Featured Writer: Leeja Miller
Cuba is a country situated a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Yet, for half a century, this island nation has remained a mystery to most US citizens, a blacked-out, censored place whose presence has cast a shadow over our history since the Spanish-American war in 1898 but whose current reality we know very little about.
As a US citizen, as a student, walking the streets of Havana, speaking with people who live every day in the reality that is ‘Fidel’s Great Socialist Experiment’, I was able to permeate the void of knowledge and understanding that currently exists between ‘us’ and ‘them’, if only enough to see a human side to the conflict. Reading textbooks and listening to speeches in history class, it is easy to distance one’s self from the fact that people live every day on this island, that it continues to exist in today’s globalized reality, and that, politics aside, it’s just a land mass populated by humans with the same hopes, dreams, and emotions as all of us.
Havana is a city built for one million inhabitants but populated by two million. On top of that, the Cuban government simply does not have the funds to maintain the city’s aging infrastructure. This has caused severe overcrowding and the slow yet ever-present deterioration of buildings and monuments. A friend I was with during my visit to Cuba in March of 2012, who has spent much time traveling around Brazil, said that Havana looks like Sao Paulo after the apocalypse, and it’s not hard to see why.
Despite this and other economic set-backs that have plagued the island throughout its history, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Havana continues to be a thriving and colorful metropolis. Because of Cuba’s general isolation from many of the world’s most developed countries and companies, many old buildings continue to dominate the cityscape, dating anywhere from Havana’s original colonization to the bustling boom years of the 1950s when Cuba was playground to the rich and famous in the States, from wealthy mobsters to Ernest Hemingway.
We stayed at the Plaza Hotel at the center of Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful old hotel had the feel of a 1950s mobster retreat, complete with a central saloon with a solid wood bar and baby grand piano. We spent much time wandering the streets of Old Havana, especially Obispo street. A popular tourist attraction, Obispo street is lined with quaint book shops, galleries, and restaurants. El Floridita is a historic bar and restaurant and was a favorite hang out for Ernest Hemingway. I spent many a night a few blocks away at Hotel Florida where you can find a live band and salsa dancing almost every night of the week. And a few blocks off Obispo, there is a tiny shop called Museo de Chocolate where you can buy delicious chocolate figurines as well as the most devilishly sweet hot chocolate in all of Havana. Walking up the Paseo de Prado towards the ocean you’ll find the Malecon, a wide sidewalk along the ocean that is a popular gathering place for many of Havana’s colorful residents.
The people of Havana are very visible, whether they’re hanging laundry from their balconies, casually chatting with neighbors and passersby, or walking and biking from place to place. Cubans, from my experience, are extremely social, and the atmosphere, despite such a large city, is calm and relaxed. No one is in a hurry and I didn’t have a negative encounter with anyone. Also, despite what you might think, whenever I told people I was from the United States I always got a positive reaction. Either the person I was talking to had a relative in States, wanted to visit the States, or was extremely interested to talk to someone from the States, ask them their opinions on Cuba, and tell them stories about their own lives, their triumphs and struggles under a government so different from my own. Every story left me with a different view of Cuba, what it means to be a Cuban citizen, and how Cubans feel about their own history and government. I honestly left the island with more questions than I had when I arrived.
The only thing I could say for certain as I left that city in late March, my bus zooming down the Malecon past hordes of mint condition classic cars, was that Cuba is a fascinating place, a country not defined solely by its history, but by its people and culture that continue to thrive despite all odds.