As an outsider, an Anglo tourist, I must admit first of all to my ignorance. But, as a congenital outsider to my own privileged U.S. culture, I feel an affinity with what I can see of Cuban life today and what I know this island had gone through.
I remember seeing Fidel Castro riding through the streets of Cambridge, Mass, in 1958, in an open car, surrounded by cheering crowds. This was after his speech at the U.N and his dinner in Harlem—he had insisted on staying there—when he and his companions found live chickens to slaughter and cook in authentic Cuban style.
Then came the U.S. embargo, engineered by a government obsessed with fear of Communism and a people in the grip of Cold War paranoia. The embargo continues today, resulting in a total decimation of trade between the two countries and, until recently, severe restrictions on tourism. The Obama administration’s permission of “Person to Person Travel,” permitting the kind of group trip I am on, is not to be interpreted as encouraging tourism, although guides everywhere we go say tourism is their biggest industry. As always, the sixty-year-old embargo is a punitive measure to force Cuba to recompense our oil and sugar industries, whose businesses in Cuba were taken over by the government after the 1959 Castro-led revolution. Donald Trump’s effort to built a huge hotel here, protected by money laundering, has apparently gone unchallenged.
Another result of the embargo is a nearly total embargo on news of Cuba in the U.S. Intellectual impoverishment is another, exemplified by the withering of the cooperating and cross-fertilization between Cuban music and what we know in the U.S. as Salsa. Puerto Rican musicians have taken the lead since the embargo, often using Cuban songs as part of their mixed repertoire.
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba’s other great trading partner, and increasing hardships. The U.N. has voted to end our embargo in every session since the 1960’s, the U.S. House of Representative has tried twice to pass a law to end it, but the power of the Cubans who fled to Miami after the Revolution has blocked all progress. However times are changing as this group grows old and dies, and as—perhaps—a few more people in the U.S. visit Cuba and see the country’s extraordinary resilience.
Yes, there are said to be repressive measures—and some of Castro’s economic reforms are harsh—but it would be hard to find anything as repressive as the U.S. treatment of prisoners (now almost never covered in the news) at Guantanamo Bay.
The resilience of the Cuban people is evident in their way of life. There are few cars in the streets and the ones that roam, polished to gleaming, are pre-1960s U.S. models. Everyone is given food stamps, which are exchanged for flour, sugar and grains at local botegas, where we watched a woman ladling beans into a bag for a customer. There are no fast food outlets, little obesity, and many people get around on food or on bikes. And universal free education and health care for all.
Since I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish, I can ‘t access what individual Cubans feel. But it is fair to say that the general attitude, like the weather, is sunny, helpful, personal and persuasive. We eat in private houses which the government permits to function as restaurants as long as they hire relatives—what a different social climate we would inhabit if the same rule reigned in the U.S.
Of course not all is sunny even here on our tourist ship. Last night we motored through the tail end of a hurricane that tore through Havana, causing three deaths and many injuries. And nearly everybody was sick, including me. Seasickness is the most miserable of passing distresses, and it was both touching and funny to see our previously self-sufficient fellow passengers laid low, collapsed on couches in the lounge, faithfully attended by the staff with cold washrags and vomit bags and careful conducted down slanting staircases to the cabins below.
There promises to be another storm tonight.
[For more on my trip to Cuba, please see Part Two.]