This is the section that is sure to get me into trouble. Please remember, these are my opinions. I am not presenting them as facts. I am not saying that I have the last word on any of these topics. I am not saying that what I saw that gave me these impression was not manufactured precisely to do so! I could be very wrong – and probably am. But this is what I came away with.
The power of words and names
Words, and especially names, have a different kind of power in Cuba. Let’s talk about a couple of words, first. I was constantly thinking about the use of the word “revolution“. To me, a revolution is an event. Hence the revolution in Cuba happened in 1959. Why, then, did I constantly confront the word revolution used to describe Cuba right now? Then there is that quaint phrase “the triumph of the revolution.” On the surface of it, that seems to describe the fact that the revolution succeeded, a political quality to the event.
Well, I finally discovered the (an?) answer, thanks to my reading. The triumph of the revolution refers to the event that took place in 1959. You may recall that as I described our trip, I often used that phrase. I was using it in that sense – to talk about the event of 1959. The revolution, however, is an on-going process of change, of molding Cuba into the perfect society. Since that state of perfection has not been achieved, “revolution” is the word for what is still taking place.
Words also played a big part in our understanding and accepting the different views of history we Americans have, from those that Cubans have. For our Cuban guide, using words like “mercenaries” and “terrorists” to describe Americans were common everyday usages. She was taken aback that we took umbrage at being described that way. It was also interesting that she told us with a perfectly straight face that the Peter Pan exodus of Cuban children was the US government’s attempt to steal Cuba’s children. Naturally, the “freedom fighter”/ “terrorist” labels depend on what side you’re on in Cuba, too. We were terrorists because we came to Cuba to try to overthrow the government of another sovereign country. The Cubans who went to Angola to do the same thing however were not.
Most curious of all, to me, was the use of names. Precisely, it is the non-use of last names that I found interesting. Ask a person his or her name and you will be given his or her first name. When speakers were introduced to us at our conferences, they were introduced with a first name only. I was asking for last names so often, I started to be self-conscious about it, and I stopped. I thought our organizer could fill me in on the last names, but he didn’t seem to have them either. Fidel. Raul. Che. Even Zoe, our guide, was just Zoe until she got a last name on our last day. Julio, our bus driver never did.
I wondered whether this is an aspect of socialism. Especially in a Latin culture, a last name identifies you with a family. (In a Latin culture, you have two last names, your father’s and your mother’s. It is easy to discover who is who and who is related to whom by the use of two last names. So, is it the collective value that comes forefront when you just use first names, versus some sort of individualism implied when you use your last name?
Interesting, too, perceived “bad guys” are referred to by their last names only! (Batista, Kennedy, Obama, etc).
My first, and enduring impression, was the fanatical adulation of Che. Che is everywhere! Our Cuban guide explained that it is not their culture to put up pictures or images of living leaders, so we should not be surprised that there are no images or statues to Fidel. But I find the Che thing interesting, because he wasn’t even Cuban. I guess I will have to read more about his life to understand why he is so important to the Cuban people.
Beggars and Smiles
Beggars are everywhere. Some ask for money outright. Many ask for soap. In Havana, the doormen try to keep them away from their guests (especially since it is hotel soap the beggars are likely to get). Some will try to sell you something, and then ask for a coin. I was also asked for clothes (she was willing to meet me after my touring day was over outside my hotel.) I asked one of our guides about whether it was really “soap” people wanted, and he explained that the ration card and the peso stores only allow so much soap a month. No shampoo. Getting soap or shampoo from a tourist meant that the soap ration would go farther, or could be traded for something else. At the end of our trip, many members of our group put all their toiletries into plastic bags and gave them to our Cuban guide. She could find people who needed them.
Everyone on the street, beggars and sellers (of Granma, roasted peanuts, taxi rides and tours) even when rejected, had a smile for us. Passersby would great us with “Hola”. Never did I see or feel there was an ulterior motive to this friendliness. People almost always asked where we were from and were genuinely thrilled to hear that we were Americans (this corroborated by our guides). It is distinctly different from the way a tourist is treated on the streets of Condado (one of the big tourist areas of San Juan). I look like a tourist, so I experience it first hand every day. When I hear people worried about what will happen to the tourist industry in Puerto Rico if Cuba is opened up – all I can say is, we better start changing things now.
Lessons America Could Learn
Prioritize education. We already have a public school system, now let’s make it the best in the world! Government support for culture: It is amazing to see the quality of the arts in Cuba. Imagine what our symphonies, our theaters, our dance troupes could do with some support from the government? Equal pay for equal work for men and women. Free health care does not guarantee a healthy population. Here’s where a good education can also help.
The Embargo, yes or no?
That’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to now that we are back. Prior to going to Cuba, my support for the embargo was out of respect for those Cuban friends of mine who feel so strongly about it. Post-trip, I am willing to maintain that same respect. However, I do not think that the embargo is accomplishing any of its supposed goals. Does it prevent Fidel or the Cuban state from prospering? Of course! You just have to look at the people, at how poor they are, at how they are struggling to make their lives better, and you see that the embargo is keeping the “state” from prospering. Because “the state” in Cuba is the Cuban people. We are used to thinking in the American way of the government (the state) as something distinct from the people. In Cuba, you have to put that concept aside.
Are corrupt people getting richer off the backs of “the people?” Yes, there may be individuals who are better off because of corruption. (There are those people in our beloved USA, too. And look at the role models Cuba had in the Russians for so many years!) But if you look at Cuba as the socialist/communist country it is, and you evaluate it based on the goals of a socialist society, then you have to change your dialogue.
I have been thinking really hard about what is the real reason for the Cuban-American hatred of Fidel (and insistence that we maintain the embargo).
I have three theories (so far):
1) It is about betrayal. From the history I know, almost all Cubans wanted to get rid of Batista. They supported the rebels and they supported Fidel. They just didn’t expect Fidel to turn the country communist once Batista was gone. That was his betrayal.
2) It is about loss. Loss of country, loss of family, loss of culture. The only problem with loss, is that no amount of holding on to the hurt, can change it back. Time passes, losses heal though they are never forgotten. They hurt, but they change from a sharp, unbearable pain, to a dull, constant ache. Will the embargo return these embittered exiles the Cuba they had to abandon? The family members they left behind?
3) It is about becoming irrelevant. Cuba, and the Cuban people, have moved on. They moved on without the exiles, in spite of the exiles and despite the exiles. Their on-going revolution is building a society they want. Based on what they have. Ending the embargo would give them much more…who can say what they might want then? Maybe the people who claim that communism would become unattractive overnight if Cubans had access to the same things we do have a valid point!
I think there are good reasons to end the embargo, too.
First, our economy needs some growth. We need jobs. We need to export to get our own country moving again. The rest of the world has trade with Cuba, but our proximity and our history make us a more attractive source for goods and expertise. Of course there are risks trading with a communist country, we know all about trading with China. Cuba is a credit risk – we know how to work with that too. The beauty about economics is that profit is the only politician it recognizes. Money goes where money can be made. If Cuba is unattractive, investors will stay away. If Cuba is risky, investors will calculate the risk they are willing to take to get the reward they perceive. Government should not intervene in the markets.
Secondly, I am offended as the citizen of a free country that my government tells me what I can and can’t do, relative to Cuba. Shouldn’t I have the freedom to travel to Cuba if I so desire? The State Department can recommend against it, for all the usual reasons, and maybe they would. But the US does not have laws prohibiting citizens from traveling to other countries we disagree with, even countries where we are fighting wars. Prohibiting us from visiting Cuba has no democratic leg to stand on.
Would I go again?
Maybe. I’d love to be a witness to Cuba’s transformation. The state is plowing a lot of investment into the restoration of historic areas and buildings to make it more attractive to tourists. I would love to see that happen. Havana must have been a magnificent city! Maybe it can be again. Maybe even US investment can make it so, before the place crashes down in a huge cloud of dust and rubble.
I would like to see more of the countryside. What I saw from my bus windows was so enticing! The people in rural areas, seemed to live better than those in the cities – at least they have fresh air and a place to grow food! The landscape was beautiful. The beaches of Cuba are renowned. From what little I saw of them near Playa Girón and in postcards of Varadero, it looks like their fame is well deserved.
I would also like to visit the full length of the island, from Pinar del Rio to Santiago de Cuba. Maybe. Maybe someday.