The Cuba Files: Fact, Fiction, and Politics


December 27th, Baggage Claim of the Havana Airport, Cuba:

Ric and I wait for my bag at an unlabeled carousel. It’s been at least thirty minutes since the plane landed, and announcements over the tinny speakers have been unhelpful at best. It’s not until I notice the Spirit-yellow “transfer” slip sandwiched between a bag and the carousel’s metal slat that we know we’re waiting in the right place. About ten minutes later, after the baggage handlers have presumably had 1-2 smoke breaks while completing the ~100 yard transfer from plane to baggage claim, my backpack finally arrives. Between the standard Spirit Airlines delay of 20m and this wait, it’s now over an hour after we are scheduled to land in Havana.

And yet, as soon as we walk out of the baggage claim area and into the swarm of friends and family, he is still waiting: José Ramón, the host of our AirBnb, he with whom I spoke relatively broken Spanish over the reservation’s built-in chat window, standing alongside his wife and with a sign reading “CHRISTIAN KEIL.” I’m very surprised that he showed up at all. We never confirmed that he would be there, nor a price for a trip; in the moment, we considered it a grand gesture of Cuban culture and hospitality that the host of our $37/night AirBnb would include transportation (and waiting for an hour to pick up us) gratis. Our host drove us in his late-50s Ford to the property in Havana’s northwest “Vedado” region, and our trip was off to an incredibly smooth start.

Two days later, we came back from a day of exploring Havana to a note from José Ramón: we should call him to confirm our check-out procedures, oh, and if we could leave the $25 for the cab ride from the airport, that would be perfect. That is Cuba, as I saw it. José Ramón was, overall, an incredibly gracious host. And the country was, overall, relatively tourist-friendly. But the whole country is just so wildly impoverished that there really isn’t another story to tell.

When my friends, family, and coworkers ask me how Cuba was, the first adjective I use is “dirty.” It’s a culturally and historically rich country, and Havana is a colorful city. But it hasn’t been renovated (or kept up, in any sense of the world) since the 1960s – and what must have once been an amazing place is now descending into ruin. From what I saw, most Cubans throw their garbage directly onto the street. The buildings were once painted to be vibrant and uniquely colorful, but now, they all look like they haven’t been repainted in 40 years, and they’re falling apart hand-in-hand with the potholed roads and uneven sidewalks they face.

When you think of Cuba, you think of the cars. The story is well known: because embargo’d, Cubans haven’t been able to import American-made cars since the 1960s. In theory, this is glamorous – a rare glimpse into a forgotten age – a common perception aided by every tourist who returns with a picture that looks like this:

But in reality, the cars are a bummer. They’re gas-guzzlers, of course, and leave huge clouds of black smog behind wherever they go. They’re ever-present – the average traffic jam might be 60% old American cars, 30% newer imports from overseas, and 10% motorbikes or small electrics – which wears out the novelty quickly, and any tourist will quickly come to recognize another sad fact: that nearly all of these beautiful vehicles are cabs. Meaning that yes, they are culturally iconic, but in the same way that Chicago’s “bean” is iconic – they’re both things to see when you visit, but hardly things that the locals enjoy or spend time with.

Come to think of it, nearly all of the vehicles we saw in Cuba – American or not – were cabs. And for good reason: they pay incredibly well, compared to about every other industry we saw. An average cab ride in Havana, irrespective of distance as all rides cost the same, will put you back five CUC (or, Convertible Pesos, the only currency that tourists are permitted to use in Cuba’s split economy). If you’re a cab driver that does a very modest eight rides a day, then, you’ll pocket 40 CUC – or 1000 “real” Cuban Pesos (CUP). (For tourists, one CUC is often said to have the buying power of 24 CUP; you’ll find, however, that many historical monuments will list the same price in CUC and CUP, making it explicitly 24x more expensive for a tourist to enter.) $40/day doesn’t sound like a lot – that translates to a yearly salary of $14,600 – but it is far, far more than any worker would dream of making in any nationalized industry. Doctors, for instance, make $40 CUC each month. That’s why cab drivers are everywhere in downtown Havana. The cars are cool. But, like most else in Cuba, they represent but a thin veil of culture over the obvious reality of an oppressive government.

The Cuban countryside is absolutely gorgeous. Just a few hours outside Havana is Viñales, a valley known for its cigars, casas particulares, and stunning views:

The view above speaks for itself. Casas particulares, “individual houses,” are bed-and-breakfast joints run by individual families. They’re an extremely easy way to live as Cubans truly live and have breakfast with your host family. They’re usually named after the man and woman of the house; a normal casa will have a sign out front that read “Rodrigo and Daniella’s House.”

The cigars hardly beggar description – they’re known as the best in the world – but, as with the cabs, they evince the stifling grip of the government. In Cuba, government-owned cigar manufacturers have to give 90% of their completed products to the government, and all the brands that you know are government-owned. Cohiba, Montecarlo, Romeo y Julieta, and Partagas. All of the Cubans that you’ve bought likely directly benefit the government; you’ve also probably never had a top-tier Cuban cigar – the farmer that met said that he always saves the best 10% of his crop for his own sale, intelligently giving the lower 90% to the government for international and domestic sale.

It’s hard not to think about that reality – of the government’s everpresence – no matter where you go in Cuba. Even outside the city, away from the smog and the cabs and the filth, the government watches over, demanding obeisance from the very population they originally saved from dictatorial control.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip for me was the Museum of the Revolution. The palace-turned-museum faces the Plaza 13 de Marzo, one of many public places named for dates of national significance.

They’re hard to keep straight because there are so many of them, but a few are more important than others:

10th of October: Cuba begins its Ten Years’ War, eventually winning independence from Spain
26th of July: College-student Fidel Castro leads an attack on dictator Fulgencia Batista’s Moncada Barracks; he loses, many of his troops are killed either in the battle or in prison following the attack; Castro and his revolutionaries are released from prison within two years and go on to orchestrate the grand revolution after demonstrating its potential on July 26th, 1953
1st of January: Castro’s revolution succeeds, and Batista’s government is replaced by the new regime

(Note: March 13th wasn’t ever mentioned in a museum, but looking it up now, it’s strange: it appears to be a date on which the Cuban government “massacred” 41 Cubans trying to leave the island for America. Very peculiar that Cuba would enshrine that date, and even more perplexing that they’d choose that name for the plaza outside a revolutionary museum.)

These dates – and the stories behind the latter two – were told in great detail in the Revolutionary Museum. The museum of course paints an unflinchingly positive view of the Revolution, and from what I can corroborate online, almost all of what I read was true. Batista was a legitimate dictator; Castro had the explicit backing of President JFK at the time of the revolution; the U.S. Government began an initial arms embargo against Batista that significantly weakened his forces and allowed Castro’s army to guerilla their way to victory; Castro still hated the U.S., as the mafia (!!) and many prominent businessmen with interests in Cuba aided Batista to protect their business interests from Communist control.

Far more interesting than those stories, however, were those told by the Revolutionary Museum of the period immediately after the Revolution. So, the period of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the subsequent U.S. administrations.

No use in beating around the bush: the Cuban government still appears to be in all-out propaganda mode in their handling of that chunk of history. It’s not that what they are saying is false, necessarily: just that they only present a very limited set of facts, and many are slightly exaggerated. That, and they despise American leaders, particularly Republicans.

The examples are many and variegated but two stand out.

First, their sign for Operation Peter Pan reads: ‘Operation Peter Pan,’ managed by the CIA in late 1960, was part of a campaign of defamation designed to convince parents that Informe de la Comision de Ayuda a una Cuba Libre adoption.

Operation Peter Pan did happen, but is no evidence of CIA involvement (as confirmed by a FOIA suit that obtained government documentation of the program). Amazingly, the U.S. did take in 14,000 unaccompanied minors from Cuba, but many were sent by their parents wilfully out of concern that their children would be conscripted into Soviet labor camps. The program was sponsored by a director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau – and there is no evidence that children were ever placed in “reformatories,” of course, there were even laws in place to explicitly prevent those children from being housed in reform schools or juvi. (Crazy fact: One of the children that came from Cuba in the program is the stepfather of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com.)

There is a worldview in which that description of Operation Peter Pan isn’t entirely false. Cuba tends to think of the entire U.S. government (and perhaps populace) as the CIA, for good reason. And perhaps even normal schools could be considered Capitalist Reformatories to the sufficiently deluded. The second standout example, however, is pure propaganda.

At the very entrance of the museum, where one would normally have a wall for donors, hang four ~7 foot tall cutouts of famous world leaders. I didn’t recognize the first – perhaps in large part because I was mesmerized by the other three. In order stand Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, each drawn in horrific caricature and with their own plaque that reads: “Thank you cretin for helped us [sic] (TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION / TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION / TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE).” George W. has the worst treatment of all. He is drawn as an elf, with massive ears and taloned fingers holding a book upside down titled “Informe de la Comision de Ayuda a una Cuba Libre” (the name of Bush’s plan for Cuban foreign policy). He also wears high-watered pants, and a hat with a prominent swastika.

It’s not overly subtle, that wall. Nor, really, that country.

Cuba, in an adjective, is interesting. It’s a country of contradictions: by most measures its people aren’t well-off, but from what I saw they’re a generally happy and contented folk; they are nominally communist, but are undeniably dependent on capitalist tourists to keep the lights on; they have relatively few health problems (read: obesity), despite relying on a fare of cheeseburgers, pizza, and ice cream. As tourists, we enjoyed ourselves. We met plenty of interesting compatriots and locals, lamented the lack of accessible WiFi, and wished that our few delicious meals (at La Guarida, Bodeguita del Medio, El Cocinero, and especially las Esquinitas del Ocho) didn’t cost more than the average government worker makes in a month of work. The museums were information-rich despite the typos on nearly every sign, and it was legitimately eye-opening to see overt propaganda alive and well in 2017.

If anything, that will be my lasting impression of Cuba: that a government does indeed have the power to control the public narrative. Cuba did so through nationalization of the media, populist appeals, and a charismatic leader that stirred up nationalistic, anti-globalist sentiment in the public while making friends with Russia behind closed doors.

Luckily, such a thing could never happen in America.

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