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Let's Get Real About Cuba

Posted on by Brita Schumacher


 Is it just me or is everyone glamourizing Cuba? From the pictures of Khloe Kardashian in front of a FIDEL sign to the gushing words of affection in every travel magazine.

"Chanel has long been one of the hottest names in fashion, so it was only fitting they’d host their latest catwalk in the hot spot of Cuba.” -Travel + Leisure

Does anyone see the irony in a fashion show of a designer label so expensive that most Americans will never own a single item with the trademark C in a communist country where the average salary is $30 a month?

Don’t get me wrong. I saw Cuba’s charms. In fact, I have been daydreaming about getting back there to sway along to the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club that seem to pour out of every crevice of the country. But, just talking about the shiny, mint condition old cars and admiring the slick Cubano men with their infamous Cuban cigars, does a disservice to the core of this country-The Cuban people.

Imagine Facebook if you will. You see smiling photos of perfect days, perfect children, perfect marriages and out of this world vacations. Do you see the tantrums, the quarreling, the bouts of depression? No. And if you do not know someone outside of Facebook you don’t know them, because it’s Fakebook, it’s false advertising. If you only read about Cuba in Travel magazines and in social media, you’d see perfect cars, glistening mojitos, swaying palm trees. And yet, you would not know the heart of Cuba, the real Cuba. Beneath its distant, colorful façade Havana’s buildings are literally crumbling. While travelers are snapping selfies from the back of convertibles rumbling down the Malecon, hallow-eyed abuelas are staring down from decrepit balconies, days of nothingness lying before them. Their weathered faces tell a tale that is without glamour and pomp.

It is a story that lacks control, is replete of resources. I remember in my dewy-eyed days as a college student I was proudly Zapatista, Sandanista, Socialista. Back then I would have admired the gumption of Che Guevarra who’s image is proudly displayed at every corner in Havana. However, in the twenty years since I have stood on the soil of former socialist and communist countries and I have seen the scars. I have seen that “everyone being equal” though beautiful in theory, lacks any grounding in reality. Because it is simply human nature to strive for more. I have seen that there is an innateness in some of us, but not others to rise to the top. -That capitalism isn’t necessarily evil, but rather a natural consequence of the human spirit.

My sister and I stayed at an adorable bed and breakfast in Centro Havana and there was another couple there, strangely they were Americans. I say strangely because you still see so few Americans in Cuba.—We met four.  And yet, I couldn’t relate to the wife in the pair at all. She gushed about how wonderful it is the people are not starving there and how precious it is that Cuban children receive a birthday cake until they are twelve years old. A birthday cake? You are swooning over a birthday cake? I am certain that these children would rather grow up with a baseline that’s better than a lack of starvation. I’m pretty certain that every little boy and girl dreams of what they will be when they grow up. That every child is born with HOPE. If you are raised in a system where no matter how hard you work nothing in your world will change, hope is but a pipe dream. Your HOPE is crushed.

 My co-worker told me about her Cuban husband’s brilliant uncle. He always had new business ideas and yet somewhere down the road the government sabotaged the businesses, squashed the dreams. She said their hearts broke as they saw him in recent years destitute and depressed, a shell of his former self. That’s what happens when you take away someone’s freeness, their humanness, their sense of self. – Do you think that Fidel and his confidants are living on $30 a month? Absolutely not. They live on manicured, tree lined streets with second homes at the beach.  They are not shopping at grocery stores where the shelves lie virtually empty. –Which they do in Cuba. I saw it firsthand.

 And to the girl from Atlanta who commended the lack of starvation, let’s be clear. The Cuban people spent many years starving. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Cuban fell into a terrible economic crisis, their lifeline being cut off. The special period, el período especial,  lasted from 1989-through the mid ‘90s. The Cuban people suffered from such a lack of food and medicine that 800,000 asthma suffers went without treatment and 50,000 people suffered from optic neuropathy due to a deficiency of vitamin B. Food was scarce-people were literally starving. I imagine that not a single Cuban who lived during this period forgets a second of it.

I can imagine that they do not see their country, though beloved, as glamorous. I won’t get into what role the U.S. embargo played on this period or the impact it has now though I believe it affects the country. Let’s be honest though, if you only make $30 a month how are you going to buy American made goods? Aside from any judgement  politically or socially, one thing is crystal clear-- Havana is not what it appears to be on the glossy covers of magazines. The streets are in horrible disrepair, and most of the buildings look barely liveable. We had to walk with our heads down to avoid tripping on over large potholes, dodging piles of dog excrement like minefields. We literally saw someone defecating in the street.

 Miraculously, the Cuban people are joyful. They are colorful, they are musical. Cuba is very much alive beating to it’s very own drum, unlike any I have ever heard before. We met some of these people. They were incredible and they told us their remarkable stories. --Our kind driver who was an electrical engineer, but left the position that paid $360 a year to be a taxi driver where he could make enough money to support his family. We met another sweet young man who literally shed tears as I handled him a crumpled $20 bill as a tip. We met moms and children asking for shampoo from their weathered doorways. We met a boy with aspirations to become a doctor who escaped Cuba to live in Panama, wanting to avoid the 8-year travel restriction placed on Cuban educated doctors. We marveled at how the $300 a night hotel in Trinidad pays its workers an average of $.14/hour. …And the stories go on.

 In my time there, I never heard the name Castro. Not once. And yet, the message for us seemed to remain the same. The people would trade in their free healthcare and their free education for decent wages and fair treatment. So all of the propaganda dotting the country didn’t work on me. I wasn’t sold. One of the greatest things I love about travel is its ability to allow you to look at yourself and your country through someone else’s eyes. What I see varies from country to country. And yet one thing always remains the same, my gratitude to be American.  I always feel so feel lucky to live in a country where I can freely buy a plane ticket, where I can swoon over mountains of produce at the grocery store, where my hard work pays off. We as Americans are not perfect, but we are blessed.

 I loved you Cuba and I will be back. But I can’t turn my back on your people. They, like every human, need HOPE. Xo, Bree