How do you explain a country?
It’s a presumptuous task. I’ve taken six trips to Cuba in the last year, spent a little over two months there, visited a handful of towns, climbed in the western mountains, swam in the clear blue Caribbean, danced in Salsa wherever I could and wandered the Malecon. I’ve also listened to multiple professors discuss topics from trade to transgender rights, studied their history and talked politics with the people.
But still. The Cuban/American relationship is so embattled, so complex, how do you boil it down to an hour talk?
That was Thursday night. The North Conway Public Library asked me about giving a slideshow on Cuba, about what it’s like to go there. I agreed—I fell in love with the country, and after a handful of visits it was clear the island was vastly misunderstood at home.
How? Communism, for example: Cuba is a country of small-scale entrepreneurs running restaurants and rooming houses out of their homes. There is a hustle to these new businesses, a creative energy akin to the growing food truck culture of the United States.
These enterprises exist against a backdrop of state-run restaurants and hotels that Cubans themselves will tell you are bad, not worth visiting. The state-run enterprises get government funding, but they also suffer from the endemic sluggishness of businesses allowed to bloom without fear of competition. Communism exists in Cuba, but it is no longer ubiquitous. It is the dead skin the country is still working to slough off.
And history. Explaining the longstanding Cuban desire for an independent state to Americans is an upstream paddle. We remember the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis but have forgotten the Spanish-American War. Cubans remember both. And their version of those stories are different from ours.
Cuba was a Spanish slave colony for hundreds of years, a satellite possession rich in sugar. But that wealth was siphoned off. The island was populated by serfs and a few wealthy masters who minded the plantations.
But in the mid-1800s a handful of those masters grew distasteful of the inequality surrounding them. Like American patriots 100 years before, they began writing and speaking about a freedom and building a national consciousness where previously there had been none.
Then in the 1890s they went to war with Spain, and the United States joined the fight. Cubans reasoned American assistance was offered in solidarity—America too had once been a colonial possession. But when the war was over and Cuba “liberated” freedom proved to be in name only: the country traded one overlord for another. Their protector became their new master.
That is not history most Americans remember, or how most Americans remember that history. But island stayed as it was: a land of serfs ruled by far off masters. Their dreams of freedom were deferred.
Enter the revolution. In American eyes it was the insidious growth of communism. But to Cubans it was the realization of a long held dream, one of national self-determination and governance. Nearly 200 years after Americans threw off the yoke of colonialism by kicking out the British Cubans got to do the same, but the oppressor they had to expel wore the Stars and Stripes.
Again, not a story Americans are used to hearing. But walk around downtown Havana and you’ll see indications of just how much influence the American Revolution had on Cuban thinking. Statues and depictions of U.S. presidents dot the city. Their words are inscribed on Cuban monuments. Cubans feel a brotherhood with anyone striving for freedom, regardless of past (or current) animosity. It is a refreshing view of the world.
And that’s how the people are too: not once in six trips did I have a Cuban cuss me out for being American. Indeed, what I experienced was the opposite—excitement that I was visiting their homeland, that I was interested in their country. Tell a Cuban you’re from America and they’ll smile wide. They’ll grab your hand and shake it vigorously. They clap you on the shoulder and tell you “Welcome!” This is not the response of an enemy; it is the reaction of a long-missed friend.
And that’s what’s so hard to explain. To Americans Cuba’s isolation and glaring absence from the standard diplomatic worldview has gone largely unnoticed. And when it pops up it is something askew, a decision that is their fault, the result of their bad behavior. That is our reading our history.
But for Cubans the country they feel most akin to walked out on them. Their cultural touchstone, indeed their inspiration for independence, shut the door on them. That it is now cracking back open is a joyous thing.
I gave a slideshow on Thursday about Cuba. It was mostly words and pictures, sunsets and sand beaches. Those things are beautiful, and Cuba is rich with them.
But it’s much harder to capture the island’s palpable emotion, the joy that rekindled relations has brought the Cuban people. It’s a warmth of welcome Americans struggle with—our enemies of 60 years are often deeply demonized, universally denounced as “evil.” Few people say of Iraqis and Afghans, Iranians, North Koreans or Cubans “but the people, they are our kin.” They are more often viewed as hostile collaborators, willing supporters, people to be feared. The governments and the governed are viewed through one lens.
That is where Cubans are most refreshing: 60 years of exclusion and they still haven’t lost their sense of nuance. The American people are not the embargo, nor are they the travel ban. They are people, just like their Cuban counterparts, and people are meant to be welcomed, embraced, warmly greeted, regardless of politics or history. Cubans know that.
Amid the pictures of Afro-Cuban street musicians and colonial cityscapes I would have done well to mention that more.
This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.
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