CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

IMG_8150How 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?

Jamie Gemmiti photo

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.

Cuba: Island found, or lost?

Cuba: Island found, or lost?

Cuba-2570“How do you get there?” It’s always the first question whenever I tell someone I guide trips to Cuba. Maybe they’ve heard of Americans slipping in illegally through Canada or Mexico. Maybe they figure I’m doing the same.

“Miami,” I reply. “By charter. It’s less than an hour flight.”

The next line is also scripted: “Well, now’s the time to visit. Before the Americans get there and screw it up.”

To be clear, these aren’t Europeans, Canadians, or Mexicans I’m talking to, they are Americans. Most of them haven’t visited, but they know Cuba is opening, and they know when it does Americans are going to ruin it.

The Cubans I talk to aren’t so sure. When they hear “American,” they smile and reach with both hands. “It’s about time,” they say, eager to shake.

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Cuba: An island seeks to connect
I hate to be the one to do this, but I’m here to tell you that the frozen-in-time utopia is not a realistic picture of present-day Cuba.

My job as guide to Cuba is a new one. Before last December, before President Obama announced reestablishing US-Cuban relations and loosening travel restrictions, just visiting could have landed me in jail. Even now the US government forbids tourists from going; our groups are classified as “people-to-people” exchange trips, and they require US Treasury approval.

There are no beach visits or snorkeling trips on our tours. We go to meet Cubans, experience the culture, and explore a country hidden behind 60 years of embargo.

That’s why participants go. I go to watch history unfold. If those Americans are right and we are going to ruin Cuba, then I am the leading edge of the invasion force. The destruction — the Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Marriotts — will come in my wake.

But despite the risk, Cuba’s excitement for what comes next is palpable. On our April trip, every time someone learned our group was American, they got excited.

“Do you think it will happen?” they said. “Will the blockade end?”

Then President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, and overnight we became celebrities. Whenever we were in the street and people learned we were American, they’d grab us.

“You’re Obama,” they’d say, grabbing our hands, “I’m Castro.” Then they’d shake vigorously, smiling. This didn’t happen once or twice. This happened a lot. Our group was there to meet Cubans, and the Cubans used the opportunity to re-create an emblematic moment of their expanding future.

It’s a moment that keeps moving forward: My last trip coincided with the US announcement it would reopen its embassy in Havana. Next time I visit, the embassy will be open. Things are changing fast.

But not everything. The streets are still flooded with 1950s Fords and Chevys, and the faces of Fidel, Che Guevara, and Hugo Chavez still loom large on countless murals and billboards. Soviet-style architecture still dots the Havana skyline, and when the sun goes down, crowds still swarm the Malecon, Havana’s iconic 8-kilometer seawall.

Cuba seems caught somewhere between the developing and developed world: Everyone has health care and a university degree, but buildings are falling down and basic goods can be scarce. But it’s that juxtaposition that makes Cuba remarkable. There are few places in the world where I would encourage people to go out after dark to wander the streets and look to strike up conversations, but social hour in Havana doesn’t begin until 9 p.m. and crime is rare. If “people-to-people” interaction means meeting Cubans where they are, then it begins at dusk on the Malecon.

Other parts of the Cuba experience, meanwhile, seem cribbed from old jokes about the ills of central planning: the three elevators in the upscale Habana Libre hotel that have been down for months; the stores that just keep running out of bottled water.

Then there’s the undercurrent of hard currency that lubricates every interaction; nothing happens without a few dollars exchanged in the palm of a handshake. There are two sides to this game: One is that the government pays so little, everyone must supplement their income with “tips,” the other is that without a contribution, you might be turned away next time. The restaurant might be closed. The tour could be cut short. It’s part of how Cubans get by, and after 60 years in the shadow of the embargo, Cubans know how to survive.

And that’s the truth I come back to each time an American tells me we’re going to ruin it. A half-century of sanctions, spies, and submarines didn’t succeed. Instead, that time taught Cubans to think on their feet, to adapt and endure. As the country opens, Americans will come — for both vacations and business ventures — and Cuba will greet them openly, with a handshake and a smile.

But I’m willing to bet it will still be Cuban palms that wind up filled with folded bills, and again without losing their island.

I’ll tell you for sure after my next trip. Or the next.


This story appeared in the Boston Globe in August of 2015.