After more than a decade of thinking about going to Cuba, I spent the weeks before my trip trying to temper my expectations. I didn’t want to be unfairly disappointed because I’d fallen for images of old cars and palm trees. While I understood intellectually that the country was poor and under the control of a dictatorship, I had a hard time imagining how that would play out in real life.
Let me quantify what I’m about to say with a bit of background: I am no stranger to poverty or hardship. I’ve travelled through out Latin America and have spent time in some of the poorest parts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I was in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward six months after Katrina, and have walked through communities shortly after they were leveled by tornadoes and hurricanes. Cuba was something else.
As I rode through towns and walked the streets, I kept reminding myself to take photos of not just the beautiful things, but of everything. Much has been made about the slackening of the U.S. trade embargo, and the opening of tourism. But what that means for the average citizen remains to be seen. A bike taxi driver pointed out several sites along Havana’s Malecon where hotels will soon rise. “Mientras, las casas de los Cubanos estan cayendo,” he told me. Meanwhile, the houses of the Cuban are falling. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Across the country, in cities and in small towns, people live without light, without running water, with holes in ceilings, and windows that don’t close. Black mold grows up walls inside and out, including at the hotels. My sinuses and throat were coated in a matter of hours; it took me a week to recover.
As Cuba prepares to welcome Americans en mass, I fear that both sides are woefully unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a huge increase in tourism. And many Americans don’t have the patience to deal with the delays and shortages that are a regular part of life there.
The airport, with its two baggage carousels and one luggage cart, can’t keep up with the flights arriving each day. I waited three hours in an un-air conditioned terminal with few seats and no amenities for my suitcase. There was one bathroom for the hundreds of people waiting for their luggage: three of the toilets in the ladies room were functional. None had toilets seats. Paper was rationed by an attendant.
The old cars are quaint, but dilapidated. No seat belts, no a/c, and abominable gas mileage. Two out of the three times I took a taxi from Havana to my hotel (about 25 minutes), we had to stop for gas.
While I understood (in the abstract) that the country is communist and run by a totalitarian government, it was surprising to see it all in practice. The government owns almost everything: the hotels, most restaurants, the tour buses, the rum factories, the drink companies… everything. Menus offer “state soda,” soft drinks that are produced by the government. Coca Colas are few and far between, and usually cost more than twice the state “Kola.” In partaking of these things, I felt I was literally consuming communist ideology.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t evident how the government also controls its citizenry. There is no First Amendment in Cuba, and no free press. The state-owned newspapers print the date on the front pages in years corresponding to time passed since the Cuban Revolution. As in “March 21, 58 years after the Triumph of the Revolution.”
While I loved the absence of advertising, the Communist propaganda that stood in its place was a constant reminder of the values and positions of the government. Billboards proclaimed, “Our dignity is not for sale” and “Your blockade, our broken dreams.” Images of Che Guevara (Hasta la victoria, siempre!) and Hugo Chavez (“El major amigo de Cuba!”) were everywhere. School children wore red neckerchiefs of the Jose Marti Pioneer Organization, a communist version of the scouts.
The biggest shock though was the food. There isn’t enough of it. Store shelves are often empty. According to this story, as tourism increases, citizens compete with tourists for the necessities: eggs, meat, bottled water, and soft drinks. Those who can pay more win, but it’s hard to know that some family is going without because you could afford to pay more for your meat and bottled water.
I’m not writing all this to be a cynic or a downer. I say it because I worry that America’s romanticized Cuba doesn’t take into account the realities of life. Yes, there are some very, very good parts and people. But don’t let visions of rum and palm trees cloud your idea of what you’ll encounter once you get there.