By Chris Vazquez*
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, luchando, resolviendo, 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.