To attempt to convey what I learned and experienced in the past few weeks would make my head explode, maybe yours as well, so I want to keep this post basic. I returned yesterday from Cuba, where I stayed for most of my days in La Habana, though I visited also Cienfeugos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara. Naturally, I must get the obvious out of way:
Yes, it was difficult to get there, and we needed special student visas.
Yes, Cuba is a very poor country, but the people and culture are immensely rich, and these people deserve a lot more of our attention. Most Americans, when thinking of Cuba, think only of Fidel Castro and the vague term of “Communism,” but Cuba might not be as foreign as we pretend, the people sharing some of the same intense passions as us (like baseball, rap music, and good beer).
Yes, the rum and cigars in Cuba were superb. If you go to Cuba and don’t try the rum and cigars, then what were the doing the entire time?
More importantly, however, are the questions that United Staters don’t ask when I tell them I just returned from Cuba. On its surface, its a land of bad gas mileage, a land of salsa, a land of making out in public. But the people transcend those stereotypes, like all people, expressing a deep love for each other. Most of Cuba’s population suffers from crippling poverty, and most don’t have cell phones or access to the internet because of this, but it brings people closer. They must build communities in a way most United Staters cannot.
Then comes other misinterpretations, like the inane idea that these people suffer because of the evils of “Communism.” Certainly not. They suffer because of the United States reaction to their socialist revolution, and they suffer because of their own government’s stubbornness to compromise their ideologies with neo-liberal policies. But when you see the track record for US corporations or IMF implementations in Latin American countries, who can blame Cuba for holding out from joining the system? (See: Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile)
The embargo certainly affects more than just Cuban-US relations which could be quite healthy if we did not cling to Cold War ideals and fears. We sanction other countries for even attempting to trade with our island neighbor, and this creates an isolated economy, struggling to reform but still adamant to resist joining the current world system. My opinion of this has change drastically.
What anyone must understand is that despite the poverty and the deteriorating buildings and smog choking Havana’s air, the people persevere. Each day, they find ways to survive, no matter how destitute or desperate the means. Some drive taxis, others sell rejected cigars to unknowing tourists; some go to university, but far more drop out of school to prostitute themselves in the streets, even kids as young as 13 or 14. And our self-made-man society, our American Dream culture, may scoff at that, call them lazy, call them whatever we like, but in the end, we’re the ones hurting them.
I will write more about Cuba in the following months, but I felt compelled to depict at least this much about it. What I’ve written in no way captures Cuban culture, and definitely, my experience could not capture the totality of Cuban culture. Even if I visited for a year, I doubt I could truly understand unless I had lived there, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand, from trying to understand. So, first, what must be said about Cuba is that our policies toward them are antiquated and, in the light of our relations with China, highly ridiculous.
I encourage anyone even slightly interested to study Cuban history and our relationship with them, and I challenge you to learn with an open mind and heart and to not emerge from this study disillusioned and indignant.
The trip include adventure, swimming in mountain pools under water falls, lunching with a German diplomat, studying museums, singing at the top of my lungs at the Melacon (Sea Wall), learning to salsa, going to concerts, meeting locals, and staying up till 6 am with philosophers discussing life. But despite the experience, I learned some practical things, things that will affect me and things I hope to fully believe six months from now. Though I learned hundreds of things, perhaps the most important lesson was the following idea, something simply conceived and so simply true I’m not sure why I had not considered it critically before.
The privileged of the world have the full power and ability to alleviate the suffering of the underprivileged, but only if they choose to surrender the comfort of privilege. Therefore, the only real choice anyone must make is whether to live for others or to live for oneself. Once that choice is made, the others come easy.