“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.
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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