Lessons Learned in Cuba
Some of the lessons you learn in Cuba can’t really be learned until you are home again.
Then, when you have been home less than 24 hours, you realize that you have just spent three weeks in a place where you have heard hardly a cross word, no fighting at all, and have experienced the notable absence of most of the ugly sounds of urban life you are accustomed to as part of the daily background of your life. You realize you have spent three weeks in a place where there is just much less ambient tension in the air than what you’re used to.
That is because you realize that in the space of the past hour your body has tensed up, as you absorb the negative energy of an aggressive driver practically running you off the road, laying on his horn as he tears past you; that the couple arguing angrily as they close up the iron grate of a store you are walking by, has caused a kind of general fear of imminent violence, and tension, to reenter your life. You can feel your breathing becoming labored, your heart racing. You realize that this life is no good for you, or for anyone.
It is then that you remember what one little Cuban boy chose to say, when asked by one of your students what message he would like to send with her to New York. “Aqui nosotros no estamos tan bien: pero estamos felizes.” (“Here, we’re not doing so well: but we’re happy.”)
Coming from a country where the reverse is so often true–we are awash in wealth and everything that money can buy, and we’re still not happy–these words go right straight to the heart.
“You’ll love it and it will break your heart,” one of my clients said to me a few days before I left on my first trip to Havana.
I wasn’t sure what he meant by the second part of that statement, but as it has turned out, his words were true. I do love Cuba, and it does make me sad.
It’s a cliche to proclaim a city full of contradictions, but it’s hard to avoid doing this with Havana. This is a city in which most of the people are what we would think of as poor, but most of what we also think of as the natural accompaniments of poverty are absent: in Havana, cops don’t carry guns, in Havana you are safe walking in the streets even though you are quite clearly a foreigner, and presumably carrying what would be to Cubans a significant amount of cash.
In Havana, stray dogs wander everywhere, but unlike in other places I’ve been where stray dogs are abundant, these dogs radiate gentleness: they must be treated with kindness and be fairly well-cared for in this city where no one is starving, but most people don’t have much “extra” to share, either.
This is a city in which sixty-year-old automobiles in a vibrant range of brilliant colors, some of them clearly falling apart, others in a state of impressive and shiny preservation, cruise the streets with elan, inviting spectators to envy their classic, proud beauty and marvel at their persistent functioning rather than pity their frequent state of disrepair.
This relatively small island nation, whose people have managed for more than a century to cast off repeated attempts by their powerful neighbor to the north to dominate them is a place blessedly free of billboards marketing consumer items, but full of exhortations to keep the faith in the ambitious social experiment they have undertaken. Slogans on billboards and painted walls proclaim “Se puede mucho juntos,” “Venceremos!” and “Socialismo o muerte!” On television, video shorts encourage people to practice everyday kindnesses as one way of keeping faith with the goals of the revolution, and a series of children’s books prominently displayed in one store window had titles like “Kindness,” “Honesty,” and “Helpfulness.”
And yet Cuba is hardly a utopia. There is a daily struggle of people here to make ends meet; they cope (for the most part cheerfully) with widespread and persistent shortages of so many things necessary for functioning effectively and efficiently not to mention comfortably in the twenty-first century. And while many of the Cubans we talked to displayed an impressive continuing belief in the fundamental principles of their revolution, they also expressed impatience with the slow pace of the changes underway, and the frustration of working so hard for so little pay, the inability to afford so many of the amenities that they know people in other parts of the world are able to enjoy.
I don’t pretend to understand why such a situation exists. I do know that the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo has hurt Cuba tremendously, and continues to do so, as it was indeed designed to do. I’m sure there are other, more complicated reasons for the failure of this society to be able to meet some of their needs. But it’s also easy to see that it’s not for lack of hard-working people. All around us we could see people working hard, with dignity and pride. There are a few beggars in the streets, but not nearly as many as in any other city I’ve ever been in, in the U.S. or elsewhere. And in conversations with Cubans, there seems to be a widespread unwillingness to believe that the only viable alternative to the society they are struggling to make succeed is the capitalist model.
That’s refreshing too.
Habaneros were unanimously welcoming to my group of “Yankee” students, often calling out to us in the streets in a friendly manner. One man called out to us as we walked home one night, “Hello, my friends from the United States! I love you! Please tell everyone there that we love them! We love you!!” Was he drunk? Most likely. Does that take away from the truth of the message he chose to convey to us as he walked in one direction and we walked in the other? I don’t think so.
Havana the city itself has a kind of poignant, brave dignity. On the one hand, it does my heart good to see wealth more or less evenly distributed, to know that the kind of obscene corruption and wealth that existed in Batista’s Cuba has indeed given way definitively to the “triumph of the Revolution.” Cubans now all have enough to eat: they have free public education and health care. But it is also sad to see the decay, and lament the fact that many of the beautiful buildings of Havana are probably doomed to go past the point of repair: this is not for lack of caring, or for lack of trying. It is for lack of wealth, and for decisions that have been made about priorities. One can’t help but wish we were doing more to help the Cubans, so they could keep Havana, once called the “Paris of the Caribbean,” beautiful and in good repair.
The Cold War is over, and we won. Isn’t that enough? What would it harm us to be a bit more generous with our neighbors? Are we afraid to admit that our way is not the only way for people to live and thrive? We have robust economic relationships with countries that have far worse records on human rights than Cuba does. Do we really need to continue to exert an unnatural pressure on our neighbors in order to prove a point? And what is our point, anyway?
I’ve just returned from my very first trip to Cuba, a three-week stay with a group of students taking part in “Cuba: A Literary Adventure.” I have returned with a head full of new thoughts and questions, and a heart full of fond memories.
There’ll be more to come about Cuba: stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris, Hawaii and Cuba for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.