Musings from Cuba.
Writing about one’s experience in Cuba is a tug of war between one’s yin and yen. The former wants us to compare it to American society and the yen is pulling us toward a comparison to our own birth country’s. Analytically it would be a case of siding an apple next to an orange versus determining the luster of two marbles. Hence looking at likes wins, but try as one might, there’s no escaping one’s American experience and this seems to always be lurking in the background.
On the surface, a visit to Cuba is similar to the immediate observation in any number of Latin American countries: the black population teems at the lowest rung of the ladder but thins going up the upper echelon. For example, at both hotels, they were to be found as housekeepers, guards, but there was an obvious dearth of their presence in front desk or managerial positions. However an assessment of a visit to Cuba devolves into analysis of complex, interwoven, conflicting factors in a bewildering juxtaposition of the awesome to the awful at times. It is also amplified by the full display of resourcefulness in the face of a crippling decades-long embargo. An intended cudgel of punishment turned into an impetus does leave a positive impression on the observer. It’s a unique crucible and offers a window into the past, the present and portentous future, albeit a putative guess.
The past hits us as a constant reminder of the once close dependence of Cuban society on American consumer goods. Old American cars, refurbished, retrofitted with new parts, are ubiquitous and form a cottage industry. Traffic is sparse and congestion is rare, at least as we know it outside of Cuba. Ours back in our motherland is a nightmare. In a conflation of past with present, tour guides always make sure to take visitors to the Revolution Plaza and talk about the apotheosis of iconic figures, Fidel and Che and the successes of the revolution: elimination of illiteracy, free access to health care and the more equitable distribution of wealth.
Although it is arguably a well scripted speech, it is not lost on one that there’s an element of pride. Pride for the natural beauty of the land, green throughout, of landmarks, their Capitol rivaling Washington’s, the large steps of Havana University rivaling Columbia University’s and a slew of other edifices, some of them recognized as worthy of World Heritage classification. Restoration of once-majestic buildings into original condition coexists with dilapidated ones side-by-side. At least there’s an effort of rehabilitation. No such practice exists in Haïti, at least not systematically or on a sustained level. Last year I visited Vertières in Cap-Haïtien and was mortified to notice its front entrance was being used as a stand for motorbike-taxis. Anténor Firmin’s home is now boarded up in decrepit condition. In comparison, in a visit to Kingston this past June, I was impressed with Marcus Garvey’s Park. Honoring our heroes does matter, protecting our relics, our historical monuments reflects accepted, sensible patriotism and serves as attraction for tourists. This notion seems to be an alien concept to us back home. Of course any evaluation of a system implies a two-way conversation.
Talking to Cuban expats who have fled the system and those at home willing to talk openly but in private gives one a different slant. The complaint is about the shortcomings of the system: low pay, limited economic opportunities and no political freedom. It’s a fact that lots of professionals fare better as tour guides than in their own chosen trades. This is the paradox. The communist system does do away with illiteracy, provides safety valves for basic human needs and is able to create a well educated workforce. However at best it’s able to provide anemic economic growth in the absence of profit motive and entrepreneurship. An effort at liberalization has been half-hearted despite its success. If history is of any guide, one can remember that it took the passing of Mao, the resurgence of the heretofore-demoted but very pragmatic Deng Xiaoping to bring China to its present status as an economic behemoth girding to surpass the US. Chances are it will take the passing away of present-day gerontocrats at the helm, still steeped in the precept of preeminence of State over economic reins to have fundamental changes. It must be kept in mind this is in apposition as well as opposition of die-hards who believe that the marketplace is perfect and their steadfast and obstinate refusal of any role by the State in economic policies. Neither extreme has ever proven to be palatable to people anywhere. Laisser-faire only benefits a few. Strict state-controlled central planning is inefficient. Only time will tell what will happen in Cuba’s future. Nonetheless failure to loosen rules against free speech will be a source of constant conflict.
All the same, it’s a fact that it’s a working society. Streets are clean, no accumulation of garbage is noticeable, electricity, potable water and well-paved roads are a given. Security is a non-issue. Draconian measures taken against civilians’ access to weapons has resulted in a very low crime rate. Unlike the crisis of marauding gangs involved in drug trafficking and high crime rate in our birth country as well as in Central America, no such calamity is known here. This is a plus.
No analysis of Cuban society is complete without mention of its cultural jewels. Musicians of very high quality mushroom. This enhances Cubans’ reputation, rivaling Brazilians’, for entertainment. Musicians perform at different venues, small restaurants, cafés, clubs, public squares, musical revues, concert halls. They do so as soloists, duets, in small or large combos as well as big orchestras. The quality is always very good. The well that produced luminaries such as Bienvenido Granda, Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer, Paquito, Chucho Valdez, Ledesma and younger cats like Rubalcaba is well stocked. Excellent music schools are to be found throughout the country.
Known for its outstanding cigars, smoking of both cigars and cigarettes in Cuba seems to have a certain cachet. It’s a widespread habit and there are no signs of its prohibition at public places. Young women seem to embrace it with open arms. It has been a fact that while this practice in the US is subsiding, it has increased considerably in third-world countries.
A remarkable observation is the fact that Cuban society allows the flourishing of ethnic Haitians. We were treated to eclectic performances by two groups from Camaguey who drove the seven hour trip from wee hours of the morning to come to charm us. One of them, Descendants, of world-fame, that has performed in the US is in my humble opinion on a par with such great chorus as Lady Black Mambazo from South Africa. One could ill conceive of our neighbor sharing the island, obsessed with its Indio roots to the exclusion of its African ancestry, permitting such a cultural expression. Creole is officially recognized as Cuba’s second language. There’s not its derisive classification as patois. The southern part of the island, closest to Haïti, is known to be an enclave of ethnic Haitians and they are not maligned. This enclave of our brethren is reminiscent of some pockets of black cultures in the New World: Garifuna in Belize, Palenque in Colombia with the difference that ethnic Haitians in Cuba all speak fluent Spanish, but not necessarily Creole and have not formed a new language. They have however kept the musical traditions and the cultural heritage alive.
Our country and Cuba have always had exchanges over the years. There has always been an affinity between the two, notwithstanding the animus of certain white Cubans for Blacks, a phenomenon well known in South Florida. The significant presence of African descendants in Cuba and their influence in the arts, sports has permeated society. The reluctance of some corners has led to a permutation in the relationship between friend, frenemy and foe at varying intervals. However during people-to-people exchanges, one is left with the impression of a welcoming mat being extended to visitors with Haitian ancestry. One is also amazed at Cubans’ fascination with American culture and their disappointment in the US policy treating them as enemies since there hasn’t been any recent war fought over. As US citizens, one has to wonder why our government trades with and encourages investment in China and Vietnam that it fought against during the fifties and sixties but continues to strangle its neighbor whose populace wants to maintain a cordial relationship. Certainly when given the choice, Americans voted with their feet and wallets by visiting Cuba in great numbers.
Overall, it is a nice island; it is facing plenty of hardships. The inhabitants do the best they can under the circumstances and despite all the shortcomings, they have indices that our birth country can only envy.