Imagine being in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, watching TV in a hotel lobby while history is being made. March 20, to be precise, the day that President Obama arrived at Jose Marti International Airport to cap off a period of negotiations between Cuba and the United States to bring an end to a long stalemate – a leftover from the Cold War that some believed would never end. The Cubans gathered around the TV that day were so excited for this visit—the first by a sitting president in almost 90 years,. because they see hope for better relations with the U.S. as a path to a better future for themselves. Indeed, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. But it was not the main reason my wife Ruth Anne and I were in Cuba at that time.
On March 18, we departed Miami on a charter flight with a group of 18 Americans on a Road Scholar people-to-people trip. Simply put, this kind of educational excursion is the only way that U.S. citizens can visit Cuba legally. That will soon change -- the U.S. has re-opened its embassy in Havana, and all sorts of trade deals and business and governmental opportunities are being explored by both countries. But until relations are fully restored, this is how Americans and Cubans have interacted.
We were scheduled to stay in the famed Hotel Nationale de Cuba, but because of President Obama’s visit and the Tampa Bay baseball team coming to play the Cuban national team, we were bumped. At first we joked that President Obama was staying in our rooms, but then we learned it was probably the baseball players.
When you leave the Havana airport, the first thing you notice is all the vintage 1950s American cars on the road. It is amazing to see them looking very well maintained and running well, too. This is an odd but positive outcome of Fidel Castro and the communists’ takeover of the government in 1959: U.S. cars were banned from Cuba – none coming in, and none going out. But the Cubans are an ingenious people, and they have found ways to keep these cars running, even without replacement parts from the U.S. Indeed, many of the elegant taxis in Havana are from Detroit. One night, we went to dinner in a beautiful green 1953 Chevy, and the owner told us that his grandmother had purchased the car in 1953. His father later inherited it, and then it came to him. Can you imagine a car in your family for over 60 years?
The visits organized for our group were designed to give us a flavor for what Cuba is like today, and how it is evolving under Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and president of Cuba since 2006, when Fidel’s failing health compelled him to give up the job.
The Castro brothers, Che Guevara and 15 others came ashore in 1956 from Mexico to a Cuba that was ready for change. The Cuban people were living under the brutal dictator, Batista, during this period. . There was a small percentage of wealthy people, mostly sugar cane owners, with Cuban organized crime and their hotels as American playgrounds. A large majority of the people were very poor and had no rights. Castro and his followers took power in Havana in 1959 and wanted to create a utopian society where everyone was equal – so he took from the rich (many of whom moved to south Florida) and redistributed the wealth. As we now know, that plan, in many ways, did not work, especially when Castro allied with the Soviet Union against the U.S. and the American government treated Cuba as a major enemy. Diplomatic relations ended in 1961. The distrust was deep on both sides. But after more than 50 years of this embargo, and over 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left Cuba isolated and economically deprived, the time has come for change.
Currently, Cubans live on $25-35 per month per person, plus a ration booklet that allows them to meet their basic needs — hard to imagine. The government for all people, regardless of their job — doctor, teacher, and mechanic, sets this salary evenly. The government owns everything, or at least a big part of it. There are some hotels, like the one where we stayed in Varadero, which is 51 percent owned by the Cuban government and 49 percent owned by a Spanish hotel chain. Other hotels, like the Hotel Nationale de Cuba and the one we were moved to, are government hotels. They’re not bad, but not up to U.S. and European standards.
The best way to describe conditions across the island now is to say that people are getting by. In Havana, they can use the water supply every other day, but most people have electricity. They are well educated (schooling is free from primary grades through university), the arts are flourishing, and health care is very good. One person in our traveling group experienced a Cuban health clinic; she received excellent service and treatment, even though she had to wait two hours to be seen.
We visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, where we saw wonderful work by Cuban artists, some of which depicted life in the country during the 1960s and in what they now call “The Special Period” – the 1990s after the Soviets pulled out. A musicologist provided us with a history lesson on how Spanish, African and Cuban music have evolved, especially since Cuba gained its freedom from Spain in 1902.
Two visits gave us the greatest insights into the current strengths of Cuba. First, we met with some dance companies. They performed for us, and then we learned some salsa steps and talked with the dancers about their training and dreams for the future. They talked about performing in other Latin American countries, and how they look forward to dancing in the U.S. We also visited a couple of farms – one practicing organic techniques that are quite popular in Cuba. The food at the farm was delicious. The other farm was run by a man who had taken an abandoned sugar cane farm as a squatter in 1985 and now combines planting with pottery and philosophy. We had great conversations with him about the connections between the writings of Walt Whitman and the first leader of Cuba, Jose Marti. Both of these farms speak to the ingenuity and drive of the Cuban people.
We saw this incredible resolve in other tour stops. One was with a community organizing group in Old Havana called Muraleando, where a group of artists have banded together to create a community center for poor children using only the proceeds from their art. The other was a neighborhood where an artist, Jose Fuster, has created a sense of pride in his community by helping to decorate people’s homes with beautiful mosaic tiles. The pride in this community was easy to see.
We also visited with a tobacco farmer in the Vinales region, where much of the Cuban tobacco crop is grown. Here we experienced what they call “Usufruct,” where the government owns the land, the farmer grows the tobacco, and the proceeds are split 90 percent to the government and 10 percent to the farmer. That’s probably not how American capitalists would like it, but this is one of the small changes that is occurring under Raul Castro.
Another change is in the small restaurants, called paladars, which are owned and run by entrepreneurs. Sometimes the money used to start the paladar comes from the U.S., but it must come quietly – the restaurant has to be owned and run by a Cuban.
Yes, the government still wields a strong hand in Cuba. During the time when Fidel Castro was in power, dissidents who voiced negative opinions against the government were jailed and sometimes tortured. Now someone who complains about the government might spend a night in jail – better, but still not justifiable.
Our neighbor to the south shows a lot of hope, especially when it comes to improved relations with the U.S. Cubans are proud, insightful and optimistic. They are ready for change, though many still revere Castro and Guevara for what they tried to do for their country. Raul Castro is creating change, and when he steps down in 2018, the next leader will be someone born after the revolution in 1959. During President Obama’s visit, Raul said, “We must be focused on the things that join us not the ones that separate us. It takes a short time to destroy a bridge. The hard task is to rebuild it.”
So, after having had a glimpse of modern Cuba, I hope we can go back someday, find it to be even stronger, and maybe then we’ll take one of those vintage cars out for a ride ourselves. The future holds great promise for the island, and for its peaceful coexistence with its American neighbors to the north.
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