Since returning, I’ve received calls from those about to go and questions from others—what are the Cuban people like? And what do they think of Americans?
The official Cuban policy, of course, is that the US policy has been shortsighted and narrow minded. And the list of US policies that need to change was also outlined for us:
- end the embargo
- stop treating Cuban immigrants to the US differently from other immigrants (granting them refugee status when no other national group is and thereby encouraging them to leave)
- leave Guantanamo Bay–what lease lasts over 100 years!?!
- and stop broadcasting US propaganda from Radio Marti.
And one can definitely see anti-American sentiment in the Museum of the Revolution in a very funny little exhibit called the Rincon de los Cretinos (the Corner of Idiots)
But those are the official sentiments, and not at all what one hears around and about. According to the American journalist, Mark Frank, who spoke to us, there has not been any anti-US demonstrations in a decade. And I did not see any billboards or posters that were anti-US (other than the historic exhibits in the Museum). Most importantly, each student noted how individually friendly the Cubans were.
As very well stated from student Jack McNally:
There are a great many misconceptions about Cuba that Americans tend to assume must be true. I think these assumptions are probably based on the fact that Cuba, despite being ninety miles from Florida, may as well have been on the moon since relations were dissolved in the 1960’s. As relations normalize between the United States and Cuba, many of these misconceptions will fade away in favor of the realities. Until then however, allow me to set a few things straight regarding the Cuban people. I picked that topic because I think that they tend to be placed into a neat little box labelled “communist”, uniform and monolithic, and left alone. Cuba is a single party, socialist state. But the people are no less diverse in thought and opinion than anyone else. I was there for five days, granted, but I’d like to explain a bit about the people I met and show how they illustrate my point.
Cubans are quick to point out imperfections in their system. They will readily admit that they are not “free” in the American sense (as a cab driver told me in Old Havana one night), that their infrastructure and sanitation is crumbling daily (as literally anyone could observe), or that they lack the opportunities for employment that their education can and should afford them (the average level of education in Cuba is a high school diploma). It was not a scandal when our speakers, nominally employees of a government-owned travel agency, would point out the need for greater economic liberalization to incentivize workforce participation or the fact that an average of three buildings collapse in Havana every day without any real action or accountability. A self-described left wing Marxist-Leninist diplomat told us about how he wears Levi’s most days and his granddaughter loves Frozen’s “Let It Go” as much as any American kid would. Certainly, their world view is informed by a unique system of government just as my American perspective is, but for neither of us does that mean we fail to see the logic of the other side of the debate or choose to live with blind indifference to the benefits of another system and the flaws of our own.
While visiting the law school at the University of Havana, we were able to meet a few prominent members of the faculty and tour the campus. Even in this place that automatically comes with a revolutionary connotation in Cuba (Castro was a lawyer at one point) [and where our speaker outlined the problems with US policy], our hosts were seemingly extremely pleased to have American visitors. She invited us to stay as long as we wanted and even suggested a student exchange program in the future. I have to admit I was a little surprised, having had such a silly expectation of confrontation.
This odd stereotype of party orthodoxy tends to conjure up an image of a Cuban police and military apparatus just waiting around to ensnare anyone who crosses them. This may be true to a degree in the experience of others, but I saw nothing like that during my stay. During my time in Cuba, I was never even spoken to by a member of the police or military, let alone dealt with harshly by one. More to the point, when a member of our group had her wallet “misplaced”, the municipal police of Havana spent eight hours tracking it down, repeatedly insisting that they wanted to make sure we didn’t leave with a bad impression of their country. Maybe this was a well staged line, but it worked.
Finally, we tend to have the impression that Cuba has produced a mindset in the people to be concerned only with furthering the aims of the regime. This could not be further from the truth. I saw too much diversity in activity to possibly believe it. The Cuban mentality is one that has an unrestrained sense of optimism and flexibility. Cuban’s were quick to articulate their desire to learn about Americans and to teach us about Cubans. Our bus driver now knows what kind of car I drive in Milwaukee and I know what his favorite cigarette brand is and why. Our tour guide correctly pointed out that being the youngest and only boy in a family of six must have made me spoiled and I correctly noted that living with her in-laws was probably fun for about the first twenty minutes and no more. The portrait of Cubans as a uniform group committed only to ideology and the party line is far too simplistic to describe my experience. Cuba was everything I didn’t expect it to be.
To be clear, I was on a government organized tour of Havana, staffed by government employees, and stayed in a government hotel. The thought has never truly left me that maybe I didn’t really see Cuba. Maybe I got the sanitized version, downplaying history in favor of mojitos and cigars. I’m sure to some degree I did. But I refuse to believe that every person I talked to was reading from a script. No government is that well organized.
The beauty of Cuba, to me, didn’t lie in the historical buildings, the Hemingway folklore, or the romantic revolutionary picture painted in the mind of anyone who considers it in the abstract. Cuba struck me as a beautiful place because it was filled with delightful, kind, generous people. Despite everything that Cubans contend with on a daily basis, they still didn’t hesitate to welcome us into their homes, their restaurants, and their places of business. I, for one, am overjoyed that the relations between Cuba and the United States are improving and, moreover, the average Cuban seems pretty happy about it too. A population with that much kindness, diversity, and curiosity about people and ideas different than their own is exactly the type of friend America needs right now.