An article published yesterday by Andrés Pertierra in The Nation really struck a chord with me, so I feel compelled both to share it and my own thoughts on the subject. First, let me say, if you’re hoping/planning/thinking of going to Cuba for the first time and you’re a thoughtful, well-intentioned person who wants to express solidarity with the Cuban people, YOU NEED TO READ THIS:
Really, it should be required reading, especially for progressives who want to experience a “socialist paradise” before the onslaught of American tourism ruins the island. Did you read it yet? Did you detect the sarcasm behind my words?
Here are a few excerpts:
“For these Americans, Cuba exists solely as an idealized socialist paradise, in almost complete stasis since the Cold War, which has yet to be befouled by the corrupting influence of other Americans. For them, the island nation is the land of the noble savage on the verge of contact with the advanced but impure outside world, sure to despoil its backward, but charming, ways. These people don’t want to see the real Cuba. They want to be able to say that they were there before it got Americanized.”
“Today the American colonialist vision of Cuba is more tactful and therefore more insidious than before. Instead of promising to fulfill the “white man’s burden” by elevating Cubans to the higher realms of civilization, it insists that Cubans remain as they are, even as economic backwardness results in immense human suffering. Because it views Cuba in terms of its own needs, as an open-air Cold War museum, and not in terms of Cubans’ well-being, the hipster-colonialist mindset resents that Cubans are working to change their circumstances.”
A provocative argument, for sure…but also too harsh an assessment. Most people I know who profess a desire to see Cuba “before it changes” are actually compassionate egalitarians, not 21st-century imperialists who want to see Cubans suffer for their amusement. Many believe Cuba’s ability to stave off American imperialism for over half a century is to be admired, and that the Revolution should be supported. Their intentions stem from a critique of capitalism and American dominance in the world. Thus, to characterize them as neo-colonialists completely uninterested in the well being of Cubans is a broad overgeneralization.
Nonetheless, Pertierra has a point about the romanticization of underdevelopment/poverty that is inherent in the statement, “I want to see Cuba before it changes.” As he points out, Cubans have been yearning for change, and – dare I say it – progress, for decades. They’ve been educated by the Revolution to reject the notion that as a “third world” nation, Cuba is “inferior” or less deserving of the advantages and conveniences of modernity; they expect the same quality of life as one finds in the “first world.” This is precisely why the Revolution invested so heavily in building excellent health care and education infrastructures. So, while it’s wonderful to experience first-hand the famed Cuban inventiveness in reusing and recycling products/mechanical parts/appliances, they do this out of necessity, and, given the choice, would rather be able to buy a new washing machine/fan/rice cooker when the old one breaks. Wouldn’t you? In other words, hoping that Cuba doesn’t modernize too quickly so that Americans can fulfill their fantasy of visiting a country frozen in time also means denying Cubans access to technology that we take for granted in our everyday lives.
Now, what has been my response to people who say they want to see Cuba “before it changes”? I tell them it’s too late – Cuba has already been changing for 25 years. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuban economic and social conditions have shifted dramatically in response to the crisis of the early 1990s. Pertierra discusses some of the changes brought on by the “Special Period,” including the fact that tourism in Cuba didn’t begin with President Obama’s announcement on December 17, 2014 that the U.S. was reestablishing diplomatic relations with the island. Canadian and European tourism since the mid-1990s – in addition to the increase in remittances, largely from Cuban-Americans living in the U.S. – have brought about massive changes in Cuban social and economic life.
Sadly, one of the major outcomes has been a re-stratification of society along economic lines: there is a growing chasm between the haves – defined by those with access to jobs and possessions (like cars and large houses) that allow them to earn in dollars/hard currency rather than in pesos – and the have-nots. The situation is much more pronounced beyond Havana, which is the destination of the majority of foreign remittances. (Read: if you want to truly get to know Cuba, go visit another part of the country in addition to Havana!) Needless to say, the economic stratification is racialized: most Cubans with family members living abroad who send remittances, or who (before the Revolution) owned large houses with extra rooms that can be rented out to tourists and/or 1950s American cars that can be used as taxis, are white. Hence, while the socialist model in large part leveled the economic playing field during the first three decades of the Revolution, Cuban society is beginning to resemble the “first world” in terms of economic inequality and racialized access to resources.
Moral of the story: even if you had traveled to Cuba 10 or 15 years ago (roughly the time I began to travel to the island) you wouldn’t have witnessed a strictly socialist society. Over the last two decades what has been in place is a hybrid model that includes elements of both socialism and capitalism. Incidentally, one particularly major challenge I see in the increasing marketization of the economy is the almost complete lack of any notion of “customer service” in Cuba. Anyone who has ever sat down to eat in a state-run restaurant will have had the experience of being given a lengthy menu, only to be told a few minutes later by the wait staff: “nada más tenemos pollo” (we’re out of everything except chicken). The tourism infrastructure will need a massive overhaul in coming years to accommodate the much larger number of American tourists that will (and have already begun to) travel to the island.
Will an increased American presence in Cuba – both via tourism and commerce – change the island? Of course it will. It already is. However, as Pertierra states, this change is desperately desired by Cubans, and is not happening via a U.S.-sponsored coup, as has been the case in various other Latin American countries. The Castro government has been exceedingly wary regarding this process, which was evident during President Obama’s visit in March, and is hyper-vigilant about not returning to a relationship of neo-colonialist deference to the U.S.
Pertierra closes his article by stating: “It is possible to worry that reforms could accidentally erase the achievements of the revolution without fetishizing the poverty that resulted from the system’s own failures or viewing the process with a sense of entitlement about how Cubans should run their own country. The future of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans.”
Indeed, for better or worse, it’s not our place to say how this process should proceed. Americans can’t simultaneously rejoice in the possibility of being able to travel to Cuba, and hope that our presence won’t change a country that, by the way, has already undergone drastic evolutions in the past quarter century. What we can do is hope that future U.S. administrations will stand by President Obama’s promise to respect the sovereignty of this fiercely proud nation, and that the Cuban government will continue to democratize and decentralize power, while still providing a much-needed safety net for its citizens and retaining the sense of sociality and solidarity that is so ingrained in post-revolutionary Cuban society.