“Enjoy My Country, But Don’t Try to Understand It” - Impressions from a week in Cuba

In December, I travelled to Cuba with 19 community development colleagues for a week of learning, research, network building, and yes, fun.  Our trip was organized by Common Ground, a nonprofit organization in Western Mass led by Merri Ansara that is dedicated to building connections between Cuba and the United States.  It was a wonderful experience and it left me with a range of contradictory and somewhat confused impressions and observations. As such I tried to remember the advice we received from one of the many wonderful community activists that we met when he gave the suggestion that is now the title of this blog post: “Enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it.”

Cuba has many wonderful features – historic architecture, a fascinating history, impressive health care, educational and social service systems, fantastic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, creative non-governmental organizations, wonderful countryside and natural areas, beautiful beaches, and people who are friendly, resilient and impressively entrepreneurial. At the same time, Cuba can be a bit depressing with significant poverty, widespread physical blight, dirty and often dilapidated buildings, noxious fumes from the old cars and trucks, and an economic system that seemed to promote both equity and inequity at the same time. I can’t say I fully understood everything that I saw and heard, but I do want to share some impressions that may lack precision, but I think will give readers a sense of the country.

  • Havana is a striking city, with amazing historic architecture that makes the city feel almost frozen in time. Unlike American cities that experienced widespread urban renewal, Cuba still has most of the buildings it had 50 or even 100 years ago. Sadly, many are in a state of disrepair, but those that have been renovated are absolutely wonderful. The City has a detailed plan to systematically renovate every building (at least in Old Havana) and we were told that 37 percent of them had been renovated in the past 20 years. To be honest, it felt more like 25% but either way it is an impressive achievement in a relatively short period of time and with little resources. Much of the funding for the renovation comes from tourism dollars as the City’s Office of the Historian uses all profits from tourism to fund its programs. The Office has its work cut out for it as we were told that the Government did very little renovations in Havana from 1959 until the 1990s, as the government prioritized other parts of the country and other issues. The Office was established in the mid-1990s to be an entrepreneurial, quasi-public entity that operates more like a business, but is still owned by the government and still fulfills a public mission.
  • Cuba’s housing policy seeks to provide every Cuban with at least some shelter and it includes a broad range of housing styles and tenures. Many Cubans own their own apartments and have the ability to sell or trade those apartments. Others seem to be more like renters, although frankly we were often confused about whether those terms had the same meaning in Cuba as they do here. Most Cubans do not pay rent and don’t have a mortgage and those who do have a mortgage are able to pay it off within a few years. Multi-family buildings do have some sort of resident association (or is it more like a condominium association) that is responsible for maintaining the property. Still, it often sounded fairly informal and ad hoc.  When one of our group members asked the building superintendent who fixed things that broke, like a toilet or boiler, the response was that they had someone on the 4th floor who did it.  We were left with the impression that there is a significant informal economy in Cuba where people do things for each other in exchange for other favors (I’ll fix your bathroom, if you fix my car).
  • While Cuba does not have CDCs in the American sense, they do have an emerging array of NGOs, community associations and community activists that are pushing to improve the quality of neighborhoods and to lift living standards for lower-income Cubans. We met with people at the Martin Luther King Center, which provides an array of social services to seniors and families and recently renovated 60 blighted homes in the neighborhood. We met with the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos School & Workshop that is training young people in architectural renovation so they can help rebuild their own city. We met with professional and grassroots leaders involved with the Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital, which has been working for more than 20 years to train community leaders and build community capacity to participate in urban planning decision making (this program was greatly assisted by Mel King and other community development leaders from Boston who started coming to Havanna 20+ years ago to offer trainings and workshops. These types of organizations and leaders provide a nascent infrastructure for ensuring that Cuba’s transformation to a more market-based economy does not erode the social safety nets now in place.

  • Cuba’s economy is changing quickly. The Government is allowing more and more private enterprise with family-owned businesses and cooperative businesses becoming more and more common in such areas as barber shops, food stores, restaurants, and taxi cabs. I believe 500,000 Cubans are now in the private sector. While large industries are still entirely public, those Cuban Companies are gaining more independence from the politicians and operating more like private companies with independent decision making and the ability to retain more of their own profits.  In my mind, these companies are like the US Postal Service, or Massport, or perhaps Mass Housing or Mass Development.
  • Private investors from Europe and Latin America are gaining a foothold in the Cuban economy. While foreigners cannot own real estate or companies, many foreign companies are participating in Joint Ventures with Cuban companies and/or operating under long-term service contracts to operate businesses like hotels (the very fancy hotel across the street from us was run by a European Company).  Notably, our self-defeating embargo policy is giving our competitors a big head start in Cuba. That said, the U.S. Embargo is also providing the breathing space for Cuba to figure out how to manage foreign investment before it must confront a massive wave of American capital.
  • Cuba has two currencies and appears to have two very different economies. One currency, the peso, is for local people to use. Government workers are paid in pesos and make very small salaries – perhaps $25 a month for school teachers and a bit more for doctors. Even with free health care, education, retirement security, housing and even some free food, this is a small salary. Foreigners use a hard currency called the C.U.C., which is worth significantly more than the peso and can be converted into dollars, Euros or other currencies. Those Cubans who are lucky enough to work with tourists and get paid in C.U.C.s can earn 10, 20 or 30 times more money per month than those who don’t.  The women who cleaned my hotel room for one week received more in tips than a school teacher earns in a month. And I’m sure she cleaned more rooms than just mine! The imbalance between the Peso economy and the CUC economy was a source of constant bewilderment for all of us and seems like a giant inequity in a country built around equity.  At a market for tourists, I paid $5 for a used book. At a store for Cubans, a colleague bought a brand new book for 40 cents. It is our understanding that Cuba is moving toward a single currency, but the transition is going to be very hard and create some significant winners and losers.
  • It was hard to get a clear read on the state of political freedoms, like free speech, public dissent, and democracy. Many of the Cubans spoke openly about the challenges and problems in their country and a few were willing to explicitly criticize the government. But most of the criticisms were about past decisions, not current policy and most of the people were quick to balance any criticism with comments about the positive aspects of the Revolution and official policy. It was hard to discern whether they were truly sincere about the benefits of the Revolution, perhaps a bit defensive about how American’s might perceive their country, or being careful out of fear.
  • Often Cubans would talk about their country as a work in progress, trying things, making mistakes, suffering from the American Embargo, learning from mistakes, and adapting.  Surely this is true – Cuba is a very young country that was poor when it started in 1959 and suffered tremendous hardship when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped supporting the Cuban economy (Cuba lost 60% of its economy in one year). In many ways, the Cuba of today was born in the mid-1990s when for the first time it began to build a new society independent of the Soviet Union, or the United States or Spain.  (An aside, but sometimes people sounded similar to those I have met in Israel on recent trips, i.e. we are a young country, still finding our way in a hostile environment.)
  • One of the ways that the country is slowly becoming more “democratic” is a push to give more power to local governments.  In Cuba, people elect their local government officials (similar to city councils) so local government is relatively accountable to the citizenry. At each higher level of government, however, the power of the people is diminished as the city councils elect their provincial government (i.e. state legislature), which in turn elects the national Parliament, which in turn elects the President (Raul Castro).
  • The internet is also opening up the flow of information as people now have access to media and news from around the world. While internet access is not as ubiquitous as it is here, many people have cell phones, smart phones and computers. With more and more tourists coming to the country, the flow of information increases as well. In fact, I was able to watch CNN and ESPN in my hotel room (I had no email and no cellphone, but at least I had SportsCenter every morning!)
  • One of the most striking features about Cuba for an American is the fact that there is ABSOLUTELY NO ADVERTISING anywhere (other than political billboards celebrating the Revolution!)  At first, this seemed disorienting and depressing.  No smiling faces drinking Coca Cola; no bright lights enlivening the night; no pictures of pretty people using modern products that I don’t yet own, no images designed to create demand for consumer products.  I began to wonder how Cubans could figure out what to buy and where to shop without any ads to tell them.  Within a few days, I began to get used to the lack of advertising. It became a welcome vacation from the onslaught – especially during Christmas season!
  • Another aspect of city life in Cuba that is very different than here is the fact that there is virtually no street crime or drug use.  We would walk down dark, blighted streets with dozens of people hanging out and yet feel no unease or fear. Virtually everyone was friendly and we were never hassled or threatened at all. We saw a few people panhandling, but no more than in any American city and they were rarely aggressive and never threatening. I’m sure their criminal justice system is not something we would want to emulate, but it was nice to feel safe when walking around town.
  • We visited a wonderful community arts program dedicated to promoting Afro-Cuban Culture. Indeed, Cuba is home to diverse cultures emanating from different waves of immigration over the years (there is even a Chinatown!)  There seems to be less discrimination and inequity between/among white, black and mulatto people than in the U.S. and most other countries. As one of my African American colleagues put it “everyone is poor!”  That said, a few of the black people we met hinted at continued inequities, presumably dating back to the days of slavery and blatant discrimination under Spanish rule (Slavery ended in Cuba 20 years after it ended in the U.S.)  I would have liked to gain better insights into these issues during our trip.
  • We had the opportunity to travel beyond Havana for a couple of days to see the countryside and small village life.  I’m no expert on Agriculture, but it seems like Cuba could benefit from a more modern farming system. I saw little signs of modern irrigation and many of the cows and horses looked emaciated. Much of the land was unused and for better or worse Cuba cannot afford to use pesticides or chemicals.  The Cuban government has encouraged many rural residents to move to new, government-planned communities in order to improve the condition of their housing and to cultivate an eco-tourism economy. The natural beauty of the country certainly gives them the basis for building this industry.
  • We also spent one glorious day at the beach.  It might have been the best beach I have ever seen, with perfect sand, sun, and waves.  And in Cuba you can get drinks brought right to your beach chair and have a full, hot lunch of seafood right on the beach!  It was hard to leave, even as the sun began to set.
  • OK, I can’t write about Cuba without saying something about the cars.  I knew there would be old cars in Cuba, but I had no idea that there would be so many. It seems like 25% of the cars on the road are from before 1959.  Many of the cars are wonderfully restored – we even saw a perfectly restored 1914 Model A Ford.

  • We took a couple of rides in these cars – many operate as taxis – and it was both fun and a bit terrifying. These cars feel like death traps, frankly, with no safety features whatsoever! We often saw cars broken down on the side of the road, but people simply fix them and get back on the road.  The cars symbolize one of the most amazing things about this country – its resiliency. People preserve in what some call a survival economy.  They are creative, innovative, collaborative, entrepreneurial, competitive, and intelligent.  They do what it takes to survive and to help their families and friends survive. It is truly inspiring.
  • In the end, I was struck by the fact that this small, poor country is trying to forge an economic model that might be unique in the world, one that leverages private capital and entrepreneurial energy, but retains a strong social safety network and remains true to Cuba’s unique culture, history, environment, and assets.  If Cuba can find its way toward balancing these goals, while expanding political freedom and democracy, it has the opportunity to become a model for other poor countries.  It’s my humble view that the United States should be actively supporting this transformation, pushing for political freedom, while providing the financial, technological and infrastructure that the country needs. The U.S. Embargo is an antiquated and counterproductive policy. Let’s hope it changes soon.
  • In the meantime, I encourage Americans to go to Cuba now; to see this incredible country before the transformation is complete. Common Ground can organize a trip for a small group and they will ensure a great experience.  The U.S. travel “ban” requires a bit of paperwork and extra expense, but it is not a real obstacle. By going to Cuba now, you will accelerate and support the changes now underway, while seeing a country that is truly unique in the world. And while you may come home confused and even confounded by what you see and hear, you will definitely enjoy yourself because Cuba is an amazing place.