My wife, Callie and I visited Cuba thanks to Obama opening up travel to the country. We both wanted to visit for many years and even considered going through a back door during the travel restriction. It was a goal for me and as always the universe delivered.
On our first day what struck me most was the peacefulness of the people. Callie and I are both travelers and have experienced in other countries where we were bombarded by locals hungry to sell to you or in some cases seize upon a weakness. Cubans were different; they seemed warm but allowed you your personal space. It was shocking for a Chicago native and big city boy to hear that the country statistically has no crime. There were also no poor people as we understood poor. Sure they have their financial struggles, but everyone has decent housing relative to its countries abilities which I’ll speak to more later. But they have one of the best health care systems in the world, and everyone eats. The few people we met seemed happy, and the ugliness of greed appeared to be non-existent. There is a need however for innovation, but the lack of it seems to be more from the cause of restrictions and sanctions against the country than a lack of desire by the people.
The eroding buildings and houses, which in their heyday must have been an architectural masterpiece, have taken their toll by the restrictions. With all of its issues, the country seemed better off than many countries we had visited where the majority of the indigenous people were neglected under systems of democracy. I questioned the natives about Fidel Castro, and all replied that they liked him. Some even said that he was a genius. Though we had only been there a day, I too was becoming a believer. From the mouth of our ad hock and very proud native tour guide, “we have done a lot with very little”.
On our second day, we spent most of the day eating, drinking Cuban rum and beer and discussing our perspective with an American couple, Towanda and Winston, who we met at the airport. It was telling that their perspective was similar to ours; Cubans were poor but not in the same way that poverty affects Americans. Here there still seemed to be a level of pride for self and country. Our American couple was afraid that American involvement in Cuba could turn out to be devastating for the everyday Cuban.
Callie and I ventured on to make more observations and that is when we met our real Cuban insider whom I’ll call Jay to keep him safe. Jay was the warm Cuban I heard about. He began talking to us about things to do and asked if we needed a taxi. He then began to share the three main traditions of Cuba which are cigars, salsa dancing, and Mojitos. I guess as we gained each other’s trust, he began to share what he called the real Cuba. He was the only Cuban we met to speak about Cuba in such a way that he spoke about its problems and the two faces of Cuba. One that only shows happy proud Cuba and the other that shows the dark Cuba that the government would punish him for revealing to Americans.
Jay said our two biggest problems are rationed food that is only enough for most Cubans for fifteen days but it is supposed to last a month. He said many Cubans are hungry but can’t speak out about it so they pick up little odd hustles for meal tickets. They become the walking promoters for different restaurants, clubs, and black market cigars. By getting tourists to take their recommendations, the owners of the restaurants or clubs will give them meal tickets. I wasn’t really sure I believed the meal ticket talk, it felt more like Jay’s street hustle talk to pull on one’s heart strings but I still found Jay likable and allowed him to convince me to take a walk with him and visit a black market cigar house. He said buying cigars here really helps the common Cuban. My activist’s hairs on my neck began to rise and I thought, how could I refuse?
Jay was speaking my language so Callie and I agreed to check it out. In the states, I would have never considered such a thing but in this different type of poor country, I felt safe. Jay walked us down a dark side street into a building that looked to be uninhabitable as we walked up to each crumbling step slowly and with caution in order not to trip. At the top of the stairs, we entered a room that had the look of an illegal cigar house and it had the feel of a drug house in the States.
Jay escorted us into his friend’s apartment. It was government housing. Callie later expressed she thought the housing was deplorable and began to question the government. I honestly have seen worse in the states and even still I felt here they had something black Americans lack and that was a sense of community. As we stood in the apartment Jay pulled out box after box of finely rolled black market cigars. They felt, smelled and looked like the ones in the government run cigar shop, Havana Club. If it wasn’t against the law I would have surely brought a box or two for my personal use but not what you want to buy if you plan on selling or sharing them with friends in the States. I would have talked them down to a price I felt ok to be hustled out of and left but instead, Jay walked us back to center city and we stopped for a drink at the famous El Floridita. Jay said he would wait for us because he wasn’t allowed into the restaurant. Once seated, Callie and I could truly see the two faces of Cuba and this one was white and tourist only. We quickly drank our drinks and were excited to rejoin our new Cuban friend back outside but he was gone. Perhaps he had convinced another to accompany him to his friend’s cigar trap house or maybe he took someone somewhere in his taxi. Maybe we’d connect another day but for now, Callie and I journeyed onward.
We quickly met our new companion known as Jamie Foxx. The first thing you notice about him is his infectious smile. The second thing was his funny hairstyle that mimicked Jamie Foxx in the movie, “Breaking all the Rules.” He, like many others, asked if we needed a taxi and we said no but would like something to eat. Jamie Foxx jumped into action and escorted us to a local spot that offered music and atmosphere. Over dinner and drinks, we asked how do some people afford businesses? Jamie explained that most of the businesses were owned by foreigners partnering with Cuban relatives. He went on to explain that only people from other countries could afford these type of clubs and restaurants. We enjoyed Jamie Foxx’s company and I think he also enjoyed ours but what struck me about Jamie was his appreciativeness of what he had and even our short connection.
Tuesday, and our third day, not much happened. It was mainly a day at the beach but I did meet an Asian Cuban African, Dan. I say it in this order because his Asian features were the most prominent. He was a proud Cuban and he had a fondness also of his African roots. Had he not shared this I would not have expected that in his lineage. He said he owned a couple of Airbnb’s that his family in the states assisted him in purchasing. He was at the beach celebrating his daughter’s birthday with family. He had a beautiful family and was proud and stressed the love of his country. He said he enjoyed the easy and safe living of Cuba and was thankful.
Our last day in Cuba was fun. We had a great Cuban meal and a tour of Havana. Our tour guide spoke of the history of the revolution before and after. One big difference was before the revolution, rich white elites ran Cuba. American mafia had a huge presence. Racism was strong and Cuba was clearly a divided nation. The revolution kicked out the white elites and focused on making Cuba a nation of one. One people not rich, not poor, not white, not black, but one nation equal and just for all it’s citizens. A takeaway Callie and I noticed was, Viva Fidel.
In closing, Cuba has many problems but they also do many things better for their people than yes, even America does, such as housing all of its people and only allowing Cubans to own land in Cuba. Of course, not everyone we met loves their government but most did. Education and health care are major accomplishments that all Cubans seem to appreciate but the lack of opportunity has hindered their passion to learn more. The American embargo has hurt Cuba but from my American view point not nearly as much as American influence could have. America in many respects is a nation of racists that have and still engages in inhumane acts against its own people and others around the world while still waving a flag of democracy. Now please know I’m a proud American that has served in our military and I have been able to make strides unavailable to today’s Cuban, but for every one of me, America, in its hypocrisy, has killed thousands around the world and disproportionately imprisons black males to white males by a ratio of six to one although whites commit more crime.
So until America changes, I don’t think we have any right to judge Cuba.