The reason and the necessity for hope

"The war has started!" bellowed a classmate as he sprinted down the corridor.

The sensation was unforgettable, starting with a chill in the back of my neck and descending down my shoulders to my arms and hands, finally exiting my 12-year-old body with a shudder.

Fortunately, the "war" declaration was wrong, a tasteless sample of 7th-grade humor. The year was 1962 and, like many other Americans, I was waiting to hear whether the Soviets would honor a United States blockade intended to stop the shipment of missile technology to Cuba.

They did. I heard the reassuring news later that morning on my way to math class.

Experts in recent weeks have been trying to wring new meaning from that nuclear threat of 40 years ago.

I'm still struggling to grasp what it meant to me at the time and, more important, what relevance it has now.

Surely US-Cuba relations, despite their ever-present emotional heat, are but a peculiar sideshow to a world once again gripped by war anxiety. But I've noticed that war anxiety has a familiar feel, regardless of the actors or reasons.

And a recent trip to Cuba with a group of American newspaper editors – my first – helped jar something loose that seems relevant and even mildly reassuring in the context of today's troubled world scene.

That is, the power and centrality of hope.

As I headed to school that October morning in 1962, I knew it was "showdown" day. Soviet ships would intersect the US blockade and either one side would "blink" or those duck–and-cover drills we had been perfecting in school would be put to use.

All of this was pretty incomprehensible to me. But it shaped itself into a question – a feeling, really – that was simple: Is this a world where there is reason to hope, even when events seem beyond influence, much less control?

And as I departed on our charter flight from Miami last month, I wondered whether a question birthed for me by Cuba 40 years ago might find an answer in contemporary Havana.

Havana is big, beautiful, charming, and crumbling. With virtually no commercial signage, and sparse traffic, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its oil subsidies, this city is a feast by foot.

While in Cuba, we editors heard from a range of experts, political dissidents, and government officials. The central questions concerned Cuba and its future, particularly what would happen to the country when Fidel Castro passes from the scene. Given the timing of our trip, it was difficult not to hear the ambient noise of the larger world.

Was war with Iraq inevitable? Was there any conceivable end to the bloodletting between Israel and the Palestinians? Is instability returning to Latin America? Will Africa forever be the continent of the sick and starving? And is American power going to make the world a safer or more dangerous place to live?

I asked everyone I could in Cuba whether or not they had reason to hope.

As I wandered through the poorest quarters of Havana – neighborhoods where monthly incomes rarely exceed $20 – I ended conversations by asking: "Are you hopeful?" Interviews with political dissidents, who risk imprisonment and harassment for asserting the most basic of freedoms, often boiled down to that question. And after dinner with a young, well-educated professional who was deeply dissatisfied with his country, I asked if he felt hopeful.

"Yes and no," he answered quickly, voicing the kind of ambivalence I heard from many Cubans. But after a pause, the frustration evident all evening gave way to something more considered:

"You have to be," he said with a smile, "because if you're not, nothing will happen."

Hope, as I was reminded here, does not wait on events. To have power, it must precede them. It is a building block to solutions, not a late arrival once the coast is clear. It can help shape events, even if only by asserting a higher expectation.

Talking to Cubans for several days left me with the unmistakable impression that they are struggling mightily to cope with a major transition, ideologically attempting to graft certain portions of capitalism (tourism and foreign investment) onto a belief system rooted in socialism. For many in the country, this adaptation amounts to an admission that the old ways do not work. As one academic noted, many Cubans are now suffering a "loss of belief."

But this is not a country in a state of despair. It is a country humbled by experience yet also one of high energy and expectation.

That impression was not forged by words alone. My strongest affirmation came through an image that walked into my view.

Near the end of our first day in Havana, I squatted down and leaned against a building, hoping for a calm moment to digest all we had seen and heard. I pulled my camera up to my eye, largely to shield it from an afternoon sun that had sunk low in the sky.

As I absent-mindedly focused on a shadow across the street, two Cuban teenagers slowly strode into my viewfinder. Their faces locked into my lens, the girl smiling slightly before looking away, the boy nodding and holding his gaze. It was one of those slow-motion moments photographers live for, when the world falls silent and the camera becomes not a baffle between photographer and subject, but a bridge.

The image is how I remember Cuba. Full of hope.

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