As I explore the streets of Havana block after block, the beauty of the dilapidated buildings strikes me. Most are still structurally in tact exhibiting bold design and images of glory and grandeur but in the shadows Havana is frozen in time – 1950 to be exact. UNESCO restored portions of Old Havana closer to the port and the Royal Force Castile (El Moro) but more money is required to revitalize the entire city along with an infrastructure overall for transportation, water and electricity. The potential is there and the world awaits the call.
When I spoke to locals either my guides or friends of my host family, I learned that Cubanos hunger for progress. Some are anxious and can’t wait for the Americans to arrive, while others fear the change could come with a price. It will. I agree. One guide claimed if the United States lifted the embargo the Cuban government would have nothing to blame for Cuba’s problems.
“Everything wrong in Cuba is a result of the hurricanes or the U.S. embargo.”
After a few days traversing the streets of Havana, I believed that to be true. It’s ironic because I assumed Cubans would dislike American people but they welcomed me with open arms and at every chance meeting wanted to learn more about my life. A life I suspect they cannot envision outside of movies. It’s possible the older generation still remembers the better days before Castro’s rule but today the people look to the future with hope and trepidation.
It’s hard not to argue that these people are poor and have nothing comparatively but my experiences in Havana make me question whether or not I am wrong and they indeed have everything. Cuba could be a great example of the grass is always greener across the Atlantic. They possess universal health care. An abundance of skilled doctors serve patients yet hospitals struggle to acquire enough medicine for treatment for the general population. With free education, their literacy rate is nearly 100 percent, the 10th highest globally, but jobs are scarce and pay modest. A doctor makes about $65 a month and the average employee $25. I spent a day with a taxi driver in a 1957 Chevy who explains he earns about $15 a month barely enough to support his wife and two daughters. He is learning English counting numbers and we practice on our drive but we rely on Spanish to communicate. To me, his life is difficult but does he have what he needs? Yes….maybe.
Most of the tour guides I met previously worked as teachers at the schools and universities. Since tourism pays double if not triple especially since 2000, many abandoned their posts for better opportunities. My one guide suggests open American tourism will completely change the entire industry because “Americans demand service and quality. It will make Cubans work.” He might be on to something since the service is lacking (average wait for a meal is an hour+) and the quality of food and drinks below par. My mojito tasted like a spoiled water and rum concoction and if I attempted to eat anything other than the traditional Cuban meal of plantains, black beans and rice (moros y cristianos) and pork I left disappointed and hungry.
Life in Havana seems easier from afar. They value health, education and family. Crime and racism are not an issue and guns not available. Unlike Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, Cuba is not a pass through for the drug trade. It feels like an open and safe society. People walk the streets at will, neighbor’s doors are unlocked and people come and go all day. However, Cubans are denied basic rights of free expression, association, assembly, privacy and due process of law. Again, Cuba is not always what it seems but the people keenly aware of the plight of neighboring countries (drugs, poor education) has no intention of suffering a similar fate.
Cuban buses and cars are Chinese and oil Venezuelan. They are an island functioning and surviving but living decades behind developed countries. They are dependent on what other communist countries provide although that has been changing and will continue to do so with modifications to U.S. policy. Cubans fix things….cars from the 50s, refrigerators, fans, air conditioners, televisions, radios, chairs and tables. They appreciate the clothing on their back and the shoes on their feet. Department stores and mega grocery places do not exist. They buy what they need and no more and no less. I commented to one of the neighbors innocently, “I like your Coach shoes.” She replied, “What Coach?” This woman was wearing shoes she had bought a few years ago and they would likely last her several more. She didn’t care that they were not Nike or adidas or Gucci and there isn’t any importance placed on brands or advertising in Cuba. Locals cannot envision Starbucks and McDonald’s and Polo and Levi jeans. Today, they don’t have options of merchandise or competition between friends. That isn’t part of their daily lives and I worry this change will hurt them. Their clothing and gadget stores are sparse and resemble a U.S. Salvation Army more than a Woolworth or Target. I struggled to explain New York living with stores and restaurants on every corner. Cubans rely heavily on stores for parts like nuts and bolts that they buy from Canada and even the United States. It reminds me of the saying, “It’s ok for now I’ll just put a Band-Aid on the situation.” Cubans need lots of Band-Aids and tape!
Cubans play baseball, soccer and box. They celebrate music and dance such as salsa, mambo and rumba but family and community guide their entertainment. The kids may play one sport but certainly not five. They are very close always hugging and in each other’s business. Privacy is certainly not an option in Cuban families.
While Marxism teaches that Communism and religion are incompatible, Cubans today practice Catholicism and Santeria (Way of the Saints), a type of African folk religion. Several ethnic groups comprise the Cuban population: Europeans such as the Spanish and French stemming from the days of colonialism, North and West African groups many descendants of slaves, Chinese brought over as farmers and Americans. It was not uncommon for me to see a darker skinned Cuban with bright blue green eyes. The people are truly beautiful inside and out and beaming with Cuban pride.
To hold the forbidden fruit in my hand is one thing; but to taste it’s flavors, speak it’s language and enjoy it’s place in time and space is quite another. Guidebooks and tourist blogs give the impression that the world has visited Cuba and only Americans are left in the dark but my brief stay in Havana and Vinales (the countryside) suggests a land nearly forgotten by time. The absence of technology is obvious but it’s the innocence of the country that I most admire and respect. The children playing in the streets, the locals fishing along the sea and the joy on the people’s faces are the reasons I came to see and learn about Cuba. Propaganda is self-serving to a respective nation but it’s the people and often the simple things in life that tell the real story.
I can’t wait to see Cuba under siege from Apple and Samsung but I hope for the people that the change is gradual. If it’s too fast, I fear they will not be able to brace for the impact.
Important Dates in Cuba’s History
1898 – Spain and the United States went to war. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the US for $20 million.
1902 – Cuba gained independence from the U.S.
1958 – Fidel Castro comes to power
1960 – An embargo was first imposed by the United States on Cuba
1961 – U.S. launches an invasion known as the Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Cuba
1991 – Communist Russia falls and Cuba enters hard times known as the Special Period
2008 – Fidel Castro rumored to be ill and near death declared his brother Raul Castro the President of Cuba
2013 – Raul Castro announced his resignation for 2018 that will end his current 5-year term. It is hoped that the permanent term limits including age limits will be implemented in the years to come.
*On December 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, pushing for Congress to put an end to the embargo