Reflections on Visiting Cuba (Guest Post by Lisa Goldman)

By guest blogger Lisa Goldman

[Eric’s note: in March 2013, Lisa and I visited Cuba. I have written several posts on the subject that I’ll be posting to my Tertium Quid blog and ultimately cross-posting here, probably in the next month. I also have posted a monstrous set of 230 photos (see a smaller batch of “favorites”), and Lisa posted her own batch of photos. Lisa has written two reflection pieces on our visit, and she’s sharing the first in this post. See the second.]


In March of 2013, I went to Havana, Cuba. Prior to booking this trip, I hadn’t given Cuba much thought. Born a decade after news of Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis had grown stale, Cuba wasn’t a hot topic at the family dinner table. But, I did grow up in the U.S. during some of the Cold War. So, I got the memo: USA good, Cuba bad. I didn’t question this much until I went to college, where I got my mind pried opened up enough to consider that some aspects of socialism had merit, but that’s as far as I took it. This is the background I brought with me to Havana – uneducated but open-minded.

My first impressions were not great. I wouldn’t call Havana’s airport welcoming. After exiting the plane, we queued up for passport control. Unlike any other country I can recall, in Cuba, there is a solid red (natch) wall. All the passport agents sit in their booths in front of their individual doors. These particular Cubans are not friendly people. If you smile for your required picture as a nervous joke, like I did, they do not smile back. If you pass their review, they buzz you through the door, with a buzz that sounds a little like what I imagine hearing from the high security section of a mental ward. You must approach one at a time (no husband/wife teaming like most any place else). When Eric got buzzed through that door ahead of me, and it slammed solidly shut behind him, a tiny part of me panicked that I’d never see him again. When I got buzzed through, a tiny part of me panicked that I’d never see the other side of that door again; nightmares fed by 80’s movies of people trapped behind the Iron Curtain flashed through my mind. In truth, the process went pretty smoothly, even if my deodorant had to earn its “extra strength” promise that day.

My impression did not improve when we set out the next morning and saw Havana in the harsh light of day. Our tour guide Anna took us through “old Havana.” It had charm. The beauty of the original architecture was apparent. But, so was the poverty. These buildings were in terrible shape, paint worn away, concrete crumbling, windows broken, wires strewn haphazardly. This is what they were showing off? Then, later that evening, Eric and I took a very long walk from our hotel to visit the only vegetarian (now pescatarian) restaurant in the city, La Buena Vida. As we passed through one neighborhood after the next, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. No one had told us we weren’t allowed to walk beyond the bounds of tourist Havana, but it still felt like we had ventured beyond where we were supposed to, seeing things perhaps we weren’t really supposed to see. Near our hotel, there was a certain energy: music playing, classic cars cruising, teens milling around enjoying movies or ice cream. But, a few miles out, into the regular neighborhoods the mood was very different. It was eerily quiet and dark at barely 7pm. Block after block offered the same two government determined restaurant choices (pizza or chicken) and attracted minimal interest. The most crowded spots were definitely the bus stops. The people looked sort of dull, resigned. We passed a couple stores, one even had the old bronze Woolworth’s title still inlaid into the entry terrazzo, but the shelves inside were almost entirely empty. But this was no movie set depicting 1970s Russia. And, this clearly wasn’t a Woolworth’s anymore either. This was Cuba 2013. The general ennui made me feel depressed and claustrophobic.

I was also disturbed that our lovely tour guide for the week, Anna, who had been educated as an attorney and graduated near the top of her class, had chosen to be a tour guide. Since I have also abandoned my JD, I am not one to look askance at fellow “recovering JDs.” The difference here is that her motivation was financial, and it demonstrates one of the paradoxes of Cuba: Cubans who have access to tourists and tourist dollars (literally the type of dollars specifically required for tourists to use are different, which are much more valuable than the Cuban pesos Cubans are supposed to use) have a huge financial advantage over Cubans who don’t. So, you will find JDs as tour guides, MDs as taxi drivers, and the like – not because they don’t want or can’t find positions in their field, but because it’s not fiscally advantageous to do so. It is obvious the dual currency system and the financial incentives are a mess. It cannot be good for Cuba to invest so much in the higher education of thousands of its most talented residents and then release them into a system that rewards them for ditching that expensive education in favor of jobs that don’t require that kind of investment.

So, while I had arrived with an open mind, within 48 hours, I felt my mind closing. It seemed like Cuba’s attempt at socialism wasn’t working. Living conditions appeared mostly very poor, work incentives twisted, food so horrendous it earned its own separate blog entry, extremely limited access to internet, TV and other media, and an utterly dysfunctional dual money system. It would take me the remainder of the trip plus a few serendipitous hours chatting with an expert in the airport to shift my opinion once again.

I spent the next several days observing. At our request, Anna took us to a ration store. Cuba still issues ration cards to its citizens, and people go to ration stores to collect their monthly allowance of bare necessities like white rice and powdered milk. If you think their cars are retro, you should get a load of this system. Paper ration books, chalkboards noting what rations are available, scales straight from the 1800’s to weigh out the rice. It’s incredible really. But even more disturbing was neighborhood where we happened to visit the ration store. Anna called it a “marginal neighborhood.” That was generous. I would call it a straight-up slum. Now I understood why she took us to “old Havana” on the first day and thought it was nice. Those buildings I initially found in shockingly poor condition did seem beautiful in comparison. I didn’t get any pictures of it because they shuffled us out of the area so quickly (Eric caught one). I remember looking through one broken window and seeing large chunks of concrete all ove rthe floor of someone’s home. All I will say is that in any city in America, I believe that entire neighborhood would be condemned in an instant.

Of course, I realize that in America those residents would in turn be left mostly homeless, which is no real improvement. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was exactly the sort of “bottom,” the sort of abject poverty, that I thought socialism was supposed to guard against. I’ve forgotten most of whatever I’d memorized about Karl Marx for some college exam, but I do vaguely recall something about how society should trade off opportunities for individual wealth, so that the masses would not suffer absolute destitution.

It seemed like that wasn’t working out that well in practice. Oh, Cuba had succeeded in driving out the individual wealth. The mob, and its casinos, and its money (and all the ugly underbelly that goes with that) is long gone. But, it didn’t feel like the bottom had risen up as a result. It appeared that the disparity between the rich and the poor had narrowed only by virtue of dragging everyone down to the poor end of the spectrum. As Eric put it: Cuba’s socialism didn’t redistribute the pie, it just shrunk it for everyone. Well, damn if that doesn’t suck. I’ve heard about studies that show that happiness has more to do with the disparity between classes, than with one’s absolute wealth. In other words, poor Cubans should be happier than equivalently poor Americans because the Cubans aren’t as drastically worse off than the middle or upper class Cubans. Perhaps they are happier. I don’t know. I’m lucky enough that I haven’t come close to either situation. But from where I sit, I think it looks pretty crappy to be poor in either country.

In the US, of course, there is the possibility, the opportunity, however improbable and difficult, to lift oneself out of poverty. It’s a story we love to tell – the homeless child who made it to Harvard, the US president raised by a struggling single parent, Oprah Winfrey. It’s a cruel, false promise for many, but still, I can’t help but treasure that hope, however slim. A girl’s gotta hold onto some propaganda. If I found myself in a situation where I lost everything, I like to think that I’d find a way to bootstrap myself up to something better. I’d like the chance.

On the other hand, as desperate as the “marginal” district and some other areas appeared, none of these people were homeless. All had access to reportedly excellent healthcare and a good education. That’s not nothing.

So, which system is better for the majority? The poor? It made my head hurt to try to weigh and compare the two systems. I spent a lot of time talking with Anna, and other very smart, obviously well educated Cubans. I might have been more sympathetic to Cuba’s socialism if I hadn’t been so damn hungry (see food post). And then Hugo Chavez died, providing an unexpected glimpse into Cuba’s governmental control.

When Hugo Chavez died, the Cuban government issued an edict that the country was in national mourning. All music and dancing were strictly prohibited. It was like someone unplugged Havana. Our group had reservations to see the famous Buena Vista Social Club that night, but when we showed up, the show was shuttered. Same with the other Cuban institution, the Tropicana cabaret. But, it was not just the big, obvious venues; every bar, every restaurant, even every last cruising convertible Chevy were silenced. Anna timidly sang us a few bars of a song to demonstrate Cuban rhythms (because our drumming/dancing excursion had been cancelled), but she would only do so behind the tinted bus windows, and expressed fear for her job should anyone else see and report her. Like, for serious.

Now, I’m just a regular gal; not much for political protesting or other grand statements. Search me for tattoos or exotic piercings, and you’ll be disappointed. I like the idea of the 1st Amendment, but don’t exercise my right in any overt way very often and wouldn’t expect myself to buck at feeling impinged. But, there it was. I couldn’t believe the control and fear wielded over the citizens by the government. Yes, they may have been truly mourning Chavez’s passing, but that wasn’t the reason they were shuttering their businesses and censoring their singing in public. They were told to. And, they did. Simple as that. It made me extremely uncomfortable and homesick for the US where I can protest if I want to … even if I never really want to.

Hugo Chavez’s death made the paradox of socialism stand out in stark relief. This was supposed to be a government dedicated to the common man, yet the government ruled the common people with a very short leash. It seemed incredibly paternal. Yes, the government will assure you your rations, your healthcare, your shelter; in exchange, you will do exactly as the government says. I think I may just have too much independent American baked into me for that. I’m so not interested. At least not for those rations and that shelter. I’m not proud to say this, but if I’m being honest, I probably have a sell-out price. But, Cuba wasn’t anywhere near it.

The country stayed in mourning until our departure. I continued to cast about, my last couple days in Cuba, trying to get a true sense of whether the average citizen was satisfied with their lot or not. I was too timid to bluntly ask Anna or the other locals I came into contact with “do you believe you are better off pre or post-Revolution?” and I doubted I would get an honest answer anyway. I headed back to the airport much less open-minded about socialism than I had arrived.

But then, I ended up sitting down next to a stranger and having a lengthy discussion in the airport lounge that shifted my opinions once again. The stranger I sat next to turned out to be Saul Landau. I didn’t know it at the time, but Saul Landau is a journalist, filmmaker, commentator and professor. He’s travelled extensively to Cuba (over 100 times in his estimation from the 1950’s up to the present), written and filmed much about Cuba, and was fascinating to talk to. Ironic, that just as I was about to depart, I stumbled upon this font of knowledge, willing to talk to me, and able to answer my litany of questions, most of which I’m sure were embarrassingly simple to him.

I even asked that number one question on my mind: were the poorer Cubans really better off post-Revolution? His answer surprised me: “Unquestionably, yes.” Just like that, plain as day in his opinion. This held a lot of weight with me, since he had seen Cuba through many transitions. He even regaled me with stories of travelling in the mountains sitting in a Jeep with Fidel himself. And of course, he mentioned the world-class heath care and education systems, available to all Cuban citizens (actually, in some cases, even non-citizens: Saul’s own American daughter got her M.D. in Cuba, completely gratis.) Now, obviously Saul, like any of us, comes with his own biases. But the answer he delivered, with no hesitation, made an impression on me. It made me reconsider the conclusion I thought I had come to. I don’t think I see Cuba with the same rose-colored glasses that Saul does. I certainly don’t enjoy their ham sandwiches the way he relished his at Gate 12. But, I given his extensive, far superior knowledge and experience with the country and its people, I have to give due deference to his opinions.

In the end, all my teeth gnashing is irrelevant, of course. Which system, capitalism or socialism, works better? Where are the poor better off? There are no easy or absolute answers, comparing these two countries directly isn’t the correct metric anyway, and besides, who am I to say? I know where I’m more comfortable, given my upbringing, bias, and comfortable middle-class status. But I can certainly see how my view might change if any of those variables differed.

The only real conclusion I came away with is that the 50 year old U.S. embargo against Cuba should end. Whether I decide I think Cuba’s government is valid or not – either way, the embargo makes no sense. The U.S. trades with countless other countries with governments or policies at least as counter to U.S. ideology as Cuba’s. And, in any case, if the U.S.’s intention was for the embargo to hurt the Castro regime and/or encourage Cubans to overthrow their government, I think we can count that experiment as a failure. The embargo appears to have been quite an effective tool assisting the Castro regime in insulating itself from U.S. influence. However, since Raul Castro took over for Fidel, evidence of capitalism seeping into Cuba is everywhere, the future is obvious. Castro’s “revolucion” is headed in the same direction Stalin’s went. It’s only a matter of time and opening up trade will simply accelerate the process.

As far as I can make out, the embargo has stayed in place primarily for two reasons: (1) the large population of Cuban Americans living in Florida both resent the Revolution/Cuban government for taking their property in Cuba, AND, have a strong financial incentive to keep the embargo rules in place which allow them uniquely (as opposed to non-Cuban US citizens) to send money and materials to Cuba, giving them a monopoly on investing in the newly permitted private Cuban businesses profiting handsomely off tourists, and (2) most Americans just don’t know or care enough about this situation to demand change. It seems to me that the U.S. simply has too much on its plate to bother with this issue. No politician wants to do battle with the vocal Cuban population in Florida when most Americans don’t care.

As more people travel to Cuba and come to similar realizations, and as the generation of original Cuban refugees passes on, I hope to see a change in US-Cuban relations. Once that happens I believe both countries will mostly be better off. Cuba’s unique “time capsule” nature will be a necessary casualty of such a change, so I am grateful to have been able to visit when I did. It was a fascinating trip. But I look forward to better food next time around.