I, with the pleasure of my family (2 brothers, a father, mother, and my best friend from New Zealand—who has since become an honorary member of the family), recently had the opportunity and pleasure to spend a week visiting Cuba. It was quite an enlightening experience, so much so, that I’ve decided to devote an entire post to Cuba’s history, my experience travelling, and a certain epiphany.
A Quick Overview and a Couple of Observations:
Our flight from Tampa, FL to Havana, Cuba took less than 1 hour. An immediate observation upon arrival was the sheer sluggishness and lack of haste exhibited by seemingly every single Cuban airport employee. We waited longer for our bags to be searched and released than our actual flight from Florida.
Surprisingly, over the course of our stay, I began to respect the slothful attitude that initially caused me irritation. I admired Cubans’ lack-of-haste approach to life compared to Americans’ perpetual motion. As I observed a society disconnected from mainstream media and rampant technology (yes, they still have Facebook but Cubans’ access to the web is severely limited compared to ours) I could appreciate their frequent interactions with family, friends, and neighbors. As we walked the streets at twilight, it was commonplace to see neighbors visiting, or friends meandering about the Malecón (a walkway and seawall stretching for 8 kilometers of Havana coastline). Cuba’s laid-back rhythm was beautiful to behold.
I found the city of Havana itself to be a master portrait of vivacious color and bustle. Old cars from the 1950’s dotted the dusty roads and contrasted with the brilliant horizon and light blue Atlantic sea. Clustered buildings and apartments rose in decaying grandiose and reminded me of antique Spanish architecture.
But far more fascinating to me besides the mere architecture and old cars, was the 11+ million inhabitants of the small Communist island and their remarkable 20th century history.
I’m no historian, but Cuban history is somewhat paramount to understanding my upcoming observations and final conclusion. If you’d care to skip past this history lesson (please don’t, it’s actually quite interesting… but whatever), scroll down until directed.
Here is Cuba’s history in a nutshell. Very, very condensed:
*Disclaimer: I have done my absolute best to verify all information for accuracy. However, I have been known to make the occasional mistake (shocking, I know). I apologize in advance for any historical infractions.
*Nutshell history begins*
We’re going to start with a guy called Fulgencio Batista. This fellow initially rose to power after his involvement in the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants which overthrew the current authoritarian ruler Gerardo Machado. Following the revolt, Batista pretty much set himself in charge of basically everything and controlled a string of the next five presidents through his puppeteer government.
In 1940, he was elected president himself (my guess is he imagined actually being president was probably more enamoring than simply controlling other presidents). He served until 1944, then lived in Florida for a few years before growing tired of the alligators (that’s speculation on my part) and returning to Cuba to run for president again in 1952. His countrymen were less than thrilled about being deserted by their leader who ran away to chill with the gators, so Batista faced almost certain electoral defeat. But no worries, a military coup preempted the election and Batista found himself (surprise, surprise) back in power.
Pretty much in simplified history, Batista worked to make Cuba a flourishing country, mostly by exploiting Cuba’s sugar productions. He allowed US companies to dominate the Cuban market (at one point foreigners owned up to 70% of farm-able land) while simultaneously establishing strict censorship of media and repressing the people. Corruption in government and foreign affairs created a chasm between the rich and the poor.
Bautista should have heeded the warning signs and studied history… (yeah, this thing sorta happened several times in the past: think French Revolution, Bolsheviks Revolts in Russia, etc.) but he didn’t. It wasn’t long before student revolutionaries were revolting in attempts to overthrow the government of Bautista. Among these revolutionaries was a promising young man: Fidel Castro.
*Note: Since I’m trying my hardest to stick to nutshell history, I’m not going to elaborate much on Castro’s early life or political and law career. You can check that out here. We’ll just start in July of 1953 when the Cuban Revolution began. The rebels finally gained control and ousted Batista on January 1, 1959 (talk about accomplishing New Years’ Resolutions like a boss).
In very simplified history: following the success of the revolution—and due to the influence of prominent revolutionaries—Cuba became a communist nation. The people adored their new leaders (Fidel, his brother Raul, and a super epic looking totally legit guerilla dude named Che who was not even originally Cuban but Argentinian, but who cares, he looked cool), and Castro declared himself Prime Minister from 1959-1976. Apparently that title didn’t have enough of a “ring” to it, so he opted to become President and governed as POC (president of Cuba) from 1976-2008.
After declaring itself communist, Cuba pretty much received a “no-can-do” from the U.S. Communism wasn’t exactly smiled on at the time, especially not following the “Red Scare” or in the midst of America’s Cold War with Russia. Not very many countries “win” when opposing the United States, but Cuba actually did a surprisingly good job at it. There are rumors of many alleged CIA attempts to assassinate Castro which failed miserably. The U.S. responded to defeat in typical U.S. fashion—by simply asserting its dominance and declaring an embargo on Cuban exports. But no worries, Communist Russia stepped up and supported the budding dictator and his country’s motto which probably was something along the lines of: “Make Cuba Great Again by Making the Great a Bit Less Great and the Less Great a Bit Greater.”
Wow, okay. So my nutshell history is sporadic and incomplete at best. Cuban history is actually super interesting, so I strongly encourage you to conduct greater research on your own.
*Take a breath: Nutshell history complete*
Okay you lame history haters—you’re welcome to join us again here:
Most Americans (and most people, actually) are generally only taught a single side of history. It’s easy to become focused on a specific event or decision or ideology while disregarding either opposing opinions or people, or neglecting to study related situations. Many are taught that there is a single summary sentence for an idea that should be infinitely complex. For example: communism is bad and never works. Hmm…
Upon entering Cuba and visiting a couple of museums and talking to locals, I noted how very anti-American everyone seemed to be. Famous Cuban revolution landmarks even proudly displayed pieces of American planes that were shot from the sky. Citizens seemed to believe that the majority of Cuba’s poverty was directly related to Americans. In respect to this belief, they certainly have a point. No one can guess where Cuba might be today, economically speaking, if the United States hadn’t intervened and placed an embargo on its exports. Who’s to say that America even had a right to do so? But that’s another discussion for another post.
Everything negative I’d heard about communism was glorified in Cuba. Even though the people were making a mere $20-25 dollars a month, they seemed happy. They had practically free education, food rations, and health care. There were virtually no homeless people, and everyone could get a job. So what was the problem? Was there even a problem?
As I began to reconsider my strictly anti-communist philosophy, my family met a man named Mykael. Mykael told a tragic story of governmental suppression. In America, he would be referred to as an activist, but in Cuba he was labeled a criminal. As we spoke, Mykael pulled a tattered and worn piece of documentation from his wallet. It was his release form from a government prison where he had been sentenced (without a trail, by the way) to serve time for writing anti-communist music. Because of his notoriety in Cuba as well as in the U.S. (he has family in Miami, FL), he was released after a single year in prison. Many of his compatriots are not so fortunate and may spend many years, or the rest of their lives, rotting in Cuban prisons.
Meeting Mykael reminded me that there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, many people adored Castro and his communist reign. Contrarily, others were mistreated, abused, and neglected in federal prisons for daring to share their opinions.
I left Cuba with a new appreciation for the flip-side (along with an appreciation for all the privileges I experience in America—simply the ability to write uncensored internet content is a pleasure so many take for granted). If you are like most people, you look at life as either/or. Heads or tails. Right or wrong. Black or white.
Few people dare lift the coin to see what might be on the other side of “heads.” Americans are taught that Communism is all bad. But is it? Have we dared to flip the coin and analyze counterpoints?
And it’s not just Americans who are predisposed to believe only in one way. Cubans are taught that Americans are all bad. A prime example was a conversation my family had with our taxi driver, Allen. As we drove through the countryside to visit a few of Cuba’s attractions, my little brother pulled out a few American crackers and snacks and passed them around the car. We offered Allen a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers which he accepted. He opened the package and tasted the snack.
“Hay algo bueno en cada malo,” he mused.
*Translated: There is some good in every bad.
Allen had been taught that Americans were bad, yet as he tasted that simple cracker he picked up the coin and noticed a glimpse of something different. Now, I’m not saying that American peanut-butter crackers are the epitome of goodness, but I do find it curious to see how an individual negative preconceived idea can be challenged by such a simple experience.
Life is a coin and perspective is two-sided. It’s both heads and tails. Right and wrong. Black and white. It’s painful to hear the majority of the world speak without the consideration of the “other side.” I feel the vast population lives misinformed lives—we are apathetic towards understanding. Whenever I question whether there’s hope for humanity, I think of people like Mykael and Allen—strong individuals who have dared to flip the coin and consider another perspective. Truth comes from consideration, not indoctrination.
Next time you’re tempted to cling to a notion without considering the flip-side, remember that there are two sides to every story. There are two sides to communism. There are two sides to every decision you will ever make. There are two sides to the coin. There is some good in every bad, and vice versa.
So flip the coin and remember: Today will be AMAZING!
Photo credit goes to my awesome mother: Kathi Jensen. Not only is she an amazing photographer, but she pretty much rocks at everything else too. Plus, she did happen to raise a pretty cool daughter. Not that I’m biased or anything… You can check out her Facebook page here.