Six months later.
Monday, June 27, 2016
As has happened with other places I have visited, since our trip to Cuba the name of a familiar Cuban location in a news headline immediately attracts my attention. And with Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March of this year, there has been no shortage of media coverage about Cuba since Arnie and I returned from our trip six months ago. There have been news stories (e.g. Shaquille O’Neal Lands in Havana to teach basketball as sports envoy, 7 News Miami, June 24, 2016; Harlem/Havana Cultural Exchange: First Ever Festival Celebrating Two Legendary Cities Announced, June 26, 2016, LA Times), travel items (“Canadian Tourism in Cuba: Will American Travellers Affect the Experience?” CBC, Feb. 2016) and opinion pieces (“Cuba For Sale,” The Guardian, Feb. 2016).
Social Conscience and/or Capitalism
One of the best items on the subject of Cuba that I’ve come across is a long piece written by Stephanie Nolan and published in The Globe and Mail on January 9, 2016. “A Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide Between Rich and Poor” is an in-depth look at the economic, social, political, and even philosophical issues that are the subject of much discussion in Cuba as the American boycott of the country comes to an end. Nolen, a foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail, is an outstanding writer and for many years I have found myself fascinated by articles she’s written about whatever topic she has chosen to investigate. (Notable among these was a series entitled Breaking Caste, which appeared after my trip to India.)
Nolen’s essay about Cuba reflects what we saw and heard when we were there, and expands on what has happened to the country since it was plunged into economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. Today, the black market combined with new, legally sanctioned forms of enterprise are gradually changing the economic picture, but as one Havanan told Nolen, “Some people are getting very rich, and a lot of people are still very poor.”
The situation is complex. Nolen reports on a story she heard about a family that went to a bank to get a loan to help make things easier because they have a disabled child. The bank said they should just take the money and not pay it back. “There is still, today,” Nolen writes, “a strong social consensus about the role of the state in protecting the vulnerable.” But others she interviewed questioned how long that would last.
Nolen says, “The generacion historica, as the Castros and their former guerrillas at the top of government are known, have had a moral legitimacy and an ethical purity that have made Cubans willing to tolerate much from them.[…] There is real debate whether others will share their crystalline ideological purity.”
What comes next?
A lot of people express the desire to “get to Cuba before it changes,” by which they normally mean before the Cuban culture is overwhelmed by that of the Americans. I must admit that the timing of our holiday reflected this concern as well. However, before I went to Cuba, I thought that the impeding American invasion would be a wholly bad thing. I don’t think that any more.
Most of the Cuban people are very poor, and the influx of U.S. dollars is going to make an enormous difference to them. I hope that in the long term the U.S. influence will also cause the powers that be in Cuba to address the human rights issues that Obama raised when he was there.
In addition, with any luck, soon Cubans will have affordable access to the internet from their homes as well as from city squares, and in other ways will be able to join the 21st century – for all that is good and bad about it. However, individual Cubans with whom we talked were very concerned about preserving their culture in the face of American tourism and investment, and I can only wish them success in that regard. Cuba is a wonderful, richly textured and interesting country, and I would love for future generations to be able to get a taste of the way it is today.
Of Horses and Patio Furniture
Several people have asked me “What was the best part of your trip to Cuba?” but I can’t make a choice like that. From the Bay of Pigs to our tour of the Che Guevara monument to Viñales to the salsa dancing, it was all great, and I’d happily do it all again. Our hosts, our tour guides and our travelling companions were all wonderful, which enhanced the whole experience.
If I were forced to choose one “best thing” about the trip, it would be the Cuban people. We felt safe all the time, even in Havana but particularly in the smaller cities, and everyone we talked to was kind and helpful and – especially – cheerful. Despite all of their deprivations and hardships and shortages, and the run-down appearance of so many of their buildings, it is a pleasure to listen to their voices rising and falling as they talk to one another and laugh together. I know that there is misery everywhere, and I know that Cuba has lots of it, but the only other place I’ve ever been where everyone at least sounded as happy and as interested in the world as they do in Cuba has been in New York City.
A couple of additional, final, unrelated and irrelevant notes:
- Although I loved all the old cars in Cuba, as everyone else does, I also enjoyed the many non-automated forms of transport still in use in Cuba, from horses to horse-drawn carriages to human-powered bicycle taxis.
- Cuba has the heaviest outdoor furniture we have ever encountered anywhere. It is not just that it is made of metal, it is such heavy metal that it is almost impossible to move a chair even the few inches required to bring yourself closer to a patio table. I am certain that these items of furniture are not only theft-resistant, but also impervious to hurricanes.
With this post, I conclude my musings on Cuba – with regret but also with relief: I had no idea it would take me this long to get around to completing the story of our trip! Thanks for sticking with me, Dan (and anyone else who is still following).
I am eager to get started on our next adventure: all details still TBA. Stay tuned.