We arrived in Havana on the 50th anniversary of The Revolution, in 2009. Months before, as soon as we heard about it, we’d signed up for a humanitarian trip for a group of writers that allowed us to visit as long as we brought school supplies and medical supplies along to drop off during visits to schools and social service agencies. We’d had a lot of time to formulate our questions.
Before we left Miami our tour guides, experienced Cuba travelers, had cautioned us to watch how we explained ourselves.
“The Cuban government officially does not need humanitarian help,” they said. “So when US officials ask on the way out of Miami why you are going, you tell them you are a humanitarian. When you get to Havana, you tell them you are a tourist. This is important. We don’t want to lose anyone at the airport.”
The airport was as bare bones as we’d ever seen, and yes, we each took our turn in a glass booth to answer that question before we were allowed to enter the country. In fact, the airport was the first place we got smacked with our own wrong assumptions. It turns out that you can’t leave your passport in your carryon assuming it will be handed to you before you leave the plane. Such an oversight results in mad dashing around by the tour guide and passenger trying to locate it, and gnashing of teeth by the wife of the passenger.
That night, we found another at the Q&A session with a Cuban woman there to introduce us to her culture. Since our country was sparked to life by rebellion against repressive control, and we have a history of acting up ever since, she was hit with a barrage of very American questions.
“How do Cubans protest against government policies? What happens to dissidents?
“What will happen when Fidel dies?” (He was already reported to be quite ill and we had wild imaginings of chaos in the streets if he would die.)
Our assumption: that Cubans would act like we would. The reality: our speaker was puzzled by these questions, especially the last one.
After a spell of silence, “Why… if Fidel died, we would be sad, crying,” she said. “It would be a terrible thing.”
Through the rest of the trip, we pieced together a picture of a highly loyal people who revered their leader for what he had done 50 years before to oust the brutal and corrupt Batista regime. Despite decades of deprivation, the country’s survival ensured only by massive to outside help first from the USSR, then Venezuela, then China, the devotion continued. Not that it would have been a good idea to share any other thoughts – we were warned that the Cuban guide had to be careful about what they said, because the supposedly only-Spanish speaking bus driver could turn her in if he discerned any critical statements.
That year, everyone received a Chinese refrigerator. The next month, they had to start paying it off from their $25/month check. We also learned that toeing the line was good for self-preservation, as loyalty was rewarded by access to better schools, and a chance at the ballet and other arts programs that were valued because successful artists of many kinds had a higher standard of living and more freedom of movement. We met a jazz musician whose family spent the summers in Maine every year, traveling to Canada and then across the border to the cottage they loved.
We learned of a lively black market that spoke of an entrepreneurial spirit. Cubans had clearly developed ways to work around the status quo. The most popular TV show was Three and a Half Men.
And, as we suspected, there were dissidents, including Cuban bloggers who somehow evaded the ban on internet access to reach their readers.
It was a complicated place that revealed a sharp contrast between what we saw (poverty) and what we heard (satisfaction). Listening this week to statements of grief from Cuban people, I wonder what will grow there next, especially after Raul’s promised retirement in 2019. I think of the bloggers, the black market sellers, the TV viewers putting together a new vision that wouldn’t rely on outside aid with strings attached or hatred of US ways. Better to find out what Cuban ways would be now.
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