Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

31 responses to “Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

  1. day

    I think that this is my favourite post on Here is Havana.

  2. lee

    I couldn’t help also lamenting the fact that, if this is how those visitors view Cuba, it’s probably how they view many of the places they travel. (And people wonder why other cultures don’t like Americans!)

    When I visited Cuba last summer, I specifically, intentionally avoided doing a lot of reading and research before I arrived. I didn’t want to be biased or stuck in a certain way of thinking…I wanted to stay grounded in the idea of “there is more to this country than what the average American media portray.” While I’m sure I didn’t do it perfectly, I tried…and I think that’s the best travelers can do in any country they visit, right?

    • Absolutely, the problem is with 55 years of aggressive behavior by US and western media, it’s hard to escape the bias altogether. I salute you on your approach. Some 10 years ago I wrote in one of my guidebooks for Lonely Planet under the tips section: ditch your guidebook and go on instinct, smell, feel. I took flack for that back then…

  3. Good article, I will sent it out to about 15 or so egroups along with your other article on food.It made me want to eat though. keep up your great work!

    • Hey there! Thanks Cort, I really do appreciate it – this has been a couple of weeks of rejections, heavy criticism, doubt. Ironically, when it gets like this, the antidote is more writing. But while that keeps me sane, readers are who make me happy/keep food on my table. The more, the merrier! gracias de nuevo

  4. Nayma

    Hola Amiga. Espero que te encuentras bien. This recent article, so far, is my favorite. Ni puedo imaginar como estarán las cosas por allá, pero imagino un poco apretado; however, las cosas eventually even out. Te lo digo por experiencia con mi propia familia que viven allá, every little bit helps. Thank you again for sharing the reality. Quidate!!

    • Gracias chica your comment warms my heart. I do admit that I have a bias for Cuban commenters – if Im writing something they/you can relate to, I must be something right. Right?!

  5. maudiaz

    Hi, Conner.

    I just wanted to, again, express how much I enjoy your blog, and how wonderful I think you are as a writer.

    Yours are the perfect depictions of what Cuba is all about, with its wonders, quirks and dreams.

    I’ve been there 5 times and I wish I’d been there 100. It is a wonderful place, with all its defects and madness. The sights, the sounds and the people outweigh any of the negatives.

    Keep your posts coming… faster! 🙂


    • Hola, thanks, I do try! And so glad so many of my readers “get it.” That Cuba isnt heaven or hell, not a paradise, not an infierno. You take the good with the bad.

      I don’t post more often because I don’t have/make the time. I have to write for $ once in a while!

  6. Jacobo

    I admire your decision to live in Cuba. It is not easy on any level. I have lived outside the US for over 30 years, from London to the jungles of Colombia and everything in between. The single most salient problem with “Americans” is that they have no empathy whatsoever for other cultures. The root cause of this pathology is the education system, followed closely by the government itself. It will never change as there is no incentive to do so. The US is on a downward spiral for a variety of reasons, chauvinism included. As they say in Mexico, so far from God, so close to the US. Goes double for Cuba.

    • I hear ya, brother. I often give thanks that I don’t live in the US. Are things ever screwed up alla!

      I don’t know about laying blame/root cause at the feet of gov and the education system. Im a product of both (well, not the govt, but you know what I mean) and….here I am, doing what I do. For that I give credit to my mom, raised 4 kids on her own. So I wonder, doesn’t the family play a role in shaping morals? More than educational system and govt, but I take your point.

    • I hear ya, brother. I often give thanks that I don’t live in the US. Are things ever screwed up alla!

      I don’t know about laying blame/root cause at the feet of gov and the education system. Im a product of both (well, not the govt, but you know what I mean) and….here I am, doing what I do. For that I give credit to my mom, raised 4 kids on her own. So I wonder, doesn’t the family play a role in shaping morals? More than educational system and govt, but I take your point.

      (jake or jacobo?)

  7. emily

    i have been visiting cuba for only 5 years. soon to be my 5th trip..
    i have “family” there. long story. im constantly told that every cubano/a
    wants an american to send them money. “sure they love you, you help them out.”
    im not paying attention and dont care. id love to just go there for some months
    and decide where id like to sit for awhile. vadero” ? not havana. im very isolated when im there. mi familia will NOT let me travel alone a ny more.
    id love to speak w you when im there again.

    how do you have internet there? orietta takes me to a place where i can check email, etc. for 2$ @ hour. its slow. HOW the heck do you do it.
    emily (in new mexico united states.) no we dont use pesos…..

    • Hola Emily

      Im not sure why you feel isolated – this is not a good place for that, nor is it conducive.

      I think you’re referring to Varadero but if you want to stay “some months” here (and note: US folks can only get visas for 60 days before they have to leave again), I wouldn’t rec’d Varadero. Expensive, boring (if you ask me, after 3 days, Im ready for Santa Marta!),distorted tourist:Cuban ratio, and even more isolating. You might consider a smaller city or beach town,if that’s what youre after.

      How do I do it? How does anyone do anything on this crazy island? Patience, lots and lots of patience.

      Happy travels

  8. Edward Walsh

    Been traveling to Cuba for the past twenty years! Taught at a Cuban university and traveled from one end of the island to the other. To get away from the heavy tourist areas try the province of Ciego de Avila!

    • Funny you should mention Ciego – I was going to suggest above poster Emily visit there. I like the slowed down tempo and I have many Avileño friends. Lovely folks out that way. Also, their basketball and baseball teams kick ass!

  9. E. Walsh

    The ciudad de Ciego de Avila is changing – the lake area on the edge of the city and near the Hotel Ciego de Avila has been developed with many amusements and small food stands as well as a couple of restaurants – a very lively spot on week-ends! Moron is delightful as is the gorgeous Cayo Coco – all minus the crowds of tourists like Havana or Varadero!

  10. dany

    Great post Conner!
    As a Cuban it’s hard for me to explain it to people here in Canada, how can sum up a whole country in a few sentences without generalizing? I love my country, with all its complexity and daily absurdities and I feel that, during those conversations, most people want me to take a side and stay there, while they explain to me while they love or hate my country. I usually have the opposite problem you had with your fulano, I have lots of Ghanaian friends in here and they absolutely adore Cuba and are extremely thankful for the help Africa has received from Cuba throughout the years but are completely and willfully blind to anything else I might say as to the other complex issues at hand for Cubans so they have their rose-coloured glasses firmly on. (I’ve been at their parties where they’ve made my husband and I stand up and everybody has given us a round of applause and thanks, just for being Cubans!)
    I recently got into an e-argument on forum when the y were talking about Cuba (well, about the repercussions of Beyonce’s visit to Cuba) and one member claimed that blacks in Cuba are treated like shit, “like excrement” were the literal words. Being black myself and even having experienced racism in Cuba, I took offense as such a sweeping generalization from someone who has never even visited the island.

    • The cyber conversations around Cuba are ridiculously facile, uninformed, vituperative and a complete waste of time in my opinion since, as you discovered, it’s too often “sweeping generalization(s) from someone who has never even visited the island.” Or people who haven’t been here in 30, 40 or 50 years. The race question is so complicated, even Cubans here are hard pressed to analyze it in all its complexities (including historic, one of the most important – and ironically, often overlooked – factors).

      I can understand your African friends applauding the solidarity of Cuba – I applaud Cuba’s solidarity around the world. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t very real problems and challenges here on the ground. Suggest they read some of Raúl’s speeches over the past couple of years…

      Whenever comes at me with the black or white explanation, I tend to tune them out. Life is nuanced, there must be shades of grey or you’re missing something.

      Thanks for commenting, as always!

  11. acanuck

    Conner I am really enjoying your blog. I live in Ciego with my wife 5 months of the year and have done so since 2002. I have long ago learned to think Cuban when I am there. Just try to be one of them as much as is possible for me. There are some things they do I can never adapt to but I do understand and simply live with it. It is not all that difficult.
    Basically I enjoy the slower pace of life there and find it a flashback to a way of life I had many years ago in Canada. It is very easy for me to slide back into it and I miss it when I am not there.

    • Hola! I have wonderful friends from Ciego – have to get out there one of these days. When you say there are some things Cubans do that you could never adapt to (never say never!), can you give some examples? This would be of great interest to me and other readers.

      • acanuck

        OK here are a few off the top of my head.
        Not flushing the toilet.
        Not covering food in the fridge.
        Scratching non-stick frying pans
        Their ungrounded electrical system.
        Stopping vehicles in the driving lane.
        Not giving way to pedestrians when they have the right of way.

      • Ha! I hear you on some of this, specifically:
        – not flushing: I completely agree and have written about it here (I believe in Highly Annoying Cuban Habits). I think it’s a learned response to so many broken toilets/lack of water in toilets
        – not covering food in the fridge: this is for lack of resources. Only the 1% can afford plastic wrap/aluminum foil/covered containers like tupperware here. I assume your wife can, but doesn’t?
        – pedestrians (and bikes) having right of way. This is totally common the world over, but it is written in Ley 60 (Codigo de Vialidad y Transito) that we have the right of way

        Some of this and the other stuff is super common to the developing world. A tip for folks out there reading this: you take the good with the bad. Roll with it. Thanks for writing in

  12. acanuck.

    They usually have plastic bags.
    These are things I gripe about but have learned to live with. For instance, I have learned to always look back for right turnings when I cross an intersection.
    Another gripe I forgot. Putting a pot or the frypan in the fridge with leftovers.
    I don’t compare Cuba to the developing world. They are well beyond that. They are educated and far more sophisticated in most ways.
    Cuba is what it is and I have long ago learned to live with it. I do find a lot of good that far exceeds my trivial gripes.

    • I agree with you totally about the education bit and being culturally (in its broadest sense) more advanced than other developing countries. But in terms of resources, infrastructure, and customs (eg littering, farmers hankies or snot rockets), Cuba is still developing.

      • acanuck.

        No kidding. They are a very stubborn bunch.
        Have you noticed older kids and pre-teens still using a baby bottle?
        Some of these things are very comico.

      • No, the bottle hasn’t registered on my radar, but I have noticed a lot of thumb-sucking adults. Comico or triste? You be the judge.

  13. Gaétan Laprise

    Os interesting !
    We’ve been in west part four weeks last year, slowly bicycling from place ta place. After many wonderful travels in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia… we really like cuba. And Cubans ! In mid travel we asked ourselves ; how is the “Indice du bonheur” here ? Our answer was ; high, very high. We speak enough spanish to exchange on life, love and politic. People are highly educated, it’s an evidence. It make exchanges very interesting.

    As I’ve said to Cuban, we have seen lot of very poor people in Latin America, and North too, but here in Cuba we just see people not rich… Anywhere inhabitantnare really kind with travellers. In Cuba it’s just a notch over 😉

    We will go back with good old bicycles (to give before going back to Québec) in april to Santa Clara. I have more questions to people and I know they will share their opinion.

    Merci de compartir your love de Cuba !

    • Hola!! Thanks for writing in. It’s especially rewarding to read about folks with experience in other Latin American countries and their impressions of Cuba. Part of what informs my work here (as a journalist, but also in the founding and expansion of Cuba Libro) are my experiences writing scads of guidebooks to Latin America for Lonely Planet. Although that was a lifetime ago, it’s important that Cuba (and all of us working and visiting here) work to retain what makes this place so special. So great that you get it!! Cheers

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