The wrong in “right,” as learned in Havana, Cuba
Please join us in reading this week’s blog written by contributor Ana Rader, former WFL intern and a recent graduate of Dickinson College where she majored in Sociology and Women’s & Gender Studies.
Three months ago, I was sitting on a school bus with sixteen peers, seven professors, and the school photographer. I wasn’t sitting actually, not really. You don’t just sit on bus when you’re in Havana, Cuba. On our fourth day there, I was still hanging my head out the half-open window. I barely allowed myself to blink as we cruised alongside crowded public buses on main roads and won chicken fights with motorcycles in narrow alleyways. Every person and dog, every market, sign, and sidewalk fascinated me as I was finally able to marry reality with the historical context I had been learning and writing about all year.
At first glance, vestiges of past decades, centuries even, define the landscape in Havana. Like the American cars from the 1950s- clunky, Easter egg-colored, smelling of diesel. And the buildings- centuries old, crumbling reminders of Cuba’s colonialist past. Even the billboards look dated, with phrases like “Siempre en 26,” a reference to the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, printed in retro block letters.
Cuba? Can we even go there? You might be thinking. Don’t they have a dictator or something? Don’t they hate us? That’s just what I wondered last semester when I received an e-mail about a sociology course that involved a ten-day trip to Havana. At that point, I knew Cuba only as forbidden. The chance to go there, I felt, might not come again**.
In perusing the Internet for more information about the country, I found that unfortunately, most information available online about Cuba is either adamantly against the socialist country, or unfailingly supportive of it. It all reads like propaganda and left me with completely confused notions of what Cuba is like. Are the people brainwashed, forced to work like robots for the government, kidnapped by secret police if they disobey? Or, has socialism liberated the people in a way we can’t even conceive of— issues of racism, classism, and sexism virtually nonexistent in this egalitarian society? In the months leading up to the trip, the more extreme articles I read, the more desperate I became to experience Cuba for myself.
Which brings me back to that time, three months ago. I’m on a school bus in Havana, transfixed by the passing scenery, but having trouble putting my finger on just what is so fascinating. I sacrifice precious sightseeing moments to page through my journal from the trip so far. I think about all the times Esteban, our driver, welcomed random people onto our private bus because they were headed in the same direction as us. I think about the night a man sitting on his front step enjoying the Silvio Rodríguez concert in the street in front of us happily led me into his house so I could use his bathroom. He apologized that it didn’t flush, and asked nothing in return. I think about one of the women who spoke to our class, who said that in Cuba, “merit is found when you share that what you don’t have enough of.”
In that moment, with a beautiful camera hung around my neck, I realized that what is fascinating about Cuba is actually not the visuals. What is fascinating is the alternative cultural narrative. In the United States, our culture values individual success— letting the needs of others hold you back is seen as a weakness. Cuban culture values community and solidarity— “individualism” is seen as a vice. The two are diametrical opposites.
And yet, I’m not about to say that going to Cuba changed my life because I found the ideal way of existing. Not at all. The Cuban system— and Cubans themselves—are flawed. My journal contains memories not just of Cuban generosity, but of being catcalled on the street, and of having the bracelet pulled off my wrist by a woman who offered to take our picture.
What I learned in Cuba that is remarkable, that forever altered my perspective, is that Cubans are normal. They’re human. Some lie, some tell the truth. Some steal, some don’t. Some are lazy, others determined. They love, and they betray. Understanding this reality, this humanness, made me realize more fully than I ever had before that there is no one right cultural narrative or philosophy, no one right way of existing in the world. While our perspectives may differ from one another— not just between the United States and Cuba, but in any relationship—as humans we will never be diametrically opposed. We are too dynamic, complex, and ever-changing to be the opposite of anything.
I am thankful to have had this realization as I begin life after college in a world that fiercely clings to dualities despite its exquisite pluralism. While my outlook has changed over time, however, many others’ views have not. The U.S. government, for example, still views Cuba’s socialist philosophy as inherently oppressive. I hope that as more people from the United States are able to find themselves staring in disbelief out a bus window in Havana, they will recognize the need to set their cameras, and criticisms, down. One day soon, I hope we as a nation will embrace differences in perspective and, above all, acknowledge the humanness that binds us. Upon arrival, the oldness of Havana’s sights is what seems most captivating about Cuba, but upon departure, the wisdom gained there is most worth taking home.
**A (very brief) note on U.S. – Cuba relations: The United States created an embargo against Cuba in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution. Briefly, the embargo forbids the exchange of trade, travel, and assistance between the two countries. Over the past 52 years, the United States has typically increased, not decreased, the intensity of such measures. On January 14, 2011, the White House broke this trend when it announced that the United States was lifting certain travel restrictions, and that people in the United States could now go to Cuba on academic study tours. To learn more about U.S. -Cuba relations I suggest reading Chapter 5 in Isaac Saney’s book Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.