For the past several years, I’ve been really fascinated by Cuba—partly because of my general interest in Latin American history and culture, but also because it seems as though everyone I speak with, whether they’ve traveled there or not, has very strong opinions about Fidel Castro, how the government is run, or the United States’ policies toward the country. In an attempt to get a more educated view on the country, I decided to study abroad in Cuba, learn about its history firsthand, and hear the opinions of the people who actually live through the effects of the damaged US-Cuban relations.
About two weeks before I left for Cuba, the first big news story came out about the unexplainable health problems the US and Canadian diplomats suffered in Cuba. This only deepened the fears and mysteries surrounding the country, and even prompted my fairly progressive and open-minded father to say, “Taylor you have to be extremely careful about what you do and say in Cuba. You could end up in jail and we won’t be able to come get you out.” While that statement is wrong for a number of reasons, I do think it sums up how a large portion of the US sees Cuba—a restrictive communist country that has a vendetta against US citizens. That’s why now, in light of all the recent news stories and the State Department’s travel warning, I think it’s really important to share my personal experiences as a US-American living in Cuba over the past couple of months.
Before arriving, I wasn’t particularly anxious about my physical safety in Cuba, but was slightly worried about fitting in or making friends due to the harsh relations between our countries over the past several decades. However, that fear quickly went away as I walked out of baggage claim to find a crowd full of Cubans smiling and clapping, as they waited for their own travelers to walk through the doors. While the literal aspects of my welcome party were left at the arrival gate, what has stayed with me is the almost overwhelming amount of kindness and hospitality received from the Cuban people.
These acts have manifested in small daily interactions over my past two months. For example, before, during, and after hurricane Irma, we received countless calls, texts, and visits from our new Cuban friends, even if we had only met them once or twice, making sure that we were alright or had everything we needed. Or the time some friends and I were lost in the maze of winding streets in Havana Vieja, and a man walked us to the exact store we were looking for after just asking for directions. Even the look of excitement on the face of a stranger, who just learned that I’m from the United States, makes me feel so welcomed and happy to be here. I could go on and on with simple stories like these, but I’ve also had a few specific interactions that have really stuck with me.
One night, my group and I went to a bar with our friend Elliot and were introduced to a few of his mutual friends. My one friend and I were really tired and wanted to leave a little early, but as we started walking out of the bar we remembered we were in a new neighborhood and didn’t know exactly how to get home. As we walked back into the bar, we ran into Alejandro, one of the mutual friends we met that night, and asked him for directions. He told us to wait a minute and disappeared back into the crowd. A few minutes later he came out with a woman who proceeded to describe exactly how to get back to Vedado. When she finished, Alejandro looked at us and asked if we understood exactly what she had said. We nodded affirmatively, and he said, “Bueno, vamos” and then started for the exit. Just to be sure we were safe, he accompanied us on our 15-minute walk from the bar to the bus stop and then made sure we got on the right bus. The next morning, we found out that a little later, when another one of our other friends wanted to leave, he did the same thing and even got on the bus with him to make sure he knew where to get off to get a taxi.
One night, our friend João, invited us to a party hosted by one of the departments at the University. I didn’t think to clarify which neighborhood the bar was in, and my friends and I ended up at the wrong address without an Internet connection to look the place up. We wandered around for a while and eventually approached two girls standing outside an apartment building to ask for directions. They told us the bar was in the next neighborhood over but since they were headed in that direction, they could show us the way. After a few minutes of walking, they decided we should take the bus instead and when it came, they insisted on paying our fares. A few stops later, we all got off and they walked us to the door of the bar, even though it was out of their way. As we parted ways, one of the girls, Heidy, told me her address and said to come by and shout for her anytime we needed anything or wanted to hang out again.
A few weeks later, my group and I took a road trip throughout the country and met so many wonderful individuals, but I keep coming back to one particular conversation. While connecting to the Internet in a park in Santiago, an older man sat down on the opposite end of my bench and asked for the time. When I looked up from my phone and responded in my awful Spanish accent, he started laughing and told me he hadn’t realized I was an extranjera at first. Of course, I then began laughing at the idea of someone mistaking me for a Cubana or native Spanish speaker, and told him I was from the United States. A giant smile appeared on his face and he asked if he could practice his “self-taught English” with me. I agreed on the condition that I could continue responding in Spanish, and we carried on conversing in Spanglish for the next hour, learning about each other’s families and interests. When I had to leave and began packing up my things, he told me this was the longest conversation he ever had with a US American. Both flattered and saddened by this comment, I asked him what he thought about the diplomatic relations between our countries. He replied, “No me importan las cosas políticas. Yo no conozco Donald Trump y tú no conoces Raúl Castro. La cosa mas importante es las interacciones personales. Así.” (I don’t care about political things. I don’t know Donald Trump and you don’t know Raul Castro. The more important part is personal interactions. Like this.) I had to get to dinner and didn’t have time to continue on this train of thought with him but what I wanted to say was, but what happens when the political stuff gets in the way of being able to have the personal interactions?
I know that, for the most part, these stories aren’t much more than an average interaction that we’ve all certainly had at some point in the US—but that’s my point exactly. I’m sharing my daily encounters here in an attempt to convey my confusion about the news stories and policy decisions towards Cuba over these past several months. I’m not denying that something has happened to the US and Canadian diplomats working in Cuba and that it is a serious problem—but I am trying to express that this is not the mainstream view and actions of the Cuban people. Whoever was carrying out these attacks, is not related to the government and clearly wanted to stop the normalization of US – Cuban relations. So by dispelling 60% of the diplomats in the US embassy, issuing State Department travel warnings, and filling the newsfeeds with stories about “Mysterious Sonic Attacks,” we aren’t punishing the attackers, but instead are giving them exactly what they want while simultaneously hurting average people, like the Cuban small business owner, who depends on tourism for their living.
So my request, as a US-American living in Havana and actually interacting with Cubans on a daily basis, is if you were thinking about traveling to Cuba to hear great Trova music, go salsa dancing, or learn about a really fascinating culture and history, please don’t be deterred by the US State Department warning. While I can’t guarantee you’ll have a welcome party of random Cubans at the arrival gate like I did, I do think that you’ll have a great time and genuine interactions with the Cuban people.