My friend and I were at the beach and a man plopped down behind us playing loud music. We, obviously there to relax, were frustrated. I asked several of the men who rented the beach chairs if they could please ask him to turn down the music, to no avail. Being raised in the US, my instinct was to talk to the higher up in the situation. Trying to do this, I asked one man, “Who is the owner?” He looked at me and said “Fidel” and I could hear his mind saying “obviously, idiot.” This was one of many learning moments that I had while in Havana, Cuba*.
“Enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it,” was the advice of one man we spoke to in Cuba—advice that we, admittedly, didn’t follow.
Though I certainly don’t understand Cuba, my ten-day experience there was the tip of the beautiful, confusing, and historically rich iceberg. We arrived as students from the United States who knew what most US citizens know about Cuba: the embargo is strict, the cigars are great, all the cars are old classics, and Che Guevara is on all the t-shirts. We left with more questions than we came with, and for that I am grateful.
One of my greatest surprises was that everyone was thrilled to talk to us even though, and often because, we are US citizens. Before, I had the perception that there would be tension between the two groups because of how hard the embargo has been on the way of life there. At least half of the people I spoke to hoped to someday visit the US, if not move there.
“La vida es dura.” Life is hard. Words that were repeated to me many a time over the ten days. There are debates about whether or not the struggle there is due to socialism or due to the embargo. It depends on who you ask. Many people told me that they believed that the US was afraid to lift the embargo because US citizens would realize how well socialism has worked, and others argue that too many people are benefitting from the black market for the embargo to ever be lifted.
Housing is an issue that our group struggled with a lot. People are either randomly assigned houses or have homes that belonged to their families before the revolution. Here is the bed and breakfast that I stayed in, an example of a home that the family there has had since the late 1800s:
Here is the outside of some other Cuban homes:
We kept asking everyone, “How is this fair?” My family there is lucky to have the home that they do; they are able to make more money than other families because they are exchanging services for tourist’s money. To me, this doesn’t seem like the idealistic equality that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fought for. Despite the disparity (albeit the disparity is through my eyes), the Cuban people have an amazing amount faith and hope for Cuba. All over the city is propaganda for the socialist party and for the revolutionaries that made the socialist state possible. As our academic director there said, Cuba is a land of contradictions.
I’ve been thinking for a couple of days about how to write about Cuba. Socialism is a controversial topic, and following that, the United States’ relationship with the socialist state of Cuba is controversial. What I’ve written only tells bits and pieces of the story of my time in Cuba, and even a smaller fraction of what life is actually like on the island. I am not well read on Cuba, but after visiting, I’m passionate about understanding the intricacies between its relationships with the United States. I’m also disappointed that I can’t return in the foreseeable future due to the embargo. I hope that someday soon the leadership in the United States will take a step in reconciling with Cuba so that others can widen their horizons and learn about a culture, despite being 90 miles from Florida, that is so far removed from ours. And I hope that those of you reading this will choose to look at the situation with open eyes and an open mind before you pass judgment on it, which is a challenging but rewarding thing to do.
*I think it’s important to note that Fidel is no longer the president (his brother Raul is), nor did he ever “own” any enterprises. What the waiter was trying to say is that the service at the beach is run by the state.