Meeting Cuba in a Time of Change

Bench sitting in Cuba by Bruce Hoye

DEAR READERS: After more than fifty years of pointless cold war between the United States and Cuba, a new relationship is being forged that will change Cuba and will also change the United States.

When I heard that my friend Sherri Hoffman Hoye (who once wrote a wonderful article about Willa Cather for my literary blog) was travelng to Cuba with her photographer husband just a week before President Obama's visit, I asked her to send a dispatch from the zone of change. Here's what she wrote. Photos courtesy of Homer's Travels.Thanks Sherri and Bruce! -- Marc

Two weeks ago my husband and I travelled to Havana. The trip had been planned months in advance but happened to occur just a week before President Obama's historic visit (the first by a sitting American president since 1928).

As with the many other places we have visited in the world, we found the people warm and kind, funny and irreverent, honest and curious about their own lives and those of Americans. What sets Cuba apart from other places is the embargo. Near Revolution Square we spotted a billboard with a spider web and a noose and the words "Blogue El Genocideio Mas Largo De Las Historia" ("The embargo: The largest genocide in history.") This was the only piece of propaganda we saw during our stay. It's overstated, though it occupied a spot dedicated to the icons of the Cuban revolution, near images of Che Guavara and Camilo Cinenfuegos Gorriaran. The sign wasn't a reminder for Cubans: it was for us, the ever-growing number of American visitors. My first thought was "wow", but I know my history too well and have travelled too much to take it seriously.

What has the embargo done to the Cuban people? It has made life very challenging, though it wasn't intended to cause the suffering it has over the years simply to make life difficult. It was instituted in 1960 to punish Fidel Castro and hopefully push him from power. Epic fail.

People are resourceful, it turns out, and the Cuban people are the kings of ingenuity.

Unlike other communist countries I have visited — the Soviet Union in 1988, China in 2012 — the Cubans have had their faith. Literally. Cuba never ousted religion like the other Marxist societies, and this is one area where the independent thinking of Cubans has distinguished them from their international comrades. While the Soviets were smart enough not to demolish their beautiful churches, they did make them uninhabitable for prayer, even filling them with grain reserves. China outlaws public displays of worship although underground worship services take place every Sunday. But the Cubans simply left the churches open, even during the height of communist fervor. The big difference this makes remains visible today. Pope John Paul II was wildly popular when he visited in 1998, and so was Pope Francis when he visited last year.

One of our guides told us that almost all Cubans are baptized as Roman Catholics, but many adults are now identifying as Evangelicals. Cuba's friendly relationship with Christianity appears to have existed for several hundred years. Roughly between the 1500's and 1700s, Cuba was used as a bank for Spanish traders and the Catholic Church. Gold and silver were loaded onto ships in Spain and sailed to Cuba, and the money was used throughout the Americas to colonize and evangelize. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the problems of limited partnerships abound. We stayed in the nicest hotel available, but even so the power went out several times. In the ways small maintenance issues were addressed, and in the fact that our internet connection was incredibly slow, we detected signs of the difficulty of operating without free trade. Cubans could live more easily and feel more connected with the rest of the world if they were doing business with "the empire".

Their infrastructure is indeed in shambles, and buildings and homes that had obviously once been beautiful are crumbling and falling down. The Cuban government will proudly tell you that upwards of 90% of Cubans own their homes, but many of these homes are caving in. (Also, communism is based on the idea that the people own everything, so of course most Cubans own their homes.) In Old Havana, many of these homes had been confiscated and redistributed to the people by the government after the revolution. But with a monthly income of only $20 and a lack of basic goods available for purchase, most Cubans are living in an unnecessary state of squalor. Floors are collapsing, foundations crumbling, roofs falling in. We observed that Cubans have some very basic needs met that the government has failed to provide for.

I like to think of myself more as a traveler than a tourist, but some things are too iconic to skip. We hired a 1953 Chevy convertible for $30 an hour and spent two hours going to sites we wanted to spend more time photographing and experiencing. The car was owned by a father who may not have spoken English and his son, who did speak English and was our guide. This young man shared some opinions and information with us that might put him in an awkward or dangerous situation, so I won't reveal the name he went by, but it was the name of an iconic American pop star from the 1950's.

The car appeared to be from the 1950's, and thousands of similar vintage automobiles are in Havana in outwardly pristine condition. Under the hood is another story because of the embargo. Many of the cars have over a million miles on them and have been kept on the road through sheer ingenuity. Washing machine parts, handmade devices and various other solutions have been used to keep these jewels shining. Our guide told us that will inherit his father's car some day. I told him he should never sell it, even when the Americans offering him a ridiculous amount of money. To a man who lives on $20 a month, $5000 would be tempting, but then he would have to expect the price of everything to rise, his money would run out and he would have no way to support himself. "Don't ever sell your car" I told him. "You will always be able to make a good living as long as you have it."

Our driver pointed out historically significant areas, such as where the Americans "sunk the Maine" — and then he would wink at us. "Here is the wing of an Air Force plane of yours that we shot down." Wink. "Here is the image of Camilo, who your government caused to disappear." Wink. Then he leaned in and whispered that perhaps Camilo ended up more popular after the revolution than Fidel — and then Camilo disappeared. Wink.

Our driver's English was excellent, and was perhaps learned from watching pirated American movies. (Spanish and Russian are taught in the schools.) When he learned that I was an English teacher, we had a lot of awesome moments as we discussed vocabulary. His grammar was amazingly good and free of slang, so I suppose those American movies predated the likes of Rambo.

Another pinnacle of Cuba's communist system is that there is zero unemployment. Our main guide who works with the US approved cultural exchange visits (the only way Americans can visit Cuba) was a doctor from Uruguay. He has received a free medical education from Cuba and makes $50 a month, so he makes bank his few days off working with Americans for tips. From our group tips alone, we estimated he made thirty times his monthly salary. He owes Cuba nothing for his education and is free to leave the country at any time. (If he does so, he would become evidence of the generosity of Cuban communism.)

But with all this employment, you still see people seemingly with little to do. In a communist system, you get your paycheck no matter the quality or effort you put into your work, so there's no need to hustle.

Cuba has begun to open up parts of its economy. Following the Chinese model, Cuba is slowly choosing certain occupations to ease into a free market. Farmers, artists, barbers and some taxi drivers all enjoy charging what the market will bear, and these people are clearly doing better than those who remain on the government-controlled system. The pace of this governmental shift struck us as wise. Opening up everything at once would leave the economy ripe for corruption and chaos.

Yet, even with this slow move towards open business, the issue of free speech is still sketchy. Cubans cannot legally demonstrate against the government. Human rights violations in this country are well documented, though people speak their minds through their art and music, and some wear it.

I always seem to be traveling around the world in USA presidential election years, and when this happens I am in the habit of asking guides what they think of our potential new leaders. As usually happens, our car guide in Cuba was well-informed about American presidential politics, and could name every candidate running.

"Who do you want to win" I ask.

"Hilary" he says, "because she will continue the work of President Obama and that will be good for us."

"Not Cruz or Rubio? They are of Cuban descent."

"No. Neither of them care about immigrants."

I asked him how he knew all this, and he reminded me of the short distance between our countries. They easily pick up USA radio stations. What I thought was odd about this conversation is that he never asked me what I thought was going to happen with the election, and in fact if he had asked me I could have explained a few things. "Obama or Hilary will lift the embargo," he said, and I tried to explain to him that the President cannot do this. It will have to be Congress and they do not get along. He didn't respond to this, and I will always have to wonder if I had just set his future on fire with the truth.

On an earlier visit to the Soviet Union, I once had a similar conversation with a Russian teenager who told me he was going to start walking until he reached West Berlin. I asked him what he was going to do about crossing the Berlin Wall. He had never heard of it.

I was happy to see the Cubans are a very literary people. In the cigar factories, the work is very monotonous, so since the mid-1880's the factories have an assigned reader. One person reads the newspaper out loud in the morning, and fiction or literature in the afternoon. Two famous Cuban cigars are named after the favorite afternoon readings: The Romeo and Julieta cigar and The Monte Cristo cigar. Cool stuff.

I am hopeful for Cuba. The locals we met seem acutely aware of the problems they will encounter when the embargo is finally lifted. How will they keep their identity? They seem resolute about maintaining their culture and history. They have had over 50 years of being resourceful, so I have no doubt that Cuba will hold on to everything that makes it unique.

Tout Order

...vivid writing. Like from a traveler, not a tourist. Let the old thinking die away. It always does, eventually. Epic fail is right. Seems like an island full of spirit...