I look around and see old houses. Light shades of blues, green, and yellows are all stacked next to each other as if the color of the other only helped to show its uniqueness. My North American gaze drifts from distinctive archways to Caribbean palms, adding to this urban scene. A flash of color and a gust of wind awake me from a culture-induced stupor as a baby blue, 1950s Ford taxi zips through the street, temporarily disrupting the street music coming from around the corner. All this to say, “Bienvenido a La Habana, Cuba.”
While stepping off the plane a short drive from Havana, I know immediately that I’ve entered into another world. The first cubano I meet is a young man approximately my age, dressed in a military uniform, and working the customs section of the airport. I’m prepared for harsh drilling on the purpose of our trip and have my official university letter of educational purpose on hand to combat any opposition. What I am not prepared for is the warm smile and excitement of this officer after seeing my U.S. passport—the most pleasant customs officer I’ve ever met.
The warm welcome into a politically and culturally restricted country catches me by surprise, and the car ride to our hostel only elevates the contradicting thoughts racing through my head. As we leave the airport I notice a billboard denouncing my country, claiming it’s responsible for the biggest genocide in history, it depicts the island of Cuba with a noose around it.
After settling into our hostel, we walk to the Malecón, a sidewalk where one can feel the ocean spray when waves crash against a large concrete barrage. The Cuban experience then grows into an adventure as my friend Andrew and I are approached by a 23-year-old named Fernando. Telling us how excited he was to meet Americans, he leads us through Havana on what could have easily been a professional tour. Untrustingly, we follow.
When we return to the Malecón, finally accepting our guide as trustworthy, our interests are sparked by the way he boisterously speaks of his country, explaining how Cuba has two monetary systems: el peso cubano, used by the citizens of Cuba, and the convertible peso, used by tourists. He says that the government uses the convertible peso as a way to further the tourism industry, which is largely government owned, separating the people from economic growth. Worried by stories I’ve heard about the lack of freedom of speech in Cuba, I cautiously approach the topic of politics. I am the only one afraid of the subject, however, and our new friend burst out into a political testimony in high-speed Spanish of the lack of la democracia and the failure of el socialismo in Cuba. Three hours later, Andrew and I bid farewell to a friend who was previously a stranger, baffled at our first day in Cuba.
Throughout the week, many Cubans speak fearlessly about politics and their government, but strangely I only hear one person speak well of socialism, and even she claims that the current economic system is not functioning well, pointing to the very clear poverty that one can see alongside beautiful people and a beautiful culture.
Cuba, however, is not all politics. I’m relieved to find small groups of friends singing and playing instruments in the middle of the street, enjoying the company of others freely and rambunctiously. I’m reminded over and over again by strangers and friends that the Cuban people are not our enemies. I’m asked on numerous occasions to forward this to my countrymen: The Cuban people are not at war with the American people, no matter what governments might tell you.
We enjoy a variety of events during the trip, such as listening to one of Raúl Castro’s economists, attending a play about Havana, watching a Cuban baseball game, and visiting old Havana and the U.S. Interest Section (the functional equivalent of an embassy) all while flying by the seat of our pants as our bus driver, Miguel, blasts the Christian rap song “"Pao pao pao".
Unfortunately, halfway through our visit I find myself bed-ridden and without vision, overtaken by a sickness that lasts the remaining three weeks of our spring semester (part of the reason this blog post is so late). My sick conditions don’t matter to the hostels amazing kitchen staff and a group of Cubans in their twenties take the time to hang out with us and share about their lives. This exchange of cultura only enriches my sliver of time in Cuba and shatters political boarders of fear and manipulation.
Feeling the warm Caribbean breeze on my face, I stare out into the sea at the line where the sky kisses the waves. If I follow that horizon my nation is a mere 90 miles away. It seems strange to be in a neighboring country (and the closest I would be to the U.S. for another six months), but to have arrived in fear. This fear was not based in personal experience, but rather passed down to me by society from a Cold War mentality. These misconceptions painted Cuba as an old bearded man with nuclear tendencies rather than the students, the musicians, and the poets who shape a land I have been trained to ignore when looking at a map of the Americas. But the truth is that no matter how much we’ve been trained to ignore this island and no matter how much los cubanos read anti-U.S. propaganda and no matter how much fear there is in our shared history, our neighbor to the south must be neither ignored nor feared if we are to learn from the past and continue in a future of reconciliation. I saw this fear shattered by Cuban love and international friendship. Although only a taste of something bigger I dream of, it was as sweet as agua de coco, as strong as la poesía of José Martí, and as true as the warm Caribbean breeze.
-Austin Vander Wel