Bearing 13 indestructible soccer balls, toys, shampoo, conditioner, and a bunch of T-shirts, Mayor Tom Bates and his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, recently visited Palma Soriano, Berkeley’s sister city in Cuba.
The soccer balls were the biggest hit.
As soon as Bates, Hancock and the four others in their group arrived at Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider Middle School (named after Che Guevara’s translator), they pulled out the bright blue balls made by Berkeley’s One World Futbol Project. Bates started to play with one ball and even threw a few hoops with it, prompting the students to surge down the school steps and out onto the play yard.
“The kids have absolutely nothing there,” said Nhu Miller, who along with her husband Tom Miller organized the tour through their organization, Green Cities Fund. “They are playing with stones. They are playing with half a tennis ball. It’s a very deprived and poor country, but everybody makes up for it by dancing and having a great time at recess. They didn’t have a football. They now will be able to play more with the balls the mayor brought.”
The visit to the Cuban middle school was all part of a daylong, whirlwind, trip in mid-December to Palma Soriano, an industrial town of 80,000 residents near Santiago in eastern Cuba. In 2002, the Berkeley City Council named Palma Soriano a sister city, in part to encourage the U.S. government to relax its embargo and travel restrictions. Since then a number of Berkeley residents and officials, including City Councilwoman Linda Maio, have visited the island.
But Bates and Hancock had never been. When they decided to go on the “Planting Seeds” tour co-organized by the Chez Panisse Foundation and Green Cities Fund, which sought to link chefs in the Bay Area with chefs in Cuba, they decided to add a visit to Palma Soriano at the tail of the trip.
The pair, along with the Millers and Alan S. Kay and Carole Norris, chair of Berkeley’s Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, spent Dec. 18 in the town. They visited a cultural center and saw an African art show, heard poetry and saw some hip-hop dance. Then they visited the middle school and watched a student dance performance, stopped by a hospital and an orphanage, where they distributed small toys to children who did not seem to have any, said Bates.
“I had never been to Cuba before,” said Bates. “It’s an amazing country. It’s extremely poor but at the same time they have this wonderful health care system and educational system. The people there have a longer life span than the people in the United States, even though it is such a poor country.”
Palma Soriano was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, which ripped off many of city’s roofs and tore out trees. Bates had hoped to talk to the city’s mayor about ways Berkeley could offer aid and help. That didn’t happen since Havana officials had not authorized the Cuban mayor to talk policy with Bates. Instead, the two men just exchanged pleasantries, which was slightly disappointing, said Bates.
“We were treated like royalty but we never had a chance to sit down and talk with the mayor,” said Bates. “He was not empowered to talk to us because there is still substantial control of public statements,” said Bates.
Over the years, people from Berkeley have assisted Palma Soriano in various ways. Professors from UC Berkeley have helped devise strategies to reduce pollution in the river running through the city, said Bates. Some Cal students did an economic development plan for the city.
Bates and Hancock also gave away some of the soccer balls to other people they met on the trip, including one five year old boy who was “thrilled” with the gift, according to Miller.
Bates said the most productive part of the trip came at the end when he had a private dinner with President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, her husband, and Ricardo Alcaron, the outgoing president of the National Assembly and the third most powerful man in Cuba. Bates and Hancock had met Mariela earlier in December at the dinner prepared by a delegation of cooks connected to Chez Panisse.
The follow up dinner was very fruitful, said Bates. The group talked about trying to get the United States to use new drugs developed by Cuban pharmaceutical companies to help with Parkinson’s and diabetes. The drugs are available in Europe but are banned from the United States because of the embargo. Bates said he hope to work with Congresswoman Barbara Lee on this issue, as well as pushing to open up Cuba to travelers.
Visit Alan S. Kay’s Flickr site with photographs of the Cuba trip.