Cuba – No Man’s Land for Americans
I actually didn’t know if I was going to Cuba until the day before I left. Apparently, deciding to go to Caribbean islands during the peak of hurricane season isn’t the best of planning. But I’m stubborn, and it was easier to stay the course than try to change my plane tickets. So, once it seemed that Hurricane Maria was going to blast poor Puerto Rico but spare Cuba this time, I knew I was going.
Visiting Cuba as an American is a big deal for us – even us Americans who also have a British passport. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the situation, but basically it boils down to this: the US government restricts travel from the US to Cuba – regardless of what passport you hold. You are theoretically only allowed to go to Cuba for a list of preordained reasons: humanitarian aid, religious, education, etc. The point is, the US does not want people using Florida as a launching pad for cushy vacations to its ‘arch-enemy’ Cuba.
In reality, there are tons of direct flights to Cuba daily from the US. All you need to do is purchase a ticket for a flight, purchase a visa ($50) and state that you are going for ‘educational’ purposes. When you get to Cuba, you hand them over the visa and tell them that you are there for tourism – they do NOT want people coming to their country to provide aid or lecture them. ‘Show us your tourist money!’ could be their motto instead.
I’m sure that this has been said by most people who visit Cuba, but stepping into Havana is truly like stepping through a Wrinkle in Time. Being one of the islands that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ and spent a lot of quality time on, Cuban civilization is OLD by new-world standards: the city of Trinidad celebrated its 500th anniversary recently, and Havana is close behind. The buildings in the main part of Havana are almost all of colonial vintage, and most look as if they haven’t had hardly any upkeep since they were built. Havana is crumbling, slowly but surely. Once-beautiful facades with no building left behind them sit next to buildings with falling balconies and trees growing out of rooftops. However, the Cubans love their colors, and even the most decrepit facades are painted in the gayest of pastels – pinks, purples, blues, greens. A Caribbean version of Notting Hill comes to mind. It’s as if a once-beautiful woman still smiles behind her caked-on, cracking make-up.
The other, rather uncanny, time warp comes in the form of old American jalopies – an even further anachronistic touch when contrasted with the colonial-era buildings. Sedans from the 1950s – the kind of car my parents rode in as kids – roam Cuban roads with colors as cheerful as the buildings. Seeing them roaming the roads made me feel like an enymologist who discovered an island swarming with an insect once thought to be extinct. How do they keep these ancient critters running? I wondered. They don’t even make parts for them anymore! It’s a testament to Cubans’ ingenuity that they are able to keep these antiques on indefinite life support.
On the effects of communism
As American kids, we grow up knowing that Castro was a bad guy and that the Cubans have suffered under him. Getting to finally visit the place as an adult – and one who visited China back when it was just shaking off the shackles of Communism – I have a slightly more nuanced view of this.
Yes, it’s true that the infrastructure there is pretty bad. You can’t flush toilet paper for fear of clogging the pipes. Water and electricity are supplied with occasional spurts and outages. The roads in Havana are full of potholes and debris. Most people have to go to public parks to enjoy WiFi. And interestingly, you can still go to government shops where you are able to purchase a limited selection of items from designated counters, much like one used to do in China in the 90’s.
One of the areas where I personally felt Cuba was hurting the most was in the area of food – it didn’t matter what restaurant you entered, I can guarantee you that I can tell you what was on the menu. The range was incredibly limited, and most restaurants offered up the same exact ‘usual suspects’: fish, shrimp, lobster (!), pork, chicken, rice, beans, plantains – and if they were on the exotic end, possibly pizza. As a vegetarian, I was tired of the diet after 2 days there. And what’s worse, the food isn’t cooked or seasoned that well – and I am not a foodie!
Back to thoughts on communism, what I realised is that, while the Castro regime most definitely limited Cuba’s economy, so too has the US-imposed embargo. I would be very interested to see what Cuba might look like if the embargo had not been in place all these years. I would imagine that, at the very least, a much larger variety of food and products would be found on the island.
Given this context, we were curious what products Cuba exports. Our guide gave a pithy reply: professionals. Cuba is very proud of the fact that it has all but eliminated illiteracy, and their medical system provides free care to all citizens. In reaction to the limits of Cuba’s economic system and the embargo, they must have figured that the one natural resource that they had was their people, and so they chose the path of education. College is free for those who want to become professionals, and Cuba exports doctors to countries in Latin America and around the world. It’s truly admirable that they’ve been able to do this on the meagre resources that seem to be at their disposal!
And yet, a small cynical part of me wished that they’d put some of that educational firepower towards cooking education. If relations between the US and Cuba ever thaw, I swear that chefs should be the first people we send!