It’s been some years since I took a “Reality Tour” to Cuba. And while I have many memories of that trip, there are some parts of Cuba I worried about then, cracks in the communist walls against capitalist media and marketing that I feared might undermine some of the virtues I found there.
Make no mistake, the Cuban embargo (Cubans still described it as a “blockade”) served the Castro agenda more than it served to punish, and as retribution for a 60 year old crime, it was wearing thin: only the US had held onto it. The Cuban government used it, however, to justify the sacrifices it had to make upon its citizens: No email, no automobiles, no busing for children, etc. Most everything was blamed on the US blockade, so Obama’s lifting of sanctions was long overdue. Otherwise, the only narrative its people would continue to receive was the self-described “Cuban Reality.”
Nevertheless, there were also points of difference for which I grew anxious, that I hoped might not hurt too much when at last that media crack opened into a gap and then a floodway gate.
One was the moment when our then-guide asked us about the television commercials. She had on occasion been compelled to stay in the tourist hotels when she ran trips for British or Canadian travelers, and she had seen an ad for a cream that removed wrinkles: “Tell, me, please, is it true?” We had to explain that it was not, but I was shaken by the idea that, to the Cubans, the concept that they might be sold an untruth was unknown to them. And I wondered then and now how we might prepare them for it–or if we wanted to.
Cubans have, for generations, received only the stories from the three stations (two radio and one television) run by the government. Their internet (where every neighborhood had a computer center) was actually a national intranet, their Wikipedia a creation of their own to affirm the Cuban reality. What would it mean, then, when they at last saw the dreaded “lies” about Cuba told by the United States? the endless stream of commercial lies told by marketers? the political narrative of democracy?
We’ve seen it before, of course. Voice of America has actively worked for generations to spread democratic idealism to the people inside repressive governments in an effort to create a modest or open people’s resistance against these tyrannies. Cuba clearly needs the same, for the stories it lives are both compelling and naive. But while I was there, I started to love its people for who they were, as well. And while they were excited for American tourism (and Cuban Convertibles currencies), while they loved hip-hop and the blackmarket movies they could find, against this Cuban narrative, American media seemed to affirm the Cuban Reality: we were a marketer of lies and deceptions. And they were both right in that and ironically wrong that their own government was innocent of it.
To de-center one’s narrative is a hard lesson for anyone. To discover that the stories we live (have lived, have passed on as traditions, as ideologies, as mythologies) are unromantically false undermines identity, undermines our sense of self–nationally, culturally, personally. Our personal mythologies (our “belief systems” as described in American politics) are under attack. In the US, however, we are so used to the counter-narratives alive on the internet, in our open debates, and through the critical thinking we teach in schools, we (most of us, anyway) are able to filter and sort, judge and reject, as we need to.
And while the Cuban education system (truly, according to measure of the UN) is one of the most reputable in the world, it also–as an agent of the state–instills the Cuban Reality narrative alone. All of the Cubans I met–from the official guides to the con artists on the street–seemed at so many levels happy. Our guide described it this way: “In my country, I have free education through college, I have a free home and medicine, and I may choose what job I wish. Your country wants to take this away from us. Why would we wish it?”
And she is not wrong. The US agenda is to move Cuba from communism to democracy, from embargoed markets to free ones, and the price of that means choices and privatizations and the possibilities (witness the displaced Central American workers from NAFTA and CAFTA transitions) of real instability. In Cuba, she demonstrated rather than explained, no one is poor because everyone is poor, a condition I have witnessed in so many developing countries. Happiness does not depend upon economics.
And it is this, as I move into my second trip to Cuba, that I need to see again. The lifting of the Cuban embargoes and the establishment of relations with the Cuban people is far from complete, but it is beginning. What happens as a socio-cultural-economic narrative becomes unglued? And can the Cuban people–I have no compassion for its government–remain happy?
I hope so.