If loving Cuba is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. What I especially loved about it were it’s normal, everyday, working class people and the families of the slums.
I visited Cuba legally, and hesitated to publish what I learned because of the icy relations of the past that have yet again been drug up to the mat. But I’m publishing in the name of art, in the name of truth, in the name of education, free speech, and almost everything I believe in: loving others despite their ethnicity, nationality, race, political stance, or religion.
The second story balcony of a colonial casa with iron railings and white kittens dodging each other, as the sun lays an orange gloss over the humid air– a group of teenagers follow a boy with a boombox blaring reggaeton– THAT was Havana upon our meeting. Locals sat out in the street and in their doorways. Fernando, the man ‘a la casa’ passionately flung his arms around to wildly discuss baseball, even though he knew we barely understood. He pointed out the Cubanos playing as the Yankees and Astros squared off in the background. Some of the houses in Centro Habana were in shambles but his was perfect, as if out of a photograph from long ago.
We expected to be some of the last Americans to visit legally under visa regulations that required the meticulous keeping of records for the U.S. government. Although I disagree with most of what he did in office, my favorite thing Barack did was begin to normalize relations. Rumors of the U.S. embassy closing fluttered around Cuba. As Americans at home celebrated “freedom” with BBQ, we exercised caution in finding legal loopholes to visit this restricted place that was very open and welcoming to Americans. We stayed at one of the Casa Particulares and had a jam-packed itinerary of educational and historical things planned. Most importantly, we didn’t spend any U.S. cash and we didn’t fraternize or trade with the enemy because we DID NOT stay in a government owned hotel or buy from government vendors.
But in Cuba things are relaxed– or “relashed” as our lovable Cubano family said. The Latin American way meets communism– so relaxed is actually despasido– slow. It teaches you to go with the flow.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Cuban People
Sun that makes you beg for a reprieve of shade amongst the pastel conglomerates–that’s what we discovered with our hostess, Lily, as we toured ‘Habana’– one of the 3 oldest cities in the Americas. Massive Caribbean clouds rolled in like enormous sails of pirates making dock. Her husband, Michel, studied chef, cooked for us each evening. We expressed the desire to eat what typical Cubanos eat daily, which Michel informed us normally consists of white rice and a banana. Nevertheless he insisted on feeding us fancy dishes of lobster in a delicious red sauce. This was Cuban hospitality– unlike anywhere I have seen it in the world.
Cubans take incredible care of their belongings. Cars from the 50s roll around, not just for tourists, but because importing a new car is as impossible as a working man buying a Lamborghini. Keeping the cars running requires unbelievable mechanics.
Cubans create an economy where there is none. The dual monetary system works for them. The Convertable Peso (CUC) is what tourists use which is tied to the exact worth of Dollar Bills, 1:1. When going places in Cuba, there is a line for tourists and a line for locals, who pay less for everything. We actually were told we couldn’t go into Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, which was a bit confusing (see below).
But Cubans don’t use CUC’s, they use Pesos Cubanos (CUP) which convert 1:25. The economy is propped up by tourists and the 1.3 million Cubans living in Florida who send money back because they know what it’s like to go without. Cubans have a joke that, due to communism, their #1 hobby is standing in line. They stand in line for (what to me) looked like empty shelves at supermarkets. High end clothing stores are called “museums” because the working class cannot afford to buy the goods. But Cubanos will respectfully defend their pro-communist views because they are not willing to forfeit their free education and healthcare. (Although I decided that the education is hardly free because they owe the government 5 years of work after attending university).
It Isn’t A Vacation but a Cultural Education
We did the typical things in Havana, found a trumpet that makes you stop dead in your tracks. We cruised the Malecón. We trailed Hemingway, saw the statue of John Lennon and learned about colonialism, while all along the way visiting schools and school children as our U.S. visa required (of course). We saw peeling billboards promoting the revolution and communism, came across a corner ‘hot spot’ where locals holler over baseball like they are the managers of the teams. I rode an unmanageable, wild stallion through tobacco country and peeved off the vaquero cowboy that owned him. We witnessed the cannons ceremony that has happened every night for centuries– in times past troops enforced a Habana-wide ‘lights out’ policy to avoid being targeted by pirates. I learned to salsa from a fetching Latina, whom I now call friend. Cubans are glad to host Americans.
But what we didn’t expect to learn was about the history– how the U.S. tried to ‘neo-colonize’ Cuba and Venezuela under the table after the Spanish-American war of 1898. In fact the U.S. tried to colonize several tiny countries at the time. Cuban relationships went especially sour with U.S. corruption tied to oil. Source
Cuba achieved formal independence in 1898. But in 1901, the U.S. Congress passed the Platt Amendment. This amendment, which was incorporated into the Cuban constitution until 1934, set conditions for U.S. intervention in Cuba’s domestic affairs. And the U.S. landed marines in Cuba in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920. The amendment also established a U.S. military colony in Cuba—the Guantánamo naval base—that is now used as a detention camp and torture chamber in the U.S.’s war on the world.
By the 1950s, the U.S. controlled 80 percent of Cuban utilities, 90 percent of Cuban mines, close to 100 percent of the country’s oil refineries, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. Cuba also became an investor paradise for U.S. gambling syndicates, real estate operators, hotel owners, and mobsters. The U.S. propped up the repressive and widely hated regime of Fulgencio Batista. This was the backdrop for the Cuban revolution of 1959.
The Cuban revolution was a just and popular rising against U.S. imperialism. The U.S. was not reconciled to its defeat. The U.S. wanted to regain its lost holdings and profits. But of even greater concern, it worried about the example Cuba set for others in Latin America. The U.S. moved along two tracks in the early 1960s: to crush Cuba and stamp out revolutionary movements throughout the region; and to launch the Alliance for Progress—promoted as a free-market solution to poverty but serving only to deepen U.S. economic penetration of Latin America.
In 1961, the U.S. carried out the Bay of Pigs invasion, which the Cuban people defeated. The CIA tried several times to assassinate Castro. The U.S. blocked Cuba’s ability to have normal trade with Western countries.”
And that’s the history they teach in Cuba.
In 1962 under the leadership of JFK, U.S. citizens were forbidden from visiting Cuba and the embargo was expanded to its current state.
Far off from the story I heard a suburban mom tell her daughter on the bus back in Denver.
Me (speaking to the child): “Did you get to ride an airplane today?! Where did you go? Wisconsin, wow! I have never been there. Me? I went to Cuba”.
Girl (speaking to mother): “What’s Cuba?”
Mother (to girl): “Oh it’s a place where Americans couldn’t go for a long time but now they can because they had a dictator and he died”.
I should’ve had the heart to correct her. But that’s us– Americans– twisting the story into something simple to place ourselves in the best light. Or maybe, like the girl, we’re too elementary to understand.
I’ve been feeling the guilt that travel sometimes leaves you with, that guilt of selfishness. I’d like to do more travel that makes a difference. My elementary school children did a drive for gently used clothing & shoes to give to Cuban children. Clothing in Cuba, especially for kids, is expensive and of low quality. We delivered the clothing partially to Friends to Cuba, a Christian charity for orphans. Some of the clothing went to kids at a park. Some of it went to my host family. Lily, my hostess said that she didn’t worry as much about having clothes, but “When [her] refrigerator was empty, that’s when she got worried”.
But what struck me the most, was going into the slums of Central Havana to give away donations. That messed me up. Because the thing about Cuba is– you can go down there (at least for now) meet people, experience the culture, fall in love– rave about how it’s untouched & authentic, but the thing about it is, you get to go home. You get to leave. They don’t.