Things That Stuck With Me
In no particular order of importance, these are the things I experienced and felt while in Havana and since my departure. Some are profound, most not so much – your mileage may vary.
- I felt extremely safe while I was in Havana. There was a police presence around in many instances but even when there wasn’t I did not feel unsafe at all – even in the dead of night. I’d been warned that because of my skin tone, it was possible for me to be stopped by the police and asked for my Cuban identification. Nothing says ‘American Tourist’ like 6’ 1” black guy in Addias carrying a video camera – so the police never did more than smile and wave at me. On the other hand, I witnessed several instances of police checking identification of ‘Afro-Cubans’. I’m not sure if they ‘did’ anything to have their ids checked, but if one girl’s reaction was any indication – it is a very frequent and annoying occurrence. This teenager basically went off on the cop and refused to show him anything (I think). Not sure if he didn’t do anything because she was young, in the right or because I was standing there. In any case, I suppose one of the benefits (if u can call it that) of a near police state is lack of crime. Even on the most shabby and rundown streets, there were no drugs, guns, or gambling prevalent. Armed robberies and murders are extremely rare – not only against tourists but against locals as well. I only point this out because if you show me a country with a significant portion of its population below the poverty line, I’ll show you a population ravaged by drugs & violence. Not so for Cuba; which brings me to my second point…
- I didn’t see a good deal of misery – in fact, I didn’t see any at all. Granted, my short stay in Havana wasn’t enough to know every in and out of the country – you generally don’t have to look very far for these things. Hop off a bus in Mumbai and walk in any direction and tell me how long it takes to find people living in some of the most awful conditions in the world. Drive 5 minutes from the Cape Town airport to see the Apartheid era Shantytown settlements still in existence. Even with the embargo – few are starving in Cuba. The statistics just don’t lie – lowest unemployment and homelessness in North America. Don’t get me wrong, most Cubans don’t have it easy – they just aren’t dying of hunger or freezing to death like some do in the US.
- No one is fat! Ok, ok, I’m over generalizing but I just don’t remember seeing anyone who was fat much less overweight. I have a theory about this. First, most households don’t have 200+ channels of DirecTV and PlayStations tying their asses to the living room couches, so people are actually outside walking, playing, swimming or exercising. Go figure. Next, the Cuban food supply doesn’t have as much of the preservatives, additives and steroids we pump into our livestock and vegetables here in the US. I constantly encountered people with some of the most flawless skin I’ve seen in my life – no matter the skin color, age, or gender. I have no hard figures on this, but I’m convinced the lack of shit in their food eliminates the acne, zits and obesity commonly found here in the US. Finally, the US is a gluttonous super size everything society. Yes, food rationing makes it hard to be gluttonous in Cuba – but still, I have a hard time believing an active lifestyle isn’t a major contributor to their overall health.
- Living in Miami and watching television conditioned me to think that all Cubans looked like Gloria Estefan. Before I’d actually visited Cuba, the only time I can remember seeing a darker skinned Cuban was when a baseball player or boxer defected. It never even occurred to me a sizeable percentage of Cubans (especially in Havana) are minimally Mulatto and frequently darker than I am – but it’s certainly true. According to the CIA Factbook, only 35% of the country’s population is Mulatto/Black – but that concentration is much higher in Havana. There were several women as dark as a period but also the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life – touched by the sun if you will. And like most Latin American countries, Cubans also buy their clothes in one size – tight. Hooray!!! Makes me think there’s a concerted effort to present the plight of the Cuban people under a single color tone.
- This may be an American thing, but because I started to feel somewhat guilty for what my country was doing, I let ordinary hustles I wouldn’t allow anywhere else slide in Havana. On multiple occasions I found myself saying ‘whatever’ when a cabbie or street vendor tried to overcharge me for something. Most anywhere else in the world I would have put a halt to this stuff immediately – but I admit I felt a bit conflicted. Cubans certainly know this and take advantage of those feelings. So I over paid for a few items – but I frankly don’t feel all that bad about it.
- While overt racism may be against the law, there is still a very strong class system. Although the country’s Socialist model says that everyone is equal – some are a lot more equal than others. I was in and out of three casa particulars during my stay in Havana and the following were true in each one: 1) all of the casa owners were of light-skinned Euro-Spanish decent 2) all three employed maids and 3) all of the maids were Afro-Cuban. (Maids??? I can’t afford a fuckin maid, how the hell do casa owners in Cuba afford a maid?? WTF. Okay, off soapbox). In addition, very few darker skin toned Cubans hold important/high office in government. If you listen to and read some of the comments from the various voices inside of Cuban, they are also disproportionally represented in Cuba’s prison system. My trip to Havana was the only time I felt not speaking the local language took away from my trip. It also makes me even more weary/mistrustful of the Cuban expat community in Florida. Look, no one deserves to have their homes seized and/or family members executed in the streets – but all of these folks aren’t innocent. Many of these folks were able to get to America because they had the financial means to do so – often off of the backs of their Afro-Cuban countrymen. As it were, the brothas are at the bottom of the totem pole – even in socialist Cuba.
- Cuba knows how to do its share of propaganda. They are quick to point out there is no homelessness in Cuba. I was told there was a sign in Cuba that read “There are over 200,000 people living on the streets in the Caribbean – and not one of them is a Cuban!” I didn’t see the sign myself, but it certainly sounds like similar leaflets/books scattered throughout the city. The fact is there is some homelessness in Havana – there was a lady with no legs sitting right outside the Havana Cathedral who was homeless. Elin Gonzaolas is a national socialist hero in Cuba – and the story told from their perspective is vastly different than how it’s portrayed in the US. This guy killed himself rather than be taken to jail (presumably for years on end) for the crime of cooking beef! And let’s not forget the evil capitalist empire the United States of America – I could write a book on the propaganda on that subject. Finally, as I said above – everyone really isn’t equal in this socialist society, it’s the darker skin Cubans living in the broken down tenements and constantly being harassed the police.
- As much as I wanted to visit Cuba and for as long as I’d been planning it – I ultimately felt unprepared for my goals because I don’t know Spanish. To be clear, you definitely don’t need to know Spanish to enjoy yourself in Cuba – especially in Havana. But my goal was to learn their perspective and 99% of the folks that look like me didn’t speak English. This makes me a fucking idiot. I will learn Spanish before I go back…
- Almost no architecture, vehicles or language (street name or otherwise) exists from the Soviet Union. Only the airplane that I flew in on from Cancun and a few posters in the La Cabaña Fortress museum referenced the Soviet Union. My take away from this is the union of socialist Cuba with communist USSR – at least for Castro – was a union of protection (both militarily and economically) more so than of a mutual fondness of the country or its leaders.
- I’ve heard on several occasions that food in Cuba is bland; but the statements are sometimes framed as if it’s because the locals just can’t cook. That couldn’t be further from the truth; Cubans simply make do with what’s available to them. For example, the Mojito is a famous Cuban drink made with Mint leaves – except Mint Leaves as we know them don’t actually grow in Cuba. As importing Mint is cost prohibitive, “Mentha Nemorosa” – sometimes referred to as ‘Cuban Mint’ is used instead. In terms of spices, unless it is derived from sugar cane – Cuba has to import most of it – sometimes at great cost. The lack of spices contributes to the so called blandness of the food – not that these folks don’t have talent. When I travel, I prefer to eat where and what the locals eat – and the place with the longest line usually is the best bet. A couple of blocks from the Havana Libre hotel was a long line of about 20-30 people. As I got in line, I realized it was for a hotdog – a pork hotdog. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a pork hotdog I forgot they still made them. Anyway, the best place to eat in Havana is at Casa Particular – they won’t run out of food, are rarely short on spices and where in the world is home cooking not better than restaurant food???
Back Home and Final Thoughts
I wanted to know if what I’d heard and read about Cuba was in line with my actual experience and if it changed my perception on the matter in any way. A good deal of the commonly held perceptions about the island were for the most part in line with that narrative, particularly the shortages, socialist underpinnings and beautiful people (both inside and out). I was surprised about how my perception of what a Cuban should ‘look’ like had been shaped by external forces and the fact that some folks are a little more equal than others. I’m even more of a fervent believer that the embargo is not only a complete waste of time; it is in many ways unnecessarily cruel to the average Cuban citizen. For that matter, I’m even less swayed by many of the arguments of the Cuban expat community in the US. Not sure anyone is innocent, yes many have had their homes taken and/or family members jailed/killed – but many if not a significant majority gained that wealth on the backs of others. Not quite slavery, but near indentured servitude. The impact of this clearly evident 50 years later; the Afro-Cubans are still at the bottom of the totem pole. Like most things in life and politics – there aren’t any clearly defined good or bad guys – just shades of grey.
As I departed from Havana back to Cancun, I began wondering how my re-entry into the US was going to play out. As I said in Part Two, there’s nothing to worry about since I was there legally on a General License; I was just curious just how far the Customs Agent would go to review/verify my documents. As I said before, I Might Be a Terrorist – so surely of all people to pull over for additional screening you’d think ME + CUBA is an automatic detention pass. I reached the Customs Agent and handed him my passport with the blue re-entry card that clearly stated “Cuba” in the list of countries I’d visited. He took the documents, typed a few things into his computer, stamped my entry form and said welcome back – without even looking up! What the hell?? All of that F’in work creating documents, getting notarized, etc. and all I get is “welcome back”? All the times you’ve pulled me over for body checks for returning from places like Thailand – but returning from one of the countries on the alleged ‘Terrorist Sponsors’ list – you say “welcome back”? Un-freakin believable. You know the truth though – if I weren’t prepared, he would have given me the 3rd degree so I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.
I fully intend on visiting Cuba again – the next time armed with a fluency in Spanish. In addition, I long to see other parts of this wonderful country – including Varadero (true tourist area with international hotel chains), Trinidad (world heritage site), the Bay of Pigs and Santiago de Cuba (the country’s second largest and most Caribbean influenced city). Of the three articles in this series, this one is by far based on my personal experiences and opinions. One’s experiences shape their reality – therefore your experience/reality may differ from mine. My suggestion is to use these three articles as guidelines for your travels and visit Cuba yourself to gain your own perspective. Get there before the embargo is lifted and it turns into Cancun II – me thinks it will.
Start Over: Part One: History and Why You Need to Go