Cuba on the cusp
Cuba on the cusp
Like it or not Cuba is changing, and it is changing fast
By Matthew Emery
Cuba is a country of contradiction and ambiguity, stunning landscape and
architectural deterioration, of endearing calm and relentless angst. It
is, in effect, a national catch-22 caught in a revolutionary time warp
long past its prime.
After spending close to two weeks touring Havana and the near-empty
roads that radiate from its centre, across from Matanzas through
Cienfuegos, Trinidad and up to Santa Clara, I am no closer to
understanding this bewildering and wonderful country than I was before I
left Pearson airport.
What I did manage to collect from the many conversations I had with
everyday Cubans both young and old was their ambitions to depose of the
Castro dynasty, enter trade with the United States, integrate their
money (the national CUP and the tourist-based CUC) into an international
currency and, the most pressing concern, to earn the finances required
for a passport interview and Cuban passport. It costs hundreds of
tourist-based CUCs to acquire a passport in Cuba. To give a bit of
financial scale, 1 CUC is inflated 24 times the national currency, so
the ability to obtain a passport is virtually non-existent for most
Cubans outside of industry and high-ranking government jobs.
Beyond the complications of money, I was fortunate enough to sit and
talk at length with many locals. Of the many conversations I had one in
particular sticks out in my mind. Meeting in the old square of Trinidad,
Vladimir, a young man hailing from the old capital of Santiago de Cuba,
told stories with discontent of the inability to travel outside of Cuba.
He told me that every monthly government check he received he used first
and foremost to travel the length of the island. This, he said, made him
feel free to travel wherever he wanted, completely unobstructed. When
asked the same question in return, I answered the only way a tourist
carrying a Canadian passport could: “I’m sorry, I cannot even imagine
what that is like, but I will listen. What can I do as a foreigner?” I
will return to this in a moment.
America is entering a complicated and fragile dance with Cuba, and most
Cubans are surprisingly open to the unknown possibilities that may
result. However, it is also clear from an outside perspective that this
sword cuts deeply both ways.
On the one hand, American and international investment into Cuba will
certainly bring corporate capital into the hands of the leaders of the
country (including the Castro’s and incumbent leaders thereafter). When
this happens, will the average Cuban receive the benefits of such a
monumental and historic interaction? Of this we can only hope.
On the other hand is Cuba’s strong political identity, embedded in
imperial resistance and personified as socialist philosophy, a mindset
absolutely inconsistent with the American model of corporate enterprise.
This strong tie between history, politics, and identity has forged an
unprecedented degree of solidarity among the Cuban population.
Normalizing relations with Cuba will also mean the dismantlement of
Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which must include the withdrawal of
American military personnel from the Guantánamo area. The United States
is going to have to strike a balance between adventure capital in a
socially minded nation, and its ability to withdraw from Cuba what was a
humanitarian and political catastrophe in the first place.
Like it or not Cuba is changing, and it is changing fast. So, what can
we do as conscientious tourists in a country where corruption and
inequality is still the status quo? The first thing we can do is to
leave the resorts behind and opt for a more local experience. The option
for house-run B&Bs (locally known as casa particulares) is now
widespread across the country, from Viñales in the West all the way to
Baracoa in the East. Another option is to eat at family-run paladares
instead of government-run restaurants. A similar experience to residing
at a casa particular, at a paladare you will meet Cuban families, eat
home-cooked traditional foods and if the conversation is just right,
learn about post-revolutionary life in Cuba. The last thing we can do as
visitors is to sit down and listen, communicate, and advocate their
cause to a wider audience at home and abroad. It is unknown how American
relations will ultimately affect the livelihood of the average Cuban. I
am however optimistic that open dialogue and basic solidarity will
out-leverage the negatives, and we will eventually see Cuba the way
Cubans want to see it.
Matthew Emery is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology,
Source: Cuba on the cusp –