“I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. Cuba is sovereign and rightly has great pride, and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else.” – President Obama, 3/21/2016.
Barack Obama made history this week by visiting Cuba, something no American president has done since Calvin Coolidge (say who?) in 1928.
Just one week ago, my stomach sank as a customs official at the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba inked a shining neon pink stamp center stage in my passport. It couldn’t be any less inconspicuous, and I couldn’t be there any less legally. Shit, I thought they didn’t stamp American passports.
My friend Maddy and I did as many Americans do, these days and in the past: we skirted around a strict ban on tourism (admittedly much looser as of late), flying into Cuba via Mexico. And so here I was eight days later, about to re-enter the U.S. with not even a single cigar in tow but sweating like I was trafficking cocaine. I was hoping the official would be too distracted by the ghastly sombrero I’d picked up on the island – and now wearing indoors, a testament to how rarely I read Vogue – to give much thought to my fishy answers. “I’m coming from Cancun. Er, yes, just a one-day trip. Nope, went to no other countries during my short stay.”
As a privileged American, the irony was not lost on me. Here was a country that was not accessible to me. A border I was not allowed to cross. ATM machines that would not accept my cards, banks that hardly exchanged my currency.
My 8-day trip to Cuba, completed just two days before President Obama legalized “people-to-people trips” that will effectively end the ban on tourism to the island, was not just an act of rebellion. Sure, visiting a country that was off-limits held some appeal, though mostly because of the “untouched by America” factor, not the extra logistics it took to pull it off. But traveling to Cuba at the tail end of a 55-year trading embargo was an exercise in humility, a lesson in perception, and more than anything, an eye-opener into antiquated policy.
It was pointedly clear upon arrival to the island that it wasn’t Cuba that didn’t want me in, but rather, my own country that wanted me to stay away. No one was waiting for me on Cuban soil ready to ship me back or turn me over to the CIA. The embargo was a one-sided decision, and of course I knew this, logically. But it’s easy to forget, and easier still to vilify the opposition and skew the facts when tensions run high.
In Cuba you get the other half of the story. It’s not just Chapter 14 in your AP History textbook arguing that Cuba’s access to Soviet missiles was going to end the world. It’s not Fidel – well, more like Raúl these days – prancing around with a machete in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other.
The narrative is more nuanced. In Cuba, I saw that scary-awful-Communism isn’t a vision of concrete grey against a cloud-ridden sky. I saw poverty and diets of stale white bread juxtaposed with universal health care and daycare that costs just $1 a month. I passed billboards of Ché and Fidel shouting “Viva la revolución!” and listened as taxi drivers praised the changing tides brought about by Raúl Castro. I saw visible side effects of the most powerful country in the world turning its back on the Cuban government, and how the actions of a few trickled down to affect the entire population. And at our homestay I witnessed curiosity mixed with joy at the sight of a Trader Joe’s canister of sea salt, since rations are incomprehensibly limited by American standards.
This isn’t to say that things are balanced in Cuba. To be sure, the cities and highways are peppered with propaganda posters and graffiti revering the country’s leaders, conveniently ignoring the extreme hardships and human rights violations sanctioned by the dictatorship. And the Museum of the Revolution in Havana is basically one long rant written by Fidel, complete with a “Corner of the Cretins” on the main floor, mocking dictator Batista and three U.S. presidents (including “Roland” Reagan, because that’s how much time and effort was put into proofreading the contents of this museum).
Nothing is black and white – this is what travel and open borders teach us. Believing one side of history or the other at face value, without ever questioning or digging deeper, can be dangerous. And blocking off access to information, via censorship or a full-blown embargo, is more dangerous still.
I feel lucky to have experienced Cuba before the floodgates are opened, but more than that, I feel lucky to come of traveling age, so to speak, under a president willing to lift harmful barriers and misguided policies. During my brief time in Cuba, I shared in the excitement of restaurant owners as they exclaimed, “Tell your president to eat here next week!” and bicycle taxi drivers pointed out stately buildings Obama would surely tour. And miraculously, instead of feeling ashamed to be an American in a country that has been so beaten down by U.S. policy, I felt welcomed, hopeful, even proud.
A large swath of downtown Havana was torn up for the impending visit. We could hardly have chosen a less photogenic time to come, as workers were frantically repairing the roads and infrastructure in preparation for such a monumental occasion. There were piles of bricks and the drilling of jackhammers, and more than a touch of skepticism on our parts that they’d get it done in time.
But despite the unsettled dust, it was a beautiful week to visit Havana. We were right there on the cusp of change. And now I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I’ve tripped in the same potholes as President Obama.