson said.

After the Cuba visit, Hōkūle‘a will sail to Florida and then up the East Coast, reaching New York City by June 8, 2016, for World Oceans Day.

Since departing Hawaiian waters in May 2014, the Hōkūle‘a has sailed more than 21,000 nautical miles and made stops in 12 countries and 55 ports, weaving a “Lei of Hope” around the world. Along the way, more than 180 volunteer crewmembers have helped to sail the craft, accompanied by escort vessel Gershon II to spread the message of Mālama Honua by promoting sustainability and environmental consciousness, as well as exchanging ideas with the countries she has visited. So far, crew members have connected with over 45,000 people in communities across the South Pacific, Tasman Sea and Indian Ocean including, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Mauritius, South Africa and Brazil.

We are eternally grateful for Jesus Puerto’s vision and commitment to see it through.