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The Cuba of imagination and the Cuba we visited

REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Because the average wage is 500 pesos a month — about $20 — Cubans cannot live on what they make.

“Why Cuba?” a friend asks.

Good question. Yet, having returned from Cuba, maybe a better question is how the (pretrip) Cuba of our imagination ended up comparing to the Cuba my husband and I visited.

Jane Ahlin
Jane Ahlin

Cuba has played a historical role for America since Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill in 1898 during the Spanish-American war. Then came the challenge for the U.S. mid-twentieth century with the Cuban revolution — resulting in Fidel Castro's long rule and the escape and exile of thousands upon thousands of Cubans to Miami — plus the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis.

Other U.S.-related events came in 1980 with the Mariel boatlift ("Cuban Exodus") and in 1999, with the Elian Gonzalez custody fight. Even today Cuba is a proverbial political football in our national elections.

A paean to other eras

Beyond the political, the appeal — mystique — of Cuba includes the romantic: salsa (dance), highly coveted cigars, 1950s American cars, Cuban baroque architecture, Ernest Hemingway's sojourn in the country, and, yes, gangsters and "Godfather II." This lovely island nation of 11 million people — a conglomeration-population of European, African, South American and Latin American races and cultures — is a paean to other eras and, even now, a place to feel as if one has stepped a half-century back in time.

Imagination did not prepare me for how well educated Cubans are and how arts-heavy the culture is. Cuban jazz, Cuban "Son" (combined Spanish and African musical elements that spawned the mambo, cha-cha and salsa), classical dance, modern dance, painting, bronze sculpture and unique leather work all manage to thrive although government support is bare-bones and there is little access to international markets and recognition. Sad to say, Cubans live in a failed economy with government owning and running everything. Then, too, American sanctions — softened under President Barack Obama and reasserted by President Donald Trump — make trade either difficult or impossible, not only with America but with America's partners.

Make no mistake, even as Fidel Castro improved the lot of the poor and made education and health care free for all, he made a mess of the Cuban economy. Revolutionary principles held sway over economic realities. Entirely dependent on the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered after its breakup and the subsequent loss of support for Cuba's sugar industry. The 1990s became a time of hardship called "The Special Period," a time when malnourishment and even starvation were widespread.

Average wage: about $20

Because the average wage is 500 pesos a month — about $20 — Cubans cannot live on what they make. The black market and tourism are vital to their getting by. (Actually, after the surge of tourism during Obama's presidency, Trump's crackdown is hurting them mightily.) Cubans don't mention politics, but they openly express the desire for more private ownership and more foreign investment to improve their lives.  

That said, at a small factory watching workers roll cigars and on an evening ride along the Malecon (Havana seawall) in a 1957 red and white Chevy convertible with the original V-8 engine, the Cuba of imagination and reality merged: still romantic, ever fascinating.

A writer and columnist from Fargo, North Dakota, Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She currently serves on the board of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

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Comments (2)

Cuba visit

Like columnist Jane Ahlin, I recently visit Cuba. I too was struck with its colors, music, the friendliness of the Cuban people--and the country's extreme poverty. It seemed that in the old city, every third building was supposedly under reconstruction, altho they all were said to be owned by the government and work had on them had stopped long ago. Most of the tourists who visited in early 2017 when I did so, came in on large cruise ships, wandered through Old Havana during the day, visited a bodega in the early evening and then returned to the ship; thus providing little revenue to small businesses. To continue our strict U.S. sanctions hurts both the Cuban people and ourselves--since we cannot come to really appreciate their culture and they us, without the opportunity to interact.

I spent a week there with a

I spent a week there with a church group in 2011. Half our group, mostly the people who had not been there before, stayed in and around Havana, while the rest went to work on a cooperative farm owned by the Episcopal Church of Cuba.

I agree that the music, art, and dance were fantastic. I managed to get last-minute tickets to a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba, a program of short pieces in modern and classical styles. People who couldn't afford to enter the tourist bars would gather outside them and dance to the music emanating from the excellent bands inside. The National Museum of Cuban Art showed not the expected Soviet Realism but highly creative works in all different styles.

At the time, there was some private enterprise, including privately owned restaurants and street vendors selling things like handmade jewelry and clothing.

There were some surprises.

While the pre-1959 cars are definitely noticeable, the majority of cars are more modern vehicles from China or Europe. However, the public transit system of Havana seemed to be made up of old buses with the insignia of various European and Latin American cities and even a few Canadian school buses.

There was more freedom of religion than we expected, too. We stayed in a working convent, and we attended an ecumenical gathering of everyone from Roman Catholics to the Salvation Army at the Episcopal cathedral. All over, we saw people dressed entirely in white, the sign of an initiate into the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería. The Jewish community is thriving with a combination of imaginative leadership and contributions from overseas.

We visited the ecumenical Protestant seminary in Matanzas, a sleepy non-tourist city, which was not only interesting in itself but a chance to see some of the landscape and another surprise, the fact that Cuba has oil wells. The seminary had established its own farm during the "special period" after Russia cut off funding, and they served us a lunch made up almost entirely of produce and chickens from their farm. (Only the rice was from elsewhere.)

What I found most disturbing was the two-currency system, similar to the one China used to have, where most ordinary people were limited to "moneda nacional" and the rationing system, while tourists and others with access to hard currency (relatives of emigres, mostly) could buy just about anything. The tourist pesos, referred to as CUCs (kooks), were traded one-to-one for Canadian dollars, but the ordinary pesos were only 1/24 of that.

Soap and shampoo were rationed and never enough for the month, although freely available for CUCs, so I was approached several times by people asking if I had any soap or shampoo to spare. Shortly after arriving, we were gathered waiting for our ride to go donate things to the Episcopal cathedral, including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, soap, antiseptics, Spanish-language prayer books, and--since we were traveling early in December--Christmas lights. We were approached by a woman asking if we had any soap. I gave her one of the large bars of Ivory Soap that I had brought to donate, and she acted as if Christmas had come early.

People were lively and friendly, although few spoke English, even in tourist facilities, and my long-ago high school Spanish was stretched to its limits.

Our official guide was laid-back and a bit cynical. When we went to Matanzas, it seemed that we were taking an unusual circuitous route out of Havana, but our guide explained that she wanted to show us the different kinds of housing that people lived in. We asked for her opinions of Fidel and Raul Castro, and she said that Fidel had done some good things and some bad things. She hoped that Raul would reverse or alleviate the bad things without undoing the bad things.

By the way, I highly recommend a book called "Havana Nocturne" by T.J. English. It's an account of American influence in Cuba, with a special focus on the years when the country was a hangout for organized crime. The book is fascinating and reads like a novel with a cast of mobsters and Hollywood stars. Although English is no fan of Fidel Castro, he helps readers understand why the revolution occurred and why some sort of change was needed.

If you have a chance to go to Cuba, especially on a trip that will take you off the tourist circuit, go. It will not always be comfortable. The food is mediocre, even in the tourist places, and the tap water is not safe. You are cut off from news of the outside world. However, I found that I slept better in Cuba than I had anywhere else in years. Perhaps our 24-hour news cycle provides a tense background noise that interferes with peace of mind.