Was it Winston Churchill that described something as a “riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma?” I think he was talking about Russia, but the same could be said for Cuba. After spending 10 eye-opening days there, we’re left with a profound sense of wonder, and an abiding respect for the spirit and resilience of the Cubanos.
The history of the 1959 Cuban revolution is well-documented, and it’s known that the early days of the Castro regime were ruthless, bloody, and authoritarian. But just how oppressive is the regime today, especially now that Fidel is gone? And if this is a truly classless society, how do some people seem to be relatively well-off, approaching middle-class, when so many others are just scraping by? How does this communism thing work (or not work), anyway? And how could this system have been allowed to operate virtually unchanged for as long as I’ve been alive (ahem, 57 years), in a place that’s only 90 miles from U.S. shores?
And here’s the biggest question of all: what’s in store for Cuba in the next few years, assuming that relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to thaw? (With the new POTUS, this is now a shakier assumption and an even bigger question mark.)
In 10 days, we were able to barely scratch at these questions, much less get any answers. But one thing is clear, just as it is in any country, anywhere in the world: the hope of Cuba is in its people, not in its politicians.
Here are a few of our impressions.
The old cars are real. And yes, many are running on a wing and a prayer.
They’re everywhere, and they range from the beautifully restored convertibles that have been tarted up for the tourists, to rattle-trap “frankencars” that operate as collectivo taxis (we rode in a fair number of those). We couldn’t get enough of them.
The architecture is simultaneously stunning . . . and crumbling. Especially in Havana.
Cuba has spent millions restoring Havana Vieja, the historic city center, and it is fabulous – now listed as a UNESCO heritage site. Just a few blocks away is Havana Centro, the working-class quarter in which the buildings were once just as grand, but are now in danger of falling into oblivion. And people still live in them. How does it work? Do they pay rent? Does the government provide them housing, substandard as it is?
Havana Centro is not for the faint of heart. Sadly, I counted no less than three dead cats (don’t get me started on the plight of dogs and cats in Havana) and it was pretty common to see headless chickens or pig heads left on street corners as Santaria offerings. The smells, sights, and sounds were sometimes overwhelming. But we loved the energy of this neighborhood and the spirit of its people, from the kids playing kickball in the streets to the veggie vendors.
It’s not all about the U.S.
Because our travel there has been restricted and the U.S. trade embargo has dealt such a blow to Cuba for so many years, it’s easy to forget that Cuba has been hosting visitors from everywhere else for a long time. Tourism is tremendously important to the economy, and Cuba’s tourist infrastructure – from hotels to restaurants to souvenir stands – is pretty similar to that of other Latin American countries we’ve visited.
At the same time, it was odd to not encounter any U.S. brands, anywhere, not even Coca Cola! But there were a couple of notable and puzzling exceptions. If the embargo’s still in place, how DID that hot sauce from Louisiana, or that Italian sparkling water imported by a U.S. company, get to Cuba?
People are not as afraid to speak out as we expected.
As part of our requirement for people-to-people exchange (one of the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens are now allowed to travel to Cuba) we made an effort to talk to as many people as we could about the experience of being a Cubano.
- Almost everyone felt hopeful and optimistic, and believe that Cuba is truly on the “cusp of change” (not my phrase but I like it!). Most held President Obama in high regard and tend to be more guarded in their opinions about the new president-elect.
- Only one person we talked to – we’ll protect his identity except to say that he is in academia and a person of letters – was very bitter about “the brothers” (Fidel and Raul Castro) and what they’ve done to the country. “We are all slaves here,” he said. Sadly, we weren’t able to press him on this since we were just sharing a cab.
- Many people are really struggling, especially in Havana. There seems to be a huge
dearth of consumer goods, and the cash with which to buy them. The reason for this was not clear to us: five decades of suppressed capitalism? The U.S. trade embargo? A system in which only communist party members have buying power?
- Most people were NOT effusive about Fidel, even with his very recent death. It was not at all what we expected in a regime based on a true cult of personality. However, several people felt that Raul’s ascendance will lead to more freedoms and greater opportunities. Already, Raul has opened the door to increased capitalism through such programs as the casas particulares, in which people are allowed to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists and keep a percentage of the income. We stayed in four of these, and we’ll describe them in a future blog post.
Our Cuba trip was a life-changer for us. There’s no way to boil it down into a single blog post, so stay tuned for several more entries and lots more photos!