Diaries Magazine

A Trip to Cuba

By Pearlmacek

Cuba from the RoadIn the beginning, it was an idea. It was one of those ideas that no one really thinks will work: but then it does and then time to apply theory to reality. I don’t think anyone really thought Fidel Castro and his revolution would work; perhaps deep down inside, not even Fidel himself thought that he or anybody else had a chance of pulling it off. But then it did and all those loyal to the idea of a new Cuba, a revolutionary Cuba, had to figure out how to give birth to a new nation because the island never before that fateful year, had had the privilege of ruling itself.  Cuba has now been the most independent nation in the Caribbean for over 50 years: I admire its endurance through all the hardships and criticisms it has faced.

I went to Cuba in 2009 because I wanted to see Cuba with my own eyes. The island had fascinated me for years and after having heard so many opposing notions of what Cuba is or has been, I decided that I had to go. I was in my third year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico when I was presented with the opportunity to go to Cuba. The university was offering its very first study program at the University of Havana and I immediately began writing my statement of purpose, chasing professors down for my three letters of recommendation and organizing everything else in my student life so that when August came, I was ready to go.

This was not the first opportunity I had jumped at the chance to go to Cuba: every year Cuba offers several scholarships to go and study for 5 years in Cuba to every island in the Caribbean. I ended up not going since my St. Kitts and Nevis passport arrived late and could not prove my St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship to the Cuban government. Most of these scholarships are for learning a trade that will allow these once colonized countries the chance to become more self-efficient as opposed to relying on first world countries for help. These programs mostly involve agriculture training, medicine or several types of engineering. Whether you are for or against Cuba and her political ideology or not, it is a known fact that Cuba has done its part in being a good neighbor with sending doctors to other islands for a couple years at a time to switching out light bulbs in entire neighborhoods for more energy efficient ones. Some of their neighborly actions may be perceived in a less positive light such as the training of Venezuelan military on how to keep a good eye on their citizens.

I got to Cuba in the August of 2009 and I left in December of the same year. Before I got there, I felt I was a fairly knowledgeable person about the happenings of the world yet, I had never been to a Communist-Socialist country nor had I traveled much on my own before. Cuba is a hard idea to wrap ones head around. Yes, idea because it’s not just a place but also a symbol: a symbol of struggle, hope, resilience, and stagnancy among many other things. Even after having coming back from Cuba, I still couldn’t quite understand everything that I had seen, heard and felt there. It wasn’t until I traveled some more, visited countries that had once been under Communist rule, that I began to understand just a little better Cuba’s past, present and future.

There are definitely two realities that co-exist in Cuba: the one experienced by the tourist and the one lived by the Cuban. This idea of two worlds actually is pretty common in other countries with primarily tourism-based economies: especially in the Caribbean; but in Cuba, it’s certainly more pronounced. This duality is perfectly exemplified by the existence of two monetary currencies: the “peso cubano” and the “peso cubano Convertible” or CUC. The former is the peso used by Cubans for buying local made goods and what they are paid by the government. The latter is used by foreigners in mainly tourist areas and by locals to buy foods and other goods imported from other countries. Approximately 24 pesos are equivalent to one CUC where as one US dollar is equivalent to roughly 0.8 CUC so it can get all rather complicated when trying to change money.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Cuba was how hard it was to get anything done. Bureaucracy in any country is difficult to come to terms with but in Cuba, it was absolutely impossible because everything has to be handled by government: even travel. When I tried to reserve a seat on a Cuban bus to go down to Santiago, all seats were fully booked since it was December, the one month of the year when Cubans can get permission to travel outside their providence. Of course I could have taken the tourist option, which would have cost about 60 dollars but for the average Cuban, that is two months pay. I ended up hitchhiking with a friend and we were lucky enough to get picked up by a bus that was heading that way. They were kind enough to take us all the way to Santiago: 1000 miles away.

However, the lack of infrastructure that one sees in Cuba is not completely caused by Cuban socialism. A U.S. embargo is and always has been a powerful instrument when used.  Haiti was one of the first countries to feel the effects of such an action after it became the first free black nation in the Americas in 1804. The embargo certainly has set Cuba back a few years but it is slowly being lifted. Fidel has also managed to use the embargo in his favor by constantly reminding his people, whether on billboards, in his speeches or in the official Cuban newspaper, the Granma, that it is thanks to the U.S. Cuba has not become the great nation that it was destined to be.

When Canadian, European and Latin American tourists visit Cuba, they take advantage of enjoying its beautiful beaches with an excursion here and there inland to picturesque places like Viñales. It is blatantly obvious that Cubans and tourists purposefully kept separate by corralling foreigners in Resorts and then busing them around the country in air-conditioned buses but there is also an element of “ignorance is bliss” here. Cubans do not want to know everything about the outside world since they may not ever have the chance to leave Cuba and tourists generally want to maintain their blasé state and enjoy their vacation without having too many troubling thought about the state of the island they are visiting. It is not to say that all tourists have this attitude towards Cuban reality but it seems to be the general attitude towards the island and its people.

Cuban authorities seem to feel a great need to ensure that the tourist experience is not ruined by allowing too much interaction between Cubans and visitors: Havana Vieja, the most touristic and arguably the most beautiful part of Havana, was under constant camera surveillance when I visited.  Police officers who felt that a Cuban was getting a little too cozy with a foreigner in this part of town, would ask the Cuban in question to show his or her identity card and would sometimes even ask him or her leave. Some Cubans told me that the neighborhoods they lived in were under audio surveillance, with microphones hidden in trees and bushes. This made them think twice before saying anything that might be interpreted as a criticism towards the government.

I traveled to Romania six months after leaving Cuba. While I was there, I remember being told that the huge soviet apartment blocks had been built with extremely thin walls between the apartments to make it easy for people to hear everything their neighbors were saying or doing: a reminder to everyone that they were being watched at all times. I thought back to Cuba and about what I thought was perhaps paranoia of being spied on, but there certainly was some truth to it.

It wasn’t just Cubans who worried about people listening to their conversations and following them: the classes I had in Cuba were typical Cuban university classes except for the presence of American students.  Four American universities were represented in Cuba during my semester there: all very good universities (not including the University of Puerto Rico which is a great school, but not Ivy League). Cubans spies were also watching the students from these colleges: I assume to ensure that they were not American spies posing as students.

Although there is definitely censorship in Cuba, as far as I could tell the gay population is now able to be quite open about their sexuality. There are also Cubans that would be labeled as Punks, Goths and/or Rockers in other countries. They are seen at night walking around together and hanging out in the local parks. However, they are sometimes hassled by the police. All Cubans must keep their Cuban identity cards close at hand as the police are privy to ask for them. I remember when they asked for mine and I remember feeling proud but also scared that they mistook me for a Cuban woman. If you do not have your ID with you upon being asked, the police have the right to fine or even imprison you temporarily. It is commonly known that Cubans of darker skin color or any individual that does not meet the standard of looking “respectable” are asked for their ID more frequently.

Things are slowly changing in Cuba. After Raúl took over the reins of presidency, there has been slow economic reform. A year after I left Cuba, its people were allowed to open up businesses and soon, there were news restaurants, snack shops and taxi services available. With the loosening of travel restrictions from the US to Cuba, many relatives living in America have traveled back to the island bringing along with them anything that Cubans cannot get on island. So it seems Cuba is slowly easing in to the globalized market but it will take generations before it becomes fully assimilated. Concepts such as saving money or an ATM has still not reached the shores of the island. There remains the risk that when and if Cuba fully opens, there will be mayhem at least for the first couple of years before it stabilizes.

So what does the future hold for this island situated approximately 90 miles from Miami? What will happen when the Castro’s regime comes to an end? As far as I know, there are no young hopefuls who wish to become the next Fidel Castro. That is the problem with dictatorships, they only seem to last as long as the individual who starts them.  Will Cuba manage to slowly ease back into the dimension that most of us live in? Or will she fall prey to developers, eager to capitalize off her pristine beaches?  Then there are the Miami Cubans. What will they do? Return to reclaim their properties that they lost more than fifty years ago? Cuba’s future remains unwritten for now but over the coming months and years, we will see some drastic changes occurring in this island nation.

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