My first memory of Cuba was of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had just turned eight, and shortly after my birthday the tense standoff with the Russians began. I didn’t understand much except that the Russians, who were the Bad Guys, had placed rockets with atomic bombs in an island country somewhere near Florida called Cuba. It was the era of air raid drills, where we would crawl under our desks and put our heads down between our knees and clasp our hands over our heads. Later, some wag would add the words “… and kiss your a– goodbye….” to this emergency sequence. But at the time I’m sure we were comforted by practicing some tangible act that might save us. Grownups tried to hide their own anxiety, but many children my age and older knew something serious was afoot. Two weeks later, we knew that the immediate threat was over.
Throughout the next couple of decades Cuba drifted in and out of my awareness: the constant condemnation of Fidel Castro’s government by many US politicians and citizens alike, the Mariel boatlift, the growing Cuban exile community in Florida and their powerful political influence, the Elián González affair, Castro’s illness and brother Raúl’s ascendancy to the presidency, Fidel’s subsequent death just over a year ago, and of course the relaxing of travel restrictions to Cuba by the Obama administration. As time went on, I processed these events with a growing recognition of the complexity of issues and the realization that there are almost always multiple perspectives to any story of conflict, and I no longer viewed Cuba solely as a rogue state that exported revolution to its Latin American neighbors and kept its population under an iron fisted control. But I had little personal connection with the country, save from knowing that my father went there for business decades ago, and that my sister-in-law went there with the American delegation to the Pan American Games of 1991.
Recently, however, I had the opportunity to travel there for a short visit. The experience was richly rewarding and confirmed my thinking that many political differences arise from a clash of perspectives or at least are exacerbated by alternative ways of looking at things. The Cuba that I saw was friendly, culturally vibrant, and politically and economically complex. Signs of the revolution were everywhere, from museums to wall murals to street signs. There is a palpable sense of discomfort on the part of Cubans when asked sensitive questions about their government, but often the response of a wordless shrug, smile, or wink revealed much. Repression is real, and it is true that dissent and opposition has been brutally punished, especially in the past. Yet it also seems apparent that US economic interests in pre-revolutionary Cuba played a large role in our support of equally brutal regimes in that country prior to the Castro brothers taking control. This has, of course, led to animosity on the part of the Cuban government towards the US.
Many people do give credit to the government for some improvements over the decades, including universal education, healthcare, and subsidized food and housing, despite the harshness of its treatment of opponents. As with many of these types of situations, I believe the truth is very complex, and it is not helpful to position oneself at either extreme of the political argument. I also believe that world peace is contingent on people discovering each other’s common humanity. Hence, I decided to travel and try to learn firsthand a bit of the Cuban side of the story, before the current US administration once again prohibited travel there.
Tourism is not new to Cuba. Europeans and Canadian visitors have been enjoying the country for years, as have Asian and Latin American travelers. When the Soviet Union broke up, their support for Cuba evaporated, sending that country into what is called the Special Period. Severe economic hardship ensued, and unemployment, hunger, and further political crackdowns spread. The tourist economy became a critical source of currency, and efforts to attract visitors began in earnest. American visitors, previously restricted by our own government, finally were able to visit Cuba when President Obama lifted some of the barriers to travel. Essentially American citizens are allowed to visit Cuba as part of qualifying “people to people” exchanges, and programs sprang up designed to fit the legal requirements. We joined a bike group, and our itinerary took us to Havana and the surrounding countryside to the west.
Although the state controls the basic economy, a thriving freer market economy is developing. In recent years the government laid off thousands of workers; in compensation they allowed the populace to start their own businesses, and very quickly countless small enterprises sprang up. Old and decaying infrastructure exists side by side with new buildings. People in city and countryside alike make do with what they have, fix things that are broken, and nurse the use of almost every material good far beyond its normal life expectancy. Antique cars from the 50’s prowl Havana’s busy thoroughfares and provide a colorful complement to the bustle of local and tourist traffic. Clearly an attraction, these vehicles represent the Cuban talent of making the best of everything on hand.
Havana’s “old city” serves as a magnet for tourists entering the country via air or boat, and offers a quick sampling of Cuban cuisine, music, and culture. Restaurants abound, as do countless small shops and tiny micro-focused museums. Its narrow winding alleys invite exploration. Some of these streets are packed with stores and eating establishments catering to foreign visitors; others, just blocks away, are frequented only by locals. The entire area looks like it has been in the process of being renovated for years. Outside of the old city giant cranes rise above multistory buildings, reinforcing this sense of ongoing change, ongoing revolution. Visitors are frequently approached and offered taxi rides in the old cars, or flyers and menus to nearby restaurants, but the solicitation is gentle and respectful, and is graciously withdrawn with a simple shake of the head or a “No, gracias.”
Everyone I encountered was friendly. American visitors are still somewhat of a novelty, and this year US tourism is down because of Trump’s efforts to once again tighten travel restrictions. People were interested in the fact that we were Americans, but it did not seem to impact the way they reacted to us; we were always made to feel welcomed. There were some tentative conversations about Trump, probably to assess our political leanings, but the very fact we were visiting Cuba likely signaled where we stood with our president. There were no conversations about political issues involving US – Cuban relationships.
Cuba did, however, present a very different picture of historical events. The revolution, and the US involvement in that struggle and subsequent relations between the countries, were cast in a very different light than portrayed in American history books. The US is seen as an aggressor trying to undo the changes wrought by the revolution. Again, I believe that truth lies somewhere in between both accounts, but some of the Cuban perspective at least sounds plausible around certain interventions and the protection of US economic interests. The Cuban government goes to great lengths to enshrine the revolution as an ongoing integral part and process of Cuban culture rather than a specific historical event. Pictures of Fidel, Che, and other key figures are omnipresent, as are signs and slogans. One of the most interesting museums in Havana is entirely focused on the revolution. And the actual yacht (the Granma) that transported these leaders back to Cuba from exile in Mexico in order to lead the revolution, has its own building in which it resides in honor.
Outside the sprawl of Havana, city quickly yields to countryside without the intervention of suburbs. The land we saw was mostly dedicated to agriculture or preserved as national parkland. Small plots of cultivated land alternated with forest preserves. The region was dominated by limestone karst formations, reminiscent of southern China and Vietnam. The area had a number of caves, including the longest in Cuba currently with 46 kilometers of underground passages mapped. One cave was noted for its use in housing Che Guevera and top military aides during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Transportation is by foot, horse, cart, bike, motorcycle, car, truck, and bus in equal measure. We felt safe biking as motorized vehicles were accustomed to human and animal traffic and were generally patient and careful in sharing the roads. People were especially friendly, and because everyone we met along the road or in small villages and towns were occupied in trades outside the tourism industry, all of our interactions were characterized by genuine curiosity and hospitality rather than transactional interests.
In an effort to capitalize (so to speak) on the tourism trade as a source of foreign exchange, Cuba established two parallel monetary systems: one currency for local commerce (CUP) and one for all transactions made by visitors from abroad (CUC). In theory they are supposed to be valued equivalently. In practice, however, the CUC’s are worth about 25 times the local currency. The CUP’s are used for food staples and other basic goods, and the CUC’s are used to purchase other non-essential goods, like imports, etc. Because most people’s salaries are paid in the local currency, this has led to the unintended consequence of elevating in financial status any job that involves direct contact with foreign visitors. Farmers, doctors, dentists, teachers, and similar occupations effectively make far lower salaries than those working in the tourism industry.
One common cultural expression found throughout Cuba – in countryside and in the city – is music. Musicians played in almost every restaurant we went in, lunchtime and dinnertime. Small groups were found in cafes and on the streets. Radios blared everywhere. Salsa lessons were offered to hotel guests. The music was upbeat, expressive, and alive. Whether they were about love, Havana, or the revolution, songs seemed to convey a genuine joy of life.
This vibrancy was what I most appreciated. I was not focused on politics when I visited Cuba. I simply wanted to experience a small slice of life in that country, to help me appreciate the people there and our commonalities. There is much I condemn about the Cuban government’s rigid controls and its fierce repression of all dissent. There is much I disagree with concerning its economic policies and abridgement of freedoms. Yet I found that ordinary people in Cuba are friendly, down to earth, ready to live life as fully as they can, and seem to bear no resentment against the American people for the actions of our government. For this reason alone, I came away confirmed in my conviction that peace in the world is contingent on different peoples getting to know one another personally, spending time together, and discoveringall they have in common as human beings rather than focusing on political or other differences. I condemn repressive governments and manipulative economic institutions and practices. They need to change in order for people living under those conditions to enjoy freedoms that truly support the freedom and dignity of all. But I believe that a starting point for change is friendly exchanges of people, to sow the seeds of mutual understanding and respect. I hope others can have a chance to visit this unique country…..