Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Get to Cuba Before It’s Spoiled. Any Further.

Nobody asked me, but here’s what I think.

I’m not a fan of the Castro regime. I’ve been to Cuba and was not seduced by the siren song (it’s actually more of a duet) of free healthcare and free education. My traveling companions and I heard a lot about both, especially healthcare, enough that I realized the Cuban government really wanted to influence our thinking on this issue.

They didn’t succeed, though. I saw two things with my own eyes that made me think that what most Cubans pay for medical attention is about what that attention is worth: Nothing. The first incident was in the middle of the trip, when the van my group was riding in picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be a doctor on her way to work. (What kind of a doctor can’t afford a car? Questions already.)

Some of the group who spoke good Spanish got her to open up about working conditions at her hospital. It came out that they had some shocking shortages, including a lot of basic things like over-the-counter pain medications and antiseptics. We dug into our toiletry bags and handed over all the Advil and Neosporin we could find, feeling virtuous and unsettled at the same time.

Later, as I was leaving Cuba, I noticed that the woman I showed my papers to at passport control had taped up her glasses. I don’t mean that she had repaired the frames that way, I mean that one of the lenses had shattered and she had pieced it back together and was attempting to keep the shards in place using strips of clear tape. I realized that Cuban medical care might be free, but that you can’t just run to LensCrafters any time you feel like it.

I also witnessed a little of Cuba’s gay scene, entirely by accident. Pipi and I went out for dessert one evening with two not-entirely-straight men from our group. When we got to the ice cream parlor, we realized that some kind of gay gathering was taking place there. I have heard of groups of gay people in the United States organizing one-night takeovers of bars, turning a mainstream establishment into a gay one by force of numbers. Something like this seemed to be happening here, although there was none of the sense of playful anarchy that is usually accompanies takeovers at home.

This was a scene of quiet desperation; a dozen gay men hiding in plain sight under florescent lighting, each wanting to connect with the others but mostly hoping they looked plausibly like they were simply enjoying an icy treat on a hot night, by themselves, all dressed to the nueves.

The four of us Americans were sussed out by the gay Cubans, and apparently we were trusted, because we got an invite to some kind of after-party, which I think was taking place at someone’s house. (I speak poor Spanish and didn’t get all the details.) As tempting as it was to accept an invitation to visit a Cuban home, we declined. Our curiosity was innocent, but we weren’t sure the invitation was. The whole thing felt a little seedy, so we steered clear. It saddened me to think that this was about as fabulous as gay nightlife gets in Cuba, and I realized that even if Cuba’s complimentary healthcare really were any good, and even if a college education really is free, I could never trade that for the freedom to be who I am.

So please believe me when I say I’m not a fan of the Castros. I am not beguiled by the promise of a socialist paradise, and I do not think they treat their people fairly.

I do, however, think lifting the embargo is a good thing.

My feeling is that 54 years of restrictions have not dislodged the Castro regime, and it seems unlikely to me that the 55th time is the charm. The embargo doesn’t seem to have hurt the people in power, and the flip side of that is that I don’t think lifting it will help them much, either.

In fact, I don’t think lifting the embargo is going to change much of anything. Maybe cutting Cuba off from tourism and trade would have had an effect if the whole world had taken part, but they didn’t. We took our ball and went home, but the rest of the world kept playing and honestly, I don’t think we were missed very much.

I went to Cuba in 2003. When I did, I packed a flashlight for blackouts and also lots of things you normally find in Western hotels, like shampoo and soap, because I was convinced that poor benighted Cuba couldn’t possibly offer travelers these amenities.

The joke was on me. The hotel Pipi and I stayed at in Havana was one of the nicest we’d ever stayed in on vacation. The lights stayed on. So did the cable TV in our room, and so did the fax machines in the business center. There was plenty of soap, and the shampoo never ran out.

This particular hotel was a Cuban/Dutch joint venture, and staying there, as well as in at an all-inclusive beach resort full of French and German tourists, made me realize that all of the tourism and trade opportunities that the U.S. has been passing up all these years are being scooped up by other countries. Cuba is not untouched by foreign influence. It’s just untouched by us.

Take cars, for example. We all have this idea that Cuba is full of American cars from the 1950s, painstakingly maintained because no other cars are available. It would be nice to think that Cuba is utterly dependent on us for its automotive needs, and that the people are all plotting overthrow so that they can get some new wheels, but it’s not quite like that. Those old Chevrolets are still there; it’s not a myth. But there are lots of other cars, too. As you can see from the photo above (taken in Havana in 2003), modern cars are available on the island. Just not from us.

So I think the lifting of the embargo will change Cuba very little. It will have some nice benefits for Americans, though. We’ll be able to visit the country, and to drink Havana Club rum and of course, smoke Cuban cigars. (Which none of us have been doing for the last 50 years, right? Riiiiight.)

That’s the good news—the Castro regime will not gain much, but curious American travelers will.

There is some bad news, though, which concerns anyone hoping to visit Cuba before it’s spoiled by capitalism, and that news is: You’re too late. You’ve missed it by….well, I don’t actually know how long. This unspoiled Cuba may actually never have existed. It may just be a mass assumption on the part of Americans, this idea that a country whose culture we have no influence on must exist in a sort of naïve state of arrested development.

True, Cuba is not yet overrun by Starbucks or Walgreens. You can’t get French fries or a Slurpee on every corner yet. Cuba is noticeably free of American convenience foods, and that is a remarkable situation.

But when Cuba opens up to us, don’t go for that reason. Don’t go for things you’re hoping not to see. Go because it’s beautiful. Go because the people are warm, the beaches are soft, rum flows freely, and fantastic live music pours out of every bar and restaurant on the island. Go because you can. Go because every visiting American is a poster child for liberty and an ambassador for economic freedoms.

Go because a pitcher of mint and lime can accomplish in an hour what five decades of spite and deprivation never could, which is to make friends out of wary strangers eying each other across 90 miles of ocean.

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