Deep in thought, strolling along the covered marble and tile sidewalk, I looked up to find that Ned had vanished. I thought he was behind me but he wasn’t. I walked half a block back down the grimy walkway still musing on the former grandeur of the city. I scanned the faces of loiterers and fellow walkers. No Ned. My pulse quickened as a bubble of panic began to grow. I was not in Mexico. I was in Havana. Cuba. Enemy to the United States. Minutes ticked by, and reality rushed in as I paced up and down the block. Ned and I had pooled all of our Mexican Pesos to buy Cuban money, and he had it all. I had ATM and Credit cards, but they were American…worthless in Cuba. I did not have a dime. Where was Ned? My overactive imagination took over, and I pictured Ned kidnapped. The American Embassy! That’s where you go, right? No, wait. This was Cuba. There was no American Embassy, and I was a citizen of an enemy country who was not supposed to be here “trading with the enemy.”
By now cold sweat had broken out, my heart was pounding, and I was shaking all over. Five more minutes passed, and sobs built up, threatening to escape. I searched the crowd for a friendly face but found only dull disinterest or inappropriate leers. What was I to do? What good was clever resourcefulness in a country where cleverness was not rewarded and there were no resources?
Obviously I found Ned, (he was ahead of me by a block) but not before receiving the fright of my life and a healthy dose of perspective.
Our four days in Cuba were more thought provoking than any previous travel experience. Being a fierce advocate for freedom, capitalism and our whole American way of life, I was intensely interested in the beliefs, thoughts and dreams of people living under pure dictatorial Communism. I wanted to know everything; how they earned a living; how was money controlled; what could they own; what did the government own; how was food produced and sold; what were their limitations; where was it possible to excel; what did they think of their dictators, Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul?
With limited time, we forwent sightseeing in favor of delving in to the lives of the Cuban people. We had long conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, Cuban people on weekend getaways, musicians, the owners of the houses where we stayed, clerks who sold government sanctioned goods, poorer Cubans and Cubans who were better off.
We found the people soulful, charming and kind…human spirit peeking out from the suppression of government control. But life was hard there. There were no vibrant, colorful markets bursting with the energy of free enterprise. No Internet, no easy access to the outside world. No television, except government sanctioned programs. Unemployment was high, especially for women, and there was no welfare. With heart wrenching realization, we saw many lovely teenage girls “hanging out” with much older men. A few people owned their houses, their taxis or their market stalls, but paid very high flat fees for licenses to own and operate them. Most people leased everything from and worked for the government, receiving shockingly low wages in return. A medic (doctor) for instance, earns only the equivalent of $10 per month yet the cost of living, we found, was nearly that of the US. Everyone we spoke with complained about the disparity between wages and cost of living. It is an immense problem for the Cuban people, and of course many turn to black markets.
Some of the people found relief in the ability to work overseas. We met a man who did consulting work in Barcelona, a musician who played concerts in Mexico, Canada and Russia and a family who’s daughter and son-in-law worked as Medics in Venezuela. But these were the exception. Most were mired in the endless sameness of Communism.
Cubans, like many Mexicans we chatted with want to go or have their children go to America. But, watching their faces as they speak, I noticed a big difference. The Mexican people always have a certain dreamy look, a glimmer of hopefulness. The Cubans, however, spoke of the wish, but their faces reflected a sad fatalism, indicating a complete lack of hope. It was heartbreaking, and time after time I found myself saying tearful goodbyes to these beautiful people, wishing I could smuggle them out in my backpack.
We Americans grow up with the belief that anything is possible. We have endless choices and can come and go as we please. I have traveled in many countries and have seen how different forms of government affect the people. I have seen wretched poverty and the apathy of idleness. But there in Cuba it was not only goods and services that were in such short supply. Freedom itself, had, for most people become an impossible idea. It appeared to me that this Communist government had formed a place where the human spirit to create and grow was thoroughly repressed, and every choice, even down to what brand of water or shampoo people could buy was controlled by someone else.
Our four day Cuban sojourn was hugely emotional for me. The suffocating weight of Communism fell over the country like a dull miasma, and I felt a haunting fear of ever having to live like that. While I understand that the promise of Communism is to lift all people to an equal level, what I sensed, was that the level was much lower than we Americans are used to. It was true that we saw no extreme poverty like we have seen in other countries, but we also saw no signs of progress, pride or excellence, and the entire country had an air of disinterested neglect.
In the end it is all about perspective. We are so accustomed to our incredible way of life that we take it for granted. I feel fortunate to have felt for four days, what it would be like to live without freedom, human rights, choices, and advocacy.
Back in Mexico, I had my hair done by a beautiful Mexican woman named Berta. I was telling her about our visit to Cuba and how I found the Mexican people so much more vibrant and full of life. Berta summed it up simply, saying, “Without freedom, the people are not happy.”
While there is no American Embassy in Cuba, there is a US Interests Section housed in the Swiss Embassy. In place of an Ambassador there is a Chief of the US Interests Section.
A few people were allowed to keep ownership of and/or inherit houses or cars after the revolution, but three years ago (2011) the Castro regime began allowing more widespread private ownership of houses and cars. Many are taking advantage of the new law, making payments to the government to become owners.
Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for the Cuban people.