Cuba. For many Americans Cuba is a forbidden land. I think very few people realize that it is only forbidden on our side of the channel. Cuba is more than happy to have Americans visit, and the Cuban people hold surprisingly little grudge for the period of years that the US government tried its hardest to starve them out and to undermine their society. The most common response I got when I said I was from “estados unidos” was excitement. Cubans love Americans. And it’s not that surprising once you get to know Cuba and its relationship to the US.
After Cuba gained independence, it became an American protectorate, and many Americans lived and owned property and businesses there. That ended with the revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. But even as communism sunk its roots into the island country, thousands of Cubans fled, many of them no further than Miami, and created a social and cultural bridge that would link the countries for decades to come. Nearly everyone I met during in my time in Cuba had a family member living in the states, and many more dreamed of one day emigrating and following them.
But this desire to leave cannot be interpreted as a desire to escape Cuba. Cubans have just as complex of a relationship with their country as the US does. Despite the many frustrations they face, few want to leave permanently. In fact most Cubans love their country dearly and want to leave only because they feel stifled by a lack of options and opportunities. I spoke with many Cubans who dreamed of leaving to work abroad, but they all said they wanted to return. No one failed to mention that it was a beautiful, safe country with agreeable weather and friendly people. Cubans have a sense of pride and patriotism that transcends simple ideologies, but instead is grounded in the social culture and the land itself.
Cuba is very different things to different people. To one person, it is a utopic society that still fights valiantly against its imperialist neighbor, while to another it is a failed state that refuses to admit to a defeat cemented decades ago. To some it is country that strives to put the needs of the people first, providing free healthcare and education, and subsidizing food and housing for all; for others it is a country that let progress and development pass them by in order to uphold an untenable ideology. To some it is a visual wonderland, elegantly showcasing centuries of architectural and social history; to others it seems a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by survivors.
It is even different things to the same person at different times. During our stay, there were days when I was so enamored with the place, I thought I could live there for a few years. Two days later I would be thinking about leaving as soon as possible. On the one hand, the country is filled with unrealized potential: beautiful landscapes, fertile agricultural land, limited development, and a friendly and entrepreneurial people anxious to join the rest of the world. On the other hand, that potential remains unrealized for very real and very tangible reasons: current government policy that is strictly enforced, a painfully slow beauracracy, and a people that are all too aware that If modernization of their country happens too rapidly it will displace them.
Perhaps because of just such tensions, Cuba is a land of juxtapositions. The pace of life is slow, and yet it is somehow hectic. It is colorful and elaborate, and yet at the same time dilapidated and falling down around you. It is suffused with a tropical kind of poverty, one that is more mentally exhausting than physically life threatening. It holds to its communist ideals, but it has opened to private ownership and there are an incredible number of small-scale capitalist ventures everywhere you look. Consequently you also see a pronounced wealth gap. But the wealth gap here is not like that of the first world with the poor segregated from the wealthy by neighborhoods and fences. In Cuba they are often separated by no more than a single floor or wall.
In Havana, we stayed in one casa particular that illustrated this beautifully. The house itself was a classic Havana house, with high ceilings supported by columns, and long rooms, perfect for catching cool breezes and channeling them through the house during the heat of the day. The woman who owned the house lived there with her two children, and she hired two women to clean and cook for guests staying in the four rooms she rented. The house was nicely restored and was a pleasure to spend time in. In one room, however, there was a giant hole in the floor revealing the house below. Several families and a host of animals lived there, and the space looked like it was perpetually under construction. Stereos from downstairs would blast Latino pop music several hours a day, often till 11 or 12 at night, and our host was not shy about contributing with her own stereo.
Across the street we saw a very similar scene, one house nicely fixed up and hosting guests, while two doors over another one looked as though it had survived the hurricane but was still on the waiting list for repairs. As you walk through any city in Cuba, these contrasts are everywhere as if the inconsistencies between ideals and reality are on display for even the most casual spectator to observe. But while the physical structures may display clear and distinguishable lines suggesting a wealth gap and social stratification, that line blurs almost to the point of disappearing when it comes to the people themselves. Those doing well and those struggling to get by seem to mingle seamlessly in the streets, chatting while they stand in the same lines for bread, and helping each other when they can.
Cuba is also a land of inconsistency. It is impossible not to love Cuba, but it is equally impossible to not want to run away screaming and tearing your hair out at times. Cuba’s tagline should be “Cuba: You Never Know!” because you really never do. Less than blurry lines, Cuba is kind of all blur, with nothing for certain. Supplies, hours of operation, quality and speed of service. The only consistency is inconsistency. We witnessed this so much at the restaurants and paladars we went to that I wanted to do a photo project where we order the same thing at the same place everyday for a week and see what they actually bring us. From day to day, it can be only slightly different, or bear just a passing resemblance to what was served the day before.
The inconsistencies found nearly everywhere in Cuba lead to a pervasive feeling of not knowing when, where, or how something will work out. But as you get used to it, it also leads to a feeling that it will work out, as long as you are open to the unexpected. And to get the most out of your time in Cuba, to really enjoy it, you do really have to be open to the unexpected. No where is this more important than in your interactions with the Cuban people.
The people of Cuba are very warm and open, and it is one of the things I most appreciate about Cuba. It is not at all unusual for someone to walk up and just start talking to you. And the first ten times in a day that it happens, it makes you really happy to be in Cuba. It creates a sense of comradery and makes you feel welcome. But after that you start to grow a little impatient because there was actually someplace you were trying to get that day, and you aren’t sure if the place will stick with its officially posted schedule, or decide to close an hour and a half early for some reason.
You also never know where one of these surprise conversations will go. There is just as much likelihood of a sales pitch ending with a friendly and rewarding conversation as there is the opposite. Or an encounter where someone says they just want to practice English, and then end by asking for money. “No? How about a t-shirt? Or a pencil? Do you have a pencil?” And because you don’t know, because you can’t know in advance, you can’t just wave off everyone who approaches you as you might do in any other tourist area in the world. If you do, you risk missing some of the most rewarding experiences you can have during your time here.
Cuba is a place that is truly alive and breathing, moving and changing, growing and dying before your very eyes. It is indescribable and indecipherable, exhausting and invigorating. It is enchanting and captivating, mesmerizing and maddening. It makes you want to run away, and then run right back. In some ways it feels, and even looks, as though it is from the future, and simultaneously it feels stuck in the 1950s. It is more like walking through a dream than any place I’ve ever been.
It is also a place that is changing rapidly. Cuba is a land stretched between two times and two ideologies. Cubans are acutely aware of the outside world, and even though they are aware of the benefits their society provides them, many are keenly interested in participating in the global theatre. There is an evident shift toward the more open, more modern, more free. While we were here, Raul Castro officially retired, the internet was being put into homes, and in many places it seemed as though every other house was renting rooms to tourists. An even bigger shift seems almost inevitable, a return to the past unthinkable. But you really can’t say for certain.
After all, this is Cuba. And in Cuba, you never know.