There are many things I will never forget about Cuba. The architecture, the classics, the culture – all of those things will forever resonate with me for years to come, when I remember just how enchanting my time there was. But I think the thing that will stick with me the longest is the unique circumstance under which I traveled to the island, and how it absolutely colored my experience there.
Weeks before my trip, President Donald Trump announced he planned to end the travel provisions to Cuba that currently allow Americans to visit the country for tourism. The announcement didn’t effect my trip at all – as of the writing of this post, Americans can still freely go to Cuba and I HIGHLY recommend that people do it! – but it had impacts I didn’t really anticipate.
In my experience, the people in Havana were very excited to meet Americans. Since we’re the new kids on the block, we’re exciting – most of us who go are doing so for the first time, and don’t quite know what to expect. They relish the opportunity to show us what makes Cuba special, what makes them move it so much.
And of course, the fact that we come with good ol’ American dollars and have a culture of tipping – which isn’t expected in Cuba, but is graciously accepted – doesn’t hurt.
But I never felt taken advantage of for being American. We were always met with a genuine curiosity and a desire to learn as much about the United States as we were to learn about Cuba.
There was one thing, though, that happened literally every single time we interacted with the locals. They would ask, “Where are you from?” to which we would say, “the U.S.” or some variation of that. Invariably, the next response would be, “Oh, America. Why is your government crazy?” or, “That Donald Trump guy…” followed by dismissive gestures.
On one hand, this amused me – it’s rich for the people who live in a country run by an authoritarian dictator to call our government crazy. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. But on the other hand, the more this exchange happened, the more the sobering reality set in – they think we’re the crazy ones.
Because – at least to me, anyway – they think Americans are supposed to be better than that. In spite of everything, the United States still represents a beacon of hope, opportunity and a welcoming spirit. But our current political landscape suggests otherwise.
So while people were very excited to meet us and to talk to us about the states, they were not shy about voicing how disappointed they are in Trump’s plan to ban American travel again, among other things. I found that incredibly ironic – many people we met had very strong opinions about the U.S. government, but could never freely express their thoughts about their own.
And speaking of opinions on the U.S. government – at El Museo de la Revolución, they certainly do not mince words about how they feel the U.S. is responsible for the plights of Cuba.
Overall, the museum – which is in the former president palace – was a truly fascinating place. One exhibit I will never forget – a cartoonish wall mural dedicated to those they blame for the need for revolution, called “El Rincón de los Cretinos,” “The Corner of the Cretins.”
It featured unflattering – and I mean, really unflattering – depictions of the overthrown Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista, as well as U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Beneath each cartoon was a reason for why they are considered “cretins”: Batista for the violence and poverty that defined Cuba under his leadership and the American presidents for their role in supporting the regime and ultimately issuing and enforcing the blockade against Cuba.
It was tough to look at, but from their perspective, I could understand how it made sense.
The other exhibit that was the most memorable to me was this massive outdoor installation they have, which pays tribute to all the vehicles that were critical during the revolution and leading up to the blockade. It begins with the Granma Yacht, the boat that Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro, Carlos Cienfuegos and other revolutionaries sailed on from Mexico to Cuba, leading up to the revolution.
From there, we saw the delivery truck that the revolutionaries used to attack the presidential palace and ultimately overthrow the government. The truck was riddled with bullets, which really underscored the reality of revolution.
There was an assortment of other vehicles – the jeeps Fidel and Raul Castro drove around after the revolution, a Russian tank and fighter jet, for example – but two were more interesting to me than the rest.
The first was a different jeep that carried anti-aircraft weaponry that Fidel Castro used to shoot down the American spy plane, which was the impetus of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Additionally, they have the wreckage of that plane on display.
These exhibits are out in the open, and though carefully guarded my military police, you can get close to them. Some, you can even touch. Being able to get so close to that history really stuck with me. It made everything seem more real, somehow.
Throughout the other exhibits, there was a strong undercurrent of justification of and defense for the regime. And it felt weird. I had never been to a museum before that was trying to convince me of something, rather than just laying out the facts.
Much of our interactions with the locals seemed to reinforce that sense of convincing.
For example, at one point, we stopped in a Cuban bodega, which is where the people go to get their food rations. The government determines how much rice, eggs, beans etc. are needed per family, based on family size. Each month, people have to go get their rations, and if they don’t by the end of the month, they forfeit that fooh. Some people told us that the rations weren’t so bad; one less thing to worry about each month. But to me, it was crazy.
I can’t imagine the government telling me how much food I am entitled to, and not being able to make those decisions for myself. But that’s just another day in the life for Cubans. For those that haven’t left the island, they don’t know anything different.
It really made me quite appreciative of what we have here in the U.S. If nothing else, our diversity of choice is remarkable. The people in Cuba don’t know that reality. Even beyond the rations of staple items, things like peppers, onions, fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t super easy to come by, either. The good stuff is prioritized to the hotels and the locals get what they can after that. While that may seem insignificant – at the end of the day, Cubans don’t really go hungry because food is rationed – it has implications.
For example, food rations mean locals can’t really do anything impromptu. They can’t just have friends over for dinner randomly. To do so would deplete their food ration that the rest of the family depends on. In spite of these challenges, they make it work. And they don’t complain. They just work together to get things done, the best way they can.
To that end – one final thing that really surprised me was how propaganda manifested in Cuba. I was expecting lots of “Viva la revolución,” and “Viva Castro!” messages, but those were few and far between.
Instead, the predominant messages reinforced sentiments like, “Good Cuban citizens share,” “Good Cuban citizens work together,” “Good Cuban citizens take care of their communities.”
I have to say, I didn’t hate it. I think there’s something to be said for messages of inclusiveness and reminders from your leadership about how to best represent your nation. I think we could definitely use some of that mentality here in America, especially now. Of course, the difference is, in Cuba, there is an unsaid “or else,” at the end of every message of positivity.
So, the full thought becomes, “Good Cuban citizens share…or else.” And that implied “or else,” is ultimately what keeps things in Cuba running so well, in spite of all the reasons why it shouldn’t.
So that brings me to the end.
In the first part of this series, I mentioned that people are constantly asking me how Cuba was, and I struggle to come up with a concise explanation. If I had to summarize Cuba (and more specifically, Havana), I would say it’s a place of juxtapositions.
While the culture feels very free, the people aren’t. While they are vibrant in their music and sports, they are subdued in their political opinions and expressions. While they do the best with what they have, they certainly do not have enough.
On any day, you can be at stoplight and see a 1952 Chevy, a modern taxi (yellow, like in America), a tourist bus with safety regulations, a local bus without any of that, and a local farmer on his makeshift horse-drawn cart. Nowhere else in the world is the contrast so apparent.
And because of that juxtaposition, Cuba feels like such a special, magical, mysterious place. After only five days on the island, I can understand why American writers like Ernest Hemingway and other literary figures, artists and musicians fell in love with Cuba. There’s just something…different about it.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to go, for having immersed in the culture of it, for having learned from it. And more than anything, I feel like I’m a better person for the experience. And you know what else? I think High School Me would be proud.