Monday, January 26, 2009

Cuba: 50 years after the Revolution... Two weeks before Obama...

All lighting fixtures in Cuba use energy efficient fluorescent bulbs. As a result, night-time throughout the island is cast in a dim yellow-green tint that gives every home and business an unnerving institutional glow.

Daytime is the opposite. In the light, Cuba is eye candy – bright Caribbean colors, retro typefaces, 400 years of and three continents worth of architecture. But it looks as though something cataclysmic happened in the year 1959, and today the survivors are merely living among the ruins. It is Blade Runner Goes to Disneyland.

Eyes squinting. Eyes bulging.... squinting... bulging...

Such an appropriate metaphor for the most complicated travel experience Robbyn and I have ever had. Growing up in 1970s and 80s America, Cuba was like your aunt with cancer – the thing that we dare not even speak about. If we pretended it just wasn’t there, then maybe the problem would go away. It is a raft journey away from the US, but it is forbidden to visit as a tourist. To Robbyn and me, that is the best marketing imaginable. Obviously, we had to go there.

So it was: our experience in this land of myth and mystery was simultaneously revealing and bewildering. Enlightening and befuddling.

Any explanation has to begin with poverty. People there are poor by our standards. This forms the backdrop of every experience you encounter as a visitor. Visible, crumbling-buildings poverty. But it is a complicated poverty. You find yourself observing things like "They are poor, but at least everyone has a home." Or "They are poor, but people seem very happy" (in the singing and dancing sense of happy). Or "They are poor, but everyone has free health care." Or "They are poor, but at least it is really cheap to go to a baseball game."

But then there is the other great theme that cannot be avoided: La RevolucĂ­on. The Revolution. Not in the historical sense; not just that event that took place exactly 50 years before our visit, but the ongoing "Revolution." The word that Cubans use to describe their country, their society, their way of life. Did we get an accurate view of what Cubans really think about their political situation? Hard to say. Some people we met seemed obviously more patriotic than others. The language barrier prevented us from understanding people's nuanced opinions. Or more often, the suspicion of us as foreigners probably prevented people from opening up as much as we had hoped. On a few occasions, we made progress getting to talk to people, but then we would notice their habit of constantly looking over a shoulder to see who might be listening. Being critical of La RevolucĂ­on has real consequences. Jobs, homes, educational opportunities can all evaporate if you are not on board with the program.

No, people are not free – at least not by any definition of freedom that you or I would be comfortable with, but there is much pride and propaganda about Cuba Libre – Free Cuba. And it’s not entirely ironic or hypocritical. They are free, in a sense, they have liberated themselves from the cultural and economic imperialism that that has conquered so much of the rest of the world. But is that enough freedom? Is it the wrong kind of freedom? There are limits to what people can read and discuss and believe. Almost all books are ones that extol the virtues of the glorious revolution. It is mind control, but at least it is overt mind control. Everyone knows the rules. Is it possible that this is somehow preferable to the more subtle (but arguably just as powerful) forms of mind control that we encounter in our lives? Is it possible that we simply tolerate different trade-offs, different hypocrisies? Is it possible that there is no such thing as a perfect economic system or form of government?

I am not writing a polemic. I really don’t know the answers.

This is not the type of realization (or perhaps confusion?) that a person normally sets out to experience on a sunny vacation. But this is a hint of what it was like to visit Cuba. Seemingly every mundane encounter seemed to have major moral and philosophical questions embedded within it. Trying to reserve a bus ticket two hours in advance of the bus departure (instead of one hour – not possible). Buying an ice cream cone that is 24 times more expensive than what the locals pay at the same shop because there are two separate currencies. Going to a baseball game and finding no food or souvenirs to buy anywhere (but finding an amazing fan-led drum section in the bleachers). Sitting at a white-sand beach right next to a modern all-tourist resort, knowing that not a penny spent there will go to the local economy. Being the only two visitors in (yet another) museum dedicated to the glorious revolution, which is staffed by eight employees. Having a travel agent explain to you that another travel agent probably didn’t tell us about the flight leaving tomorrow “because it is easier to lie to tourists then to sell them a ticket.” Meeting some of the warmest, most friendly people in the world, watching them literally dance in the streets, but wondering if they will ever know the meaning of true happiness. Or maybe they are watching me wondering the same.

These are some snapshots that I carry in my mind from Cuba.

And these are some snapshots that I have posted on flickr…

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