Perhaps more so than any other trip I can recall in my life, I stepped off the plane with no sense of what to expect. Cuba, an island country just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, has been isolated from much of the world for decades. What exactly does that kind of isolation mean, how does it play out in daily life and what is the impact on the people who live there? In the words of a young Cuban I met that week, “Well, it’s complicated…” Through conversations with him and many other people I met during my week, I began to uncover the story that is Cuba.
Danilo: A young man with roots that run deep
This particular young Cuban, Danilo, was one of our guides. He works for a government-run agency that organizes cultural exchanges to Cuba. Over mojitos one evening, he talked about life in Cuba, his work today as a guide, and his dreams for the future. Each time we asked him a question, he paused for a moment and responded, “Well, it’s complicated…”.
It is complicated. An average government salary is the equivalent of US$ 20 per month, paid in pesos, the moneda nacional. Danilo can make ends meet in part due to the fact that as a Cuban he has a roof over his head, free education and healthcare. Until quite recently, almost everyone worked in the state sector. For Danilo, with his fluent English, education and people skills, he finds opportunities today to earn money through tourism outside of his government job. Not only does it pay better, it also pays in CUC’s, the convertible currency tied to the dollar, which is the currency of restaurants, hotels and other privately-run businesses for the most part catering to foreigners.
And still, life is hard. Many of his friends have left the country and started new lives elsewhere. So what keeps him in Cuba? Well, it’s complicated. Moving abroad may hold the promise of opportunity, but it also means starting anew in a place where he knows no one. Cuba is home. He grew up here, his family is here, this is where he feels rooted. It feels like an enormous amount to give up. And especially now, with change in the air in Cuba, it is an exciting time to stick around.
Alberto: A baker in search of flour and kindness
The change in the air is part of the reason Alberto came back. Alberto was the first Cuban chef to be awarded the prestigious Michelin star. He recently returned to Cuba from Italy after 16 years in the gastronomy sector in order to be a part of the process of change. He wants to bring back kindness. He says people have become exhausted and sometimes hopeless from the struggles they face in their every day.
He decided to open his own bakery in a country that already provides a free bread roll to each person every day. Why did he choose bread? For Alberto, bread is a metaphor for life, for health, for meaning. The juxtaposition of his bakery right next door to a state-run bread shop, providing free bread, is striking. “They thought I was crazy,” he said, speaking of the authorities. “They told me to open an animal hospital instead.”
Entering his shop, we were greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread. Alberto welcomed us in and we sampled his delicious breads. On the walls are posters with nutritional information, on the shelves are bags of grains, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, whole-wheat flour. Some of these ingredients he can buy in Cuba, others he imports from abroad. At the end of the day, he goes from one store to another in search of basics such as flour and grains which are often in short supply in Cuba and sometimes simply unavailable. Nothing is straightforward. The inspectors keep on stopping by to check up on his activities. Recently he was fined for painting the outside of his store. The spare part required to fix his recently broken refrigerator is unavailable. Life for Alberto is … well, it’s complicated but he continues to be inspired by the difference he can make by bringing wholesome food, a friendly smile and a personal touch to the neighborhood he serves.
Norma: Clearing a path for people to be who they are
Norma Guillard, a black lesbian activist and a retired social psychologist, is another person dedicated to improving the lives of her fellow citizens. In a country where forty years ago, anyone suspected of homosexuality was sent to a work camp, gay students were expelled from the University of Havana and neither teachers nor doctors could be gay, Norma founded the first organization of gay and bisexual women in Cuba. Even today, gay unions are not recognized and homosexuals are barred from the military.
As we sat together in a mutual friend's living room, I was struck by her drive for equality, passion for diversity, and in particular how she lit up when she talked of her work with women in underserved communities around Havana. I left wanting to learn more about this immensely courageous woman.
Roberto: Breaking the taboo on racism
Talking of courage, the former editor of the prestigious cultural institution and publishing house Casa de las Americas, Roberto Zurbano, was dismissed from his post in 2013 after he wrote an article in the New York Times on his perspective of racial inequality in Cuba. A leading intellectual in Cuba today, Roberto wants to make it possible to have an open dialog about race.
Cuba today is a multi-racial society. Blacks, whites, and people of mixed race live side-by-side. The narrative since the Revolution has largely been one of equal opportunity for all. The reality, however, is quite different. The question of racial identity runs deep and goes back to over three centuries of slavery in Cuba. Today in Cuba, race is a taboo topic, and Roberto wants to change that. He is concerned that in the new Cuba, a large segment of the population will remain marginalized and be left behind simply because they do not have the same access to opportunity and economic advantage that white Cubans do.
Roberto wants to find a way to create a business to help create prosperity, happiness and identity for and with the involvement of the Afro-Cuban community. One of his first tasks is to raise money in a community that has so little. Opening a bank account was a major struggle. Getting a loan is impossible. You have to find a way, he said. You keep plugging along, trying different things until a door finally opens. Cubans even have a term for it: resolver. It means figuring out a way to make it work.
Jorge: Human ingenuity at work day to day
Jorge, our taxi driver, is a master of resolver. He proudly drives a bright blue car straight out of the 1950’s. Since the embargo, it has not been possible to get spare parts and until recently, Cuban’s couldn’t even buy cars. Today, an old Russian Lada sells for the equivalent of $10,000. Who can afford that? The vintage cars on the road today are kept running with improvised parts, twine, tape and sheer ingenuity. This has to be innovation at its very best.
Amiley: Using technology to solve human challenges
Talking of innovation, Amiley is a Cuban internet pioneer. In 1999, she created the country’s first website, Cubisima, back in the day when it was illegal to buy or sell a home in Cuba. Originally the website served to connect people with the intention of exchanging homes. Those with a home to swap could post pictures and descriptions of their home. Today, Cubisima is a marketplace for Cubans to buy and sell a multitude of things.
In its earliest days, Amiley’s code was hand-carried from Havana to Switzerland, where it was uploaded to the server that resided in the home of Cubisima's investor, a Swiss man married to a Cuban who wanted to use technology to create something that would help Cubans. And how did the Cuban people get online to post their home and look for a new one? Well, wifi access even today is rare, unreliable and - at a cost of 3 CUC's an hour in public places - available only to the privileged few. So back in the early days, it was truly an arduous and complicated affair.
It was a momentous time to be in Cuba in the week leading up to the historic visit by a US President, to witness the sense of anticipation of the people, the busy preparations and beautification of parts of the city for the visit, the heightened security, and the eyes of the world upon this island. I flew out of Havana just hours before Obama arrived. As I followed the media coverage back home, I was struck by the way in which the story was being told. I realized that the oversimplified narratives that we create about countries, societies and people are often based upon our own world views, our fears, and judgments. I was reminded that the only way to begin to understand a country is to spend time with its people, to listen deeply to their stories, and to share in all of the complexity and contradictions of their lives.