On a recent trip to Cuba organized by CHICLE Language Institute in Carrboro, I saw in Havana the lovely Colonial buildings with crumbling facades as well as those that are being rehabilitated and finished with bright colors. I saw the vintage American cars from the 1950s and ’60s that have been kept alive by genius backyard mechanics and painted in vivid neon hues. I saw the work of amazing artists, in public squares, galleries and homes. I saw grand, modern resorts on the sea.
I heard music everywhere, in every restaurant and bar and on the street. I was impressed by a vital culture and a friendly people.
Undermining all this was a sense of infrastructural decay, a shortage of goods we take for granted and poverty. We stayed in a hotel with a luxuriously renovated lobby but dimly lit rooms with showers and toilets that barely functioned. We suffered some pretty bad food but also enjoyed dinners in lovely restaurants that Cubans cannot afford to patronize. We peered into the grim, barely stocked stalls where Cubans buy food with their ration stamps. We heard about doctors who drove taxis because they made too little money being doctors.
It seemed that those in the tourist trade have the best jobs of all, as do artists, because these are the people who get money from outside the country.
Our vivacious guide spoke with great pride of the accomplishments of her country’s government: free health care for all, free education through college, a 98 percent literacy rate. She also issued frequent reminders that this is a work in progress, that it takes time to deal with the problems – and that it would make a huge difference if the U.S. dropped its trade embargo against Cuba.
“We don’t want your McDonald’s,” she said. What Cubans want, she said, is to have normal relations with the country next door, a country that is only a 45-minute flight away. They want to be able to buy buses, cars, equipment and medicine in the U.S. instead of from China, halfway around the world.
Our new bus from China is used by tourists. Cubans travel in decrepit buses, trucks with beds converted for seating, in horse and carriage, on bicycle and, of course, in old American cars. The resort hotels are co-owned by the Cuban government and foreign businesses. The people who stay there are tourists.
We spoke to no dissenters. Our travel was scripted, no doubt, as Americans travel there under restrictive orders. We are the only country that restricts travel to Cuba, and Cuba is the only country to which the U.S. restricts travel. We ran into other foreign travelers, from England, France, Germany. And in conversations, those travelers were quick to ask, “Why?” Why does the U.S. hang on to a 52-year old embargo?
The New York Times reported this month that results of a recent survey showed a major shift in American attitudes toward Cuba, including among Cuban-Americans and Floridians who have historically resisted friendly relations with Cuba.
“The survey found that 56 percent of respondents nationwide favor changing Cuba policy, a majority that jumps to 63 percent among Florida adults and 62 percent among Latinos nationwide. While support is strongest among Democrats and independents, the survey showed 52 percent of Republicans also favor normalization,” the Times reported.
A member of our group spoke with a local legislator who said, frankly, that this change was not on anyone’s agenda and probably would not happen, especially in today’s bipartisan climate. But maybe, with increased travel to Cuba, that can change.
I am no expert in economics; I have only a surface knowledge of the history of relations with Cuba, before, during and after the Cuban revolution. But now I’ve been to Cuba. And that makes a difference.
In half a century, the embargo has failed to bring down Cuba’s communist, repressive government. In fact, the U.S.-imposed isolation might have made it stronger. With more open borders, dissident Cubans might have a stronger voice and effect on the general populace both there and here.
Sharon Campbell of Chapel Hill is a retired journalist.