“How was Cuba?’ my friends ask me.
“Ah… it was great,” I stammer. “Interesting!” I feel completely inadequate with such floundering, both as a writer and as a traveler. They give me blank stares. It isn’t like me to be unable to summarize a trip in a nutshell, to give my impressions.
But Cuba defied me. It slid from my fingers like a slippery fish eager to be free.
Let me begin with how it all started with me and Cuba.
In college, I studied Latin American literature, history, and US foreign relations. Cuba came up over and over again as a place that had not only eluded US imperialism but had thrived with the best health care and education systems in all of Latin America. I was hooked, I wanted to visit, but there was the embargo. For thirty years the idea of traveling to Cuba was on hold. It was either illegal or too complicated.
Until this year when my friend Martha, a writer and teacher in Portland, sent me an email inviting me to join a group of writers on a trip to Cuba. It took me five minutes to respond. This was months before Raul and Barak shook hands, “normalizing” relation between the two countries. But I knew it was my chance to see Cuba before everything changed. Whatever change meant.
And so I went. Through an obstacle course of bureaucracies and inter-organizational pride, I saw a Cuba that was both unchanged and ready for change. We spent six nights in Sancti Spiritus, a central island town, and four nights in Havana. We visited organic gardens, towns where they restored old American cars, and listened to Dr. Esteban Morales talk about race relations in Cuba. The ten days fled past me in a whirlwind of images, emotions, and information. What I experienced has, given time, condensed into valid impressions which I will try to explain.
Cubans know how to do with what they have. The US has tried to starve Cuba with fifty years of a trade embargo, and when the Soviet Union fell in the early 90s, all of the trade which Cuba had depended on for twenty years, came to a screeching halt. And then for nearly a decade they suffered through the Special Period, until oil from Hugo Chavez began to repair their economy. Throughout it all they have made do.
We visited an organopónico, an urban organic garden, in Sancti called the Linda Flor, where this couldn’t have been more represented. With the collapsed trade with Russia and the Soviet Block, access for fertilizers and pesticides went away, and Cuba was struck with the task of feeding itself. But organic farming is revolutionizing Cuban agriculture, and urban farms are forcing the question of how to feed a growing urban population. What we saw at Linda Flor was a tenacity, a willful survival, a pledge to make things better. Nothing was wasted, produce was sold to the neighborhood—all in an effort to make food production better, more sustainable, or more self-sufficient.
Viva la Revolución!
The ideals of the Cuban Revolution are still strong. Cuba still has one of the highest literacy rates in the world-99.9%. The campaign to educate the rural poor in the 60s has paid off in one of the most highly educated populations in the Americas. They also have the best health care in Latin America, all for free. In fact, Cuba has the highest per capital doctor to patient ratio per capita (1 doctor to every 150 people) in the world. They even export doctors to the rest of the world. Whether or not contemporary Cubans support the current regime or not, there seemed to be, among Cubans I met, no question as to what the Cuban Revolution did for the country. The elephant in the room seemed to be whether the Revolution could take them to the next step.
Waiting to Exhale
Most of the Cubans I met are waiting to see what is next. For a decade there was the Revolution, then for another twenty years there was alignment with the Soviet Block. And now for the last twenty there has been hardship and austerity of the “Special Period.” Throughout it all the US has been trying to starve Cubans, yet they have survived. All the Cubans I talked to hope for an end to the US trade embargo soon, a likelihood I hold back on, given the current Republican Congress. It seems to me that Cubans are holding their collective breath, waiting to exhale until they see what the next step on the process is.
I still can’t describe the Cuba I experienced to my friends in one sound bite. The slippery fish I caught can never be held in my hands, I can never hold it up as a prize. I can only talk about it in fleeting images and hopes for a future in which Cuba is appreciated as a sovereign nation that exists within a hundred miles from our border, without embargoes.