I recently returned from a trip to Cuba. Changes are already happening and I felt I was seeing the country in the last days of its embargo era. This may or may not be true, as travelers from the United States are still only allowed to visit Cuba with a special visa, but these are a few of my first thoughts about what I experienced.
I work several different jobs, each requiring different clothing choices. I’ve never thought about how easy it is to get clothes. This is not the case in Cuba. Fashion is carved out by what can be found. Underwear is so pricey women wear bra’s that have long lost their elasticity. It was suggested that we leave our clothes behind, with notes stating our intention to leave them (so no-one would chase us down thinking we’d forgotten our things). Yet, a woman cleaning the hotel room looked me up and down and said, “my daughter is your size, what can you give me?” The day before her confrontation I had given away a bag of clothes and what I had left was earmarked for our guide to take to his wife and daughter. If I had packed a suitcase full of underwear and bra’s it would have been the most appreciated gesture I could have made. I wish had known before I went. I have a wonderland of options to replenish, from my very own closet.
I had my cell phone coveted by kind large black man. In the last four years, many more people in Cuba have been able to get phones. It is becoming attainable. But the longing I saw in that man’s entire being is the longing of an entire country to jump forward. I return home to see multitudes of children with cell phones, without a thought of this being anything but normal. I see eyes and ears glued to phones without a thought to a person next to them. It was actually wonderful to be disconnected in Cuba. No manufactured light glare so specific to phones lighting up our meal times, conversations becoming more intimate without the leash of the phone. Not everyone on our trip could stay away from the lure of the connected world and got on line as soon as we got to Havana. A haphazard connection at best, but the connected world is dangled in front of Cubans, and who can resist? I enjoyed turning back the clock to relate in a pre-cell phone world. To cherish what it was like. But I have the privilege to choose to be on my phone or not, in contrast to a country detained from progress.
This is how Cuba will survive. It is a country of 11 million people, hoping to be host to 10 million tourists. There is a plan to turn Havana harbor into a dedicated harbor for Cruise ships. And though there are many tourists from many countries now, I believe tourism from the United States would shift the economy and perhaps stabilize the economy. When our large group would descend on a restaurant, a museum, a ceramics shop, the tips in bathrooms alone were beyond the monthly-earned wages of the average Cuban. Doctors, athletes, specialists have to leave the county to earn what they are worth. At present a Doctor earns about $35.00 a month and patients often bring food as gifts, knowing they are needed, even though all are on rations for eggs, milk and water. Transportation problems are rampant. Baseball, the national sport, has affordable tickets, but it is difficult to get to the games. Basic infrastructure may finally have a chance to change when the embargo is lifted.
There will be more posts to follow as I sift through my experiences and notes. Part of being allowed to visit included writing a daily journal of what we visited and transactions we made, a journal to be kept for 5 years per OFAC requirements (Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury).