The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Guild Magazine Team.
“In communist countries such as Cuba, though the population is highly educated, they have been stripped of one of the most critical aspects for someone to get out of poverty: the freedom to dream.”
All travelers will eventually make a trip that will change not only their perspective about the world but will also change their lives. For me, that trip was our visit to Havana, Cuba. It was a trip that opened my eyes to a reality I thought I was aware of by reading newspapers or history books. However, until I was there, I never realized how ignorant I really was to the truth of many in this world.
I feel lucky to have visited multiple countries and cities in the past ten years. I have seen both excessive wealth and poverty during my travels. As a child in the Dominican Republic, and someone who still visits family there, I have seen poverty – children playing naked on the streets because there was no money for clothes, or poorly built homes being swept away during flood events. However, the level of poverty I saw in Cuba was different.
In the past decades, though poverty and corruption remain, the Dominican Republic and other third world countries of Latin America have seen an increase in wealth. Through education, people can attempt to obtain a better job, a better life. However, in communist countries such as Cuba, though the population is highly educated, they have been stripped of one of the most critical aspects for someone to get out of poverty: the freedom to dream.
We all dream of creating and having a better life, and a better future. These dreams help us to plan our goals and to work to achieve them. You choose a career you feel will bring you happiness, and financial freedom. However, in Cuba, you can obtain an excellent education, and will still live at a certain level of poverty for the rest of your life; no matter how hard you work day and night.
During our trip to Cuba, we met such talented, smart, and well-educated people. It was so hard to comprehend that these same people would still have to work three jobs to try to make ends meet, as the government, in the end, will keep almost everything they make financially.
I think by now you have realized that this piece about Cuba is not about, “the places to go to” or “places to eat in Cuba.” I have seen so many people go to Cuba because it is the “hot” place to go to at this moment. Big companies such as Chanel have held runway shows in Cuba, glamorizing Havana while shunning the reality its people live in. People visiting Havana cannot wait to post their selfies on social media because “How cool am I! Look at me! I’m in Havana!”
What is your reason for visiting Cuba? Cuba is, indeed, a diamond in the rough. Past the poverty, the island is beautiful beyond belief – rich in culture, and architecture. However, when you indicate in your tourist card application that your reason to go to Cuba is to “support the Cuban people,” is this really your reason for going, or is it because you want a pretty selfie so you can feel validated?
With each day we were in Cuba, I became more and more aware of how obscene we truly live our lives. We want everything we do not need, the latest luxuries and gadgets. We stuff our homes, our closets, with things we have no human necessity for. We waste excessive amounts of food, without any thought, on a daily basis. As I would stand on the terrace of our beautifully renovated AirB&B “casa” in Old Havana and would look at the surrounding poverty – the children trying to look up into the apartment every time we would go in and out- the sadness in my heart and the feeling of despair would grow deeper, and darker.
As the days passed, and we continued to meet people, some would open up and give us a little glimpse about the realities of Cuba. The reality its people live in: days or weeks eating only rice and eggs as there is nothing else available; no access to clean water (one of the reasons why I became very sick); working 12-18 hrs a day for three months so that they can buy a t-shirt. The list of heartbreaking things goes on, and on, and on.
Cuba is a country with two currencies: the Cuban peso, and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The Cuban people buy items with pesos, while tourists use CUC, which is almost equivalent to USA dollars. A tourist will go to a grocery store and pay CUC, while a Cuban will pay in pesos (which is a much lower price for them). However, the symbolism of this divide became more apparent as we ate at La Guarida, the internationally acclaimed restaurant loved by celebrities visiting the island. Housed in an actual multi-family building, La Guarida offers some of the best cuisines you can find in Havana, with a level of service that also excels. However, how can one truly enjoy the food after learning that the person serving you will make approximately the equivalent of 28 CUC a month? The same amount of money you will be paying for your meal (and most will be kept by the government). This is the reality of life for Cubans.
As we met more people, some expressed how things have become “un poco mejor” in the past few years. For example, the police turn a blind eye to the black market sale of foreign TV shows, where for 1 Cuban peso, someone will come to your home and give you a USB stick with whatever TV show you want on it (not forgetting that this could still land you in jail). The island has now access to Wifi, and the people will flock day and night to the areas where they can get a signal, standing for hours outside hotels, and sitting on the ground at the plazas, communicating with family abroad, or learning through social media how people outside of Cuba live. As someone told us: “Seeing people who come here post these glamorous pictures makes me sad because what they see as cool and fashionable for his or her pictures is actually our sad reality.”
“Though I brought back so much sadness with me from this trip, what stands out the most in my memory and heart is the resilient spirit of the Cuban people.”
On our last night in Cuba, as we were walking to our “casa,” one of our friends stepped on feces. We had just bought some bottles of water to try to beat the heat of the night. It was late, but children were still playing on the streets in front of our “casa.” As we opened the door to go up, they flocked around us to try to look up to “la casa.” Our friend stopped from going in, so he could first clean his shoes with the water we had just bought. I became aware that one of the children was transfixed watching this. As the other kids kept trying to look up to our “casa,” the child told his friend, “Look how they waste the water. They are clearly millionaires.” At that moment, my heart finally broke. I cried so much that night. I cried the next day on the plane back to Miami. I cry every time I think of that child. I cry every time I think of Cuba.
Cuba and its people taught me so many things in the five days we were there. Though I brought back so much sadness with me from this trip, what stands out the most in my memory and heart is the resilient spirit of the Cuban people. Even though their freedom to dream has been taken away, they get up every day with a smile on their faces, and a heart full of hope. They make the best of life with the little they have. Cubans, Venezuelans, and the so many people in the world going through similar situations are a reminder of how important it is that we do not forget our humanity; that we do not forget to help those less fortunate and to keep in mind what is really valuable in life.
So, what is your reason for visiting Cuba? – GM