by James Jordan
I got to visit Cuba before Pres. Obama did. There was not nearly the fanfare, but I can say I experienced some moments of warmth that may have even exceeded what the president encountered. I visited Cuba twice in 2015 for about five weeks in all. I was there in each case as a peace and solidarity activist. That probably worked in my favor.
My first trip was in April, in a delegation sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice. It was focused on learning about the Colombian peace negotiations in Havana, and asking what kind of solidarity might be needed with Cuba during this time of new openings between our nations. I came back again in November for a meeting of the World Peace Council and for the International Seminar for Peace and against Foreign Military Bases.
The April visit was entirely in Havana. The first week I stayed in the house of
hosts in the Vedado neighborhood doing prep work for the delegation. The second week was in an upscale hotel in the area where the Russian and several other embassies are located. When I returned in November, I once again spent a few days with my friends in Vedado, but most my time I attended meetings in the city of Guantanamo, followed by a two day bus ride across the Cuban countryside back to Havana. Guantanamo is literally about as far away as you can get from Havana and still be in Cuba.
I could write about many interesting themes related to these travels and the subjects we were investigating. But I want to focus on something very general, and that is what I experienced in light of the myths I learned about Cuba while growing up, myths that persist until this day. In fact, these myths have been the driving force shaping US policy towards Cuba even in the midst of this historic thaw in relations. I am not an expert on Cuba—not even close. I cannot speak from personal experience about anything other than the five weeks I spent there. These are my impressions and I hope you may find them useful.
One of the things I often heard about Cuba was that there was no freedom of religion. I can say categorically in both of my visits that I saw absolutely no evidence of any kind of suppression of the right to worship, or not to worship, as one pleased. I saw the opposite. Just walking the streets one Sunday morning I walked by a church service with all the doors and windows open, and the congregation singing hymns in Spanish that I recognized. Another time, walking near the University of Havana, I heard a Muslim call to prayer. A few blocks away from there is an arts district that is basically a shrine to Santería and other African-rooted religious traditions. One day on the beach we made friends with a couple who were practicing Buddhists, one a member of the writers union (as am I in the US!).
There are many whose understandings of Marxism and revolution are based strictly and anachronistically on a European experience from the 19th century. These will find it hard to understand the ambivalence that many Marxists and supporters of socialism in the New World can often have toward religious belief. The house I spent the most time in belonged to a couple who were both well versed in Marxist theory, themselves adherents. Ond had studied philosophy and the Russian language in the university, the other, a musician. In their house one could find religious pictures and statues alongside photos of Fidel and Che. This was not uncommon. In other houses I stayed in or visited, I would often see pictures of Catholic saints, and many times alongside posters supporting the Cuban revolution. None thought there was a contradiction in this.
One delegate was told by a young man she met on the streets in April that open celebrations of Christmas were frowned on. He told her about people putting Christmas decorations up only to have them taken down. I was in Cuba again for the last couple of weeks in November. During that visit I took a trip across two thirds of the length of the island. I can attest to seeing a number of Christmas decorations already up and undisturbed and in several of the towns we went through there were decorations and lights on the main streets, just like in many a small town I lived in or near as a child. What it didn’t remind me of at all was the hyper-consumerism that has come to signify the holiday season in the US.
I have also heard again and again how in Cuba there is no freedom of speech or dissent and that censorship is rampant. It is true that I heard more in the way of support for the revolution and socialism than opposition to it. But I did hear dissent openly expressed. More often I heard nuanced criticisms of the government made by persons who were nonetheless supportive, but they recognized some problems and had ideas on how to make things better. In the nearby university bookstore, I saw books for sale that advocated for a variety of reforms. My general impression was that the Cuban people I spoke with, whether dissidents, critical supporters or 100% gung-ho fans of the socialist government seemed significantly less paranoid and worried about surveillance and government repression than my fellow Leftist activists living here in the United States, especially since passage of the Patriot Act and its spawn. It amazes me that pundits in the United States will still drone on about the lack of freedom in Cuba, and that many find these over-the-top pronouncements to be valid. They seem to forget or ignore that we are living in the nation with the world’s largest rate of incarceration of its population (even though crime rates have been going down since the 1970s), in a land where people just assume the NSA, FBI and a variety of other initials are keeping tabs on us, in a nation that in fact has hundreds of political prisoners.
As I walked the streets of Havana, it was obvious that what state censors there may be must not be doing a very good job. There are many little independent and open kiosks that sell movies on DVDs, including just about any genre and variety of films popular in the United States.
As far as access to the internet goes, it is true that Cuba is not “plugged in” to the same level as other places I’ve visited. There are reasons for this, not the least of which is the US blockade which has interfered in the necessary technology and access to internet cables that every other country in the region is granted. That said, I found it considerably easier to access the internet in Cuba than in nearby Haiti. Cards are sold cheaply(and sometimes not so cheaply) throughout the island that one can use to get on the web. The most I paid was $10 an hour in a tourist hotel downtown, however, during my second visit the price was suddenly dropped to $5 an hour. Out on the streets at government run kiosks and in many a hotel selling these cards, you could usually buy time at a rate of $1 per half hour. In hot spots around the city, you could sometimes see dozens of persons gathered around. When I accessed the internet using the same cards as any Cuban would, I experienced no disruption or blocking of sites I went to. The Cuban government has a goal of making the internet available across the island by 2020.
When we talk about freedom of speech, we can make a mistake of focusing too much on the freedom to dissent and complain. But there is a sense of freedom that can inspire a different kind of discourse, one that is measured not only by its content, but by the infectious enthusiasm with which it is expressed.
The kind of speech I usually heard with regard to the revolution were words of pride. One night I was walking through the streets with a fellow delegate. We encountered a woman in one of the poorer parts of Havana peddling bleach and cleaning supplies. She was pushing her cart down the streets calling out her wares. We truck up a conversation and asked her about her life, how it was for her in Cuba. She spoke with a smile on her face as she told us about her license to sell these wares and the support she received in developing her business. She said she would soon be able to retire and that when she did, she would receive a pension from the government as well as housing and health care. I’ve yet to see the day that someone selling wares in the United States can talk about retiring to a pension. The reality is that monopoly and transnational capitalism is a far greater threat to the the small business person than Cuban socialism. Just ask any independent book seller or coffee merchant in the United States…if you can still find one. (Cuba, on the other hand, is full of both, although it is up to now noticeably and thankfully devoid of Starbucks.)
Nearby, we came upon a large community garden at the foot of a high rise housing project. The gardeners had their own corner market to sell their crops. We stopped by to buy some fruits and vegetables. When they saw we were foreigners from the United States, they became excited and wanted to give us a little tour of their garden. Once again, the pride in their voices was palpable.
I have also heard a good deal about how Cuba is a police state and highly militarized. But I saw absolutely no evidence of this. I did occasionally see police and even military personnel. But in no way did it even come close to the kind of presence one routinely encounters in Mexico or Colombia or, for that fact, the United States. I live in a city with an air force base, less than an hour from the border, and in a state that has a number of other military bases. Every day we see fighter jets and other military aircraft flying overhead. And living near the border means living with militarization and constant encroachment on civil rights, especially the browner one’s skin.
What was most noticeable visiting Cuba was what I didn’t see. For instance, there is no Black Lives Matter movement because there is no need. Ethnicity does not invite profiling nor police brutality. Coming from the US/Mexico borderlands, I was also struck that through my travels across Cuba, I never was asked to show my ID at a checkpoint of any kind. I have encountered check points of some sort within the interiors of the US, Mexico and Colombia many times.
But what for me was most glaringly absent was the sound of sirens. Havana is a large and metropolitan city, but I never heard even one siren the entire time I was there. I heard one siren in the city of Guantanamo, and that was an ambulance that was taking one of our delegates to the hospital for some free medical care. During five weeks in Cuba, I only twice saw the police stop anyone for any reason, in each case for traffic offenses.
When I left Cuba after my first visit, I went to Cancun for a few days. The very first moment I got off the plane and through customs, I heard a siren. I decided to count how many times I heard sirens that night but stopped at 20 within two hours of my arrival. Welcome back to capitalism and all its success!
While Pres. Obama was in Cuba, he had some things to say about democracy and human rights. One can only assume his remarks were directed at the people and government of Cuba when he said, “Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections. Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world.”
It’s too bad that Pres. Obama wasn’t in Cuba like I was for elections. I saw quite a few campaign posters and evidence of contested elections. What I didn’t see were election campaigns paid for by contributions from the super wealthy and big corporations, the kind of money in politics that in the United States makes sure that any Congress or administration we elect is going to be more beholden to big capital than to “we the people”. Instead, I saw people coming up from and known by their communities competing for the privilege of representing those communities. One day I went into a barber shop for a haircut and was privy to a lively and impassioned discussion of the upcoming race and the candidates running.. I was especially impressed on election day. In the Vedado neighborhood there was a polling place on virtually every other block. Administering the election were not any shadowy figures who looked like they may be watching how people voted or getting ready to stuff any ballot boxes. What I saw were school children helping with the voting process, with adult oversight, checking people in, providing them voting materials. Based on my experience, democracy appeared quite alive and well in Cuba with people of all ages involved. The Cuban people I saw seemed to feel invested in the process rather than alienated, cynical or powerless.
There is poverty in Cuba. Cuba is a poor nation and no one is hiding that. The poverty is there for anyone to see. I saw poverty in Havana and I saw poverty in the countryside. But there is absolutely no comparison between Cuban poverty and the poverty I have seen in Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, Peru, Puerto Rico—the United States. One does not see just blocks from the capital building, example after example of homeless people sleeping in the streets through the harshest of weather. But any visitor to Washington DC will see that. One thing that is problematic in Cuba is that many people have little discretionary income after their basic necessities are met. However, we heard much about reforms being adopted to address this, and we got to visit several of the cooperatives, see several of the kinds of new opportunities that are becoming available.
One may see substandard housing in Cuba, but one will encounter little to no homelessness. I counted three people in five weeks I saw sleeping outside, all in Havana. One of these was sleeping in the middle of the day in a park, reeking of alcohol, so I can’t be sure if he was what one would call homeless or just passed out. However, I talked to one of the seemingly homeless persons and it became clear that there were options available to him, also family, but he was not interested in taking advantage of them and had refused treatment or services. I know other visitors to Cuba who have reported similar conversations.
I also talked to a couple of the few beggars I encountered, and they said that they had homes, food and medical care. They were begging for other reasons, everything from buying toiletries they lacked to alcohol to just wanting some extra money to spend beyond necessities. I am writing about this because I don’t want to deny that I saw instances like this. But they were rarer than I’ve encountered anywhere else I have ever been. They were also of different sort than what one sees elsewhere, too. No one I saw was in a state of desperation from lack of the basic necessities like food, water, shelter, health services. No one.
I also saw inequality and differences between those who are most well off and those who are poorest, but these differences were minuscule compared to the gulfs of inequality that exist in the US or elsewhere under a capitalist economy.
I had brought a small acoustic guitar during my first visit and made the acquaintance of a family in one of the poorer sections of Havana, Cayo Hueso. I actually love Cayo Hueso. It’s a vibrant place. There’s plenty of cheap, good food, the streets full of children, artistic collectives at every turn, and like all of Cuba, the place is full of music. Before I left town, I went to visit the family in their homes and gave the children my guitar. The family assured me that there would be no problem for them to get lessons–at no cost. I talked to others as well and everyone told me the same thing, that any kid from any background anywhere who wants to learn music (not to mention just about anything else that is taught) will be able to do that.
If people come to Cuba expecting a worker’s paradise they are going to be disappointed. It’s not that, not some ideal from another world. It is a nation in process. But Cuban workers are represented by unions at much better rates than in the US, and there is a safety net that guards one from the possibilities of desperation that any low wage worker in the US lives in constant fear of.
I would, however, venture to say with very little sense of exaggeration, that Cuba is a musician’s, artist’s and poet’s paradise. The level of investment and opportunity afforded creative people in Cuba was the single most impressive thing I witnessed. Accomplished musicians and beautiful art are everywhere.
I could write more about issues of racism, sexism, repression of gay and lesbian persons. With only five weeks visiting the island, I can’t speak with authority about the shades and gradations and nuances of these. Given my own demographic, I would likely always miss something. But I will say that I personally saw nothing resembling this kind of discrimination. I saw people of all ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations in positions of leadership and responsibility. I saw no evidence of bigotry towards anyone on the streets.
Some travelers to Cuba have complained about a certain lack of efficiency and on-the-job hustle. I have to question the questioners and point out the country’s successes providing housing, health care and education; supporting the arts; protecting its parks and nature reserves and beaches; maintaining one of the highest rates of unionization anywhere; virtually eliminating racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination; managing cities where people walk the streets of any neighborhood at night without fear for their safety. From everything I saw, it seems that someone somewhere must be doing a very good and efficient job!
When we assess Cuba we should really compare it to its closest neighbors, both geographically and culturally: Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic–and why not throw in Miami for good measure? Puerto Rico is currently suffering under a crushing debt crisis resulting from neoliberal economics based in its colonial legacy. The people of Haiti have again and again risen to take control of their own destiny only to be slapped down by the US, France and Canada, the result being that they are the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The Dominican Republic has become notorious for its racism against its own darkest skinned people and its unconscionable expulsion of people of Haitian heritage. Miami is certainly no stranger to the brutal exercise of racist repression and police abuses. From Miami to San Juan to Port Au Prince to Santo Domingo, one can see the vulgarity of extreme wealth juxtaposed against the vulgarity of extreme poverty—but not in Havana or any other Cuban city. Whatever criticisms one might make validly or not, from everything I’ve read and heard and seen, Cuba stacks up pretty well.
What truly amazes me is the level of warmth I received as someone from the United States. Given the history of the blockade and our legacy of interference, I would not expect such kindness. But it is there. And that brings up the final myth, that Cuba is our enemy. This isn’t just a myth, it’s an outright lie. The US has nothing to fear from Cuba but, as they say, its good example. The idea that this tiny nation poses any threat to the largest military power in the world is patently absurd.
I can only hope that we are truly entering a new era where relations will be normalized. Of course, I have my worries and suspicions—expectations, actually, that the US will take the new openness as an opportunity for more interference, more sabotage. So while we applaud the normalization, we must be watchful to call out every attempt to undermine the gains of the Cuban people.
The best thing we can do, though, is to learn from Cuba. There is much that it has that we need. I’m sure that when it comes to democracy, human rights and caring for its people, while our most arrogant politicians may want to give Cuba lectures on these subjects, the truth is we could stand to shut up and listen a little to what the Cubans have to say.
“Imagine” performed by Las Colmenitas in Guantanamo, Cuba – CLICK HERE if link below doesn’t work
Art is everywhere in Cuba: