One of Us: Going to Cuba

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
The Revolutionary Museum in the Presidential Palace in Havana shares the history of Cuban political development.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be part of a week-long “People-to-People” tour of Cuba, organized by Cornell’s Adult University. The question I’ve been asked by friends, family, and even total strangers, since I got back is: “What is it like to live in Cuba today?” Everyone seems eager to hear a personal viewpoint – what I observed firsthand or was told by the Cuban men, women, and Americans living in Cuba that our group met – as opposed to what they’ve heard from the U.S. government and the media for half a century.

It’s hard to know where to begin. As required by the license, each day of the trip was packed with a combination of meaningful interactions with Cubans and educational and cultural programs. Our Cuban and American guides kept us on the go from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. We even had in-depth conversations and mini-lectures on the bus!

Our home base was a famous old hotel, the Riviera, which still retains many of its original features. Though I knew Cuba was a Third World country I don’t think I really comprehended what that meant until I spent a week there. Despite the lovely views of the ocean and Cuba’s spectacular sunsets, each day was a new adventure!

Things randomly stopped working (elevators, power, hot water, and room keys) eventually starting up again for no discernible reason and with no explanation. It was quite unsettling and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Another adjustment was the fact that Cuba is cash-only. No American credit cards were accepted anywhere. I quickly came to the realization that I could spend the trip comparing Cuba unfavorably to America or I could remind myself that I had come to the island to learn about life in 21st century Cuba.

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
The coexistence of the past and the present, in Matanzas.

At the hotel, guests were treated to an elaborate buffet breakfast each morning, featuring American favorites (pancakes, omelets, Jif peanut butter). Though Cubans often struggle to find healthy, affordable foods, there is an entirely different standard for tourists, which I found very uncomfortable. It often felt like I was literally taking food off someone else’s plate and it was disconcerting to realize just how much food I wasted without even thinking twice about it.

Lunches and dinners were served in a variety of settings: Government-owned restaurants, paladares (private eateries, usually family-owned), artists’ homes, and even a luncheon at the Matanzas Seminary. The meals were remarkably similar, featuring chicken, pork, or fish – occasionally beef or lamb. Vegetables were primarily pumpkin, squash, or roots like yucca or taro. Black beans and rice accompanied every meal. Eating so simply in Cuba for seven days made me aware of how much I take it for granted that there will always be unlimited food choices and stores to shop in for whatever products I want. I also developed an appreciation for how much people can do with limited resources and boundless creativity. Two other things of note – Cubans are renowned for their hospitality so there was always a welcome mojito or Cuba libre and some type of musical entertainment. Much to my surprise, rather than Cuban music, there were endless renditions of Beatles songs. I heard more variations of “Hey Jude” in Cuba than I ever hear on Ithaca radio stations!

Food security continues to be a pressing issue for most Cubans. Since “The Crisis” (also referred to as the “Special Period”), a harrowing time of economic collapse and severe food shortages after the Soviet Union pulled out of the country in 1991 and the United States continued its trade embargo, finding enough food to eat has been a major preoccupation for much of the population.

It sounded like most Cuban’s were forced into a meatless diet practically overnight, resulting in both a drastic national weight loss and the development of a scarcity mentality in many. It’s obvious from the way Cubans speak of it, that memories of this difficult period still haunt many of them.

Though conditions aren’t as harsh today, food options remain limited. Families and individuals receive a monthly ration book for food staples. Our Cuban guide told us that when he goes to the government store to pick up his supplies half the time they are out of things or don’t have enough to fill his share. If he wants fresh produce or more meat than what’s allotted there are some small markets but he must pay for these himself and they are expensive. Milk is only available for the old or sick, and children under seven. He added that Cubans will stand in line to buy as much toilet paper as they can afford when a shipment arrives because they never know when the next one will show up.

One of the first things you notice when flying into Havana is how undeveloped the primarily government-owned surrounding land is. However, despite the drastic impact the trade embargo – one of the longest lasting sanctions one country has ever imposed on another – has had on farming, Cubans persist in working toward becoming self-sufficient in food production.

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
Urban farming at Vivo Alamar, in Havana.

Our group spoke with one successful urban farmer, trained scientist Miguel Angel Salcines, and toured his cooperative research farm, Vivero Alamar. Approximately 17 crops, each with a 30-day growing period, are raised there. He explained that without access to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery for the farm, it was necessary to adopt an organic model. The employees take ownership in the farm‘s success, supply fresh, affordable food to Cubans, and encourage young people to visit so they can see a future in farming.

In rural Vinales, numerous small-scale farmers continue to grow crops much as their ancestors did, using machetes, oxen, and horses rather than mechanical equipment. We stopped at a thriving third-generation tobacco farm to learn how cigars are made – from planting to drying to rolling – and had lunch at a popular organic farm with an outdoor restaurant that had a breathtaking view of the terraced gardens of fruit, vegetables and herbs and birds soaring lazily over the valley below.

The first thing people said to me when they heard about my upcoming trip was “take pictures of the cars!” Though I saw many colorful old cars (and even rode in two!), I soon discovered that they weren’t just a quaint slice of preserved history, they continue to be people’s transportation. With lack of access to parts and fuel, it’s a miracle that they remain in use today. According to our guides, bus service is slowly improving but a number of Cubans still rely on bicycles, or their feet, to get around. Outside of the city there were large highways, but few vehicles on them, with the exception of Chinese tour buses like ours.

On the other hand, Cubans have something we in America don’t – unlimited access to free health care and education. Children are required to attend school until ninth grade and all wear uniforms, the colors of which correspond to their year in school. Cuba has produced some of the best health care professionals, many of whom are “Cuba’s chief export” according to our guide.

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
Fusterlandia, a community beautification project by artist Jose Fuster, in Jaimanitas.

Despite the shortages and government control over many communications, the arts are thriving in Cuba. I was able to attend a rehearsal of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, where the kids’ energy and high spirits were contagious, as well as visit a bookstore in Matanzas. At Ediciones Vigia, the director and graphic designer explained how they selected and then handcrafted first-edition volumes with loving care. I also met artist Jose Fuster, creator of Fusterlandia, a community beautification project that turned his neighborhood into a gigantic piece of mosaic art, and enjoyed a catered dinner at a private art curator’s exquisite home.

Visiting a country that can best be described as functioning in nonlinear ways, I often thought about how we Americans like to talk blithely about the benefits of living in the present tense. From what I observed, given how constantly things change – with the exception of the Castro leadership – for many Cubans the only option is to live in the here and now.

Additionally, I came to realize that I had arrived in Havana, not as the blank slate I’d envisioned, but with plenty of misconceptions and biases of my own with regard to Cubans, Fidel Castro, and the Cold War’s impact on the island’s identity and ability to advance. I am aware that the trip was carefully planned and tightly run and that some questions weren’t answered directly or at all. The truth about U.S.-Cuba relations probably lies somewhere in between our two countries’ versions of history.

However, I believe it’s a misconception that globalization has passed Cuba by and that the Cuban population will be helpless and immobilized without outside intervention. That’s not what I saw and heard. There are undeniably serious problems that need to be addressed – a housing crisis, crumbling infrastructure, and environmental concerns. Regardless, the people that remain on the island have managed to survive thus far against incredible odds – the end of Soviet subsidies, a debilitating U.S. embargo, and hurricanes – through a fierce love of their country, an indomitable spirit, and sheer strength of will. I found the warmth and optimism of the Cuban people I was introduced to astonishing, given the frequent disruptions – major and minor – they must deal with in every aspect of their lives. They are eloquent and passionate about their personal and professional investment in the historical preservation and economic revitalization of their country.

To observe firsthand the human consequences of the lengthy U.S. embargo on Cuba was disturbing. It was poignant to spot pictures of Barack Obama, who began to reopen negotiations and dialogue with the country, displayed next to those of Che Guevara and other Cuban heroes. And it was disheartening to hear about President Trump’s increased sanctions while I was in Havana.

If you have the opportunity to travel to another country in 2018, do it! When I opened my heart and mind to Cuba, Cuba opened a door for me.