The government capitol in Havana was designed to replicate the Capitol in Washington, though the locals take pride in saying it’s bigger.
They love us down in Cuba.
We are assured of this everywhere we go on the island. It feels genuine, without irony and without the sense that the sentiment is the result of a directive from La Oficina Gubernamenta de Propaganda y el Sentimiento Feliz.
“We like Americans,” they tell us, time and again, from every city and every barrio, from Havana to Santa Clara. “We don’t like the United States government, but we like Americans.”
It’s nice to hear, of course, when you’re an American visiting a country with such a curious relationship with its nearest neighbor. For Americans of a certain generation, Cuba has long been an enigma, a mystery that seemed vaguely scary way back when.
If Americans have a notion of Cuba at all these days, it’s likely an amalgamation of grubby revolution, godless communism, dangerous beards, improvised cars, angry exiles, lively music, failed assassination attempts, stinky cigars and an excess of rum.
We recently spent a week there to unravel what we thought we knew.
After nearly 60 years of being pais non grata to the United States, Cuba got a visit from President Obama last year in a first-step effort to normalize relationships. He was the first president to step foot in Cuba since Fidel and Che deposed Batista, the Mafia and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. back in the 1950s.
Normalization would be nice, obviously, but lifting the trade embargo would be even better.
That’s another constant you hear from people if you’re an American in Havana. We talked to an architect, to a diplomat, to college students and to senior citizens at a community center and they all told us the same thing: the U.S. embargo is killing Cuba.
It’s a “fact” Cubans have embraced since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia left Cuba to fend for itself. For about 40 years, the USSR managed to keep old-fashioned communism alive in Cuba with sizeable stipends in exchange for sugar, the island’s primary resource. Cuba’s unholy alliance with the Soviets allowed the U.S. to whip up Cold War fears with a convenient nearby enemy. Then, all of a sudden, boom!, the Kremlin said adios to Cuba. But that didn’t keep every American president from shaking their fists at and/or ignoring the island nation.
A scene from a farmer’s market in Cienfuegos.
Cuba has been working through abandonment issues since its population nearly starved to death during what they now call the “special period” in the years after the Soviets disappeared. With Russia a lost cause, Cubans turned their attention to the United States and to the embargo. Because what else could they do?
The U.S. is Cuba’s nearest neighbor, so it sort of makes sense that the average desperate Cuban would want to make friends. They hear about New York. They hear about L.A. They are intrigued. And maybe they could benefit economically without the sanctions.
For the most part, Cuba is still a horse-and-cart country. Nearly everyone works for the government because virtually everything runs through the government. The basic monthly wage is the equivalent of 27 American dollars. Everyone is guaranteed free housing and free health care. University and trade-school education is also free. Food staples are exceedingly cheap and available from neighborhood bodegas. Free preschools, free senior care.
It might sound like a progressive Democrat’s ideal, but all this free stuff is difficult to sustain when the economy is in free fall. So Cubans end up with a lot of mediocre free stuff. And there is really no incentive for a citizen to attend university when the guy who is driving a patched-together ’54 Buck for tourists in Havana is earning more in a single day than a government functionary makes in a month.
That’s not to say that capitalism isn’t alive, if not well, in Cuba. To survive, everyone needs to improvise some sort of gig, some of it with the government’s blessings. Bed-and-breakfasts are huge, for instance, and so are paladares (private restaurants opened in homes). Virtually every shack along the beautiful, tropical shores of the Bay of Pigs — remember that place? — is open to tourists.
Also, black-market capitalism seems to be a thing. A visitor to the country can purchase dirt-cheap cigars from vendors who sidle up surreptitiously, as if they’ve got high-grade heroin for sale.
The embargo will be lifted, eventually, after American capitalists figure out that there’s money to be made on the island and when they accept that free enterprise in Cuba is complicated. Or when communism eventually collapses under the weight of its incapacities.
It may or may not happen during the Trump administration, and that’s okay, according to the experts in Cuba.
“Cuba isn’t losing any sleep over Trump,” said Carlos Alzagaray, a Cuban diplomat. “The attitude here is that it couldn’t be any worse than it’s already been.”
A billboard outside the Che memorial in Santa Clara
If anything, Cubans seem rather bemused by America’s plight these days. “You’ve replaced no-drama Obama with all-trauma Trump,” Alzagaray said.
When that day finally comes, when access and trade with the United States open up to Cuba, we’re led to believe that it will be embraced like the dawning of a new age. Best-case scenario, the economy will prosper with a new emphasis on capitalist principles, allowing an upgrade to its generous social programs.
A philosophy student, Maria, says she hopes to see a McDonald’s franchise in every neighborhood someday.
Virtually everyone we met in Cuba said they yearn for better access to the Internet. It’s difficult for Cubans to keep up with the rest of the world these days, we are told. The messages they get from tightly controlled media are limited. Billboards everywhere still propagate Big Brother-like nationalist propaganda. On the bright side, some local black-market entrepreneurs earn a nice living by downloading information off the ‘net and delivering weekly pacquetas from their thumb drives, at about $2 a pop, to those with a hunger for outside influences. For the most part, the pacquetas include very little useful news, but are mostly filled with celebrity and entertainment items from around the world.
We’re told that Jimmy Fallon is very popular in Cuba.
Hearing the party line day after day, a visitor can easily develop the sense that the embargo has become a handy justification for the country’s malaise. Some might say that the embargo absolves Cubans from making an effort to self-determination. Surely Cuba has had enough time to work through its issues, to massage its systems, to reinvent itself, even under the weight of its creaky autocracy.
While that might be partially true, it doesn’t absolve the United States from carrying out a policy against Cuba that can only be referred to nowadays as petty and venal. The embargo is payback for a forgotten history, at the expense of generations that continue to suffer the consequences. How easy would it be to allow some free trade to its nearest non-border neighbor, to 11 million people who have never consumed a Big Mac? Fidel is long gone. Raul is on his last legs. The U.S. trades with China; we’re on speaking terms with Russia. But, somehow, Cuba gets our cold shoulder.
The political intellectuals in Havana will tell you that the exiled Cubans in Miami have an outsized influence on American-Cuban policy. In Florida, a state with a significant influence on national elections, no presidential candidate since Nixon wished to risk losing the Cuban vote, which could swing Dade County, which could swing Florida to an opponent. So U.S.-Cuban relations remain in statis, for no good reason, forcing Cuba to build trade relationships with third-world banana republics with no more future than their own.
Nevertheless, Cubans tell us they love the American people even as they despise American policies. It sounds like a broken record. Even Maria, the philosophy student who yearns to eat a Big Mac someday, apes the party line about, about the goodness of the American people and the not so goodness of the American government.
I didn’t mean to deflate her sense of what Americanos are like, but I thought she should know that the people from the U.S. are the government. U.S. citizens, after all, elect the boobs who continue to nurture our country’s petty institutional grievances.
Former Monterey Herald Editor Joe Livernois is a Monterey writer. See his collection of photographs.