When President Obama loosened travel restrictions to allow average U.S. citizens more access to Cuba, he also created a zoo. Like caged animals, Cubans have been on display to a new swath of Americans.
Cubans have regarded these new visitors from behind the same rusting bars of communism for more than two years now. Initial hope for a deeper and more meaningful engagement has given way to a feeling that Americans will never understand the hardships of today’s “real Cuba,” as one patron of a government-run store in Havana recently told me.
Cubans know the script that American tourists follow very well:
First night, descend on Old Havana for performances of Buena Vista Social Club music. Sip watery mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio or have daiquiris at La Floridita. Both are famous Ernest Hemingway watering holes.
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The next day, take pictures of hulking 1950s Buicks and Chevys. Maybe visit the Museum of the Revolution or, more likely, Hemingway’s room at Hotel Ambos Mundos. Evenings, dine on tender beef in private restaurants off limits to Cubans. Be serenaded (but fail to tip) scrappy Cubans summoning their last drops of emotional energy to belt out one more “Guantanamera” on ragged instruments that escape the tourists’ gaze.
On the last day, cram that suitcase with rum and cigars, a sign to friends in Ohio that Cuba libre has been enjoyed in the flesh.
Then, check the box: Been there, done that. Thank you very much.
The endless parade is a form of pillage of a culture that has seen its fair share of abandonment over the centuries. Sadly, the typical agenda will not bring Americans into contact with the hungry mother who skips meals or takes a second job at a bakery just to collect crumbs for her family.
Or the grandmother in the same apartment who sweetly begs for your reading glasses (like gold in Cuba) on your last day because she hasn’t been able to enjoy a book in years.
The one beauty of President Trump’s recent ban on U.S. citizens staying in state-run hotels (because money spent there goes directly to the Cuban military, which owns the hotels) is that it forces many U.S. tourists to stay in people’s homes via Airbnb or to find other arrangements. But one may have a hard time getting to the bottom of any family’s tragedies, in part because Cubans put on a bright face, trying hard to stress any silver lining.
The smile is fading, however, as my most recent experience at Havana’s José Martí Airport highlighted. Less than 24 hours after an overloaded and aging Cubana Aviacion airliner crashed after takeoff, killing 110 people aboard last week, my wife and I were in line at the only café serving the once world-class Terminal 3, where I was gruffly and uncharacteristically refused a beer.
The café wasn’t out of the national beer — I could see two dozen cans of Cristal in the refrigerator behind the cashier. I asked in my native, Cuban-accented Spanish, “Why not? It’s my last taste of Cuba before boarding the plane.” I was told that beer sales had been suspended that day out of respect for the dead and the tragedy that had befallen Cuba’s national airline. This was not a time for libation. And, with a disapproving frown, the cashier waved me off.
Despite several visits over the years, I had never seen this flash of attitude. Over in the shadows of the restrooms, there was no running water. Toilets overflowed, and tourists protested to some of the attendants who usually accepted loose change in exchange for entry. “How can an international airport not have running water?” one passenger cried out. The attendant, surprisingly, yelled at her, in Spanish, “Can’t you see we don’t have good pipes and other basic things?”
It was a message to everyone in earshot: Cuba needs help, and you cannot leave here without realizing that! In plaintive Spanish, however, it sounded like the plea of an ignored child.
So be wary of friends and acquaintances who say they have had a “great time” in Havana. It’s a sure sign that they missed what is staring them in the face: the abject poverty that most Cubans have endured with a smile is worsening.
The caged people of a desperate nation seem to be crying out for salvation. Not in the theological sense, but materially. And the shrill sound of any cornered life must be heard.
Alex Lyda is a Cuban-American freelance writer who frequently travels to Cuba.