Havana Is Not Your Hipster Playground

By Chris Vazquez*

Havana 1950’s vs. Havana 2019 (Credit: Jenn G)

HAVANA TIMES – I’m beginning to understand that there is a fundamental difference in the paradigm by which Cuban Americans & non-Cuban US citizens view Cuba.

I was recently approached by a friend to lead a trip to Cuba for her company. She isn’t Cuban, so the group would consist mainly of non-Cuban US citizens between the ages of 28 and 35. The travelers on her trips tend to be in the midst of life transitions, and they embark on the trips to experience nature & gain new perspectives.

For some reason, I was not very enthused. I LOVE Cuba. My heritage is my passion, and I practically breathe Cuban culture. As it turns out, this is exactly why I wasn’t very motivated to lead the group. You see, I always thought that if I took people to Cuba it would be primarily Cuban Americans, and the trips would be centered around my favorite buzzword cubanidad—the essence of being Cuban. The idea of exploring your roots while discovering and understanding the Cuba of 2019 and all the while connecting with the Cubans of the island would be central to the experience.

In common with my fellow travelers would be that we all fall somewhere on the timeline of the Cuban diaspora, all members of the exile community by association. We would have all grown up on the stories and on the conflicting notions—that Cuba was the greatest land God ever created, but at the same time it was now the desolate aftermath of a failed Revolution, and if you went there it was only to give money to the regime and dishonor the sacrifices of your family. To a young kid growing up in Hialeah, where everyone in your first-grade class shares a similar origin story, that’s like dangling candy in front of your face and slapping you when you reach for it (or at the very least calling you fat).

My point is that we all feel that we know Cuba through the cuentos (stories) of our loved ones, who proclaim that they lived in paradise before 1959 and had to leave it all behind when they were forced to come to the United States—a move they widely viewed as temporary—because, well, why would you want to be anywhere else?

For the community of young Cuban Americans of which I am a part, going to Havana and seeing the contradictions for ourselves is shocking. It pains us to see the gorgeous architecture now filthy and reduced to rubble. The spirit & “cuban-nes” of the people livens our souls, but it breaks our hearts to see them living the way they have to.

The identity crisis is almost indescribable. We did not pretend to know Cuba, though we have identified as Cuban our whole lives. But because of this association, we have always felt Cuban—especially as we moved further and further from our Cuban (or should I say Cuban American) bastion—Miami… until we arrive in Havana, that is. We see the Cuba of today and its residents, and we feel like outsiders in our own ancestral land. What we implicitly thought we knew because of those damn stories goes right out the window, and it’s nothing like what any of us thought.

But it’s nothing like what they warned us about either…. Amidst the rubble, the long lines, and the classic cacharros, there are people hustling, living, helping one another, creating opportunity for themselves, luchandoresolviendo, y sobreviviendo (struggling, hustling, surviving).

It takes getting over the initial shock, but once you do, it’s there—clear as day: These are our people. These are the people that fought for independence—independence from the Spanish, independence from the United States, independence from themselves. These are the people that sent their children off alone on planes to give them better lives; these are the people that crossed 90 miles on makeshift rafts; these are the people that BUILT Miami and established a powerful community in the most powerful country in the world.

We, the young Cuban Americans, because of the cubandidad that binds us, understand what they are capable of, understand what Cuba is capable of. We understand their limitless potential because it is our history?—?It is in our blood; it is what we built in Cuba and what we persevered to build abroad. The strength of the 11.2 million Cubans on the island and the 1.5 million abroad is one; it is theirs, it is ours—Cuban & Cuban American.

We implicitly understand how beautiful Havana once was, how we made it that way, and how we then started over and made Miami that way. We understand the ingenuity, passion, and creativity; the love, spirit, and warm-heartedness; and the work ethic, the commitment to family, and the willingness to sacrifice living within every cubano.

That is why when young Cuban Americans travel to Havana it breaks our hearts. We see through the façade that traps other US citizens who are not of Cuban descent, and it torments us. You see, I have come to realize by developing relationships with many people of non-Cuban descent who have traveled to the island and are obsessed with Cuba that what they see is largely novelty. To them, it is the equivalent of going to a forbidden island lost to time.

The reactions are something to the tune of, “Oh wow, no internet, it’s so primitive.” “Oh my gosh, I want a picture in my flowy sundress outside these ruins (someone’s residence).” “The people have nothing, but they’re so amazing and welcoming! It’s like a fairytale land; I love being able to come here and just disconnect—I hope it never changes.”

Basura! (Garbage) A fairytale is exactly what that narrative is…. To them, Havana is a hipster’s playground?—?a place where Instagram models, travel-diary nomads, and all these other 2019 BS buzzwords can frolic around for a few days or weeks before returning home. Their paradise—my hell. Don’t get it twisted: Cuba is a beautiful place filled with amazingly incredible people, my people. But these people deserve so much more.

Cuba was the pearl of the Antilles, the preferred island for the Spanish, and the envy of Latin America. Havana was beautiful the way San Francisco or Barcelona are today, not the way ancient Aztec temples or Egyptian pyramids are. But what was once the vibrant home of my abuelos (grandparents) and their contemporaries is now a pretty, boho-chic relic for US visitors.

Because of my paradigm, though, I could never see that. I could never put into words that I did not comprehend how non-Cuban Americans viewed Cuba and the Cuban people with the same curious fascination I would view an isolated tribe of indigenous people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

To know through the stories and through my upbringing what Cuba was and to know what it is today breaks my heart. Yet, I am filled with so much hope. I now understand what they mean when they say, “I hope it never changes.” They are enamored by the beauty they see in Cuba and its people, and they fear it would be lost through modernization. But still I say, to hell with that. Cuba is no foreigner’s playground. Cuba is the land of the most talented immigrant group to ever grace the shores of the United States. A land of tradition, beauty, history, and life.

No, Havana should not be the preferred getaway for a week-long technology detox. But I want to set the record straight that regardless of their views, non-Cuban US citizens traveling to the island already do wonders for the Cuban people by contributing to a broader policy of engagement as opposed to the United States’ historical policy of isolation – But the key to ethical travel to Cuba is being intentional in that engagement.

The most popular category exemption for US citizens traveling to Cuba is “Support for the Cuban People,” which requires travelers to patronize the private sector and promote civil society by staying at casas particulares (homestays) eating at paladares (private restaurants) and supporting cuentapropistas (the self-employed).

The beauty of this type of travel is that it fosters the people-to-people interactions that create the mutual understanding that ultimately changes perspectives. And the best part is: You don’t have to be Cuban American or of Cuban descent to embrace it.  All you have to do is start an honest dialogue and exchange ideas respectfully.  These are the seeds that lead to meaningful change, and change is a good thing.

I want Cuba to change. I want it to change in whatever way my people living there today want it to change. I want internet in homes and cafés, structurally sound apartments, and this year’s model vehicles on the road. It may ruin your little getaway, but it will dramatically improve their standard of living. And if they want a Starbucks and a McDonalds on every corner then so be it. It sure beats ration cards, long lines, and empty shelves in state stores.

However, I personally hope that it won’t be Starbucks & McDonalds. I hope it’ll be “Cortaditos” and “Fulano’s Fritas,” or something authentically Cuban. I want the Cuba of 2019 and beyond to be a country built by Cubans, for Cubans—not for visitors to sip mojitos & take pictures next to the dilapidated homes of the locals for their latest Facebook post. And trust me, meaningful development will not diminish the beauty of the island, denigrate the culture of the country, and it most certainly will not change the warm-hearted spirit of the Cuban people.

This is the best I could ever explain the ever-so-subtle feeling I felt in my stomach when I was asked to lead a trip of well-intentioned, adventure-seeking US citizens to Cuba—and why I am just now realizing that I must decline. I want to lead my people, the Cuban American people, to the righteous land of our ancestors.

I want to eat dinners with friends we meet on the island, talk as equals on par with one another, explore development opportunities, discuss politics and philosophy, have coffee with families, and reconcile past & present. My dream is to convert the diaspora into one giant Cuban family.

And I want to do it by harnessing the power of cubanidad to create an almost instant familiarity & trust among Cubans no matter their age, views, birthplace, or what side of the Florida Straights they live on.

Writing this has been a surreal experience. I’m going to go call my friend!

*A Havana Times guest writer who will be contributing more articles in the future.

32 thoughts on “Havana Is Not Your Hipster Playground

  • January 31, 2020 at 5:47 am

    Well, I just got back to Vancouver from Cuba. I was in Havana. And its a SHITHOLE. You have “renovated” building in a city square, so the city looks nice, but behind them – a dirty, shithole, where nobody gives a shit about anything. They literally live like Eastern European gypsies there.

    Beaches – beautiful “never ending” beaches with soft sand – full of PLASTIC GARBAGE! Cubans still haven’t realized, that RUBBISH BINS along the beach, help to keep them CLEAN!

    Tips – This was the most pissing me off thing I have experienced in Cuba. Cubans DEMAND tips. They think, that they MUST get them! Its not a “you have to earn – deserve that tip”. No. Its a “you must give me tip”, because you are a walking ATM – a.k.a a tourist, and you have to take care of me! Tips for any possible thing you can imagine! There are some women in the street in vividly coloured dresses who “kiss” your cheeks, so you feel welcome. Right after you give them 5 pesos for that “kiss”! Screw that! Just unbelievable.
    I had a guide in Havana and I asked him, if 1 CUC (currency for tourists. Dont ask me why they have two currencies) tip makes difference for Cubans. He said not really. Now. I pay 1500 CAD dollars rent. I am sure, Cubans don’t. When I buy a lunch for lets say $20 CAD, I give tip 10-15% = $2-3 CAD. That tip MEANS SOMETHING in Vancouver. He said, that reasonable tip would be 5+! CUC!!! That is around $7 CAD! Absolutely unbelievable!

    So, after 10 days I spent in Cuba, I left with these feelings / opinions on Cubans. They live in communism. That means, that the government owns almost everything. This leads to ONE thing. Nobody gives a shit about anything!!! Buildings are falling apart? Not my problem. It belongs to the government. Trash on the beaches? Not my problem. It belongs to the government. Nothing in the stores? Not my problem. It belongs to the government. Completely fucked up public transport – Not my problem. Government should fix it. They keep bitching about embargo and that the embargo brought Cuba where it is now. Hell no. Its Cuban’s government which brought Cubans where they are now! They just don’t wanna see it. They blame everybody else for their shitty situation, but them self. Cubans know about all the problems. They just don’t care about fixing them. I have heard, that everybody in Cuba, must have an educations. That only the best people study for engineers, doctors etc. So where are they? Where is that educated intelligence? Cubans still make electricity by burning crude oil! I haven’t seen a SINGLE SOLAR PANEL!!!

    I think if Cubans dance less and work more, than they would have better lives. But first they have to get rid of communist regime. Not to rely on tourists, because they say tourists must support them and only tourism can save Cuba etc. These are real things I have heard from Cubans! Nothing here was made up. Most of Cubans are like scammers who will try to milk every single CUC out of you. I was born in communist country and lived in communist country. So I knew what I should expect. Yet, I left Cuba with VERY bitter taste in my mouth.

  • June 8, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    Travel to Cuba from The US by non Cubans , and Cubans travelling to the Island other than to visit relatives is now banned by The Trump Administration. The aim is to cut off hard currency flows to The Cuban Gov’t.

  • March 11, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    Want to see violence? Start an anti-revolutionary blog in Cuba … oops sorry can’t, march with the Ladies-In-White to protest violence against dissidents and get beaten up for peacefully marching after they attend Sunday Mass. Easy to start violence in Cuba, just ask for liberties.

  • March 11, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    I would like my Cuban brethren to have … I don’t know, maybe freedom of assembly, freedom of press, FULL access of the internet, ability to join political parties that aren’t socialist / communist, self-actualization, choices that are basic in a free market economy and many, many things that don’t exist in a standard totalitarian state in which they have lived for nearly 60 years. That’s a start.

  • February 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm

    Thank you for the meaningful comment

  • February 19, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    I believe that Cuba is one of the most stirring and authentic places I’ve ever been so far. The impression I have always got from most of the Cubans I have known for over twenty years is that they don’t want what the U.S. has to offer. Most Cubans are quite unimpressed by the American tourists that have visited their country in the past. I think Cuba will be much better off the longer they can keep the greedy US companies from stealing their land and identity.

  • February 16, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    Your article was so meaningful to me. It actually brought me to tears. It really explained so clearly why, as a Cuban-American who left Cuba at 7 in 1961, I find Americans going to Cuba in such bad taste!

    Thank you so much for posting this.

  • February 8, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    I can’t imagine anyone seeing Cuba and not wanting it to change. I for one (an American) am heartsick for my Cuban friends who don’t have enough food, clothes, shelter, money or even a sense of security in their own country. Whispering their opinions to avoid spies and persecution.
    I hate watching mothers wrap their babies in rags and an old bag because their are no diapers, an try to keep their little bellies full with watered down powdered milk.
    I sat for hours with an old man in Ojo de Agua a few weeks ago when I was there. He was wearing old torn ill fitting clothes and two different sandals (one men’s one women’s) that I’m sure he scavenged out of the beach sand. He was crippled from his years serving in the cuban military and told me about his service with tears in his eyes. He swallowed his pride and tried to sell me an old coconut for one cuc. I told him i would like to buy him lunch instead.
    I have a great friend from Santa Clara who was swallowed up by the tourist hustling trade in an attempt to survive. A beautiful person who constantly paints on a smile and compromises his morals to survive and help support his grandmother.
    Humans have a desire to travel and experience other cultures, including Cuba. And most Cubans dream of visiting Italy and the United States. Maybe even immigrating to Miami . The stereotypes Cubans have about the United States are equal to the stereotypes Americans have about Cuba. The best way to break down these barriers is to travel, meet and embrace each other. Nobody leaves Cuba without being amazed by it’s beauty and spirit. Nobody leaves Cuba without being broken by the way people live and survive there.
    And most go back. They educate their friends and family about the reality of life there. They return and bring clothes and shoes and diapers and tampons and some treats and things never available in Cuba. They visit old friends and share in the joy and sadness of life there and hope for a better, freer future for the cuban people.
    I get some of the things you state in your article, but it seemed bigoted and shallow. Sometimes anger comes out in weird ways. But an article like this sticks in people’s minds and causes friction and misunderstanding.
    I kept wishing the end of the article was…. that you took the blanquitos to Cuba. Introduced them to the people there. Showed them the complexities in the cities, the country, the poorest in the mountains and helped them learn about true Cuban culture. But it was not so… sadly.
    I’m glad most Cubans and Americans have a more rounded and open and loving view of each other.

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