A little over 15 years ago, I embarked upon a semester abroad at the University of Havana. To be honest, it changed my life. I fell in love, learned about Cuban socialism firsthand, penetrated Havana’s hip-hop scene and spent 2 years in and out of the country on medical missions.
I got to see sides of Cuba that these weeklong escapes don’t grasp. I learned about the rations system from living with my Cuban boyfriend and understanding how sometimes the rations don’t stretch the whole month. I learned how to buy from the Cuban agros and make everything from yuca frita to jugo de coco to dulce de leche at the family home in Santos Suarez. I delved into understanding the Afro-Cuban religion and learned of the rich symbolism hidden behind Catholic saints. I learned about José Marti, Nicolas Guillen, Victor Dreke, and the contrasting pride and bitterness over the revolution.
Because Cuba’s restricted economy and complicated regulations meant unending struggle
Almost two years after I’d arrived, I faced a crossroads- continuing my relationship would mean marriage. Yet I saw a limited future for him in the USA and an even more limited one for me in Cuba. Because Cuba’s restricted economy and complicated regulations meant unending struggle. Official salaries at the time hovered near $10 USD a month. And the only way to surpass such a low base was through remittances or earning dollars- and most means of earning dollars were conducted illegally, from escorting to illegal home restaurants…too many things. Despite how beautiful the island is, there was a very limited horizon there, especially for most Cubans.
Within a decade of my last trip to Cuba, all my Cuban friends, dozens of people, had left for a better life- even as they deeply love their homeland. A few years after that, we all cheered from all over the globe when Obama momentously decided to end the travel ban separating US Americans from our Cuban neighbors. I wasn’t sure how this thawing would play out but hoped it would symbolize progress, and ideally, some benefit for both sides. Today, I can mostly only see the benefits for my fellow Americans, who, judging by social media, are flooding Havana by the planeload. Who can blame them for falling in love with its expansive beaches, colonial architecture, vintage cars, the salsa and timba blaring in the wind, the adorable couples kissing on the Malecon, the wizened, humane and smiling eyes of most of the everyday Cubans who chat you up endlessly on the street?
Fifteen years later, I hear Havana’s still just as charming- so I can’t blame this new wave of American tourists for falling in love. Or maybe, it’s just infatuation, just at the surface, barely below the skin.
At the surface, it’s easy to overlook how much Cuban culture is already commercialized, with benefits accruing to very few shareholders
At the surface, it’s easy to ignore discrepancies like the young girls jineteando with European men 2 or 3 times their age. At the surface, it’s easy to ignore how hotels rarely employ Afro-Cubans and how these divisions undermine the equity promised by the Cuban Revolution. At the surface, it’s easy to overlook how much Cuban culture is already commercialized, with benefits accruing to very few shareholders. Infatuation is blinder than love so can gloss over these discrepancies. Infatuation sees images (like Instagram snaps), not people, societies or their nuances- so it’s easy for planeloads of my fellow Americans to say “I gotta get to Cuba before everyone ruins it.”
What if the Cuban people are ready for better infrastructure, better cars, better connectivity and earning more than $20 USD a month?
Do they mean “ruined” by the other Americans, eager to plant little red and blue flags in this “virgin” new market? Do they mean “ruined” by the forces of globalization? What about the plethora of European hotel chains already firmly globalizing Cuba’s hospitality sector? As well as the European and Canadian tourists who have been coming for decades? As well as the European brands and American music, including hip hop, that have already been infusing global pop culture here for ages? Do they mean Havana will be “ruined” when there’s no more vintage cars or crumbling colonial buildings? And when there is wifi and Starbucks on every corner? What if the Cuban people are ready for better infrastructure, better cars, better connectivity and earning more than $20 USD a month? If American tourism is bringing these advancements, is it really “ruining” Cuba? What if it’s not? Infatuation is blinder than love so can skip these questions.
Ironically, I may have to finally return to Cuba, half a lifetime after my old life there, just to answer them.