For a week of our lives this spring break, 25 Belmont students– including myself– traveled to the country of Cuba.
While we were beyond excited and ready for this unknown adventure, we had no idea what to expect.
My previous knowledge of Cuba went as far as a few Google searches, the Cuban Missile Crisis from my high school textbook and a Che Guevara T-shirt that a relative bought on a cruise through the Bahamas.
Yet, despite all this– as well as strong recommendations from family members not to travel to the island– I embarked on one of the most enlightening, yet confusing journeys of my life.
If I could summarize the culture and life of Cuba, it would be like dropping the USSR onto a tropical island. Abandoned concrete skyscrapers and faded yellow buildings litter the skyline. An island only 90 miles south of the United States filled with white beaches, rich history and kind people is blemished by historical controversy.
In the wake of the Cold War and the eventual placement of the U.S. Embargo in 1969, Cuba has become a subject of misconceptions. News stories of Cuban refugees and the Castro regime only serve as fuel to the fire for these rumors.
The reality is the horrors told of Cuba exist, but the landscape continues to change as US and Cuban relations improve.
The Government and Economy:
A common perception of Cuba is the communist style of its government.
During the Cold War, heightened resentment of this type of government fueled the animosity of U.S. and Cuban relations.
Fast-forward to 2015, and the mindset has changed.
With President Obama’s announcement on the deregulation of travel and commerce to the island, the government has preemptively planned for changes.
According to Dr. Manuel Yepe, an economist and ambassador to Romania, the government has passed 313 new laws, which will allow for the strengthening of economic commerce and the ownership rights of Cuban citizens.
Still, even with these “changes,” the Cuban government still bears a not-so-invisible hand in the Cuban market. The government is the owner of the “means of production” in Cuba and isn’t afraid to show it.
Restaurants, slaughterhouses, plantations, shops and even citizens’ houses are all owned and regulated by the government. A very small portion of the population owns private property.
Bureaucracy dominates public policy. Red tape, signatures, IDs and other regulations serve as a check against individual freedoms.
One of the most frustrating concepts of the Cuban government, though, is their money system. Cuba is currently facing a crisis with both– that’s right, both– of their currencies. The Cuban peso and the convertible peso are facing daily falling rates in comparison to American, British and European currency.
This leaves both Cuban currencies doomed to fail.
The convertible peso is worth an astoning 25 Cuban pesos. However, neither can compete in a foreign market, facing nearly a 50 percent difference against other currencies.
Cuba is frozen in time.
From the methods of transportation to computers, it is a country that is several years behind the modern world.
A drive through old Havana is like taking a trip through New York in the 1950s, the hustle and bustle of old cars driving through the streets like clockwork. Any American model, whether is be a Cadillac or a Chevrolet, does not succeed 1959– the year Fidel Castro came into power.
Automobiles have improved however, from the European perspective. Some taxi drivers were behind the wheels of the newest model of Hyundai, in which they took full advantage of the built-in touchscreen.
Computer technology is also alarmingly behind in Cuba.
WiFi is virtually non-existent. During our stay in Havana, our hotel was one of the very few places with internet access, but it was expensive and inefficient.
To sign on, you had to pay 4.5 CUCs, Cuba’s new currency, and you were given a WiFi card that entitled you to one hour of slow internet.
While contact with the outside world was tempting, our group mostly refrained from connecting, even though our hotel, the Hotel Presidente, was one of Havana’s only WiFi spots.
The Cuban People
I have traveled to several countries across the world, and no population comes close to the love and overwhelming sadness I felt for the Cuban population.
The average Cuban makes 400 convertible pesos per year. The average water bill is 1.6 pesos. The average electricity bill is 1.2 pesos. The average gas bill is 2.6 pesos. Rent is less than 10% of their annual income. To purchase house in downtown Havana costs 300k.
These are not calculated measurements, but rather numbers set by the Cuban government.
While the rights of Cuban citizens are slowly increasing, government oversight remains an all-too familiar force. This helicopter-government ideology inhibits Cuban citizens from unlocking their true potential by having everything provided for them in a uniform fashion.
Food and water are rationed, jobs are assigned and your role in Cuban society is defined by test scores. The Cuban citizens are all, in theory “equal.”
Citizens and pundits alike told us that crime is low in Cuba. Or, at least, what is reported.
Cuba is filled with corruption, bribes and swindlers. Often times Cuban citizens would offer our group fake cigars, as well as panhandle us for clothes, food, money, alcohol, whatever they believed they could get away with.
The Cuban citizens do what they must to get by, even if it is illegal.
On a lighter note though, Cuban citizens are some of the most welcoming and loving people I have met.
During one of our first days in Havana, some of our group members and myself played soccer with the locals. At first they were apprehensive to let us join, but by the end we left with hugs and a photo.
Our tour guides were grateful to help us travel across their country, and nearly every Cuban we interacted with was eager to learn that we were from the United States.
Cuba will be a very different place in the next 10 years.
It may very well be one of the Caribbean’s hottest tourist spots, but it must learn to adapt to change.
The government is slowly turning to the voice of the people and deregulating. It has learned that it cannot control its citizens due to the ability of information to flow in and out of the country.
Yet its bureaucracy continues to trump the voice of the people, and once that change comes, Cuba will not advance as fast as the modern world.