Cuba: notes from a frequent visitor

There’s a lot to be rebuilt in downtown Havana Jane Landers, Author provided

As an historian who grew up in the Caribbean and who has been researching and traveling to Cuba since it was still a Soviet dependent, I have been asked frequently in the last few days my impression of the astounding news that the United States and Cuba have agreed to restore diplomatic relations with one another.

My short answer is that this breakthrough in US-Cuban relations is hugely important and long overdue. The standoff was a remnant of the Cold War that made no sense when we deal with more repressive regimes.

Now attention is turning to lifting the embargo. But what concerns me are the social problems still to be resolved in Cuba.

Welfare and penury

One cannot undervalue the great strides Cuba made in education and health care and housing and many other state-sponsored programs over the last half century – achieving, for example, infant mortality rates better than our own.

But over the years Cuban friends also related being forced to leave school at harvest time to cut sugar cane in the countryside. The homes I was invited to were often in the brutalist Soviet housing built by the Cuban worker “brigades” where neither elevators nor bathrooms functioned. I visited a decaying hotel spa where workers were assigned to spend their state-paid holidays. And everywhere were the colorful billboards and posters denouncing Yankee imperialism, exhorting love of the Patria (fatherland), and lauding Fidel and the Revolution.

I was riding in a cab in Havana the night the Soviet Union collapsed. Our driver pulled over, turned up the radio, and we all listened intently in the dark, knowing that everything was changing in that moment. On a subsequent trip I saw the damage losing generous Soviet subsidies had wrought.

The “special period” and Hugo Chavez

The Cuban people suffered through this so-called “special period” in the 1990s with severe food and fuel shortages, and vitamin-deficiency related illnesses. Even the run-down tourist hotels in which I stayed depended on the donkey carts to deliver bananas from the countryside.

Then Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez stepped into the void and used his oil revenues to prop up the Cuban state. Living conditions improved somewhat in the capital. And soon his image joined Fidel’s on the ubiquitous billboards. Museums dedicated to Venezuelan arts sprang up.

Now that subsidy program is in trouble as oil prices fall and Chavez’s successor, President Maduro, has his hands full at home.

Tourist dollars

Over the years tourist dollars have filled in some of Cuba’s economic need. Europeans and Latin Americans have long enjoyed Cuba’s sparkling beaches like Varadero, where Cubans were forbidden to go.

This unsettling and unexpected segregation in an allegedly egalitarian state was everywhere. When I tried to invite my Cuban colleagues to eat at my hotel, they accepted but were usually visibly uncomfortable. My American colleagues of color were sometimes stopped at the hotel door by security guards who assumed them to be prostitutes.

From the early 1980’s international funding agencies like UNESCO started to lend a hand to the restoration of Havana’s colonial heart. Eighteenth-century buildings now repainted in pale blues and pinks face sterile plazas where tourists buy mementos from state-licensed flea-markets and state-operated stores. The Cuban families once crammed into these historic structures have been removed to other, unknown, locales. Walk a few streets over, as I did in May 2014, and you find areas that look like they have been bombed…cratered streets…buildings falling down.

As US regulations have loosened to allow more educational and humanitarian groups since 2011 to travel to Cuba, the Cuban state has responded by refurbishing languishing hotels and roads and other infrastructure. I am in full support of educational and humanitarian tourism. But there is one Cuba for tourists and another for the Cuban people.

Potemkin highways

In spring 2014 I took a research team to the rural town of Ceiba Mocha in Matanzas province, where I first worked as a graduate student more than twenty years ago. Ceiba Mocha was founded in 1764 by Canary Islanders, Spaniards and freed slaves from Spanish Florida.

The town I research, Gracia Real, was formed by escaped slaves from Carolina whom the Spanish freed and set up as a militia on their northern frontier. It is now a National Historic Landmark. What we are now researching is what happened to these people in Cuba. So my graduate students and I were in Cuba digitalizing the church records there for a Vanderbilt project to preserve the endangered records of Africans in the Americas.

Ceiba Mocha May 2014. Jane Landers, Author provided

Ceiba Mocha itself looks today unchanged from my last visit. But, as I remarked to friends, the countryside looked flourishing in comparison to earlier years. I saw animals in the fields and planted fields. My friends, however, assured me this was true only along the state highway and that they still had to hunt animals with rifles in the hills behind their homes to supplement their ration card allotments. They are not allowed to kill a cow they might raise for food. Only pregnant women have access to vitamin C.

President Raul Castro has shown willingness to critique the system with the opening of small private restaurants and hotels, for example, and liberalize the economy further. But one has only to look at the images of the joint announcements of the US-Cuba talks to realize how Cuba has remained locked in a Cold War era.

The octogenarian president sits in a military uniform weighted down by golden epaulets while President Obama sports a stylish suit and tie. The rhetoric of the Cuban – and Venezuelan – media coverage of the return of the released “Cuban Three” agents mirrors the dated language of the much older billboards.

“See with what determination they leave prison. See the happiness in their faces as they step again on our sainted Patria. Imagine the heightened consciousness as they continue the fight.”

My Cuban colleagues from academe who now live in exile may not be the die-hard conservatives of older generations, whom I remember waging practice maneuvers in camouflage in the Florida Everglades. But they still warn that Cuba has still to prove its intention to really change. There must be freedom of the press, political pluralism and jails without political prisoners before they can start believing that the Cold War is over in Cuba.

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