No matter how many books you read, classes you take, or how up on current events you are, there’s no way to understand Cuba, even if you’ve been there. It is a country of contrasts and incomparable warmth and beauty. I studied and was obsessed with the country – its politics, revolutionary history, intellectual capital, and culture – for about 15 years before I had the opportunity to visit the island. After a week in Cuba, the one thing I knew to be true, in the words of Aristotle, was “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
I began studying Cuba at the university in the early 2000s, and bought a travel book in 2006, determined to visit during Castro’s charge. In 2012, exactly 4 years ago this week, I was invited to go to Cuba with work (at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine), on a people-to-people educational exchange visa. I was joining a group of medical professionals, including Dr. Weil and a small group of leading physicians, as the trip photographer. During the week in Cuba, we toured neighborhood clinics, medicinal herb farms, botanical research corporations, and medical schools around the country. We learned how the Cuban healthcare system responded to financial hardship of “The Special Period,” brought on by the dissolution of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989. The country popularizing low-cost, effective natural treatments – necessity is the mother of invention – which was our specialty in integrative medicine. Some of us also attended the world-renowned Habana Film Festival (where I saw one of my favorite bands live – more on that later), danced, ate, and imbibed our fair share of mojitos and daiquiris, or at least I did.
Prior to visiting, I had many well-informed preconceived notions about the country and its culture and politics. But one week in Cuba morphed everything I thought and especially what I thought I would feel.
I spent the night in Miami and left with the group on a charter flight early the next morning. In Miami, my cab driver (a disgruntled exile, very passionate about his homeland) told me that what existed in Cuba was not socialism – people were not equal. It’s a broken model, he said.
A broken model
The average Cuban makes less than $25 per month, but public officials and government dignitaries make more. Celebrities, athletes, and artists with international reach make more. People that work in tourism and those that earn tips – they also make more. However, doctors, lawyers, engineers, highly-educated professionals not in tourism or international business, face a daily struggle. Our last day in Cuba, we cooked and ate at a restaurant called Espacios, that had opened one month earlier, and that would be hosting a party the following evening for the Havana Film Festival with Hollywood A-listers including Charlize Theron. The owners were an economist, a lawyer, and an accountant, who figured out they could make far more money in the restaurant than pursuing their trades.
Winds of change
While I was there, Cuba was in the midst of major change. Fidel had all but disappeared from the public eye, and his brother and fellow revolutionary Raúl was (and is) head of state. At risk of losing a sale, a guayabera vendor accepted my dollars instead of waiting for me to go exchange them for pesos, but years before, being in possession of dollars might mean years in prison.
Previously, hotels and restaurants were run by the state, but recently paladares (individual-run restaurants like Espacios) and casas particulares (a Cuban sort of B&B) started springing up and state-run businesses are privatizing. These changes, in conjunction with a growing number of U.S.-issued people-to-people educational and cultural exchange visas (Thanks, Pres. Obama!), are changing the market. Prices that were once fixed can now be negotiated and Cubans are learning to bargain like good capitalists.
The Embargo in Cuba
In spite of our countries’ waning political tension, Cuban people respect our opportunity and innovation. And according to one of my cab drivers on the island in an unmarked “taxi,” we leave big tips (he told us twice during the ride).
In one of our business meetings speaking about the embargo or as the Cubans call it, the blockade, the CEO of a recently privatized company told us that their dealings with other countries are complicated by lack of infrastructure – the inability to receive large email attachments, a simple teleconference – things in the U.S. we take for granted. As Cuba becomes increasingly open in the global economy, perhaps its biggest challenge will not be the embargo or blockade, but underdeveloped infrastructure and antiquated technology. Is the embargo limiting potential trade and income or is it politics and technology? Without the embargo, would Cuba flourish? Is it ready for the world?
“You can put the blockade on us, but now you’re blocked too,” the same CEO told us.
During our visit, I learned that the Cubans respect our ability to innovate and grow, and in Cuba, everyone is educated and fed (we could argue about how well fed they are – they had no access to fruit in the 1980s, and still don’t have beef), they’re incredibly industrious, and there’s great potential for tourism on the island. The people are genuine, welcoming, and warm. They look each other in the eye when the speak. They ask how the other is doing and care about the answer. They sit on their doorsteps and have lively conversation with friends, and kids play in the plaza without the overly-watchful eyes of parents. They feel safe. We’re two countries longing for more of what the other has. Indeed, we are blocked.
The opportunity for growth
My last night in Cuba, I met with a wonderful couple I’d been connected with through our dear mutual friend. They were smart, interesting, kind and quick-witted. I felt instant affection, camaraderie, and friendship with them. We shared funny stories about our friend as we strolled along the malecón at sunset, and settled into a café under the golden lights of a plaza in Habana Vieja. We spoke candidly and exchanged ideas on many things. Over coffee and great conversation, the strangest feeling swept over me, unlike anything I’d ever felt. Heartbreak… longing… hope… helplessness? I went back to my hotel that night and wrote 1600 words in a notebook, in handwriting deteriorated by lack of use – most of which informed what I’m writing today.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting many countries, while some people, despite their longing, don’t have the option of ever leaving their island. Of all the places I’ve been, never have I had such a quick and pure emotional connection to a place and a people. Cubans are good, hopeful, and sincere. I hope time and transition will be kind to them (and especially to my quick friends over coffee), I hope those that need it will find intellectual and spiritual fulfillment, and I hope that with recent changes and more to come, Cuba does not lose its character, it’s culture, or it’s core values. As they modernize, I hope they don’t lose their way because I sometimes believe we have.
Fidel Castro, leader of the revolution, head of state for 50 years, and patriarchal figurehead of Cuba passed away at 92-years-old on November 25. Love him or hate him, the man was a marvel. Despite all odds, he maintained a mostly socialist government, persevered in his vision, and was able to nurture a sincere, robust, and wonderful people. This is not to overlook some serious concerns – there are two sides to every story. Would any of this have been possible without this unrelenting leader? And what now?
Now that I know, I know there’s no way to know what comes next.
When I was on the balcony at the film festival, watching the debut of a documentary about one of my favorite songwriters, Silvio Rodríguez, the audience began singing Ojalá (a politically subversive folk anthem roughly translating to God Willing), along with the movie. Twelve years prior, my professor in Querétaro, Mexico, used the song to teach us subjunctive verb conjugation and it struck a chord deep in me, becoming a critical tune in my life’s soundtrack. That day in Cuba, the voices of hundreds of Cubans reverberated off the illustrious theater walls, as though they were singing to me, and at that moment my life came full-circle. I was changed.
When you leave Cuba, you know you can’t just text your friends, or send them a Christmas card or video of the kids. You’re afraid you’ll never go back or that you’ll never again experience the openness of heart being there summons. You appreciate your own true privilege of being able to speak, move, and grow freely and know there’s not much you can do to help your friends on the island.
So now, we wait. We continue to hope that time grants the Cubans options, open exchange, and innovation. The uncertainty about Cuba’s future and not knowing when I’ll see my friends again is heartbreaking, but thinking in such binary terms is very American of me. In Cuba, nothing is as it seems – there are no concrete answers, no instant gratification. But to a Cuban, the light on the horizon promises choices and opportunity – a lesson in patience and hope we could all use.