Being an American in Cuba

I think one of the things that I most enjoyed about touring Cuba is that it is one of the few tourist destinations left on earth that is unspoiled by the ugly American tourist. You know who I’m talking about, talks too loud, wears socks with sandals and a hawaiian shirt. Okay, that might be too stereotypical. Still, they just simply aren’t in Cuba and thats one of the greatest things about it. 

Perhaps I just enjoyed that people assumed I was anything but American. I was asked where in Canada I was from, and other nationalities I was mistaken for were German, French and Spanish. Some people may have been alarmed by this, but I found it rather refreshing that everywhere I went people weren’t pointing out the ugly American tourists. One German man I met even told me that he whole-heartedly supported the embargo because it kept Cuba free of Americans and that was one of the things he liked best about it. 

Although shock was the primary l reaction when I told people I was American, their second reaction was curiosity. They wanted to know all about how I was able to get to Cuba, and occasionally the conversation led to questions regarding my opinions of US-Cuban relations (a whole other topic for a whole other day). Although I didn’t have many interactions with everyday Cubans, I did have a few, and all they were able to talk about was how highly they thought of American and how much they wanted to be able to travel there and see what it was like for themselves. It was awesome to hear from them that, even after all the shenanigans the compromise diplomatic relations between my country and theirs, that they still thought highly of my country and only had positive things to say about it. 

Maria’s Story

Probably one of the best experiences I had while in Cuba was not planned, and didn’t involve anyone or any place famous. It happened totally by chance while two of my friends and I were eating dinner at a small paladar (private, family-owned restaurant) on one of our free nights. 

Sitting at the table across from us was a rather odd pairing of a Cuban woman and a Norwegian man. She barely spoke English, and he only knew the word for beer in Spanish. I started chatting with her a bit, and they eventually invited us to sit at their table. The woman introduced herself to me as María, a name she thinks is boring. Her personality, however was full of fire, and she had some serious hutzpah. She essentially told me her entire life story over a mojito, pretty incredible for me, an American she had just met. She was very outspoken about the government, a system which she despises. She was born and raised in Cuba, an only child of a single-mother. Her husband committed suicide while she was pregnant with her daughter, who is now 14. If you think that’s crazy, just wait. 

María was incredibly outspoken about the government, a system that she assured me needs to change. She has been arrested and thrown into jail three times already for speaking out against the Castro regime. She even pointed out a nasty scar above her right eyebrow, the result of a blow from a police baton. She told me that she makes $8 each month, yet she works with medical students. She said she can barely afford toothpaste and soap, and heavily implied that fraternizing with tourists, such as the Norwegian she was with, was how she was able to afford such items. She told me that things have gotten much worse under Raúl than they were under Fidel. She told me there is less liberty and freedoms, an opinion I found very interesting. 

For María, the bottom line of the matter was the lack of liberty the Cuban people have. She said yes, Cubans have free health care and education, housing and cheap (read subsidized) food, but all of that means nothing because they don’t have any freedom express their opinions, especially if they contradict the government and its revolutionary ideals. María’s dream is to one day live in the United States, so that her daughter can one day have the freedom to say how she feels. María said that having to pay for healthcare, education, etc, is just a very minor set back, and that if she had liberty, that she would find a way to pay for it all.

I found this woman fascinating, as she was so open and honest with me. She was taking a huge risk, as average Cuban people can get fined or thrown in jail if they are caught talking to tourists. And if anyone had heard what she was saying, she definitely would be facing jail time. Although heartbreaking, her story was a breath of fresh air, because its not very often that you’ll find someone in such an environment willing to speak out against such a strict government. 

First Impressions

After spending a week with no internet or cell phone, the return to the real world has been a little rough. I really enjoyed being without technology, and I think that the lack of distractions helped me live in the moment on the trip and experience everything to the fullest. 

Some things I noticed in the first few days:

1. Billboards: there are no advertisements for products or restaurants, but rather enforcing socialist ideas, quotes from Fidel, Raúl, or Che Guevara, defending the revolution, and other such government propaganda. ImageImage

 

2. Architecture/Infrastructure: The architecture in Havana is this very bizarre mix of colorful colonial style buildings with corinthian columns and terraces, and harsh, heavy Soviet-style buildings with tiny windows and drab colors. The only thing that almost all of the buildings have in common is that they are absolutely falling apart. In the more touristy areas of Havana, its very obvious that the government has put money into their upkeep, but once you venture off the main drags, everything starts to literally crumble. ImageImageImage

 

3. Cars: the one thing that people associate so much with Cuba is the old, 1950’s model Fords and Chevy’s driving around. This is still mostly true today, although there are newer cars, mostly small European models from the 90’s. I did even see one Escalade and a few Mercedes cars. I got the chance to ride in a few of the old-style taxis and felt like I was about to rattle right out of them. Its amazing they are still running. The government used to determine who got a car, but now Cubans are free to buy and sell their cars. Image

 

4. Contradictions and Complexities: In theory, Cuba is a socialist/communist country and everyone is ‘equal’. Obviously, this is not what it is like in reality. On average, people make between 8 and 10 dollars a month, but people like our tour guide Yisele (affectionately known to us as Gizzle or Grizzle) have iPhones, and others cannot even afford to purchase toothpaste on a regular basis. On this measly salary, almost all Cubans above the age of about 18 appear to be able to afford to chain smoke cigarettes and cigars at their leisure.