On a Mission
RELIEF TRIP | Glencoe synagogue's visit gives members rare glimpse of
how Cubans live
April 30, 2008
BY LORI RACKL Staff Reporteremail@example.com
With a suitcase full of drugs, Sue Yellen left her Chicago home and
headed for Miami.
Her final destination: Cuba, the forbidden fruit on Americans' travel
menu. For decades, the United States government hasn't allowed residents
to visit this Communist-controlled island 90 miles off the coast of
Florida. (Technically, traveling to Cuba isn't illegal for Americans,
but spending money there is a no-no, according to the Trading with the
Exceptions are made for a tiny segment of Americans, such as those
traveling on approved humanitarian missions. That was Yellen's ticket in.
She and her aunt Sue Kahn of Highland Park joined 22 other Americans on
a week-long relief trip in March organized by their family's synagogue,
Am Shalom, in north suburban Glencoe. An avid traveler and Spanish
speaker, Yellen had long been fascinated by Cuba. So when her aunt
suggested they go (and offered to pay the $3,500-a-person cost), Yellen
jumped at the chance.
"There's a certain allure and romanticism attached to Cuba," said
Yellen, wife of Larry Yellen, WFLD-Channel 32 investigative reporter and
legal analyst. "But my main goal in going was to help people. They've
struggled a lot after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the
subsidies stopped coming in. They really need medicine, clothing, soap
-- basic things to survive."
One of the requirements for going on the Am Shalom trip included
bringing at least 15 pounds of supplies that would be donated to a
couple of synagogues in Havana and Santiago del Cuba and then
distributed to the community.
Prescription drugs -- especially antibiotics -- are in high demand.
Yellen hit up everyone she knew for donations. Her doctors gave her free
samples. Friends kicked in half-empty bottles of pills. She collected
syringes for diabetics, Band-Aids, vitamins, old eyeglasses. She even
brought a wheelchair and walker.
"When we got to the synagogue in Santiago del Cuba, we asked if they
needed a wheelchair," Yellen said. "The head of the congregation started
crying. She said there was a man who just had a stroke and couldn't walk
Yellen's group spent most of its time in Havana, where the streets are
full of impeccably maintained American cars from the 1940s and '50s, and
a lot of money has gone into restoring baroque and neoclassical
buildings to their original splendor.
While visitors to tourist-heavy Old Havana will wander past blocks of
meticulously renovated, colorful facades, signs of extreme poverty are
never far away.
"You might see a beautifully restored building right next to one that's
crumbling, with peeling paint and laundry hanging off the balcony,"
Yellen said. "Some people were living in terrible conditions."
Comfortable hotels and lobster dinners aren't out of reach for most
European and Canadian tourists, who exchange their foreign money for a
different form of currency than the less valuable pesos most Cubans get
paid. Locals, on the other hand, often find the shelves empty when they
go to collect their monthly ration of rice and other goods. For years,
Cubans haven't even been allowed to stay at hotels in their own country.
Fidel Castro's brother Raul lifted that government ban last month, but
it isn't likely to make much difference. Few Cubans can afford a hotel stay.
Given the stark delineation between the haves (tourists) and have nots
(locals), it's not surprising that visitors frequently get approached by
people looking for handouts. A lot of these requests aren't for money;
they're for something specific.
"One man asked for diapers," Yellen said. "A lot of older women asked
for lipstick. One lady asked me to buy pizza for her little girl."
Yellen said she never felt threatened by any of this, and she was
usually happy to give them a little something because they often came
across as warm and friendly. When Yellen helped a woman collecting empty
plastic water bottles, "she started serenading me," Yellen said. "That
was her gift to me. It was one of the most touching moments I had."
The trip had no shortage of poignant moments, especially at the three
synagogues the group visited.
Before Fidel Castro took over in 1959, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000
Jews called Cuba home. When the government started confiscating
businesses, the vast majority of them fled, Yellen said. The Jewish
population these days is about one-tenth of what it was before the
"There isn't even a rabbi on the island," Yellen said. "Our rabbi held a
short service and said some prayers. It was a big deal for them to have
a real rabbi there."
One thing that wasn't a big deal was Yellen's American nationality.
"Our Cuban guide told us, 'When you meet people, don't lie and say
you're Canadian. Tell them you're American. They understand politics are
politics and people are people.' I never had anybody scowl or have an
unfriendly reaction when I said I was American," she said.
The people may have been friendly, but the billboards weren't.
"You saw pictures of Fidel everywhere and a lot of anti-American
sentiment on official signs," she said. "In the Museum of the
Revolution, they had George Bush Sr. and Reagan caricatures that said
something like, 'Thank you, imbeciles, for helping the revolution.' They
had it in English, too, to make sure everyone could read it."
Yellen expects that one day, the country will no longer be off limits to
American tourists. She's just thankful she got to see it before that
"But I could never go there for a sunny beach vacation like so many
people from other countries do," she said. "It would feel too decadent
after we saw how people are really living, how much they're struggling.
I couldn't go back as a regular tourist."