Not Your Mother’s Cuba
by Minor Wisdom Review
By Annika Christensen
My mother has always yearned to go to Cuba. She said she wanted to go “before everything changes,” before the 1950s cars were swept off the streets and the Coca-Cola billboards went up. Before it returned to the pleasure ground for dissolute Americans, where Marlon Brando flies for a night to drink and dance in our old favorite, Guys and Dolls. For her, Cuba was a curiosity and a model of something pure. Inherent here, of course, was the myth of the “simpler,” “noble” culture holding something we yearn for. But I imagined that my mother saw something more in Cuba, the last hope of a liberal state, fully egalitarian, uncorrupted by capitalism – the revolutionary epitome of leftist purity.
My mother is a staunch liberal who came of age in the 1970s and fought against U.S. involvement in Latin America throughout the 1980s. At that time she considered U.S. policy intrusive, anti-democratic, and mired in Cold War myopia. She seemed to believe that Cuba was the one place Yankee imperialism had not touched, but that this would soon change. When the change came, it would be stark and irrevocable.
So when my mother received the chance to visit Cuba with the Women Donors Network and the Center for Democracy in the Americas, she jumped at the chance, and when she invited me along, I immediately accepted. I knew that Cuba was changing, though perhaps not in the way my mother envisioned. I wanted to see, and most of all, hear, what Cubans thought about their country’s changes and its identity. While my mother saw Cuba as the good to the United States’ evil, many people, including both Cuban and non-Cuban Americans, consider Cuba a Communist evil. The persistence of these strident feelings, even after the Cold War’s end, makes cutting through them to hear the stories of Cubans themselves key to understanding the country.
Over my one-week trip in December 2012, I learned that Cuba, as a nation, a political entity, a culture, an idea, and a lived reality, is not black and white, but rather many shades of gray, many shades of every color. It is complex, and changing every day kaleidoscopically in a way that is hard to capture and understand. Nonetheless, I will try to reveal my impressions of some of these shades of complexity in the following vignettes from my trip, culled from my experiences and the stories I heard. They represent only facets of the nation’s character and identity, as seen from a very particular perspective.
Our delegation was organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), an organization, in the words of its mission, “Devoted to changing U.S. policy toward the countries of the Americas by basing our relations on mutual respect, fostering dialogue with those governments and movements with which U.S. policy is at odds, and recognizing positive trends in democracy and governance.” To this end, it leads trips for members of Congress as well as other groups to the island, to connect with Cubans and learn about the implications of U.S. policy there. This time, the group was made up of members of the Women Donors Network, a community of women philanthropists from throughout the United States. In a program organized around the theme “Revolution Within a Revolution: Women in Cuba,” we were to meet with women leaders, officials, artists, and intellectuals in order to better understand Cuba’s identity, revolutionary project, changes, and women’s roles therein. We spent a day in rural Cienfuegos, a day in the small city of Trinidad, and four days in Havana.
Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is rare and difficult, and reasons for travel receive close scrutiny from officials. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) grants travel licenses for family visits, official government travel, journalistic activities, academic research, educational or religious activities, public competitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian or foundation projects, or licensed importation. Our trip fell under educational activities, in a special category known as people-to-people trips. These do not involve academic study, but must be led by a licensed organization that enforces a full-time schedule of exchange activities that will “result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba,” that “enhance contact with the Cuban people” or “promote independence from Cuban authorities” and are not “tourist-oriented.” The Center for Democracy in the Americas received its people-to-people license after a long process in which OFAC scrutinized our itinerary to assure that every minute was packed with meetings, mostly with Cubans unaffiliated with the government.
These regulations form a pillar of the United States’ embargo on Cuba, which nominally bans any transactions, including tourism-related, in which Cuba or a Cuban national has any interest whatsoever. President Obama reversed his predecessor’s ban on people-to-people trips in 2011, to “reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country’s future.” Meanwhile, U.S. companies have been exporting hundreds of millions in food and agricultural products to Cuba, peaking at $710 million in 2008. Perhaps the U.S.A.’s restrictions foster, to a certain extent, Cuban economic independence. Asymmetry remains, however, since Cuba has no restrictions on U.S. tourists, and has welcomed tourism from the rest of the world, particularly since its economy bottomed out after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
One of the first and most surprising things I noticed about Cuba was tourism’s prominence. Tourism is now the country’s number one industry. When we flew into Cienfuegos, a rural town in southwest Cuba, tourism ministry posters advertising white-sand beaches and unique cultural experiences lined the walls of the airport. Cuba, if it ever could, can no longer claim to be isolated, pure, and anti-capitalist. We went to the local artists’ union to see a concert of Cuban salsa and son and acted like quintessential tourists, all dancing the salsa awkwardly.
At the concert, I spoke about tourism and friendship with Noemí Rodríguez Stable, a singer in one of the bands we saw and a member of the Provincial Assembly. Before her appointment, she was a history teacher for 25 years. She knows everything about the tense history of U.S.-Cuba relations – business exploitation and support for Batista, the Bay of Pigs, attempted assassinations, the embargo – and yet her prevailing sentiment is one of friendship. She said she was happy we could come, and learn about Cuban culture, and that she hoped more U.S. citizens could come in the future to establish friendship. For her, this was not antithetical to the revolutionary project: even with reforms and the resulting foreign business, Cuba could maintain its essence as long as everyone got a fair share of the profits.
Unfortunately, a fair share has proved elusive. As Cuba increased tourism, it introduced a second currency, the CUC, or convertible peso, with the same value as the U.S. dollar. This has created two classes of Cubans: those who have access to the higher-valued CUCs (generally because they work in the tourism industry) and those who can only access the regular Cuban peso. We saw this in the very fancy hotels we stayed in, run by the Cuban state. Unless the Cuban government can find a way to make tourism industry growth compatible with its egalitarian project, or at least not glaringly at odds, warm opinions like Noemi Rodriguez Stable’s could turn cold.
From Cienfuegos we traveled to Trinidad, a UNESCO heritage site and a large tourist draw because of its intact sixteenth century colonial architecture. Here, large groups of gray-haired gawkers wandered the cobblestone streets, taking pictures of the colorful walls and the groups of street musicians. A mother tried to pass between the groups in the town square, but her toddling daughter, clad in red skirt and bright turban, kept sitting down in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Soon a herd of camera shutters started clicking at the little girl, and even some in my group turned from our guide’s explanation of an impressive building to snap pictures. An old couple near the mother took a picture and then handed something into the mother’s palm, probably a token payment. This struck me as the sort of scene Castro and Guevara sought to expunge from their Cuba, a scene of fetishization and exploitation, albeit of the subtlest form. Whether this is too romantic a view of Cuba’s founding fathers or too harsh a view of its current reality remains unclear to me.
Paradoxically, Cuban culture can sometimes only thrive because of tourism. In the pre-reform era, it was the Soviet Union, not foreign tourists, who supported Cuban culture. When the Soviets still bankrolled Cuba’s programs, the state funded cultural institutions to a unique and impressive extent. It established dance, music, and visual arts schools that are still world-renowned. Like all education in Cuba, these schools that promote Cuban cultural preservation, celebration, and innovation are completely free. When the Berlin Wall fell, the arts, like everything else in Cuba, went into crisis. The 1990s are now known as the “special period,” a time when many went without work, starved, begged, and when unprecedented numbers tried to escape on makeshift rafts and drowned crossing the ocean.
An artist in Cienfuegos, Lázaro, recounted his art school training during this period. The school lacked adequate money and materials, so professors encouraged their students to work with whatever materials they could find. Lázaro made beautiful masks out of wood, nails, bottle caps, and scrap metal. The materials illustrate how Lázaro joined, out of necessity, the renowned materialist school of art. Even though Cuba has now rebuilt its economy, and continues to do so, scrap is still Lazaro’s medium. On the wood of old doors, he carves the figures and faces of his neighbors. One can see the worry in their postures and the twinkle in their eyes; every wrinkle stands out as if they could stretch and step out of the gnarled wood. Cuban culture thrives in part because of the way outsiders perceive and value it. Lázaro can survive and eat because tourists, and only tourists, buy his art.
As important as outsiders are, the state still funds culture and plays an influential role in defining Cuba in the eyes of the world, as it enters into a new era of global interconnectedness. It both encourages visitors to consume culture and ships it out to all corners of the globe. A dance company we visited has toured on every continent, in a huge roster of countries, including multiple performances in the United States. When we met them, they were about to leave for China. An artist and gallery professional also noted that the government engages in limited censorship, making sure artistic works have no explicitly anti-government themes. Of course, it is easy to get around this through abstraction, he said, but the decision on whether and how to take personal expression risks is still a stressful one for artists. If one is caught, the exhibiting gallery bears the brunt in fines or a shuttered exhibit, while the artist may be blacklisted and watched – no one really knows exactly how it works. While there is a lot of leeway and variety, the state still regulates what is appropriately “revolutionary” for the public.
The state itself is changing a great deal, too, particularly in its views of social norms. Our scholar on the trip, Margaret Crahan of Columbia University, has visited Cuba over 60 times since the 1960s. When she went to the movies in Cuba in the 1970s, government PSAs labeled homosexuals a public threat. Police used to chase after and beat up gays, as Prof. Crahan herself once witnessed. Now the state has a huge campaign declaring homophobia the threat, and celebrating all kinds of sexuality. This is due mostly to the work of Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter.
Castro runs CENESEX, the National Center for Sexual Education. She is a strong woman leader who exemplifies the “revolution within a revolution”; her work is fundamentally changing Cuban society. Part of her power is charm – she is kind and personable, with a bright smile, a talent for storytelling, and a willingness to talk for hours. As Raúl’s daughter, she also has political power and connections, and has used them to full advantage to advance the cause of LGBT equality. As a children’s psychology worker, she realized how many youth were suffering from bullying and homophobia. She began exploring the issue more, holding meetings of transsexuals. She came to view the issue as a social justice one, and fully concomitant with Cuba’s social revolutionary program. She wrote a report on discrimination and brought it to her father, who distributed copies of it and started a conversation within the Communist party about solutions to homophobia. As well as making it integral to CENESEX’s programming and educational agenda, Castro started the National Week Against Homophobia. While Castro shines in the spotlight, however, many others do not receive due credit for their work on the issue, and observers should not overlook the fact that life for the queer community is still very hard, and that Castro, despite getting LGBT issues right, significantly errs in other social and political views.
Castro’s work is just part of Cuba’s many changes. Her father became President in 2008, taking over from his brother Fidel, and since then has begun implementing economic reform. Many of the reforms detailed in this CDA report relinquish state control on many industries: allowing people to work multiple jobs, making it possible for them to own and sell their houses, letting farmers lease state-owned land, and decreasing state food rations to allow farmers to sell more. The most sweeping reform is that which encourages small private businesses (cuentapropias) for the first time, by issuing thousands of new licenses. This plays out on every level of Cuban society, from the restaurants we ate in to the colorful startup stores we passed in Havana, to the nightclub we visited one evening.
These reforms are also changing the very idea of the Cuban revolutionary state. Carlos Alzugaray, professor of international relations at the University of Havana, says that Raúl is following a pragmatic socialist idea. According to Marx, socialism is the first stage of a transition toward true communism, and must coexist with capitalism. Dr. Azugaray contended that Cuba is a socialist country, working toward a communist ideal of egalitarianism just as the U.S.A. constantly works toward an ideal of democracy. It is never perfect, and always a work in progress. Some in Raúl’s camp argue that developing the private sector is still revolutionary, because the people still own the means of production. Others fight against his reforms, considering them treason. Debates over national ideology continue in Cuba, as they do in our own country.
We met with several participants in these debates, and saw them happening on the ground everywhere in Cuba. One view came from women members of the National Assembly. In Cuba, Assembly members are recruited from their towns by the Communist Party, often have no opposition when running, and receive no compensation for their occasional parliamentary work. The average Cuban has little idea what they really do. The Assembly does not always debate the laws set before them, and almost always approves them. The assembly members we met extolled the virtues of the reforms, held that they came from the people, that the people had debated them in their towns, and that after debate in the Assembly, everyone agreed on the changes. They projected the impression that egalitarianism exists and will always survive. To illustrate the great variety of Cubans who make up government, one member talked about her roommate at the National Assembly, a poor woman who had to borrow a dress from a friend just to be presentable for her civic duties, but held great pride in her position nonetheless.
Another opinion on the reforms came from Ramón, a man who makes money by driving tourists around in his 1955 red and white Chevy convertible. He can make up to $100 per day doing this. He maintained that it is nearly impossible to feed a family on a government salary, and has always found semi-legal ways of making a comfortable living. Now that people like him are allowed to drive commercial taxis, own small businesses, and more, he sees a brighter future. He welcomes the reforms, the opening of the Cuban economy, and even an influx of American tourists and capital, as long as regular people have more ways of making money.
With more money comes more risk of social stratification. Cuba has always had subtle social classes, contrary to what the Cuban state might say. Dr. Azugaray explained that the origins of the moneyed class are unclear. The nouveau riche get their money from different sources: some corrupt, some legal, some from connections to wealthy relatives in Miami. With the reforms, there are even more ways, and for even more people. We saw the boom effects of the reform one night at a new club.
“Espacios,” or “Spaces,” was located in the backyard of a house on a quiet, dark Havana street. On the stone patio, fountains gushed and loud music played as crowds of people lounged with drinks and plates of gourmet appetizers. Men in business casual chatted nonchalantly, and young women with sky-high heels, delicate, tight black dresses, and straight bleached hair stared around the garden with cat eyes. Through a Cuban friend, we met one of the club’s owners. When asked who was here, he told us cryptically: those with money, international business people, famous artists and entertainers, and Cubans with pedigree. Asked to elaborate, he just smiled. He described how he and his friends started this “small business” only one month before. The first night, it was packed, and with important people. He had no idea it would be so popular or so elite. Huge, rapid change allows such businesses to thrive – and the demands of “Cubans with pedigree” don’t hurt either.
My friend Marla, an economics student, summed up the changes and her perspective as she showed me around Havana. We ran through the rain amid colorful umbrellas to see her friend’s baby clothing store, packed into a room with a dozen other stalls housing aspiring stores. As we passed the main shopping district, she explained that things are too expensive in the state stores and that no one buys from them anymore. In an alleyway framed by Havana’s classic, crumbling Spanish colonial buildings, we found the hole-in-the-wall store where people used to redeem their ration cards for bags of provisions mostly empty. The government is phasing out such stores, but long before that they had provoked the people’s ire for providing far too little food each month. Marla discussed the National Assembly and its perceived ineffectiveness, the problems of housing and homelessness that go unaddressed, and more. Despite it all, she loves her country and believes in the revolution. To her generation, she said, the revolutionary ideal is for everyone to have what he or she needs, and to care for others. She wants to see Cuba as an economic success, more open, with more money for the state and the people. Concerning the reforms, she adopted a hopeful “wait and see” attitude.
As this economic “opening” occurs, the United States watches warily to see how relations might change. Earlier this month, the Cuban government began implementing a law eliminating the requirement that Cubans obtain an exit visa in addition to a destination country entrance visa before leaving the country. While Cuba is changing, the United States adheres to its longstanding Cuba policy. President Obama has somewhat softened his stance on making visas more available, but the embargo endures and Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (along with only Iran, Sudan, and Syria). Recent events and a long history ensure persistent animosity on both sides.
The Cuban Five case is for Cubans a glaring and extreme example of U.S. animosity, and the most popular rallying cause in the country. The Cuban Five are a group of Cuban intelligence officers arrested and imprisoned in the U.S. in 1998 for conducting espionage against Miami-based militant anti-Cuban groups. Many Cubans see them as national heroes protecting their homeland by conducting counter-terrorism, and maintain that they had no intention of harming U.S. security. The international community has raised questions about the sentencing, with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluding that the Cuban Five’s “severe sentences” were incompatible with international standards of justice and that their Miami-based trial “did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality” necessary and that therefore they had been sentenced “arbitrarily.” The U.S., of course, keeps its own counsel on counter-terrorism policy and often disregards international commentary.
We spoke with the mother and the wife of one of the “Five Heroes,” Fernando González. The mother appealed to us as women, “because I know the heart we women have.” They both described the hardship they had endured not seeing their loved one for 14 years, appealing again and again through U.S. courts for fair treatment, and consoling the other two wives who were not even granted visas to visit their husbands in prison. They repeated the Cuban call to “free the five” and bring them home.
This is a complicated and sensitive case. It involves people with feelings of deep sadness and disbelief. It falls into legal gray areas. Ultimately, both sides must focus on the need for tolerance, equal treatment, and negotiation. There will always be such pain as long as there is animosity between nations: the wife’s and grandmother’s tears, the nation’s cries and banners. We must attempt to sooth such pain as much as possible.
The United States is only one actor in the complex world with which Cuba is increasingly connected; Cuba trades internationally and accepts tourists from every country. Along with the 1950s American-made cars on the streets, there are old Russian Ladas, German Volkswagens, and new Korean Kias. Cuba is in an alliance with Venezuela and Bolivia that is reshaping the western hemisphere’s power structure and ideals. It is an era of change for Cuba as well as the world.
There are many experts and everyday people who can give opinions on Cuba, its changes, its foreign relations, its history, its government, and its freedom. I had one glimpse at it, one perspective, refracted through the many perspectives of those I met. It was not the Cuba my mother imagined, nor that which Cuban mothers experienced 50 years ago. And yet it is still theirs, to see and to understand. Cuba’s colors and character will continue to change every day, and we should continue to try to understand the other side’s people, our people, and our relationship. It is difficult to explain and understand the complexities of any country, even when one lives in it. To grasp the entire picture, we must all participate in contributing snapshots and impressions. We must all share stories.
The views presented herein are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Women Donors Network, The Center for Democracy in the Americas, or any other participants or sponsors of the trip described herein.
Photos: Annika Christensen