The Cuba We Saw by Lilia C. Harvey and Madeline Zavodny – InsideSources
Having just returned from spending a week in Cuba with college freshmen, we were struck by parallels and differences between President Obama’s visit there this week and ours.
Presidents surely see little of real life in the places they visit. Yet the same is true for most visitors to Cuba, including us.
The “people-to-people” visits Americans are allowed to do have created a vast industry of manufactured experiences that cater to tourists who want to see a country frozen in time. We rode in 1950s cars, admired the colonial-era buildings and posed for pictures at Revolution Plaza in front of the iconic image of Che much like Obama did.
The glimpses we had behind that curtain revealed a Cuba full of contradictions that Obama is unlikely to have been able to see. People repeatedly told us about the triumph of the revolution, yet their hustle for tourists’ dollars revealed a tremendous capitalist spirit. They value the free universal health care, high levels of education and egalitarian society the revolution created, but they yearn for material goods and greater means to travel abroad.
Obama saw newly paved roads and freshly painted buildings in Old Havana. Meanwhile, three buildings collapse each day elsewhere in the city, and not even the locals can drink the water. Whether to blame the revolution or the embargo is debatable, but there’s no question that living standards there are low. We weren’t able to meet with dissidents, but we certainly heard lots of dissent from people on the street.
The economy is based on tourism and agriculture. There’s no credit market, and no wholesale markets either. People hoping to take advantage of recent liberalizations allowing them to start private businesses in some 200 low-skilled occupations need relatives abroad to provide start-up capital and supplies. Meanwhile, high-skilled sectors that hold more promise for long-run growth, like biotechnology, remain under government control. Businesses can’t lay off low-productivity workers.
We spent lots of time doing things that Obama didn’t need to do and that would be inconceivable to most Americans. We waited in line for an hour to buy cards to access the wi-fi only to learn they were out. We were unable to change our dollars into Cuban currency because the hotel was out. We hoarded bottled water to make sure we didn’t run out.
Cubans repeatedly told us how excited they were about Obama’s visit. They seemed to think he would announce an end to the embargo, little realizing that Republicans are likely to thwart any such plans for the foreseeable future. Yet Cubans also didn’t seem to want Cuba to change too much. One older man said he doesn’t want Americans to come because the influx of money is raising prices but not incomes. He then asked us for money, of course.
People continue to leave the island in search of a better life in the US. We heard many heartbreaking stories about separated families where people haven’t been in touch with spouses, siblings or children for years or even decades. Others live together but don’t want to since housing is in such short supply. A tour guide told us he’s still living with his parents at age 28, trying to figure how to start a family in a place where houses cost $20,000 but monthly salaries are $20. No wonder the birth rate there is well below replacement.
Cubans were kind and welcoming to us. Perhaps because we brought much-desired dollars, but likely also because they appear to value community. The places we visited seemed infused with a sense of connection and belonging. Since most homes are small and lack air conditioning, people live in public spaces, sitting on the Malecon and strolling in the plazas. That was an unexpected upside to the limited internet access.
Obama’s visit may unleash a rush by Americans eager to see Cuba before it changes. We learned that it’s already too late. Young people listen to reggaeton, not traditional Cuban music like the Cuban son. Men wear t-shirts advertising Western brands, not guayaberas. Tourists are ferried around on gigantic Chinese buses much more often than in cool Chevys.
Instead of visiting some romantic past, we saw a contemporary Cuba full of paradoxes. As a Santeria scholar there told us, “You can see it, but don’t try to understand it.”