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Dear American Travelers to Cuba: Please Don't Come Until You've Understood These 11 Things

Cuba United States
by C-M "Spike" Daeley Sep 1, 2016

1. “Cubans don’t have time to think about Americans.”

In the parking lot of the Fortaleza (Fortress) de San Carlos de Cabaña stands an aging yellow school bus with “US-CUBA FRIENDSHIPMENT” and “END THE EMBARGO AGAINST CUBA” painted in bold red letters. It’s one of many mini-“protest” monuments found around the island that conspicuously defy easy interpretation and cause you to wonder what the future relationship between Cuba and the US may look like.

When traveling, we often view the rest of world through the same lens as we view our home country. While caught up in my own Amero-centric lens, I asked a friend for a good metaphor to describe US-Cuban relations. Her response: “Cubans don’t have time to think about Americans. Like most people in the world, we wake up thinking about what’s important in our daily lives. ‘What will I eat for breakfast?’ ‘What should I wear today?’ ‘How can I get a little extra money this week?’ This is what we are focused on.”

Conversely, it’s important to examine the “Cubans love Americans” (also known as the “Cubans love foreigners”) trope that is often sold by travel agencies, tour providers and even study abroad programs. Exotifying cultures to boost tourism erases individual identities by portraying locals as friendly, subservient and happy to cater to the whims of wealthy tourists.

2. The “blockade” only goes one way.

Americans tend not to know much about Cuba but one of the advantages of Cuba’s high literacy rates and free education is that Cubans are generally well informed about the rest of the world. Folks can easily chat you up about Game of Thrones and you’re just as likely to hear Justin Bieber, Beyonce or Katy Perry as you are Cuban artists like Jakob Forever and Gente de Zona. It may surprise you that even Hello Kitty’s relentlessly adorable face graces plenty of t-shirts, accessory items, and the occasional classic car.

One night, I took a trip to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an intriguing multi-story mixed media art installation space/funky nightclub. While the layout and atmosphere were uniquely Cuban, American influences appeared in the form of the original Ghostbusters projected on a second floor movie screen, while downstairs a live band cycled through “Don’t Stop Believin’,” 90’s hits and a Dirty Dancing medley. After passing through exhibits featuring angel wings majestically transposed on photographed models and reimaginings of Havana with the flashing commercial eye noise of Times Square or Shibuya, I even came across a little alcove decorated with Finn and Jake from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.

Cubans are more aware than we give them credit and the frequent inclusion of American icons like Barack Obama, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin in Cuban artwork makes for some stirring social commentary. It definitely makes you wonder why Americans are only recently becoming interested in our neighbor to the south.

3. Cuba may be a “poor” country, but Cubans are not “poor” people.

Most sources put the average monthly salary of state workers in Cuba at roughly $10-$30 USD. To an outsider, that number seems impossibly small but it doesn’t take into account social supports like universal healthcare and education, access to housing or subsidies on food and utilities. This analysis by Nicholas Partyka of the Hampton Institute describes some of the ways these factors contribute to a much higher standard of living than is first apparent to the average Westerner and debunks a few common misconceptions about Cuba’s “poor.”

Can infrastructure in Cuba be improved? Absolutely. Are there scarcities of raw materials and building resources? Definitely. Should wages for skilled-workers outside the tourist sector be increased? Of course. With that said, some things you won’t see in Cuba that are frequently associated with other “developing” nations (or “developed” nations for that matter): high crime rates, unusable roads, tourist advisory warnings, pervasive homelessness and widespread hunger.

4. Cuba has never stopped changing.

The idea that Cuba is only now starting to change is both ahistorical and patently false. Isis Salcines, Outreach Director at the Organopónico Vivero Alamar, puts it this way, “When the Soviet Union collapsed, we went to sleep rich and woke up poor.” That was in 1991, when Cuba’s GDP continued to shrink by almost 40% until it began to recover in 1993. In the 25 years since, the resulting economic reforms of the Special Period have turned tourism in Cuba into a behemoth that has bolstered and reshaped the Cuban economy, while unfortunately contributing to a reemergence of longstanding racial and social inequity. This has continued to the present and though few will argue against the need for additional reform (the government’s official description is “readjustment”), many remain unsure of exactly what steps should be taken going forward. A friend and scholar at Universidad de la Habana describes the uncertainty many young Cubans feel as “being stuck in a floating generation.”

5. Cuba is already functioning well above its capacity for tourism.

This is no secret. You’ll hear it from paladar owners, educational program coordinators, professors and hotel staff. Despite paladars and casas particulares opening up literally overnight, many casas are still booked years in advance. There’s a tenuous balance between tourism as problem and as solution and although the negative effects of tourist economies have been studied extensively, the continued presence of the embargo precludes most other options for Cubans.

6. Cuba is expensive.

Prices may be comparatively low for many things but you’ve also got to account for the tipping economy that’s a normal part of doing business. Sure, 1 CUC (approx $1 USD) for a domestic beer is much better than you can get in most places in America these days, and if you’re frugal it’s easy to get a meal for two for 10 CUC or less (20 if you want to be fancy). Still, Cuba is more expensive than you first realize. Transportation alone can add up quickly and unless you’re buying handmade Cuban goods or local food, everything you’re buying is imported. Try 80-150 CUC for a pair of athletic shoes, 20-40 CUC for an airport taxi, or even 4 CUC for a package of Pringles (DISCLAIMER: Why are you eating Pringles in Cuba?)

7. The US has no place to criticize Cuba on Human Rights.

Politically, the US continues to treat Cuba as a recalcitrant child we’ve placed in a decades long time out. “I hope you’ve thought long and hard about what you’ve done,” we say, “now play nice.” Raúl and Fidel Castro are still demonized as unrelenting tyrants (Nelson Mandela may have been inclined to disagree) and it was only in 2015 that Cuba was finally removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In advance of Obama’s visit in March, scholar Marjorie Cohn offered this convincing list of reasons to challenge American claims of moral authority. Obama’s historic speech in Havana was not without its merits but the continued criticism of Cuba’s record on human rights ignores our close ties with dictators we like (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Chad, Uganda and Rwanda, just to name a few), our intensive drone campaigns in the Middle East, the Obama administration’s own war on whistleblowers, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and countless others, our disregard for the poor and our nation’s own crumbling infrastructure.

8. Be skeptical of the phrase “Normalization.”

A key question to ask here is “Normal on whose terms?” A professor at Universidad de la Habana (who also happens to be an anthropologist and my personal American-Cuban guru) explains it like this: “My biggest problem with the term “normalization” is it implies that we are going to go back to a previous state of “normal” relationships between the United States and Cuba. Which sounds really great if you don’t know your history. Everybody likes “normal”, right? And everyone agrees these days that the relationship between the two countries for the last 50 years has been very dysfunctional and harmful for people on both sides. For both Americans and Cubans who don’t have a good grasp on what the relationship between the two countries was like “before” the revolution, normalization sounds like a good thing. But those who lived through that period in Cuba or those who have studied it know that the “normal” relationship between the two countries was a profoundly unequal one, based on unequal trade relations, and a lot of U.S. government and U.S. capital interventions in internal Cuban affairs that limited Cuban citizen’s sovereignty.”

9. The US prioritizes Cuban immigrants.

Strangely enough, the U.S. incentivizes and even prioritizes Cuban immigrants via Public Law 89-732, known as the Cuban Adjustment Act. This federal law allows Cubans to receive a green card within a year of arriving on US soil. Cubans are well aware of this act and many are accused of abusing it to receive preferential treatment and benefits in the US, then returning to Cuba to reinstate their residence, effectively enjoying dual residencies. In fact, the number of Cubans immigrating to the US has increased significantly in the past few years, as many fear the act may soon be repealed.

10. Going to Cuba is not “traveling back in time.”

When we romanticize Cuba in this way, we forget that much of what makes Cuba unique stems from necessity, not choice. Cuba is more than classic cars, cheap rum, cigars, and beaches. If you’re familiar with the “iceberg” metaphor of culture, these are merely the tip, and they contribute to a dehumanizing oversimplification and othering of Cuban lives.

In his excellent piece, “Visit Cuba, Before it Changes!” Louis A Perez, Jr. challenges this oft-cited trope, “The implication is that to visit Cuba is to time travel, an opportunity to see a people actually living real life in the past, making do and getting by as they did more than a half-century ago.” If we follow this image to its logical conclusion, we are essentially portraying Cubans as “living fossils,” or at the very least subjugating them to what Carlos Manuel Alvarez describes (also cited by Perez, Jr.) as, “the annoying experience of being viewed as something like an exotic species.”

11. Cuba has a dual currency.

This is Cuba 101. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s the need for hard currency led to what Susan Eckstein referred to as an “informal dollarization” of the Cuban economy. The government’s response was to create a second currency: the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) that is linked to the dollar and can be accessed mainly via remittances or through the state-run tourism industry. Unfortunately, the majority of Cubans are still paid in the Cuban Peso (CUP or “moneda nacional”). At a rate of 25 CUP to 1 CUC, many consumables priced in CUC are prohibitively expensive and economic inequality has increased for Cubans with disparate access to CUC. One of Cuba’s key issues going forward is the uniting of these two currencies into a single national currency; something Raúl Castro stated as a priority back in 2013 but has still not come to fruition.

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