Cuba is off the tourist trail for Americans. The U.S. “no visit, no business” policy is very much in effect, condemning travel in Cuba unless you have special permission. So, why go to Cuba? Of course, I had an official reason. I’m a psychologist with published essays on feminine archetypes in film, sufficient credentials to qualify me for a research category authorizing first hand study of Cuban culture by a U.S. citizen. But the quirky “yes, but” smile on people’s faces when I give that answer tells me I’m not giving the answer they want. And I admit it. I did have a personal reason. I wanted to feel and draw my own conclusions about the spirit of a people cut off from the rampant, relentless materialism, consumerism and media-ism America has known and exported for the last forty years.
I wanted to see Cuba before the country becomes another “Big Mac”, a golden arches franchise of corporate America. Once upon a time, Cuba was America’s playground and it’s very likely the embargo will be lifted, as the fantasy of a ninety-mile barrier against communism can no longer be sold to the American public. The U.S. embargo against Cuba is in the news, undergoing reconsideration as U.S./Russian relations improve and U.S. corporations find little reason to restrict trade with Cuba when they actively do business with many other Communist countries. However, it wasn’t the remnants of a secret hideaway Havana of celebrities and mobsters nor Cuba’s stunning but abandoned beaches that I wanted to see.
There’s an old movie, Lost Horizon, of a place out of time that raises the question of whether progress is a boon or a curse. I wondered. Would I be met with a disheartening sight, a Cuban people overwhelmed with poverty and resentful of lost opportunity? Or, would I find a haven of simpler values? I hoped to find a Cuba alive with a culture that defied the poverty I knew would be there. What I found was an odd poverty, but not the homeless sort. Shame did not seem to be a part of the picture. Starvation is not etched into the faces of people sitting in doorways with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Men and women don’t stand around on street corners with their hands out. And I felt safe on the streets on Havana at all hours day or night and while traveling on a vastly empty highway to Trinidad with no gas stations or fast food in sight.
People in Cuba today live very modestly, many live in poverty and, since a dollar goes a long way, everyone seems to be figuring out ways to work the tourist business — from the bottom up.
Entrepreneurial Cubans rent rooms in their apartments to visitors from all over the world, offer their services as guides and set up tourist marketplaces in vacant lots. And there are many clever – enjoyable – ways Cubans have learned to shake extra dollars out of tourist pockets. After several taxi cab drivers entertained me with a story about these huge red apples that they used to be able to get before the embargo and how they wished they could still get those apples, I caught on. His story slowed down the short transit from hotel to old town, instilled a little guilt and inspired a bigger tip. I watched a kid copy a TV interviewer. He fashioned a camera out of a cardboard box and, with a mike cleverly concocted from a plastic water bottle, was unabashedly charming tourists and “earning” dollars by polling them on what they liked best about Havana.
And there is much evidence to support the beloved cliché that money can’t buy the important things in life. While Cuban schools have few books, literacy is reportedly one hundred percent. Strolling along the sidewalk beside Havana’s famous wall along Malecon Boulevard, I saw young people slip in and out of the sea as if it were a backyard swimming pool. Old men fish there happily for hours. On Saturdays, Cubans can buy ice cream for peso pennies in the garden park made famous in the film, Chocolate and Strawberry. I bought the same ice cream in a New York minute for a U.S. dollar but it was clear, I only got half the treat. The families, friends and couples lined up around the block turned waiting into a social event, laughing and socializing with one another.
All over Havana, elegant buildings and promenades are crumbling from lack of repair. But people still live in them, lifting their children over missing steps and preparing meals in the apartments that still have water and electricity. Couples line up to get married in the Hall of Marriages on a Saturday afternoon, one after another arriving in a vintage fifties car, too poor for a church wedding but pretty as a picture in black tux and white dress to get their license. As I watched kids pushing each other on packing boxes turned into makeshift racing cars on the grand colonial promenade, I felt some nostalgia for a Cuba that made a valiant effort to be something other than a fancy island plaything for wealthy high rollers.
So, I wondered. Is Cuba headed back to the future, destined to become a latinized Las Vegas? Cuba is drawing more and more tourists from all over the world every year – including the U.S. In fact, there are legal charters direct from Los Angeles to Havana. Even exiled Cubans can now return once a year on a simple visa. And when Roselyn and Jimmy Carter were there, making a weeklong visit earlier this year, Fidel Castro appeared frequently on TV, uncharacteristically out of uniform, in shirtsleeves. He was discussing international concerns with the first American president to visit since Calvin Coolidge. And Carter, a respected leader of the western world is advocating a normalization of relations with Cuba.
CNN devoted a good size slice of its coverage of Carter’s visit to investigating the desire of young people in Havana for more things American. They certainly found it. The deliberate impoverishment of Cuba by its own dictator and the U.S. embargo has isolated Cuba for more than a generation from basic goods and ordinary opportunities. The embargo intimidates other countries from trading with Cuba, creating a hungry marketplace. But, to my way of thinking, CNN interviewers begged the question, didn’t ask it.
Does the little girl ballet dancing on the sidewalk outside a window of a hotel lobby to the music of a fine pianist want ballet lessons in a ballet studio? Do two women sitting idle in a hot doorway in brightly colored skirts and blouses want to go to lunch and a movie? Does a skinny man and a large woman in spandex, laughing and hugging on the wall of a park, want to go for a coffee or a beer at a sidewalk café? Do the musicians who play nightly, study daily and perform for peanuts want better instruments and access to recording opportunities? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that barehanded kids hitting baseballs with flat sticks want gloves and bats. Basketballs are rare and teens play out their dreams spinning empty handed against walls without hoops in cheap sports outfits emulating Michael Jordan. In Cuba, Cubans need dollars to buy normal things.
Yes, Cubans may want more things American but do Cubans want what America will want for Cuba?
Seemingly intact, in spite of all odds, this small country’s soul reverberates in its music. Inside the crumbling shell of its architecture and under the lid of poverty, Cubans speak a distinct voice of enthusiasm in their music. Ry Cooder, a well-known American musician, did an end run around U.S. restrictions, giving some Cubans some access – and the rest of us a treasure. He couldn’t resist making Cuba’s music available to the world through film with Buena Vista Social Club. While I was there, I heard a classical guitar recital given at Havana’s Muse Des Belles Artes in which each student’s composition was highly unique, yet each marked with a Cuban flavor. Strings broke during the evening but didn’t stop the performance. I didn’t get a chance to ask the performers how they felt about their low quality, visibly worn instruments but, again, the need for dollars is clear; the desire for an Americanized culture is not.
Progress, however, will be a mixed bag, full of tricks. Cubans have made major sacrifices, been wooed by one of the most charismatic and dedicated leaders in the world and waited patiently for a better day. Relentless deprivation prevails all over Cuba, breeding an intense longing not only for things but access. Cuba lives primarily on dreams of possibility. Even though lifting the embargo will cause problems, my questions about easing relations with the U.S. met with enthusiasm. Legendary music, an uncanny production of outstanding baseball players and a wily spirit have helped people survive Castro’s power struggles. But images of Che Guevara still hang from old bicycles and decorate everything from tee shirts to pesos, ever reminiscent of an idealist who represents dying for an unconditional, possibly unattainable dream of freedom that has no room for compromise.
Walking the streets of Havana is like visiting the back lot of an old movie studio that someone forgot about, let go to seed but didn’t destroy believing that – one day – silent movies would come back into style and just such a set would be needed. Apartment buildings, houses and hotels line the streets like lovely goddesses of an ancient civilization, worn down by the ages but still gloriously suggestive of better times. Each structure, though pock marked from salt and crumbling from neglect, holds a mystique. Each seems like an archetypal column holding up remnants of an historical civilization and representing — as surely as Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena — the mythic ideals of beauty, strength and creativity necessary to building a civilization.
As I talked to the owner of a restaurant about how many of these grand old beauties were now rentals for large groups, I had a revelation. She talked about how abruptly the destruction of the old grandeur had occurred when Castro came into power. But she felt ambivalent about rich people streaming back into Cuba. Forty years had given her time to become middle class. She was a future that didn’t exist in the times of colonial, baroque and art deco goddess buildings. She was a fifties baby, nursed on modern designs punctuated by colorful and flamboyant shapes of architecture — that last decade of building before the revolution.
I graduated from high school in 1957, a bare few hundred miles north of Cuba in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I didn’t just observe the up swing of materialism. I felt it. Or, more to my point, I didn’t feel it. Florida loved modernism. Plastics; they were resistant to mildew. Concrete slabs; they could be hosed clean of sand. Sliding glass doors; they kept out the bugs and let in the light. At the time, I resisted the modern materials and designs. They seemed empty, devoid of those mahogany, handcrafted memories carefully carved into armoires and railings polished to a shiny gleam marking steep, circular stairways from mysterious rooms above. Modernism was cold. Straight lines, cookie cutter diamonds dotted with little balls in bright colors that offered a future without meaning, quickly stamped out by a machine rather than yielding a shape over time. Silly superficiality broke from the past but promised little meaning for the future. Vance Packard wrote the book that told it all. Commercialism was taking over. We would soon no longer care what came in a box of detergent as long as we liked the box. What I realized talking to this Cuban restaurant owner was that Cuba didn’t become a box.
In other words, Havana’s streets are full of people with dreams cut off in the sixties. In the fifties, just before Cuba went under the embargo, cars had become getaway cars — Chevy’s, Ford’s and Caddie’s with fins, bright colors and eight cylinder motors. Gas was only 29 cents and symbolized by Pegasus, the white horse with wings flying over Texaco stations could take you anywhere your imagination could reach. If you couldn’t own a dream mobile, you figured you could fly into the future on your own wings of desire. Cuba is the only ‘living car museum’ in the world; more models of restored cars are being driven in Cuba than any other country. And though the present price of gas leaves plenty of these classic cars sitting idle in parking lots or working as tourist taxis, they are also owned and maintained as prized possessions. I’d like to believe Cuba could meet the challenge of ‘the day the embargo lifted’ and make the American dollar – when it comes – fund a Cuban dream, long in incubation and ripe for blossoming.
The Cubans I met felt alive with a dream. What one of us doesn’t know what living on a dream means? Longing is an old friend of Americans. With all that we have, we are still dreamers of greater greatness. Dreams are strong aphrodisiacs, feeding the spirit when the stomach is empty. And, if you look closely, it isn’t the dream come true but the dreaming that creates the future.
For a couple weeks, I was part of Cuba’s dreaming and it was part of me. In that dream world, I got a handshake instead of a receipt for my hotel bill, shared my taxi with a stranger who ended up having dinner with me and went nightclubbing with friends until 2 am without worrying about getting mugged on my way home. Still, I – like the Cubans I met – look forward to the end of the embargo because I want those kids to have books and mitts. I want the woman restaurant owner to reap the rewards of her hard work. I’d like the spunky kid interviewer and the aspiring student musicians to grow up and have their fifteen minutes of fame.
But I do fear Cuba will suffer yet another revolution when the embargo is lifted, one where the openness I enjoyed while I was there in Spring, 2002, will be lost.