On the Road: A Pearl in the Caribbean

Jun 9, 2014


Credit Skippy Mesirow

Havana, what a fantastic city Gatito thinks. It’s big, spread out, home to several million. Old Havana hugs the coastline with its long ocean-front boulevard, soaring buildings forming the skyline. The city is filled with color, buildings awash in every hue, stained glass projects colored light onto the streets, massive 1950’s taxis are painted in bright ostentatious tones, their massive chromed bumpers and flanks reflect light like a kaleidoscope as they drive, local Cuban men wear fluorescent pink and green skinny jeans and pastel deep-v t-shirts, women are adorned in flower and geometric print leggings or colorful short-shots and lacy tops. It’s a cornucopia of vibrancy and movement. Everyone is in sunglasses and jewelry. Everyone smiles, she sees so much energy, everyone is playing, vivacious, its feels like a Jr. high dance, nervous tension, butterflies in the stomach, exuberant embraces, absolutely giddy with excitement. Everywhere Gatito wanders people stop her, shake her hand, pick her up so she can see above the crowed and ask all about her life, genuinely interested in whom she is and where she has come from. When they discover she’s American a glint in their eyes is inevitable and questions abound. They love America; they want to travel there, to see their relatives, to learn about the monopoly to their north that has so affected their lives yet they know so little about.

For Gatito, it becomes instantly clear that Cuba is like no other communist country she has ever been to. This is not the drab, debilitating and repressive communism of The Soviet Union or North Korea, not the capitalist-in-all-but-name Vietnam and China, nor the state directed slow-growth development of war-torn and thoroughly third-world Laos. Buildings are not a tall, grey, repetitive affair. Rather, the streets are lined with decadent, detail laden and intricate Spanish colonial structures. Long iron balconies line second floors creating a New Orleans like effect, women clean clothes and water plants, yelling down to those below. The structures soar eight, ten, even twenty stories, each unique and intricate, reflecting the prominence of the Island before the revolution.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Unlike Russia and North Korea, people here do not shy from visitors. They don’t skate by eyes to the ground or up with hostility. They embrace her and each other. There is a cultural legacy here that differs greatly from other communist histories. The mistrust and paranoia that beset other lands never took root here. Economic mismanagement and the resulting decay aside this was a government that truly cared for its people. During the revolution anyone who wanted to leave was allowed to, no questions asked, they were not shot or forced out. There were no gulags, no death squads. To be sure if they stayed they would have lost control of their businesses and property, but the choice was theirs and many took it, over 80,000 people fleeing the US, primarily Miami, to set up the quasi Cuban colony of Little Havana.

For those that stayed the state was never overly oppressive. People knew not to speak out against the government and state reprisals did occur. Yet music, sport, and culture were seen as a birthright and everyone who chose was able to get government sponsored training and practice in the arts and athletics. As a result tiny Cuba wins far more medals in the Olympics than its tiny population should allow and an outsized percentage of Major League Baseball players hail from the island. As she wanders the streets music is everywhere for Gatito, from the silky and sonorous to the energetic and upbeat. The streets are filled with soul and rhythm. Everywhere she walks a beautiful song floats through the air as men and women dance emphatically without reserve on street corners and in front of bars.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Art is ubiquitous, oil paintings, performance, nationalistic, another illustration that the state is not suffocating individuality. Though Fidel Castro is a national hero, there is no imposed cult of personality. Castro’s face does not grace every building or statue, his name is not plastered on every wall and document, in fact, it can nearly be found. He is far more George Washington than Kim Jung Ill. Even during the period of absolute Marxist-Leninist policy and official state atheism, religious peoples were rarely if ever prosecuted and people here go to church and wear their crosses with pride.

Education and healthcare too were of big importance to the Castro’s regimes. A life expectancy near 78 and a literacy rate of 99.8% matches or even bests Cuba’s freer northern neighbor. Communist policies have had other positive unintended consequences as well. Cuba is a melting pot, blacks from Africa and slaves from Central America mixed with the Spanish, Caribbean, Latin, White European and Native Tiano people to form an exceptionally diverse populous. Yet, despite a multitude of races, skin tones, and histories, racism and social stratification are nearly non-existent. The nation lacks the overt racism of Brazil or the entrenched economic disparities of the US. Even gay culture is flourishing and largely accepted, almost unheard of in a developing nation.

Despite communism, life here is rich, fulfilling, exuberant and dynamic. People are loving, energetic and happy, not to mention beautiful. Men and women alike are fit and active, the men with strong shoulders and sculpted physics, the women tall and slender with beautifully voluptuous curves. Everyone has high cheekbones, big piercing eyes and flawless skin in every shade. People take pride in their appearances and haircuts and outfits are always edgy and new. Despite the crumbling infrastructure the streets are free of garbage and personal hygiene is well kept.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Despite being a girl of 8” tall all alone in the big city Gatito never feels threatened. Crime, petty or otherwise, is rare and police presence sparse. Cuba is far from the dystopian hell of American textbooks.

Yet, for all the style, character and life, the destructive wake left by communist policies are ever present. Everywhere Gatito walks she is plunged into potholes twice her height, requiring a well packed grappling hook to extricate herself. Old cars without catalytic converters belch thick black smoke in her face as she crosses the street. Building after building is in absolute disrepair, the outer walls crumble as their interior forms a perfect pile of rubble. When she is hungry for something small there is almost nowhere to go, the corner store has seemingly yet to be invented and there is not a single grocery store as we know it in the entire country. So to people constantly beg for money or food, this is a deeply poor country and a culture of handouts is well established.

Just 60 years ago Havana was known as the Pearl of the Caribbean, the French Riviera of the America’s, its long skyline on the sea attracting the rich and famous of the world to its shores, until communism took hold that is. The revolution initially scared off tourists and investment. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff between the US and the Soviet Union in which the Soviets aimed to place Nuclear Missiles in Cuba whose range would allow direct hits on the US homeland, the US Embargo, a military blockade and policy of complete economic isolation for the island, ensued. The result was 50+ years and counting in which few if any goods from the outside world penetrated Cuba’s boarders. No company who did a dollar of business in Cuba could have a presence in America; given the latter was the hungriest market in the world, virtually no non-Soviet companies were willing to export to Cuba.

Construction costs soared, everything was state run and state produced, which is to say inefficient and ineffective. With no profit motive people cared not how fast they worked or what they created. Even with Soviet backing the country fell into decline. The vibrant culture of Cuba and the fiery creative spirit of its people would lay dormant for decades. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba was left without a benefactor, a homeless man whose soup kitchen and shelter closed the same day. The notoriously stubborn and intractable Castro failed to enact reforms and the country was plunged into one of the worst economic recessions in history. It was not until Fidel stepped aside sighting health issues and his uncharismatic yet more prudent brother Raul took control that things began, ever slowly, to change.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

11 years ago in 2003 restrictions were lifted, people began to run guesthouses (Casa Paticulares) and sell small goods. Travel to the island became more common. Just 4 years ago the most significant changes came. For the first time in the working lives of virtually every individual on the island they became able to own a private car, to own and sell a home, and to start a business. The country is still state run, still communist surely, but these were monumental changes. The government licensed 178 individual business types, everything from refilling lighters to car mechanics to painters. Businesses are taxed a flat rate plus 10% of their earnings for the right to operate, a whiff of capitalism fills the air and Gatito watches as people inhale with the ferocity of a cocaine addict.

Everyone is excited, there is a sense of possibility in the air and people look as though a weight has been taken off their shoulders. Everyone is trying something new, cleaning shoes, selling sandwiches, becoming a tour guide, but she can tell it’s all very new, that they’re just trying to figure it out.  There are still no advertisements or branding allowed. These are, after all, state businesses run by individuals, not personally owned entities. As such there are no adds, no banners, no names on the street. Gatito finds it refreshing recalling the 20,000+ ads she sees everyday as an American, right down to the “Ty” on her foot.

Yet, she also recognizes the inherent limitations this puts on those who run these businesses, the impediment to standing out, creating a following and differentiating yourself is huge. Even if you are able to do so by the quality of your labor, the excellence of your skill, or the prominence of your intellect, the idea of spreading your craft is nearly impossible. Other impediments persist; the infrastructure is still poor, the prices high and ability to procure resources low. Internet is almost non-existent. While smart phones glimmer in the hands of some, cell phones are not yet commonplace. Very few own cars, let alone bicycles. Savings are a risky endeavor as the government could change course at any point and confiscate all accrued funds. As Gatito walks the beachfront and wanders the markets she perceives a tension in Cuba. She is amused and illuminated by the cross allegiance between the unabashed support of capitalistic reforms and the pride felt towards Cuba and its Socialist ideals.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

A well-traveled doll she’s seen this before and understands the logic behind it. People grasp on to capitalist reforms as they offer a ladder to better the lives of their families and themselves, the possibility to progress and accrue more in a year than a previous century now exists and is always tantalizing. Yet, for decades,  with no personal holdings and no accomplishments from which to derive fulfillment and self-worth, people cling to the state and its ideology for identity. They have been part of this thing, one people bound together in hardship. When the walls begin to be torn down, to dispatch with support of the state, even that which was oppressive, is to lose one’s own identity, to render one’s own life meaningless - your entire past hollow and vacant. So to turn on the state would be to admit to yourself and your community that you were tricked, mislead, wrong your entire life. Or worse, you knew and were too cowardly to act. So, people often grasp strongly to their story while opening up to the world and embracing change simultaneously.

Gatito sits reclining at the Hotel Nacional overlooking the Ocean, her little body barley stretches the length of two plastic reinforcements as she stares out over the expanse of blue in the direction of home. Its seems inconceivable that Miami lies just 90 miles away, less than half the distance between Aspen and Denver, an easy morning’s drive. It’s incomprehensible to her. So exceptionally close yet worlds away, completely isolated yet so intimately intertwined, kindred spirits yet unspeaking neighbors. It’s a sad story of disassociation and detachment, hostility and stupidity, an exercise in posturing over prudence and pride over practicality, a boon to both parties, a plague on both houses. The initial policy was born of sound reasoning and a security imperative, but its continuation in the modern day is clearly senseless.

Yet, as Gatito lays here, the American Coca-Cola mixing with Cuban Havana Club rum, locally picked limes and state-grown sugar, she thinks there is a window. An opportunity for change, a chance to end the madness and restore a flourishing and mutually beneficial relationship. The tides are coming in, yet as they do each day they will again recede. Normalization of relations has been attempted several times before, only to see the tide wash out before a wave could be ridden in to the shore.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

This time though she muses, it feels different. The US, preoccupied with a rising Asia is looking for allies and a majority of the American populous, 61% 3 years ago and trending upwards, supports ending the embargo. The Cuban exiles in Miami too are nearing the end of their lifespan, the hostility and implacability of their position not likely to pass on to their children. For their part Cubans have tasted capitalism and virulently want another bite, Fidel is gone, Raul is on the way out, and the Obama administration is open to change. Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, too has shown signs of support for normalization, and leading candidates for the Republican nomination, including Rand Paul, too have indicated their support for such changes. Certainly, after a few magical days in enchanting Havana, the US has found an ardent supporter in little Gatito. Too bad dolls can’t vote.