For the past month, I have immersed myself in Cuban life so as to attain an understanding of the realities in this socialist state. From the green plains of the rural countryside to the towering peaks of the Sierra Maestra, the white sand and crystal-clear waters of Varadero to the 500-year-old cobblestone steps of Trinidad, Cuba is astonishingly beautiful in so many ways. With that said, life here is vastly different than popular perceptions of 50’s glamour and idealistic freedom fighters. Despite its flaws, it is the Cuban people that make traveling to this truly one-of-a-kind island all the more worthwhile, proving to me time and again that they are uniquely forthright and good-natured.
To know the real Cuba, you have to familiarize yourself with its complex racial and religious makeup, as well as its rich colonial history. On 27 October 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived to Cuba’s eastern shore. Shortly after, Santiago was born, which became the Spanish capital in the Caribbean, and starting point for Pizarro and Cortez, among others, who when on to conquer much of the New World. Cuba became a powerhouse in sugar production. After the natives were killed off by disease and over-work, the island amassed an unprecedented amount of African slaves. This population has had a dramatic impact on Cuban culture, forming the foundations of its iconic music, and introducing the form of religious worship known as Santeria, which is still very much alive today: a pantheistic cult based on the Yoruba people that incorporates some elements of Catholicism. Believers are easily identifiable because they are dressed in all white. Some consider it a status symbol, as there are many costs of membership, like animals for sacrifice, and figurines needed regularly for rituals.
While people will admit that their government is far from perfect, tales of the 1959 Revolution play an important role in modern Cuban identity. A socialist revolution under Fidel Castro overthrew the right-wing government of Fulgencio Batista, which was backed by the military and elites. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who lost his life crusading in Bolivia, remains a highly romanticized figure, and you cannot walk 10 feet without seeing his image on a T-shirt, wall, or car windshield.
The Cuban people beam with enormous pride and enthusiasm, and are always in the mood to party (or at least for some rum). Take a night off and dance salsa at a local dive, I promise that you will not regret it. If brazen nightlife is not for you, check out one of the captivating jazz clubs, attend a classical music concert, or cheer on the home team at a baseball game. There is a huge rivalry between Havana and Santiago in pretty much every way, and it all that tension is taken out at the stadium each year.
The sheer number of people that would approach me each day when I am just trying to walk around and enjoy the scenery, or silently read a book in the park was overwhelming at times. It took a lot of patience to not get fed up with heckling taxi drivers block after block (what makes you think that I need a cab right now?), or street vendors that call out every nationality they can think of to try to get your attention (apparently I look Italian). Admittedly, I failed at times, snapping back at them with a few choice words in Spanish, or a glare from Hell that I hope none of you ever have to see. I always regret it. No good comes out of getting upset by someone living life the only way they know how. Tolerance pays in dividends; every encounter revealssomething about the culture, no matter how trivial or bothersome it may seem at the time. For every soliciting vendor, or scavenger with half-hearted smile that chats for a few minutes before asking me to buy them a pint of Havana Club rum, there is someone that would approach me with a genuine interest in conversation, and is willing to share their take on Cuban life. I cannot tell you have many sincere, thoughtful discussions I have had. Afterwards, we shake hands as friends and equals, and we go our separate ways.
Standard of Living
Most people in Cuba work for the government to some capacity. Up until about five years ago, you had no other choice but to. Now, very slowly, people are being granted access to open their own private enterprises, which are pretty much limited to in-house restaurants, bed and breakfasts, repair shops, and hair salons. College is free in Cuba, but many do not take advantage, as a degree hardly equates to higher pay. I spoke to a surgeon of over 40 years that makes $35 per month. The average salary is between $10-15 per month, and unemployment remains rampant. Many young people live with their parents well into their 30’s because they simply cannot sustain themselves otherwise.
I have had conversations with doctors, dentists, economists, shipbuilders, musicians, law students, cult priests – you name it. I have stayed at some very comfortable, yet modest homes, but I have also spent time in the more common reality for Cuban city-dwellers, known as bohios: cement shacks with aluminum roofs and unfinished floors. Despite this seemingly grim circumstance, never have I heard a single grumble or complaint, and I have been astonished to find a people so very generous with the little that they have.
For more information on how you can receive $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months as a Bonderman Fellow, visit the CGIS website.