It was a depressing, bleak scene that greeted me that September day in 1993 upon my arrival in Havana, Cuba. Very few vehicles moved on the main avenues of the historic city. Bicycles and workers walking to their jobs and hoping to hitch a ride were legion.
I discovered bread, bars of soap, shampoo, ballpoint pens, toilet paper, simple things we take for granted were hard to find. With the collapse of the once great Soviet empire and its subsidized trade with Cuba, a system of severe austerity had been implemented by the Cuban government and named the “Special Period.”
From late August to mid-December of 1995, I was a guest lecturer at the University of Matanzas where I taught U.S. history and life and culture of the U.S. to third-year English majors.
I experienced many of the hardships of the Cuban people and especially my Cuban students. My primary mode of transportation was a mountain bike I transported to Cuba with me. Electrical blackouts were common, sometimes in the middle of a class. Air conditioning was nonexistent.
On occasion common food items were scarce. Rice, coffee and sugar were, at times, scarce due to the shortage of petroleum products needed to transport food items from one part of the island to the other.
Beef, lobster and shrimp were illegal for Cubans to purchase or consume. These food products were reserved for foreign tourists. I met a young man who had been in prison for one year for slaughtering a cow to feed his family. Family pets were “disappearing” as were small animals at Cuban zoos. Need I say more?
Yet, in all these tragic circumstances, I discovered a resilient, warm, inventive people. Not once did I have any anti-American sentiments directed toward me. Once a Cuban discovered I was from the U.S., there was almost instant friendship. They love U.S. citizens. They despise our government and what it has done to them.
On a few occasions I visited Varadero and watched as Cuba prepared to switch to an economy that leaned on tourism. Beautiful four- and five-star hotels began to appear along the pristine beaches of the gorgeous Cuban peninsula only 30 minutes from the University of Matanzas. Today, it is almost over-built, and most Cubans who lived here have been moved off the peninsula and given new houses and apartments elsewhere.
I recently returned home to North Carolina
from spending almost three weeks in Cuba. Even having traveled and visited this island nation over 40 times in the past 22 years, I was amazed at the changes already in motion.
New, shiny autos crowded the main Havana avenues along with the classic U.S. cars. Late-model, Chinese-manufactured buses were transporting workers to their jobs! People were upbeat. They could seem to see light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel of their history. New “mom and pop” businesses were everywhere. New paladars (private restaurants) were in every neighborhood.
I witnessed the Gay Pride parade sanctioned by the Cuban government as it wound its way through downtown Havana with its several thousand participants.
Then I was a U.S. citizen at the Cuban May Day Parade at the Plaza of the Revolution. High above me was Cuban President Raul Castro, members of the Cuban military and members of the Cuban Assembly of the People. And there I was, proudly waving the only American flag in view. My how times are changing in Castro’s Cuba.
Edward Walsh lives in Princeton.