When I returned from Cuba, one of my co-workers asked me – as people often do – “how was it?”
“Good,” I said.
“Good? Not great?”
How do you respond to that? Can you call a trip “great” when you visit a country living through an incredible amount of uncertainty, controversy, and struggle? Can you say “it was awesome!” about an adventure during which your heart is broken every day by the contemporary realities of decades-old political decisions? I cannot. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a powerful and meaningful experience; it just means that it was a confusing one – made all the more confusing by the fact that three days after I returned, Obama announced his decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. It’s taken me some digestion time and a lot of reading to formulate my perspective on this trip.
It’s become somewhat of a cliché to say that being in Cuba is like taking a step back in time. Hackneyed or not, it’s true. The most evident aspect of my virtual time travel was, of course, the cars. Starting with my first look outside the Havana Airport, I saw 1950’s Impalas, Bel Airs, and Fairlanes parked in the lot. At least half of the taxis in the city are from the 50’s, and more than a few people make a decent living driving tourists up and down Havana’s Malecon (the road along the shore) in well-maintained pink, yellow, and teal classic cars. Cuba has not been able to import American cars since the embargo (“el bloqueo”) went into effect in 1962, and cars from other countries such as Japan and Russia are costly due to Cuba’s relative isolation and limited demand. As a result, people have been forced to keep and maintain their pre-embargo vehicles for the last sixty years. With limited access to parts, creative problem solving reigns. I asked one driver how much time he spent working on his gorgeous Buick LeSabre. He said, “Every week I drive Monday through Friday, work on my car all day on Saturday, and rest on Sunday.”
The other obvious surviving vestiges of Cuba’s economic boom in the 1950’s are the shells of stately mansions on Havana’s aging boulevards. Walking through these neighborhoods, I felt like I was on the set of an apocalyptic zombie movie. Rebar pokes through the stucco of the houses’ walls, plants grow from the windowsills, and a brief glance inside them reveals that their inhabitants are living without electricity and running water. At one point, these grandiose houses were sites of luxurious parties and backroom deals; now they’re crumbling. Where these buildings are restored – generally in locations closer to the tourist areas – they are impressive. I did feel transported into an Al Capone-style movie set while meandering among them.
These are the upsides of living in the 1950’s. Needless to say, being stuck in the past has some enormous disadvantages as well. Under Cuba’s ostensibly socialist government, families receive a monthly food and supplies ration which varies in quantity and nature depending upon the family members’ ages. What most struck me when we visited a ration distribution center was the complete and total lack of technology. Not only were there no computers, there wasn’t a typewriter or calculator to be seen. Transactions were being recorded in a brown-covered ledger book with a number two pencil. I discovered that outdated technology is a bit of a theme in Cuba. At an animation studio we visited, I could not believe the age of the PC’s the developers were working on, to say nothing of the generation of software they were using. Cell phones were prohibited in Cuba until 2008, and while they are legal now, they are difficult and costly to acquire and nearly impossible to repair. Perhaps more importantly, Cuba is severely lacking in modern farming technology. Fields are planted by hand and plowed with oxen. While those practices make for photogenic pastoral scenes, they also are the root cause of Cuba’s food problem. Relative to the average salary, food is quite expensive in Cuba. The nation has experienced several severe food shortages in recent times – the most notable one during the so-called “Special Period” in the early ‘90’s – and feeding the population a varied and nutritious diet continues to be a struggle.
Americans without family in Cuba can only travel to the island on “People to People” trips – group excursions that operate under heavily regulated state department permits. These permits require that the trips be focused on cultural exchange and include a full schedule of daily activities, many of which provided great starting points for on-the-road conversations about life in Cuba. Always one to be suspicious of a message delivered by a government-sanctioned guide, I took these conversations into the streets as well. What I learned is that I should be confused about the reality of life in Cuba. It’s just not that clean.
On the one hand, Cubans are very proud – and rightly so – of several of socialism’s legacies. The quality of their free education system is world-renowned. Their political decision making on the local level is very participatory. People seem to place inherent value on work of all kinds, and as a result the gap between the rich and the poor is not as large as it is in the United States – yet. We visited countless neighborhood projects where the spirit of community was palpable in a way rarely I’ve rarely seen in American cities.
On the other hand lies frustration. Complaints about the lack of cellular phones, computers, and internet access are very common. Cubans are by and large very well-informed people; they know what everyone else has and what they are missing. Nearly everyone said that it is impossible to live off the meager provisions of the ration system and that their wages do not come close to keeping up with the increasing costs of basic necessities. The black market is powerful, as it is in many places where some items are difficult or illegal to procure.
Last but not least, I heard genuine concern expressed about the Castros’ attempts to slowly introduce capitalism into the Cuban economy. At this point, the majority of industries are still state-run; however, Cuba has begun to allow private enterprise in a select few areas. Individuals can own and run establishments such as restaurants, nail salons, and handicraft stands (here’s a full – and interesting – list of legal entrepreneurial business ventures in Cuba). Owners of these businesses are called “cuentapropistas” and they are creating a new and controversial social class in Cuba. Cuentapropistas are quickly becoming the new rich, and they are caricatured as a gold-necklace-wearing, fancy-car-driving, rap-star-looking class. If restaurants are the best way to make money in Cuba, the brains of the island will go into the food service industry; this is an obvious cause for concern.
How many of these frustrations are the result of the embargo? I can’t say I got a clear answer. Some people blamed everything from a lack of sugar to bad public transportation on El Bloqueo. Others claimed that the embargo gets used as a convenient explanation for anything in Cuban society that is broken, and as an easy excuse to avoid fixing it. One thing is clear: no one I met supported the embargo. Rather than blaming the American people as a whole for the embargo, however, the majority of folks I chatted with blamed the Cubans in Miami. Cubans who fled to Florida at the start of the revolution were by and large wealthy and powerful people; they left because the new revolutionary government seized their homes, businesses, and bank accounts. These exiled Cubans worked hard to assimilate into and succeed in the U.S., and many of them are now wealthy and powerful Americans who exact significant influence on U.S.-Cuban policy. Many Cubans I spoke with believe that the older generation of Cuban-Americans holds a powerful grudge against both the Cuban government and the Cuban people who chose to stay on the island, and that it is they who insist the embargo stay in place. Since I have returned, I have read many articles citing human rights advocates, community leaders, and leftist advocates who support the embargo for the strong statement it makes against the Castro regime’s human rights abuses. This makes sense to me; and yet, I can’t say that I met anyone who expressed this opinion.
After having spent a week immersed in this island stuck in the 1950’s where the population maintains a simultaneous love for and skepticism of socialism, my heart goes out to these resourceful people being hamstrung by their cultural and technological isolation. The embargo has been in place for over fifty years, without accomplishing its stated objectives. In the meantime, the country has fallen desperately behind the rest of the world on many fronts. I fully support the U.S.speaking out – and acting out – against human rights abuses in our own country and across the globe. I do find it odd, however, that we do not have embargoes against other countries with significantly worse human rights track records than Cuba. Why only Cuba? And why for SO long?
I left Cuba believing quite strongly that it is time to bury this hatchet. If we have learned anything from the events of the last ten years, it is that no one benefits from isolating a segment of the world’s population. Younger generations of Cubans and Cuban-Americans did not live through the Revolution, and they have no first-hand experience with the animosity of that epoch. They are global citizens who want to travel, use the internet, and interact with the world.
I am optimistic for them and for us, not only because two days after I arrived home Obama announced the return of the remaining members of the Cuban 5, the re-establishment of an American embassy in Havana, and the loosening of travel and investment restrictions in Cuba (click this link for the full speech.) I am optimistic because nearly every Cuban I talked to while I was there, when I told them I was American, said something to the effect of, “we love American people! Sometimes our governments don’t get along, but we love the people!” What a generous belief to hold after all these years.
The day after Obama’s announcement I received an email from one of our guides telling me that people were celebrating in the streets. He told me that they had watched and re-watched the president’s speech over and over again throughout the day. And he said, “we love the American people, and we are so happy to be moving closer to them again.”
It’s that sentiment that gives me hope – hope that when I return from my next trip to Cuba, I’ll be able to say, “it was perfect.”
N.B. There has been a plethora of reporting on the shifting relationship between the U.S. and Cuba since December 2014. Each of the articles I’ve linked in this post adds a slightly different voice to the conversation – do check them out. Additionally, the New York Times has been covering the changes and the variety of opinions fairly thoroughly; an index to all their reporting can be found here.
I certainly don’t pretend to be any kind of an expert on this subject; I am merely providing my perspective based on my explorations and conversations. I strongly encourage everyone to read, listen, and question as much material as possible – and, of course, visit if you can!