Sometimes I write about travel. Sometimes I write about politics. Sometimes I have the unique opportunity to combine the two.
Last month we took a National Geographic tour of Cuba. We wanted to get there before Havana turned into Miami. Somehow, that seems unlikely. Cuba is a very strange place unto itself, and highly resistant to change.
The closest metaphor I can offer for Cuba is one that Kurt Vonnegut created in Slaughterhouse Five: the precept of being “unstuck in time.” Vonnegut’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, if you remember, finds himself sliding between World War II, present day, and a future in space. That’s Cuba, and more.
Like most places in the western hemisphere, Cuba has a territorial history. Spanish explorers came in, decimated the indigenous peoples, and colonized away. Sit down in the central square of the city of Trinidad, close your ears to the car motors, and you could imagine being back in the 19th century.
Or sit down in Parque Central in Havana and open your eyes and ears to a different century. Swirling around you on the streets are the vaunted output of 1950s Detroit in a rainbow of original and not-so-original colors. As Jimmy Buffett sang, “you’ve got fins to the left and fins to the right.” It was like the streets of my childhood.
Except that interspersed between those American behemoths are a remarkable number of AvtoVAZ-built Ladas from Russia, representing the halcyon days in the 1980s when the Soviet Union was Cuba’s primary trading partner and responsible for bolstering its economy. And then there are the Transtur buses everywhere. These are the state-owned buses that transport the new influx of tourists everywhere. That’s the 21st century sliding by. They all combine to create some sort of weird time-travel confusion like the scene in Ghostbusters where the Titanic disgorges its passengers.
There are other reasons why Cuba struck me as strange. For one thing, the people are very happy there. Even the ones who have the ability to occasionally jump the straits and shop in the Florida hardware stores dutifully come back. They love their free health care and education. They ignore the fact that their infrastructure is crumbling around them; you walk past buildings in downtown Havana, look up, and see there are no roofs there. They are not willing to forego the advantages of their socialist system for the disadvantages.
To my mind, they’ve been brainwashed, both about their own government and ours. In America, they’re told, there are gangs and lawyers. The gangs hurt you illegally and the lawyers hurt you legally. Question: if there’s no crime in Cuba, why are there chain-link fences in front of so many houses and bars on so many windows? There may be no violent crime in Cuba, but that’s what happens when only the police and the military are allowed to carry guns. Any dictator can keep you safe, if that’s the kind of safety you want. As much as I’m in favor of gun control, I also believe there really is a reason for the Second Amendment in the Constitution.
The much-repeated response about crime is only one facet of the intellectual dishonesty that seems rife among Cubans. They love their government, but they’re frequently looking for ways to subvert it. There’s a saying: “Cubans always find a way.” If you think American ingenuity is something, try Cuban ingenuity. Those finned American wonders only run today because of a whole lot of finagling and jury-rigging. It’s a wonder they run at all. When we toured a cigar factory, the workers closest to the tourists had the advantage of offering us boxes for sale, but only when the supervisors weren’t watching.
If the American government really wanted to screw the Cuban government, it would lift the embargo tomorrow. But as long as the Cuban government can tell its citizens that it can’t serve their needs because the Americans won’t lift the longtime embargo, it’s safe. Without the scapegoat of the embargo, I suspect Cubans would begin to see that it’s their government that’s causing most of the citizens’ problems. Only one Cuban was willing to speak the truth about the socialist political system, and even then only sideways: “Without ownership, there is no honor.”
The greatest irony of the trip – given that we wanted to go before Havana turned into Miami – was that before our flight back to San Francisco, there was no water in the Miami Airport for five hours. No flushing toilets, no coffee, nothing. There were a lot of people trying to fix it, many of them speaking Spanish. So while it seems doubtful that Havana will become more like Miami anytime soon, it seems that Miami is already becoming more like Havana.