It’s been 8 years since my visit to Cuba on the 50th anniversary of Castro’s revolution. When the Key West Literary Seminar announced the trip, I signed up five minutes later. The next January, a collection of writers, readers, family and friends showed up in Miami, climbed on a scheduled American Airlines flight, and too fast to believe, landed in Havana.
The cultural instruction began before we deplaned.
“Remember,” our leaders said, “don’t use the word ‘humanitarian’ when you go through customs.” Odd since this was billed as a humanitarian trip, that would send us to schools and a medical/social service agency to drop off the school supplies and medical items we each loaded into our 44 lbs. of luggage. “You are ‘tourists.’ They don’t need any humanitarian help.”
We heard talks from Cubans, and an American who married in, to hear about daily life, their economy, the arts. I’d already done a lot of imagining about Cuba in my life, and this trip stepped it up.
Before my trip, I imagined danger: what if Fidel died (he was already ill with cancer) while I was there – would there be anarchy, demonstrations, celebrations?
During my trip, as I looked around, I imagined what transformations would come once he did die, presumably the only way he would lose his power over Cuban life, even though the official power had gone to his brother Raul. Would people rebel against the hardship and deprivation we saw around every turn?
Since my trip, I’ve imagined the people we met and talked with on the sly, and the Cuban bloggers I discovered, the people who look forward to change and a society where individual effort would pay off – is their patience wearing thin?
I imagined that I would return someday to see the new Cuba –the renovated buildings, the docks for cruise ships, the new economy that would allow regular folks access to new cars and homes they could buy and stores filled with goods, and the chance to pick out their own refrigerators instead of accepting and then having to pay off the Chinese models mandated by the government.
When I returned home, I collected a stack of books to try to explain to myself how Cuba had come to this. I read about the colonial periods, the revolutions, the early dictator, the later dictator, Americans who lived large there until the state confiscated their property, and prosperous Cuban families who saw the same for themselves and went on large family “vacations” never to return.
I’ve looked at the past, but I still have many questions:
How did such an exuberant (visible in the sports, music, dance, and other arts they champion) populace settle for the compromised life their government allows?
Why has Cuba spent most of its years of existence under the rule of others? First, by other countries, later by corrupt officials; and for the past 64 years under the rule of a dictator who has relied heavily on the assistance of other Communist nations to stay afloat?
Were they trained for exploitation by Cuba’s colonial history, or convinced by televised executions that the risk of opposition was too great, or do they just have little experience in thinking of a different way to live? Or all of that?
Are the Cuban people as oppressed as I think they are? I look through an outsider lens, my U.S.A. assumptions firmly in place.
When will things change, or “open up” as people call it? My newspaper clippings from the first five years documented change which was grindingly slow. Greater change has followed in the numbers of jobs the government supports, in private ownership of cars and businesses, for instance. And the U.S. has loosened restrictions, so that any of us are free to visit. The cruise ships the Cuban tourist folks longed for now visit regularly, there are Airbnb options galore, and multiple scheduled flights per week but without as much usage as hoped. Several U.S. airlines recently cut back on their schedules.
I still wonder, if they threw free elections tomorrow, what would be the outcome? Democracy takes practice, and an individualistic mindset which doesn’t exactly spring from their history.
I’m still Cuba-curious. I’ve thought of returning, but it seems too soon. My advice? Visit while you can, while the old Cuba is still visible. And let me know what you think.