It’s the one thing everyone, citizens of the USA and Cuba can agree on. Change is coming. How change will manifest itself, is where the debate starts. During our recent people to people exchange tour of Havana, the Cuban government employed guide was open and honest about answering questions about her opinions. We wandered at times unescorted, welcome to engage Cubans on the Malecon (sea wall) in Havana and in the various community projects we visited. Cubans we met, were worried about what the changes would do to their country and culture, but they also seemed excited about the opportunities. My own opinions about Cuba were always influenced by the narrative of the exiled Cubans living here in the United States, but I realized that I didn’t always agree with their opinions on other political issues, so why should I take their word for it? I should (wait for it!) GO SEE IT for myself!
Our family recently took a 5 night people to people exchange with Insight Cuba, called “Jazz in Havana”. We have had Cuba on our list to visit since a neighbor went with his Senior baseball team 5 years ago. It moved quickly to the top once President Obama announced the normalizing of relations between Cuba and the USA in December. We chose this itinerary because it matched the interests of our family, and was a “legal” trip to Cuba. One quick perusal of “Cuba” on Trip Advisor will show that any American can visit Cuba from several Central American countries quite easily and cheaply and no one reports they are given more than a passing glance by immigration for the gap in their passports- Unlicensed visitors from the US don’t get Cuban passport stamps, so if you enter and leave Grand Cayman in the same day and then return to Grand Cayman a week later…There’s a gap there) But we had reasons to travel legally, and so we chose this Insight Cuba for a cultural exchange that matched our interests and our schedule and it’s reputation for being an expert in legal Cuban travel. Because the US Dept of Treasury must approve the itineraries and requires participants to participate in all activities for the group running the trip to continue getting the licenses, there are full days that revolve around meeting with Cubans about the topic of the exchange, which in our case was jazz and art.
My own quick read of the history is that a long time before most Cubans and most Americans were born, there was a Revolution in Cuba, where the US backed leader of Cuba was deposed and exiled and Socialism was introduced. The US hoped to muscle their guy back in power to protect its own interests, and started an embargo, hoping that strong-arming its allies into also depriving Cuba of trade would bring a quick end to the Revolution. That didn't happen and the USSR allied with Cuba, hoping for a strategic location near it's enemy of the Cold War and supported the economy of Cuba in many ways until the 1990s. When the wall fell, and the support went away. The 90s were a difficult time for the Cubans, with little international financial support, and little resources of their own, most of the young people in Cuba were born or lived through a time of great challenge.
Years later the embargo and it’s effects on Cuba are still in play. The best analogy I heard about this was from our guide at the National Art Museum- more than 50 years later this is like a blood feud between two old aunts in the family who refuse to speak to each other; no one remembers exactly why, but the cousins still want to play together. For the young people of the United States and of Cuba, this is not their fight. Young Cubans want to make progress, whether that means iphones and internet, or having the ability to earn a living and some extra. Young Americans are curious about a place that has been off limits for reasons they may not have fully explored in history class. My own opinion is that every country and form of governance has it’s challenges and has its benefits. The only way for the people of one place to see if there is something better somewhere is else is to be open to the differences and learning about them.
I personally try not to allow judgment to enter in the equation (this is a “good” place or “bad” place) because the United States is one very big glass house. It seems there are lessons to be learned in what works and what does not in every society and the best way to better any society is to be open about sharing those ideas and for people to connect, which is exactly what we did!
What we learned surprised us. A recent trip to Central Europe, and the Balkans introduced us to people liberated from Communism in the 90s and the mentality of the people 15 -20 years later was one of despairing. They felt that capitalism has not brought what they hoped for and many people were still waiting for things to get better. Many young people have left those countries to seek their fortunes in other places. Many people we saw were idle and a bit hopeless, not sure how to capitalize on capitalism. In Cuba we saw a currently socialist society with an entrepreneurial edge. Nearly every person we met in Cuba had a government job (making the equivalent of about $15-20) and a ration book for food and an apartment provided. But recent changes allow people to buy their own homes and cars and start small home businesses. Now it seems nearly every person we met also had a small entrepreneurial side business. Government musicians sell CDs on the side, artists in government community projects get to keep (and pay high taxes on) art they sell to tourists. Even delivery men seem to have dual roles, delivering whatever they need to for government run restaurants while selling water to tourists. This "side" economy with outsiders is what drives the personal economies of whole families in Cuba and one of the reasons Cubans hope change will come.
But we also encountered Cubans who felt there was grave danger to their culture with unfettered capitalism and influx of North American culture. We encountered such joy and commitment to the arts in Cuba. The government fully subsidizes incredible art and music schools and projects with what it can, and it makes the arts accessible to anyone, not just, as is often the case in the US, people of means. There is joy in the music and the art that Cubans make, despite very real challenges in daily life we witnessed.
My husband made his own observation shortly after arriving in Cuba and seeing how joyful and musical the people are. He said it reminded him of the Whos in Whoville. Despite the fact that in Theodore Geisel's (Dr Suess) children's book, the Grinch had taken every trapping of Christmas; every last wreath and thumbtack, the Whos still woke up Christmas Day singing. And in Havana, despite a deep lack of material things caused by a long embargo, and crumbling infrastructure, the people are making music, they are making art, they are joyful and friendly, and while life is hard, they seem happy.
Cubans are rightly afraid that their unique culture and happiness despite a lack of material things might be diluted by the influx of American culture and businesses that benefit people unevenly.
Lots of questions remain as each country works through what each is willing to accept from the other, but everyone agrees, change is coming. For us it was really important to go Cuba now (before the changes) and share what we experienced with others who might be curious. We will surely go back to Cuba in the future, (probably on a cruise ship) if the current path towards reconciliation of the US and Cuba continues. But we know it will never be exactly as it is now again.
Upcoming: we have lots more photos and stories from Cuba and plan to post about the practical considerations of travel to Cuba now, more about the art and music and people we experienced, and of course, everyone is curious about the cigars and cars!