Michael reflects on his recent travels to Cuba in Part III.
Among the rolling blackouts in Havana, there are two things that are always available to anyone- cigars and rum. The rest is up to question. The government does provide housing, food, health care, education and, of course, a job. However, recently all that was thought to be promised for the collective good was no longer a given. In fact, it was the constitutional obligation of the socialist government to provide these necessities for living. Yet recently, the government has told the people they can no longer provide everything they need and that the people must find a way to make ends meet.
Today, every 20 days a citizen receives; 6 lbs. of rice, a sack of beans, 6 lbs. of sugar (3 white & 3 brown), cooking oil, and 7 eggs- enough to survive. It is expected that each make up the difference with the $15 (or CUC’s) per month average income. A sandwich on the street costs $10. Even university-educated professionals must augment their income in order to pay their electric bill. As can be imagined, this system fuels a very entrepreneurial black market- factory materials, lumber, even cigars find their way to the streets for illegal purchase.
An exception to this egalitarianism is the artists. Well trained at the Academia de la Arts (which compounds now occupy the grounds of the golf courses), artists have the freedom to travel the world, own art galleries and studios and even hold foreign bank accounts. They fly to Miami to buy their art supplies and are represented in galleries in Houston, New York, and New Orleans. When a single painting can go for tens of thousands of dollars (or more), they quickly become an elite class among the many common citizens.
As Americans, we assume that this would undermine the confidence of the people in their government. However, the people love their government, they love Raul. They love Fidel.
In the minds of the people, the Revolution righted a great injustice. Since Thomas Jefferson, America has always laid claim to the need of possessing the island. In the 19th century the U.S. fought a war alongside the Cubans against Spain, only to usurp its independence in a blatant betrayal, occupying the country for nearly four years before installing its own puppet government. President Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick had struck Cuba. At the height of Havana’s heyday, coup d’etat dictator, Batista was deep in bed with mob boss, Meyer Lansky creating a playground for the rich and famous and corrupt.
The typical Cuban had no access to this life, since most were struggling for mere survival in the fields, with no access to education, health care, or often the bare necessities of life. After the Revolution, the country may not have been perfect, but it was theirs.
The Cuban view of history saw continued American aggression with an invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, when America used economic pressure through an embargo (not only of U.S. goods and services but reprimands against any country that dealt with Cuba) in order to try to turn the people against their government. Of course, the policy was not only doomed to failure but also enforced Cuban views of America’s hostility towards them and only bolstered their strong beliefs in their own independence. When asked why so many Cubans flee to the U.S., the answer is that it is not an issue of politics, but of simple economics.
As the doors to a relationship with America opens, Cubans are not only hopeful, but excited. They want desperately to be a part of the world the United States has shut them away from- to emerge from the darkness and play a role; to experience the world and have the world experience Cuba, its people and their rich culture.
Even with all the past; the hostilities between governments, the maneuvering and posturing; the propaganda, the people of Cuba see Americans as their friends. As the doors open, I hope that view will remain. When one asks the question, “How can we move forward?” the response is as always, “it’s complicated.”
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