Rebuilding The Bridge With Cuba

I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba March 18-25, 2016, with my mother and two siblings to visit family members, take in the spectacle of President Obama’s visit and Tampa Bay Rays versus Cuba National Baseball Team game, and reacquaint myself with Cuban culture. It was an enlightening participant-observer experience in further ascertaining some ethnographic aspects of Cuban society, e.g., gender dynamics, living conditions, race relations, medical services, education. I was able to speak with dozens of Cubans and international visitors and participate in a number of activities and could write much more about these experiences than I do here, but am glad to relay these aspects in a sincere manner for whatever use it may be to anyone who may be curious.

Un Americano Nacido en Cuba (An American Born in Cuba)

I must first note that I am Cuban-born, my father having brought us to the United States on a 16 foot rowboat with an adapted lawnmower engine and paddles for propulsion during the June 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis period. He had been tipped off by a sympathetic police captain that he would be arrested the next morning for subversive, counter-revolutionary activities, after which, he would likely not be heard from again. For him, it was either flee with his family or have his children become fatherless.

I credit my extraordinary parents (as well as my father’s best friend and two other male friends) for courageously embarking from the Matanzas shoreline on what became a 28-hour perilous journey with their three small children (ages 3, 4, and 8) in rough seas, eluding a Cuban naval patrol boat, our escape aided by a god-sent wave that drowned its engine in chase, and enduring the enormous challenges of starting a new life in the United States.

When I returned in 1990, 2013 and now, the extent of their prescience and bravery became even more evident. Inevitable thoughts came of what our lives would have been like had we remained in Cuba. My siblings and I conclude that we are very fortunate that my parents’ remarkable efforts provided us with a much better life as immigrants, and eventual citizens, in this great nation.

When I first returned to Cuba in 1990 with the U.S. Venceremos Brigade, I was a doctoral student supportive of the Cuban Revolution as an incredible David vs. Goliath type achievement in the U.S.- dominated western hemisphere, and respected the Castro government’s efforts to embark on a new independent course for the Cuban nation. Though I had inklings at the time of a burgeoning resentment of government-coerced conformity among some Cubans and that the U.S. economic embargo, which includes all U.S. allies, appeared to fortify rather than weaken the government’s philosophical and physical control over the Cuban nation, I remained supportive in the context of their historical struggles for independence and self-governance.

However, though I remain well aware of the complicit effects of dogmatic U.S. embargo policies (and earlier clandestine destabilization operations) on conditions in Cuba, I must admit that the notion of a benevolent dictatorship is now improbable to me. After decades of one-party-one-family rule and woeful underdevelopment in Cuba, my optimism now seems naive. The subtle indications I had in 1990 are borne out, and the effects from both Cuban and U.S. government propaganda have been unfair and deleterious to the Cuban masses.

President Obama’s initiative to normalize relations is the best forward step for both nations. It is my hope that the next U.S. President does not falter in this effort.

2016 Culture

As visitors exit the terminal building at Jose Martí International Airport in La Habana, faces are typically agape when they enter the adjoining open parking lot, immediately wowed by old cars of all types and compelled to photograph them from all angles. I was transported from and to the airport in a modest 1951 Studebaker that the owner had worked on for the past two years to restore to an operational capacity.

Cuban welcome sign relays the government’s sentiments about the longstanding US embargo — Blockage: The Longest Genocide in History.At the first traffic signal intersection leaving the airport, instead of colorful “Welcome to…” signage, a billboard prominently relays the Cuban government’s sentiments about the longstanding U.S. embargo – images of a hangman’s noose around the island and a peripheral spider’s web with the accompanying words “BLOQUE: El Genocidio Más Largo de la Historia” (Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History). Other messages and images of icons from the Cuban Revolution and independence struggles dominate billboard and wall displays (e.g., Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfuegos, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Jose Martí, Antonio Maceo, Máximo Gómez).

In a town approximately 20 minutes outside La Habana, we later secured an amiable and knowledgeable driver, Antonio, for $20 dollars per 24-hour day, fuel included, for the rest of our time there. His 1957 Oldsmobile 88 had a more economical diesel engine and was in relatively good shape and large and reliable in getting us all around La Habana and the countryside. “Por favor, no tire la puerta” (please, do not slam the door) was his early refrain to us until we became more attuned.

There are almost always people walking, engaging in all manner of conversation, usually commiserating about their daily struggles or activities or celebrating the weekend or something personal. When the daytime temperature and dew point rise, umbrella-parasols are prevalent among women walking or waiting for transportation, and pedestrians hug the street-side of homes and buildings for walking-width shade in the sun’s trajectory.

The Malecón area (wide, paved public walkway along the ocean) of La Habana (originally named San Cristóbal de la Habana, with a current pop. of 2.5-3 million) is teaming with people around-the-clock. At 3AM on a temperate Saturday night-Sunday morning in March, a couple thousand people were still out and about. With limited funds, Cubans have mastered the art of hanging out, conversing on the streets and in front of their homes, and waiting at many places alongside of the road for transportation.

It is common to see two-wheeled bicycle passengers casually balancing themselves on the top tube/crossbar with ankles crossed and hanging legs pointed forward, old diesel “wa-wa” (public buses), peddled and motorized tricycle taxis, human-drawn carts and horse-drawn wagons, industrial tractors and trucks, loud motorized bicycles, souped-up riding mowers used as transportation, antique jalopies and gems, women in dresses riding side-saddle, couples with infants sandwiched in between them on motor scooters — and all of them at the same time on the same street!

Unlike many international visitors to Cuba who may spend the bulk of their time sightseeing in the bustling capital city, La Habana, I spent more than half my time in the countryside and towns such as Cotorro (a city of 100k+ residents, once among the most industrial in the nation), 10 de Octobre (named after the day in 1868 that slavery was morally abolished by Cuban nationalists fighting for independence from Spain), and Guanabo and Playa Santa María (moderate seaside towns with frequent international visitors) to gain a broader perspective of Cuban culture.

Our chauffeur Antonio's 1957 Oldsmobile limousine.In our travels, we experienced a random roadside stop by police. Our Cuban fellow passengers urged us not to speak English and let the driver do all the talking. Antonio got out of the vehicle and walked back to the police vehicle to limit the questions the officer may ask of us. Since the vehicle was not an official taxi, he planned on presenting us as friends returning from a day at the beach. This was a rare instance where I felt a little self-conscious being the paler, more foreign-looking (“extranjero”) passenger.

The officer, who appeared to be in his early 30s, briefly glanced in through both sides of our vehicle; extended a greeting (“buenos días”), and walked back to his patrol car with the driver to check out the vehicle and personal documentation on the patrol car laptop computer system. (I wish I could have seen that setup). Had the driver’s documentation not been in order or the officer perceived disingenuousness, he would have been held and we would have been stuck there for some time. Fortunately, Antonio had no negative indications in their system and, after 20 years driving his Olds, was well-versed in the process. Within 10 minutes, we were free to go. Overall, uniformed police and military personnel were not an overt presence or hindrance in Cuba.

At la Casa de la Musica nightclub in the Miromar section of Habana ($15 cover charge), I met people from Cuba, Mexico, Austria, India, Australia, and the U.S. dancing and enjoying the excellent 14-piece “Orquesta de Pupy.” (Note to self: never again order a pina colada in a Cuban club. Whole milk mixed with sweetened condensed milk and rum with a pineapple slice on the rim is something totally different.)

Politeness, music, and dancing abound in many places. Among friends and family members, handshakes, hugs and “besito” (cheek-to-cheek kiss) greetings and goodnights are common place. Endearing calls of “Mi vida,” “mi niña,” “amigo,” “negra,” and “viejo” are repeatedly heard among residents in the neighborhoods. In Cuba, such terms are not considered insults among the working class, although it did take me aback at times. During a half-mile plus walk to get some delicious “guarapo” (freshly squeezed pure sugar cane juice) with a relative through various streets, she was greeted by more than a dozen different people along the way and stopped five times to converse. This is a somewhat common and uplifting social phenomenon in Cuba.

With limited television, Internet or phone service, I also felt largely “unplugged” and appreciated some aspects of their much simpler, slower pace of life. In the days since my return from Cuba, I found myself driving slower, checking my phone less often, and wasting less time on superfluous aspects of the Internet (I expect these good effects will unfortunately wear off soon).

Living Conditions

I have stayed in different types of housing in Cuba: relatives’ home, an apartment, a “casa particular” (room rentals within homes), and an upscale hotel. In the process of walking, driving, talking with Cubans, and entering different dwellings during my visit, is it evident that most residences are very humble, from people living in the equivalent of musty, concrete caves in multi-story buildings to nicer apartments comparable to modest, low-income dwellings in the U.S. In nicer areas, homes that appear to have once been regal are more comfortable in appearance but still lower middle-class by U.S. standards and interspersed among other much lesser homes. (Outside of hotels, do not expect to have a toilet seat to sit on in most places.) No doubt, there are a few majestic homes but these are typically for high-ranking government officials or other well-placed individuals.

Though most dwellings have some type of fencing to prevent burglary or casual entrance by passersby, there is little fear of criminal victimization when walking or driving around during the day or night. Once you leave La Habana and enter some other towns, residential streets can be in horrid condition, e.g., broken sidewalks (if any at all), huge potholes and mud puddles, trash piles along the side of some streets, ever-present litter, interspersed functional street lights, occasional broken underground sewer pipes that result in consistent flows down some streets, and homes with copious electrical and plumbing safety code violations, including partially built, incomplete, or condemnable buildings housing families with children. As many Cubans are prone to say, “la vida aquí no es fácil” (life here is not easy).

Gender Dynamics

High school students after school.Very often, females in societies with significant economic and/or socio-legal underdevelopment have a limited lot in life, typically needing a man to help them survive, having children relatively early, and relegated to service-type lifestyles. Such is the case in Cuba, though these dynamics are, of course, not unique to Cuban culture.

It is not unusual to have three generations plus living in a small home or apartment. Though many women are strong-minded, men stereotypically dominate the household. Married women largely clean and cook and handle childcare; men largely work when they can, rest, and socialize.

While many females work earnestly in low-level state or commercial jobs, most have limited income or employment opportunities. In several areas, some young women offer travelers (typically males) short- or long-term services as a guide, procurer, housekeeper and/or intimate companion for $20-$50 per day. “May-December” type couples are often characteristic of this type of relationship. While women are typically spoken to and treated with respect (as I could see), the objectification of single, young females is apparent in the tight clothes and short skirts they often wear — from airport security personnel to young teenagers to those in the night clubs.

Some Habana residents I spoke with remarked that the visibility of prostitutes, transvestites, and other “undesirable” individuals was reduced to almost nothing during President Obama’s visit, whereas, before and after, their activities were/are much less controlled.

Race Relations

It is apparent that Cubans of all complexions interact well together. Racial discrimination is not evident. Interracial relationships are more prevalent and accepted than in the U.S. but often still affected by social class (even in a classless society). You are much more likely to see light and dark skinned males and females together among the working class. Generations of racial mingling often results in families with both dark- and light-skinned handsome children with mixed features from the same parents.

Though racism is touted as largely eradicated under socialism, it clearly is not. The vast majority of high-ranking political leaders and government officials are light-skinned, Caucasian-looking. Interracial relationships are much less prevalent among them and other upper class individuals. Racial slave-era caricature placards and figurines are sold in five-star hotels as well as storefronts. Cubans are seemingly accustomed to these images in a manner that precedes contemporary sensibilities.

Education

Though education through high school is mandated, the lack of contemporary learning tools (e.g., computers, Internet access, and other classroom and academic resources) in most areas present significant challenges to teacher effectiveness and maintaining student interest in learning at a pace and depth appropriate to the modern era. In one of the towns, I visited a local elementary school with only basic materials for faculty and students. Books were limited and several years old. Pencil, paper, and chalkboard teaching and learning in very modest facilities was the extent of their material capacity in the common educational setting. (Another unusual visual by U.S. standards was an elementary school teacher smoking a cigar while engaging with students during recess activities.)

Kids in public park.School-age relatives and neighbors were enthralled with my laptop computer, respectfully wanting to learn how to use it and access the Internet. We were however limited to viewing pictures, playing solitaire, and practicing some writing as Internet connections are nonexistent in most areas. It was evident that the beautiful, “blank-slate” intellect of my cousin’s two-year old daughter would have very limited opportunities to develop to a potential comparable to my nephew in Tampa’s two-year old child.

President Obama’s initiative to help Cuba achieve nationwide Internet connectivity will further the capacity of school children to significantly expand their ability to learn and effectively compete within the information-based global community. While there is no shortage of highly intelligent, motivated individuals in Cuba, their capability for intellectual and social growth is significantly hindered and well underdeveloped by such limitations.

International Students in La Habana

With the recent progression toward normalization of relations, many U.S. institutions, organizations, and individuals are eager to engage in collaborative activities with Cuba. While there, I visited with the University of Havana’s director of international relations. She was gracious in offering to open a line of communication with me via Internet as the normalization process continues. She also indicated that the University has long had relations with universities and professors from many nations but very few from the U.S. until recently, and now has had over 40 such inquiries from U.S. academic institutions and personnel in recent weeks.

I met several U.S. students in Cuba. From the time I arrived, at the airport (while waiting over an hour for my baggage), I met law students from Duquesne University and history students and professors from the University of Jacksonville there to conduct courses/studies in their subject area. Later, at the Habana Libre (former Havana Hilton), I had engaging conversations with three well-traveled and industrious graduate sociology students from the University of Denver conducting an independent study. At the Hotel Cohiba, I spoke with another American student studying urban planning issues in La Habana. The presence of U.S. and international students was evident every time I was in the City.

An Unexpected Medical Experience

A few days prior to my departure from the U.S., I had begun to experience intermittent stomach and back pain which I attributed to indigestion and sleeping on an aging mattress. By the time I arrived in Cuba, the pain was more consistent and increasing. I was in constant pain throughout the next day.

The following morning my cousin walked me a mile to a modest medical clinic to get checked out. We casually walked in (no appointment) and I was immediately attended to by a young female doctor who inquired about my symptoms, then sent me down the hall for a urinalysis. The results indicated that I had a significant kidney infection and was prescribed medication.

The entire process, from the time I walked in and out of the clinic, took 15 minutes and the cost was $0 (we had to cajole her to accept $3 for her assistance, which was the equivalent of three days salary for her). While the facilities were very humble, the results were effective. A few days later, I felt relatively normal.

President Obama in Cuba

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro at an official welcoming ceremony for President Obama at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba on March 21, 2016. (Photo by Pete Souza, public domain)The President’s historic visit was unparalleled in Cuban history, perhaps with the exception of Pope Frances’ February 2016 visit, in how it affected the daily routine of Cubans. For example, all vehicles coming into the city the evening of the President’s arrival were turned back (ours included); hotel and other workers living outside the city had to make extra efforts to get to work on time; and native residents were prohibited from entering several areas and buildings. Many of the pristine antique cars owned by the government were brought out for international visitors to see. In my conversations with Cubans in La Habana and nearby towns, the immediate effects were to add more difficulties to their lives.

Notwithstanding, most recognized the extraordinary significance of President Obama’s visit and accepted the resulting additional inconveniences during his stay. They had a largely pragmatic, “wait and see” mentality, and believed that significant changes that would affect their lives in a positive manner would be a long process, changes that middle-aged and older Cubans would likely not realize in their lifetime. While standing on a street corner in Habana one late afternoon, I was approached by an ebony English-speaking older woman whose parents had moved there from another country when she was a young girl. An intellectual, she sought out the opportunity to speak English and was keen to tell us that the system there makes “slaves of everyone –— relegated to lead life as directed or else.” The frankness of her unsolicited remarks surprised me.

After President Obama’s first formal speech in Cuba, the next day’s Granma state-run newspaper headline read, “Lo que Obama dice y no dice” (What Obama says and does not say), extolling cautiousness in the normalization process to ensure that the U.S. does not take advantage in this new course to the detriment of the Cuban nation.

I thought that the President and First Lady did well in demonstrating a compassionate sensibility for the Cuban people. That the President came with his family was a clear demonstration that Cuba is no threat to the U.S. and there should be nothing to fear on either side. In addition to ceremonial events, tours and the baseball game, the President was further endearing by appearing in a skit on the popular television comedy show Vivir del cuento (roughly, surviving by your wits), considered relatively edgy in its sarcasm toward Cuban government shortcomings.

As usual, the Obamas were excellent in representing the American nation with grace, intellect and humor; they seem to me to evoke a sense of pride in being an American wherever they go.

The Tampa Bay Rays and Rolling Stones in Cuba

The Rays organization stayed at one of the best hotels in the city, the Meliā Cohiba along the Malecón. U.S. television personnel, international airline pilots and attendants, and well-to-do travelers were among the others who could afford the $300++ per night to stay at this beautiful facility. In the lobby, we talked and took photos with Rays players and spoke with several other American and international visitors. I also took the time to speak with Cuban bathroom attendants (female attendants in male restrooms at some hotels threw me for a little curve), housekeepers, and waiters about aspects of their lives there (“la vida aquí no es fácil” repeated). The differences between their home and workplace environment are obviously stark.

Tampa Bay Rays players with Prof. Garcia outside the Melia Cohiba Hotel.At a swank party co-hosted by Major League Baseball (MLB) at the historic Parque Morro facility the night before the game, 500+ international and Cuban dignitaries and the players and personnel from both teams were feted with great food and drink. Jimmy Buffett was the musical performer and the best classic cars were on display. As is typical in the U.S., as well, working class citizens were relegated to service and security status involvement. The resulting 4-1 victory by the Rays seemed to reflect the superior competition and resources of MLB in the U.S. as well as perhaps the exodus of many professional-level Cuban players to the U.S. and other nations.

Though I left the day before the Rolling Stones concert, my siblings attended and reported that their music, once banned in Cuba as being subversive, was enjoyed by all. The Stones’ two-hour show was outstanding with high production values and superb performances by the band; and, best of all, it was free to all people!

With the professional baseball competition, world-class musical performance, President Obama’s visit and one by the Pope the previous month, Cuba has experienced significant visibility on the world stage this early year.

Future Considerations

Overall, Cuba still has a long way to go to realize it fuller potential. The evolving normalization process provides greater optimism for doing so, but, as President Castro remarked in his speech alongside President Obama, “It takes much less time to destroy a bridge than to build one, and this will take some time.”

In the interim, the nostalgic charm of the Cuban nation continues to draw visitors from throughout the globe and increasingly from the United States of America. We shall see how this progresses in the post-Obama era. I encourage young American citizens to experience Cuba in its current state and contribute to the positive evolution of its relationship with the U.S. In time, the dissensions of the past may fade away, amicable sovereign alliances achieved, and Cubans rejoin the U.S.-allied global community. Ultimately, that Cubans and Americans become in truth what they are in geography: close neighbors.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to visit Cuba during this historic period, and return with a renewed appreciation for life in North America. Though we must continue to strive to more effectively address lingering issues of injustice and inequity within our democratic society, I am happy to say: Hooray for the USA! as well as ¡Viva Cuba Libre!

Luis Garcia-Fierro, Ph.D., is assistant professor of criminal justice and forensic science at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers, FL. Email: lgarcia@fgcu.edu