An American in Havana A Trip into a Changing Cuba
“I only hope that the change is for the better; the Cuban people deserve it.” – Joshua Stroud I left Havana the night Fidel Castro died. For the rest of my life I’ll be able to utter that unbelievable sentence as an opening line to tell the story about my time in Cuba. Cuba is a complicated place wrought with contradictions. The death of Fidel Castro highlights the riff between those who view Castro and his policies as heroic and revolutionary and those who view him as brutal and despotic. Not surprisingly, most Cuban-Americans providing their reactions to Castro’s death on US news coverage fit into the latter camp. Most of these people are Cuban exiles whose parents or grandparents lost everything to the revolution including businesses, homes and even family members. These people are not to be ignored. Still, Cubans living in Cuba today provided a much more nuanced point of view when my wife and I asked them their thoughts. On our short trip, we got to spend a few hours with Cubans of different ages. The youngest, Yasser, did everything that was asked of him by the Cuban Government. He applied himself in school and became a lawyer which led to a job with the government. He quit to become a waiter a few years later because he couldn’t afford the rents in Havana on the $25 per month official salary. As a waiter, he has saved enough money to buy a house, renovate it and is shopping for a car. To afford these things, he’s most likely been forced to break Cuban law and hide his extra cash earnings from the government. Yasser’s views were the most pragmatic. He didn’t have much hope for what President-Elect Donald Trump would offer the Cuban people in the years to come and didn’t expect that the US would be Cuba’s savior, regardless. In his view, the embargo was a crutch on which the Cuban Government had come to rely to hide the shortcomings of their own policies. He pondered what excuses they would create once the embargo has been lifted.
One cab driver that we spent half an hour with on the morning of the day that Castro died was very vocal about his complaints against his government. He told us that his “American dream” was to die in the United States. He told us that he loved our country and asked us what we thought of his. We told him that we were very impressed and he said I agree, “beautiful country, beautiful people, messed up government.” He told us he was tired of all the lies and when asked about Trump he told us that he was hopeful of what Trump may come to mean for Cuba, that sometimes the best things come from the most surprising places. As for the Cuban Government, their stance is written on buildings, walls and billboards all over the country. The face of Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader in Cuba, is everywhere and is often accompanied by the decades old rally cry, “hasta la victoria siempre” or “towards victory, always”, a phrase that was tweeted out today by the government’s official account following the announcement of Castro’s death. Painted in large block letters on the concrete bleachers of one baseball field that we passed was the slogan, “Socialism or death” and on a prominent billboard on the main highway to Havana is the word “Bloqueo”, the Spanish word used in Cuba for the embargo, with the “o” in the shape of a noose and the subtitle, “the longest genocide in history.” The current president is Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel who took over 8 years ago, as Fidel’s health was declining. Raul appears to be healthy, if not much younger than Fidel but has announced that he plans to retire in 2018. It is unclear who will take over after Raul retires. My personal view is that nothing will change between Cuba and the US as long as there is a Castro in power. For these men, the embargo and the feud between the US and Cuba is personal, a vendetta to which they have dedicated their lives. At the same time, it is easy enough for US presidents to issue grandiose statements about enforcing the embargo until political and religious freedoms and human rights are enhanced in Cuba because there is little to lose from the continuing the status quo. I am a lover of nostalgia, I have expressed those views here. I love that Cuba is a time machine, one of the last living vestiges of a bygone era. I loved that the streets of Havana were not only full of vintage American cars but full of an equally antiquated sight: people – walking, talking and interacting with each other, not their cell phones. I selfishly fear than an end to the embargo would bring an end to the simplicity and sincerity of life in Cuba, that the classic cars would be pilfered and whisked back to the United States for top dollar sales to collectors, that the tattered but soulful old buildings that line the famous Malecon would be replaced with modern hotels and that Havana will become the next Daytona Beach or Cancun for Spring Breaking college students. I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen and experienced one of the most unique cities that I have ever visited, slipping through the window just as it seems to be closing.
Still, if the time is approaching for change in Cuba, I am confident that the people are ready. As is the tradition throughout the country, I noticed a slogan painted in large letters on a military school that we passed that read “Order and Discipline”. To be sure, those two words describe the motto of any military school, but they also accurately describe the Cuban people. Personal and national pride exuded the words, actions and appearance of everyone that we encountered. Most had complaints but more hope. All had impeccably starched and ironed uniforms, a small but significant display of discipline and pride. Perhaps we were most struck by their generosity. In many countries, an airport taxi driver is at the top of the list for Most Likely to Swindle. Our cab driver drove us the 150 kilometers from the Varadero airport to Havana and then asked if we’d like for him to come back and get us for our return trip to the airport. We agreed to meet him at noon on our day of departure but only half expected him to show. When the day came, he called our room at 11:30 alerting me that he was ready when we were. Then, because we were early, stopped at a roadside stand for a pina colada, a separate road stop for a Cubano sandwich and some great views and then drove through his hometown of Matanzas giving us a tour as we went. When we finally got to the airport he presented my wife with a pair of earrings. We tipped him well but he expected nothing.
Similarly, on our second day in Havana, we arranged for a Hemingway tour that was scheduled to leave at 10 in the morning and end back at the hotel at 2. When we finally got back to the hotel at 3:45 we had not only enjoyed every minute of the Hemingway tour, but we had eaten a wonderful lunch, shopped for cigars and rum and strolled through half of Old Havana, all unplanned with nothing but patience and graciousness from the tour guide and driver. When it was time to pay, there wasn’t a single word mentioned from them of the nearly 2 extra hours that they had spent with us and instead bid us goodbye like old friends. The most ironic contradiction to me is that Democracy has overrun Communism is almost every corner of the globe through the proliferation of American and Western culture and not through the proliferation of weapons and soldiers. Communism has stood for decades in Cuba precisely because those Spring Breaking Americans have been kept out. Open the doors to American money and the culture and economy would change at such a rapid pace that the Cuban Government would not be able to resist the tides of change. I only hope that the change is for the better; the Cuban people deserve it.
This editorial appeared in The Ennis Daily News on November 29, 2016. As a 4Changer, Josh has given us permission to republish this article on the Wire Blog along with his original photography. Link to the Ennis Daily News: http://www.ennisdailynews.com/news/cuba-the-last-day/
Joshua Stroud is Lead Analyst of Procurement, Pricing & Analytics at 4Change Energy. When Josh is not hard at work buying power, he writes as a Contributor to the Ennis Daily News and enjoys spending time with his wife and two kids.