Ten days in Cuba hardly qualifies me to write authoritatively about much of anything, let alone a subject as complex as life in Cuba in 2012. There are, however, a few things I can say with a high degree of certainty and a whole bunch more about which I can offer a personal opinion based on what I saw and heard. I think the latter is worth something or I wouldn’t offer it up. I know that anything written about Cuba is likely to offend someone. It seems to me that this small country less than 100 miles from our coast (the flight takes 40 minutes from Florida) has been both overly romanticized and overly demonized. I don’t believe it deserves either reputation, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Here are a few things I know.
1. Cuba is a beautiful country, with compelling urban life, gorgeous countryside, amazing coastal views, and beautiful men, women and children. There are, of course, the big and beautiful American made cars from the 1950’s all over the place and in all sorts of condition. There were, to my surprise, lots of other cars, even an occasional brand new Audi or Mercedes.
2. Travelling in Cuba works. It works really well in fact. The only snafu on the entire trip happened in Ft. Lauderdale. Last time I checked, that’s part of the U.S. Our bus was new and fabulous (and Chinese).
The roads were decent and passable. There were no military checkpoints. Hotels were good (some really good). Food was amazing. Shopping aplenty. You can even buy Gucci shirts and Timberland boots. That was a big shock, but I discovered tourism rules in Cuba these days. It’s the biggest part of the Cuban economy and they are doing everything they can to bring more of it. Of course, traffic from the U.S. is still small compared to Canada and Europe, but people have absolutely noticed the change in U.S. policy from a year ago which makes travel to Cuba possible with restrictions.
3. The American version of Cuba that people my age have derived from experiences like hiding under our school desks during the missile crisis initiated by our Soviet-controlled neighbor to the south. That version no longer works. One can have lots of different opinions about what is going on in Cuba today, but Cuba in 2012 is not the Cuba of 1961. Cuba is open to the world and the world has arrived in Cuba. The Cubans I spent the most time know more about the U.S. than most U.S. citizens. They are smart, well-educated, sophisticated and have a balanced view of the world order. And Cubans wake up each day worried about the same things as Americans or Guatemelans or Chinese — their families, their communities, their jobs… They love to watch the sun rise and set as much as we do.
4. One can’t begin to understand Cuba today (or the rest of Latin America for that matter) without appreciating the deep and devasting impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism. It would be like trying to figure out American politics while ignoring the impact of slavery. It just doesn’t work. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel to power would never have happened but for hundreds of years of repression by Spain and another 60 years of domination by the United States.
I’ll fast forward through 300 plus years of Spanish rule where the colonizing power did everything it could to destroy the indigenous people and impose a culture built upon the institution of slavery and get to the Spanish-American War (an odd name for a war that decided the fate of Cuba and other should-be sovereign nations). Actually I will have to fast forward through that as well in the interests of not losing every reader. I’ll just say this. American foreign policy towards Latin American has been disastrous for them and, I believe, for us. It’s not surprising that at some point in its history, virtually every country in Latin America has witnessed an uprising led by the masses against the privileged class. I think even people hugely critical of Fidel and the Revolution would acknowedge that life for the vast majority of Cubans pre-1959 was not pretty. By the time the U.S. realized that Batista had to go (he was the last in the line of corrupt, repressive U.S. supported presidents), it was too late to avoid an uprising.
5. And last but not least, being with Oglethorpe faculty and students makes me immensely proud. They are smart and witty, careful and adventurous, funny, curious, and they love to learn. Seeing the impact our faculty has on our students is inspring. Anyway, I had a blast. Oh, most of the students on the trip were 19 or 20 years old. Did I mention they were adventurous? Fortunately, what happens in Cuba stays in Cuba.
Two more things before I begin to seriously opine. Driving through the Cuban countryside listening to Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club is hard to beat. Really hard.
And, finally, an embarassing moment. You know the story we all learned in grade school about Columbus discovering America in 1492? I guess somewhere along the line I had learned that it was actually Cuba he discovered that year, but if so, I forgot that little tidbit. Thank goodness our brilliant (and handsome) tour guide Hoji knows more Amercian history than I do.
A few ‘opiniones”:
1. Cuba is a poor country. Cubans know their country is poor and many people we met and talked to had no trouble acknowedging that. They also have no trouble acknowledging there have been mistakes made since the Revolution, even what some called massive mistakes. In the last 12 months, tens of thousands of government workers have been let go and almost 300 professions have been privatized, to an extent anyway. The high degree of state control of the economy that has characterized Cuba for so long is fading. And people are very happy about the changes. Now don’t get me wrong. Cuba is not a capitalist haven by any means, but the version of Cuban Communism as we knew it during the Cold War is no longer a reality either. Certainly, people have not given up on the aims of the Revolution — to create a society where all citizens can live a decent and comfortable life. But they do now understand that he path there needs to look different than it has. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cuban economy collapsed with it and a new model has slowly been emerging. Here’s where tourism comes in, with massive joint ventures with foreign privately-held companies building hotels, for example (with 51% owned by the Cuban government). China, Europe, Venezuela, Brazil and many others are all welcome partners. And we would be as well if our government decided to be part of the new order. I’ll get to that in a minute.
2. While Cuba is poor, my sense is that in comparison to the other Latin American country I know best, Guatemala, the Cuban poor are not desperately poor like their Central American neighbor. Every Cuban has access to a high quality public education. Guatemala fares really poorly in this comparsion as Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates of any developing country, a direct atribute of the Revolution. One of Cuba’s biggest exports are its well-trained and highly respected doctors, which it produces by the thousands. Health care? A big check in the Cuban column. Universal and free. Housing and food? Every Cuban is provided housing at no cost and a ration of food every month.
The quality of the housing isn’t terrific and the amount of food distributed is not what it had been when Soviet aid flowed, but, again, in comparsion to Guatemala? Cuban wins here as well. My take overall? Cuba has gotten some things right and some things not so right. Would I say the say the same about every other country I have visited? Yes, I would. I don’t mean to suggest I am a fan of the Revolution or the current political order in Cuba. Like I said, there’s much I can find that I don’t like and other things I witnessed I appreciate. I just don’t believe the Cuba of today ought to be in a category by itself in regard to American foreign policy.
3. While Cubans are careful to differentiate between the U.S. government and the American people, it was pretty clear to me that there is a sense that the U.S. is still at war with Cuba. No other country has imposed the kinds of restrictions imbedded in acts of Congress like the Torricelli Act (signed right before the 1992 presidential election by George H.W. Bush making the embargo of Cuba even more severe) and the Helms-Burton Act (signed four years later, aimed at penalizing foreign companies that did business with Cuba). The latter was widely condemned by nearly every ally of our country.
One finds large political billboards throughout Cuba (there are no other kinds there) with the word “Volveran” (they will return) emblazened on it.
This refers to the five Cuban heroes, in Cuban eyes, jailed for espionage in the states in 1991 for a total of 75 years. I have to say that given the political tension/battle between our two countries, I was surprised not to have experienced anything but graciousness and warmth from the Cuban people.
Some final thoughts. One question that just kept swirling through my head the entire time was why after fifty years is the United States still actively trying to punish Cuba. Is it as simple as the presidential electoral outcome in Florida is dependent on the Cuban-American vote? That may be. While I don’t agree with the goal of this group — I suppose I would call the goal regime change, even after a half a century– I can understand it. They or their families were exiled in one way or another. Massive amounts of property were seized by the government. Families were separated. Yet I would still argue that is in our country’s best interests now to normalize the relationship. Moreover, while we did everything we could to topple (as in kill) Fidel early, we failed. Fifty years later, Cuba and its people ought to be left to its own devices to work through the issues it has, political and economic. I see them doing just that right now. Maybe not exactly how we would like or at the pace we would prefer, but how is that our issue today?
Time to bring this to an end. Whenever I travel, I love to experience a few specific things: play futbol with the locals, get a haircut, take a hike through the countryside, and wander among the urban streets in places most tourists don’t go. I got to do all four in Cuba. Here’s a lucky shot I captured.
If any of you have the chance to visit Cuba, I’d highly recommend taking the journey. It was spectacular.