The first word that comes to mind when reflecting on my personal experience of Cuba is “contradiction.”
I’ve spent almost half of my life in Miami, having moved to South Florida at age 17 from Croatia. It was easy to fall in love with its idiosyncrasies, from the glamorous veneers of South Beach to the gritty alleys of the downtown scene. But my absolute favorite nook in the city exists along the easternmost part of Tamiami Trail, the 275-mile stretch of highway that connects Miami to Tampa. Known colloquially as “Calle Ocho” (8th Street), the main artery of Little Havana, where the Cuban exile community forged its stronghold. It is an area laden with authenticity, flavor, rhythm and vivacious spirit, at the same time quietly expressing the gnawing sadness and melancholy of its residents, many of whom left their homeland under heartbreaking circumstances. To add insult to injury, their beloved Cuba lies so close, but has for over half a century remained untouchable. Cuba, the forbidden island frozen in time – the ultimate curiosity for an American traveler. It sat at the top of my bucket list for more than a decade. With recent loosening of diplomatic relations between the US and the island nation, it was incredibly easy to obtain a visa, so in May I headed down to Havana for my first visit.
The ever present communist propaganda leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It reminds you of potential for failure, of the demise and misapplication of noble ideas.
This was a much anticipated journey for me, and just as expected, it left me with a number of conflicting feelings and lasting impressions. The first word that comes to mind when reflecting on my personal experience of Cuba is “contradiction.” So much of Cuba presents a paradox; a positive opposed by a strong negative. There is the undeniable grandeur of Havana (it is just as splendid and as beautiful as Paris) countered by the derelict state of its majestic palaces. There is a sweetness to seeing a vastly diverse group of children playing–the kind of interpersonal, relational game that kids in the US stopped playing long before the iPad hit the market–on the street, contrasted by the thought that their future, from our vantage point at least, offers little hope for aspiration; the realization that their access to modern day information is virtually nonexistent. There is the meticulous care for preserving the old, and just as you begin to marvel at the mint condition of those ubiquitous 1950s cars, you are reminded that this preservationist attitude stems from grave necessity, and not choice. You feel incredibly safe everywhere you go, but the relentless offering of this service or that renders you uncomfortable. The ever present communist propaganda leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It reminds you of potential for failure, of the demise and misapplication of noble ideas. The collapse of humanity, if you will. But then you hear the music, you see the smiles, and the rhythm and the joy in the people, many of whom seem so content with so little. And then your capitalist mind kicks into gear and you start seeing opportunity everywhere and you are not entirely sure whether to feel good or bad about it.
But then you hear the music, you see the smiles, and the rhythm and the joy in the people, many of whom seem so content with so little.
Capitalism is definitely well on its way to Havana. It is evident in everything from the now infamous Chanel runway show, to internationally organized music festivals, arrival of US cruisers and new construction fueled by foreign investment. Americans are arriving in large numbers, on American Airlines flights, some simply to visit, and others to attend business meetings. Cuba is a ticking time bomb of economic opportunity and it is poised to go off at any moment. Does that mean that those who seek to influence Cuba’s development will be forced to work with the repressive regime? Most likely, yes. Does it ultimately mean positive changes for the Cuban people? Hopefully, if done well and with proper guidance. Will this cause a political shift? You bet. I firmly believe that in order to instigate change, one must start from within. Sadly, and this is something that will be very hard for the Cuban exile community to stomach (understandably so), every major transition in history has had to tolerate its fair number of turncoats. Ultimately, I am skeptical as to whether the everyday Cubans will get to have much say in how their future is shaped, regardless of who ends up holding the reins. There is something very frightening in the thought of cold hard capitalism preceding the arrival of democracy.
Finally, on a personal level, what struck me as the most surprising aspect of the trip was the fact that everything felt so familiar. More than with any other trip to Latin America, I felt strangely at home, an odd sense of belonging. Perhaps it was the sense of society on the brink of transition, or the fact that I live in “Cuba Norte,” Cubans’ favorite euphemism for Miami. I am not sure, but I hope the north and south will get a long overdue opportunity to unite in a glorious homecoming, in Havana, sometime soon.