Hours after arriving in the United States and I am wrestling with questions that have dominated my weekend and been drawn more acute by it. They are questions about not merely the gulfs of politics and ideology, but those of language. And not just about differing economies, but the intersections between mythological narratives and very literal hungers.
Scene. After being told that donations of various goods for the Cubans would be welcomed (make-up for dancers, perhaps, or art supplies for children), one of group good-heartedly gifts some supplies to a dance company. He is told by the performer that such things are not needed by her group, that no one in Havana needs such things, but that the people in the rural communities are desperately poor. A brief hour later, our Cuban guide explains that “No one is poor in Cuba” because all have what they need.
Scene. We learn that there remains real anxiety over Batista sympathizers and that it is not right for the US to interfere with Cuban policies. Yet what the Cuban people hope for most from the normalization of relations with the US are “better economics” according to one, “opportunities” for another. The virtues of the Cuban people include their ability to make choices for what they need (cooking oil, toothpaste, clothing, for instance) over luxuries (chocolate, an automobile, electronics). Yet at the airport on the baggage claim conveyors at our arrival were nearly as many flat screen televisions as suitcases.
Scene. Eighty American teachers cruise down the evening road, horns blaring, in a parade of 1950s era convertibles to have a rich dinner at Club Habana on the beach (one teacher will even lament that the six-course meal with drinks was only adequate); and we drive by crowds of Cubans on foot who look upon us with a collection of expressions from curiosity to dullness and from tentative waves to indifference. Such a life is not for them. Our young driver, however, has already made the equivalent of $40,000 in the past 18 months using this car for such trips.
At the airport at our departure, one teacher remarks that he is having a hard time capturing how he will describe this trip, but that the only way he can signify the experience of Cuba is to echo a word used by our guides. It is “complicated.”
It is a word used to explain why a guarantee of a home in Cuba is not the same as saying that the resident has any choice in domicile, a word used to describe the reasons why a Cuban is “free to visit other countries” but rarely does, and it is a word I heard used to describe why the stray dogs all seem ill and defecate across the historic city streets.
As Americans on this trip, I was part of a crowd which did not so much meet Cuba as ride across the top of it using the “national treasure” of its own automobiles. And now that, at last, we have slowly begun to open the gates to normalized relations, what responsibility do I have to the future of these people?
Is the good-intentioned gifting of small items to these proudly-nationalistic people not met at least partly as a condescending (or at least ignorant) insult from a rich American who will unblinkingly spend as much on a few cigars an hour later? or upon a few mojitos served us by those Cubans? Does this question change when we learn that current supplies of simple toothpaste are outrageously short?
Cuba learned a great deal about sacrifice during its self-described “Special Period,” the 1990s time when Soviet support ended abruptly and Russia explained that they could no longer hold the economy upright. The Castro government re-doubled its rhetoric to blame the US “blockade” for buildings which had not been repaired since 1959 or farmers who could not afford a tractor and who still plow using ox and yoke.
And the same narrative that was fed to us (Communist dictators, oppressive regimes, illegal immigrants, Soviet or Chinese or Venezuelan puppets) was fed to them (opportunistic oppressors, amoral and greedy capitalists, cultural colonizers, puppeteer of Caribbean tourism and global markets). And somewhere between and beneath these crossing narratives are people meeting each other, American and Cuban. It’s . . . complicated.
The good news? The Cubans smile and greet us, embracing and dancing with us, singing (but rarely dining) with us, for the most part heartened and hopeful that the influx of Americans will end the virtuous sacrifices and choices they must make. But they do this while fiercely and rightly prideful of their culture, anxious about how powerful our social and political interference must surely be, and well-practiced in the ideological code words euphemizing their experience: “blockade,” “difficulties,” “discipline,” “choices,” “complicated.”
The good news? The American teachers smile and laugh with them, embrace and learn to dance (though never as nimbly as Cubans), anxiously crane to understand the Cuban Reality, claim desire and (more or less) preparation to assist. But we do this in the name of the Master Narrative of Democracy and The Happiness of Things, for the most part accepting the Cuban language for its surface meaning. In the meantime we buy cigars, rum, and coffee for ourselves, sincere enough while we are there, complaining that the authentic Cubano sandwich is, after all, “not very good.” Between the musical performances for us, we share some anxieties briefly that the issues are “complicated.”
Complication is too often invulnerable to brief reflection, impervious to examination without a certain level of endurance, perseverance, grit. Complication doesn’t make itself transparent or intimate, approachable or even wholly friendly. Complication is a surface acquaintance, assuring us that–in the best interests of our relationship or of time, which may amount to the same thing–we need not bother overmuch with more than the friendly hug of a weekend together, the passing of a Ziplock bag of crayons.
None of this is meant to blame the Cubans or the Americans, all good-hearted people caught in troubling narratives of history and isolationism. But Jo, my guide for the weekend, is already off preparing for her next group of tourists bringing cash into this country. The hotel store shelves are being restocked, someone in Havana is looking to buy a simple extension cord or drain cleaner which is simply not available, and I will return in a few hours to teaching literature in a suburban Michigan town. Jo said it this way. “The Cuban people will be here, no matter what the future is. We are a strong people.”
And if my responsibility to this relationship is complete, than I am un-reflective in the face of “complicated.” If I only show the photos of my visit and boast of rides in convertibles and amazing music, I have been unjust to Cuba and its future.
The questions are hardly simple, but I will attempt to unpack a few of them in successive entries.