Forty-three people, most of us from Utah, went to Havana on a legal trip sponsored by KUER, the public radio station in Salt Lake City.
We were required to participate in all of the cultural and educational opportunities provided for us. Over five days, we visited an art museum, the opera, the journalism institute, the performing and visual arts institute and a cultural center. We also took an architecture tour and attended a workshop on Cuban jazz.
Our Havanatur bus attracted a lot of attention. Right off, I began waving to the people we passed on the street. Everyone waved back – a street sweeper with a homemade broom, a police officer, kids and their moms, schoolgirls, tough-looking shirtless boys. Everyone waved back, beaming genuine, warm smiles.
Cubans don’t generally ride in plush, air-conditioned coaches like ours. They mostly ride in camels, which are huge people-moving contraptions -- part semi-truck, part bus. They’re terribly crowded, dirty and unsafe. Our guide said, “We call the camel ‘the Saturday night film’ because it has adult language, sex and violence.”
Part of the zing of the joke is that the Saturday night film in Cuba is always an American movie, and America is where adult language, sex and violence run rampant.
Many countries have a love-hate relationship with the United States. Cuba is no exception. Yet I kept being struck by how big a deal it was to the Cubans that we were there. Sure, they don’t officially approve of us -- we’re way too violent and certainly too capitalistic, but still they like us, and only partly because we have dollars to spend.
And the dollars are desperately needed. Terrible poverty has gripped Cuba since the beginning of the “Special Period,” Fidel Castro’s euphemism for the belt-tightening that became necessary with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal of financial support.
Cuba’s infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. We had toilet seats and tissue in our hotel, but rarely saw them anywhere else. We timidly walked through buildings that appeared to be collapsing and crumbling into dust before our eyes. And when people approached us to beg, they often didn’t ask for money, but for soap, or shampoo. The simplest things are all but unattainable there.
At least equal to the need for dollars and soap, there seems to be a need for the Cuban people to be heard, to be understood, and to be seen by Americans as equals with important ideas and with a society worthy of respect.
Everyone wanted to tell us how important culture is to Cubans. Children are taught from a young age to play musical instruments, dance, sing and paint, and they’re cultivated in a way that only rich or lucky American children are. After the triumph of the revolution (as they always say it there), efforts were made to give everyone equal access to education, health care, jobs and housing.
I guess in a nutshell that’s the upside of socialism; everyone’s treated the same, with the same opportunities. Anyway, that’s the selling point. What we found 44 years after the revolution was a little less ideal.
We visited the national headquarters for journalists for what had been billed as a free and open discussion. So many of the Cubans we had met had been friendly and sincere, but if the topic strayed to politics, economics or living conditions, they would become defensive and nervous, as if someone from the government were listening in to make sure they were upholding the revolution.
Last spring, 75 Cubans accused of not supporting the revolution - journalists and librarians mostly - were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, so the fear is real.
American films, yes. American currency, yes. American-style economic independence and freedom of speech, no.
We’re full of contradictions in the United States as well. What do we have against Cuba really? Sure, there’s an argument to be made, but compared to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China? We’ve kissed and made up with a lot of countries that have done some pretty bad stuff to us (and/or to their own people), but will we ever forgive Cuba?
We don’t economically punish anyone like we do Cuba. The embargo (Cubans call it el bloqueo, the blockade) makes no sense to me. In 44 years it hasn’t improved one thing in Cuba, but everyone has stories about how it hurts them.
Havana is about 90 miles from Miami. A family could hop in their boat on a Sunday afternoon and take a case of soap over, or just have dinner and make friends with a family there, and what on earth would it hurt?
The embargo only impacts regular Cuban people, like the ones who waved to me from the street. If we did away with the embargo, the Cuban people would have much easier lives and, in a way, we’d be calling Fidel’s bluff.
Right now, so much is blamed on the embargo. If we removed it, the revolution could triumph or fall flat on its face on its own, and Cubans could be responsible for their own circumstances, with all the challenges that brings, and they wouldn’t have us to blame for their problems.
Barb Guy is the public relations director for a nonprofit organization and a community volunteer. She lives in Salt Lake City.