I returned from Cuba on Wednesday night after what can only be described as a life changing experience. I’ve spent the past couple of days reflecting on the entire trip—the conversations, the sights and the emotions—which occurred during what was a historical week for Cuba and the United States.
I’ve also edited well over a 100 photographs and I’m not even through the first day. Some of you might be amazed that I’ve been home for almost three days and the only picture that has been posted is of my husband. There’s a reason for this. I promised myself and my fellow travelers, that I would not post any pictures until I had written this, until I’d used this platform, however insignificant, to tell some of the stories I heard, to discuss Cuba beyond the classic cars, the cigars and the #ruinporn.
First, some context as to my personal relationship with Cuba. In 1996, a 12 year old Kelsi saw the movie Evita. Yes, Madonna and Antonio Banderas in full ham, tango-ing around Argentina, Evita. For those who haven’t seen it (I have no idea what you were doing with your life in 1996 but you should fix that), Evita tells the story of Eva Peron and her rise to fame and status as First Lady and Spiritual Leader of Argentina. Ché (Antonio Banderas) plays “the common man” in various guises and narrates the story. Now historically Che Guevara and Eva Peron have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Arguably Ché is a nickname (loosely translated “the dude”) and his role in the musical is merely a theatrical device to tell the story and is not even intended to be Ché Guevara. But none of this mattered to 12 year old Kelsi. 12 year old Kelsi saw Madonna waltz with a revolutionary and wanted to know more about the revolutionary.
In 1996, I did not have access to a computer. Google was not a thing. If I’d had internet, maybe I could have Asked Jeeves. Instead, I did what any other inquisitive 12 year would do: I consulted an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia led me to Motorcycle Diaries, 23 year old Ché Guevara’s diaries of his time traveling through South America. I learned how Ché’s experiences in his travels led to his political and social awakening. What I experienced as a result of reading his story was a passion for equality and justice—and a bit of crush really.
Sartorially, the 90s and early Aughts were big on Ché, despite the 90s being a terrible time for the Cuban people, following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Fidel refers to those years as the “Special Period”). Ché became this pop culture figurehead of rebellion and revolution in the West. I bought a boob tube with a rainbow trim emblazoned with his face (his eyes were crystals) from Portobello Market. Clearly, I was some sort of Marxist sartorialist as opposed to revolutionist but I wore that bedazzled face with pride—right up until I moved to the US and a woman yelled at me on the street for wearing the face of who she called a murderer.
Politically I have always been left of the left—the granddaughter of a true socialist, I’ve always had a bone deep sense of justice, fairness and need for equality. I grew up under nationalized health care, during a time when our government was losing its grip on many nationalized companies and selling them off to private entities. Socialism—or the concept that everyone, no matter who they are, what they earn, their race, their gender, should all have access to healthcare and education, and that those who struggle through circumstance, be that disability, illness or just the hand that life has dealt them, should be protected financially and supported—has always made sense to me. This is what I believe.
This idealism has led to a soft approach to communism and fostered a belief that communism was a beautiful ideal made fallible by human nature. I was never naive enough to believe that communism could actually work—my strong sense of fairness and equality also believes in democratic elections just as much. But part of me felt Cuba was different; something in me wanted to believe that this was the place it could work.
So it was with these rose tinted glasses that the socialist’s granddaughter with a crush on Ché went to Cuba.
For the purposes of this piece, these stories will remain anonymous, and vague to the point of annoying. These anecdotes are from real Cubans—Cubans who have never left Cuba, many who know nothing other than the rule of the Castros. The anonymity is to protect them; dissidence is still rewarded with prison.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Havana, we met a man who was terribly excited for Obama’s visit, but insisted to us that if Obama was to experience the real Cuba he had to visit the “pueblo”, the real people in the villages. The Cuba he described was not one of equality. He talked of the tyrants who decided whether a school or hospital stayed open. He talked of the farms and how the food grown did not belong to them—how nothing belonged to them—and how anything could be taken away at any moment. He talked about how, out of every five people, four of them feared the fifth was a spy. He told us how the people loved Obama, but those in power did not. He told us the relationship between Cuba and America was not America’s fault. It was the fault of Cuba. He told us that he loved us, considered us family and left each of us with a back-breaking hug hiding tears behind our sunglasses.
This was the first of many conversations like this all over the country. The Obama visit seemed to have emboldened people and stirred in them a sense of optimism that things could change. Frequently, we were approached by locals who told us how excited they were that Obama was visiting and that relations could be restored. Their declarations were quickly followed by a serious and earnest question, “are you happy, are you excited?”
For the first time ever whilst traveling internationally, I was happy to tell people I was from America. It’s rare, especially in these Trump times, but I was happy to be abroad with a group of Americans—even if I could never tell when someone asked me where I was from (apparently even when they asked in English).
We met a girl whose dream was to visit Los Angeles. Her sad eyes did not contain the same optimism as the others. Knowing that physicists and architects cannot even afford to travel within the country—and that her station in life was much lower—it was easy to understand why. Holding on to optimism must be a full time job in itself.
This is a country whose main trade is tourism, and tourists are shipped in by the coach load. We forget, as Americans, that the rest of the world has been able to visit for years and after the fall of the Soviet Union, on which Cuba had been reliant for decades, Cuba turned to tourism to save the economy. As a result of their dependence on tourism, Cuba has two currencies: one for tourists and one for locals. This means a taxi driver earns more than most other professions. They can pull in $1,500 a month, while a doctor earns up to $68 a month, and a day laborer around $10 a month. Meanwhile, tourists can expect to pay between $8-10 for a single dinner.
For a country built on the concept of equality, they’ve really nailed segregation.
In theory, socialism is still abundant. That concept still works; there is no bottom, or rather, that bottom is the same for everyone. Everyone has somewhere to live, access to healthcare, no one goes hungry, everyone can get the education they want, and everyone receives a wage. In practice, supplies are short. Soap is a luxury, as are toilet seats and paper. You can go to the hospital and see a highly educated surgeon, but they might not have gauze that day. You can get the highest education in the land, but the best hope you can have for your career is to be a taxi driver. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for highly educated people to take a job such as a cook in order to provide for their families. Having no bottom is great, but having a defined top is frustrating. As it was to described to us: “Communism is an inverse utopia”, “it’s inoperable.”
That said, we didn’t speak to a single Cuban who would do away with socialism (note socialism not communism). They actually love it, and not just because of the propaganda (Socialismo o Muerte billboards still abound). The fundamentals—the justice, the fairness of it all—is still believed in, and rightly so. A country where no one goes hungry is a beautiful thing. What I believe the Cuban people are looking for is more freedom and more opportunity. They don’t want anyone left behind but they want their hustle to achieve more than getting to eat out once every six months or providing soap for their family.
This frustration manifests as anger towards the Castro brothers, who live very well and jail those who speak up against the regime. We saw evidence of this when we watched the press conference with Obama. Raul Castro was asked what he was going to do about the political prisoners and he responded “show me a list”. Those around us gestured that the list would be longer than their arm, and we were told everyone knows someone who’s in jail for speaking out.
Towards the end of our trip we visited an organic farm, where we met a farmer and guide, who was quite possibly the most charming and inspiring person I’ve ever met. He had so much passion for his job, other people, and learning. He spent a year and a half learning English and is almost fluent. He was so very full of pride for his work and his achievements that I was moved to tears on several occasions.
He and his family live within the system, with no dissidence. He did not once speak badly about Cuba or the government. His family was given land by the government, and on that land they have grown enough food to feed their family, the local hospitals, the local children’s home, the home for the elderly, and to supply an organic restaurant for tourists. They pay their taxes, they support their family, their community and they make an income as well. For me, this farm is what Cuba could and should be. It’s a microcosm of a working socialistic system. They take care of themselves and each other and they do so with pride and passion for their land and their work.
I believe that Cuba will grow in its own right. I believe Cuba will see change, and I believe that change will be embraced—I think it’s important that we understand that our values cannot be imposed on them, but instead we can encourage growth.
Before I left to Cuba I frequently said “I want to visit the country before McDonalds and Starbucks does”. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed amongst my traveling brethren—and apparently a common one for visitors to Cuba. I realize now that statement makes me an asshole. This idea that we, as imperialists, wish a whole country a lack of progression so that we can be voyeurs to its charm and antiquity is arrogance to the highest degree. Or, in simpler terms, as we were asked “why do you think we do not like hamburgers?”
This essay is all to bring me to my final point: why I have yet to post a photograph. I didn’t want to be yet another propagandist. The photos and mementos we bring back from Cuba are in essence a form of propaganda. They show Cuba as charming, they showcase the restored buildings (funded by UNESCO and the government), the classic cars, the tobacco farms, and, they stimulate us visually but they offer a vacuous insight at best.
I will post my pictures. I will have several posts and hundreds of images, but I really want this essay to be read first so as to not perpetuate the idealism or the idyllic, but to offer some real, if simplistic, insight into Cuba beyond the classic cars and cigars.