By Kathy Day
Richard Rovsek gets right to the point when talking about a recent trip he took with two Rancho Santa Fe neighbors and a contingent of others: “I have a love affair with Cuba.”
He’s talking about the culture and arts and people of the country, not the government, he emphasized.
The trip, which Corky Mitzer and Gary Bobileff described as an introduction for them to the Communist nation, was organized by the Spirit of Liberty Foundation. The group, founded by Rovsek initially to help fund restoration and maintenance of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, has taken on new causes, among them supporting the military, wounded veterans and their families.
Now, Rovsek said, he wants to bring an exhibit of Cuban art to the U.S. and foster a relationship with their athletes. One day, he hopes to be able to buy a home there.
He was introduced to the country in 1959 as a college student and was there “on the famous evening when Castro came in.” He recalled the shooting and panic as people scrambled to get out of the country.
He had to remain a while, he added, because people were doing anything they could to get plane tickets out.
A key member of President Ronald Reagan’s staff, Rovsek got to know the U.N. ambassador to Cuba about seven years ago and started going back about five years ago.
“I love the country, I like the people, but I don’t like the government,” he said.
Mitzer, owner of Corky’s Pest Control, and Bobileff, who owns Bobileff Motorcar Co. which he says is the largest independent Ferrari and Lamborghini dealership in the country, came back with similar impressions.
Their point in making the trip, they said, was to learn about the state and future of Cuba and whether it is going to change.
Their first trip with Rovsek was during Christmas 2010 when they “took Santa Claus” to Iraq. They flew to their departure point in Bobileff’s plane, delivering gifts to military hospitals along the way before boarding a C-130 transport for Kuwait City. There they were fitted with helmets and protective gear before heading to Camp Speicher, an Army base near Tikrit.
It was on that trip that they started talking about visiting Cuba, Mitzer said.
The trips are officially sanctioned by the U.S. and routed through Miami, not through other countries as some Cuba tours are, he added.
While in the country in April, they met with one of Castro’s top seven staff members, Bobileff said.
Part of a group of 16 that included Paul Tagliabue, former commissioner of the National Football League, they traveled around Havana, even in the dark of night, walking around on their own and taking buses into the countryside. Bobileff spent only two and a half days with the group, but Mitzer was there for the entire trip. “
We were free to do whatever we wanted,” Mitzer said. “I spent three or four days in taxis driving around. “
Rovsek noted that they saw lots of art and music, particularly since he is close to the drummer of the famous Buena Vista Social Club.
“We had cigars and rum with Castro’s personal photographer and saw photos of Che (Guevara) that have never been published,” he added.
Mitzer talked about a discussion they had about capitalism vs. communism. The official they were with asked if they had seen “Godfather 2” and compared capitalists to Meyer Lansky.
“He told us they took the capitalists out of Cuba because they were going to take advantage of them,” he said. “I told him ‘I am a capitalist. How can you compare me to Meyer Lansky?’”
When Mitzer told him he paid people more than $1 a day, the official acknowledged that it might not have been a good analogy.
When Mitzer said the Cuban people are very oppressed and live in a completely different world, Bobileff added, “They are oppressed but used to that way of living.”
Even so, they agreed, Havana is a “beautiful, clean city.”
“There is no litter, no graffiti,” Bobileff said. “The old buildings are spotless and being restored.”
And crime is non-existent.
Mitzer said you can walk around at 2 a.m. and have no fear of being mugged, in part, “because they are afraid of the police.”
Bobileff added: “Police are so heavy-handed and there are cameras everywhere.”
As they looked out across the city, they said, they knew that the people living in the penthouses are those who hold higher positions with the government.
They learned a lot about the Cuban economy and how the U.S. embargo is affecting the people.
“The embargo doesn’t allow them to import anything,” Mitzer said. “It was perfect when it happened, but now it is hurting the people – not the government.”
Bobileff added, “The embargo cannot go on.”
He said they noticed that the government is moving “more toward Western ways, allowing people to buy homes and businesses, but the government gets a percentage… They are allowing capitalism in its infancy in the door.”
But, he added, “reading between the lines as long as Fidel is alive there will be no major changes.”
Even so, both men said they had concerns that as Cuban regulations toward American investment relax that the cities would lose their charm.
Bobileff said he fears the “beautiful cities will be bombarded by KFCs and Wal-Marts and will become another Miami,” adding quickly that he’s not anti-American or against Miami or capitalism, but hopes there will be a certain amount of control so the character of Cuba is not erased.
“It has to happen slowly,” Mitzer said. “Everybody everyday is doing the best they can to support their families. They are wonderful warm people who go out every day to put food and shelter in the hands of their families.”
As they reflected on the trip and what they learned, they said they hope the rules are loosened so the people can lead better lives.
They said they had not done anything to share their views with U.S. officials or their local representatives, but Mitzer said, “We should write letters and detail our experiences.”
Both said they hope to return and might just get that chance as Rovsek is working on plans to return in the fall.
Learn more about the Spirit of Liberty Foundation at spiritoflibertyfoundation.com.