Politics and Prose

When I was a Junior in high school, I had Mrs. O’Neill for Government. As I remember it, my friend Bump Stevens and I spent most of our time talking in the back of the room and asking nonsensical questions like “so when does Gideon get his trumpet back?” I think I mostly daydreamed through the segment on communism vs democracy, a regrettable choice now.

As we toured Havana a few weeks back, I wished I’d paid more attention in class. But even so, it was easy to notice significant differences in Cuba, ranging from the subtle to the obvious. Two such differences are the absence of product advertisements and the abundance of political billboards.

We were barely outside of the Havana airport terminal when we got our first taste, with a giant billboard that said “Bloqueo: el genocidio mas largo de la historia.” Translated, that means “Blockade: the largest genocide in history” (in Cuba, the US embargo is commonly referred to as the “blockade”). There are two very different sides to the embargo, of course, but that’s not something that gets discussed down here.

As for our visit, I’m guessing that the influx of tourism is a little overwhelming for the locals, as if you were on a hunger strike and then went for all-you-can-eat pizza. And yet increased tourism seems to have fueled a new optimism, resulting in sayings like “Cubans don’t want bread; they want the bakery.”

In addition to touring much of the city, our visit included bookend visits to the residence of the US Ambassador and to the Museo de la Revolucion. Visiting these two places back to back is perhaps the political equivalent of jumping out of a hot tub and rolling in snow.

At the Ambassador’s residence, we were lucky enough to have an audience with US Ambassador DeLaurentis, and then we spent the next morning in the Museo, which was the Presidential Palace under Batista through 1959. For reasons too numerous to list, those visits were an absolutely remarkable contrast.

 Of course, the Cuban people are not the government, and the locals that we encountered were generally helpful and even gregarious. Some (but not all) benefited economically from our visit, but many were just curious and friendly. As I reflect on our trip, those are the folks that I tend to think about.

With my limited Spanish and with just a few days on the ground, I can’t begin to claim that I understand all that is going on in Cuba. However, some things were just hard to miss, like how the building optimism in Cuba is tempered by the government. And still another paradox is that the country seems deeply afraid of the consequences of taking foreign investment, even as it needs an influx of cash that can really only come from offshore.

Wow, I’m learning that this government stuff is complicated. Mrs. O’Neill, if you are reading this, can I re-take my final?

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