By Milly Toovey
Last month the US government agreed to open up direct flights for the first time from the US to Cuba. If you are an American citizen reading this, you know how big of a deal this is. To put it in perspective to those slightly unfamiliar with what's going on in Cuba, it was illegal for US citizens to travel independently to Cuba from 1960 - 2015. In the last few years, US citizens have been given access to travel as long as they fit into one of twelve legal travel categories including things such as visiting close relatives, academic programs, professional research, or journalistic or religious activities. Why? Cuba is a communist country and the US government does not approve! Whilst this news might be obvious to some, as a somewhat naive Australian, this is something fairly new to me. I recently returned from Cuba after spending a week there with a US family who were there legally under the “People-to-People” category where we were obliged to have an official tour guide authorized by the Cuban government with us at all times. I’m going to share some perhaps surprising conversations and observations I had...
What We Could All Learn From Cuba
Part one of the trip was in Havana (aka Habana) lead by “Havana’s Man” our charismatic, knowledgeable and fun-loving authorized tour guide. Havana was unlike any city I'd visited before, and compared to my hometown Adelaide, Australia, or my recent homes in The Netherlands and San Francisco, I think there are a few things we could learn:
1. Music has more soul in Havana
Without access to many of the modern technologies, Cubans are off their phones, off their couches and living and breathing art and culture. This is most visible in their love for music. It's alive. It's everywhere! The old and the young dance and get involved. People tap their feet, smile and shoulder shimmy, couples salsa as if is the norm. I can’t say I missed the loud and empty pop beats of clubs!
2. There is less homelessness
Despite the average wage in Havana being $20 a month, 90% of the population are homeowners, that's communism for you. The government gives their people free healthcare, free education and (more or less) free rent. To put it into perspective, in San Francisco, only 36% of the population are homeowners, yet the average wage per month is $5300. 14% are below the poverty line. With prices averaging $4500 per month for a simple one bedroom apartment, it’s bloody expensive to live in San Francisco! However, it’s not just the expensive rent that’s putting people on the streets, it’s the poor healthcare and education system that’s unable to cope with the drug addicts and the mentally ill. Luckily, there’s hope. People worldwide are standing up for these improvements, and maybe one day we will see education and healthcare improved in the ways we need.
3. Art is surprisingly phenomenal
In addition to their love of music, the art in Cuba exceeded my expectations and was nothing like anything I'd ever seen before. Cubans seem to be more creative and inspired by the arts. The government encourages it big time and a creative arts degree is just as important as a law degree. I was fortunate to meet some emerging artists during several exhibitions. Was it their limited access to internet that gave them pure creativity? They certainly didn’t have the “stealing is art” mentality. I even asked an artist where he got his inspiration from. He said “The future visions in my mind, and I see ghosts.”
These imaginative, and sometimes unorthodox ways of being inspired are something we could appreciate more in cities we consider “politically advanced”. So much of daily life, I find uninspiring and repetitive. People follow trends and are often closed minded! Embracing a creative (and at times a little crazy) approach to life would be so refreshing!
4. A beautiful building abandoned?
In 1959, the ex-President Batista was done. Fidel was in. Then it was if everything “fancy” just stopped. Materialism wasn't needed, in fact it was frowned upon. The wealthy were stripped so that the poor could feel equal. The government owned everything. Most of the wealthy fled during this time and beautiful old buildings were left abandoned. Driving and walking around Havana, you see these beautiful, “rotten” buildings everywhere. Imagine the potential!
The joys of internet
Driving through the city, I wondered why clusters of people appeared randomly in front of buildings on the street. There were no bars, no restaurants, no "dodgy people." There was something odd about the vibe and I couldn’t work it out. There was silence, and not much movement. Some sitting by themselves, others in small groups of 3-4. I asked Havana's Man what was going on, he said "It's a popular internet spot." That explained why the music, laughing and dancing had stopped. They had stopped to engage with the outside world. Which makes me think that our mobile phones are deadly in making us silent on the outside, yet alive on the inside. “This is why it's such a joy to see young men playing chess and not on mobile phone,” said Havana’s Man.
But Not Everything is Perfect...
One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a taxi driver, (blue mustang 1955). He seemed well educated as his english was fantastic. I sat in the front and we chatted. “I’m a software engineer earning $20 a month,” he told me. He teaches at the university part time, and had no choice but to work as a taxi driver as well. I told him that the average monthly price as software engineer in San Francisco is about $7500. He didn’t want to hear it. He continued to tell me that most Cubans working in the tourism industry are doctors, lawyers, and architects because they “earn so much more opening doors”. What a waste of talent!
As our trip continued, I realized what the taxi driver told me was unfortunately true. Our waiter in the hotel who was also a lawyer, and told us that while he was pleased about new changes in Cuba, he still wanted to leave the country. Another man told me that he had just got back from Australia to visit his Australian girlfriend. He said he’d do anything to live there. These Cuban men put things into perspective for me. Cubans are trapped. They seek independence and freedom. They thrive on tourism and meeting as many interesting people as possible, because it's their only way out. “Cuban people deserve this change,” stated another tour guide. However, “Once it’s changed, it may be bad for some people,” he continued,“Money’s good, but it can’t buy happiness.”
Behind the music, the arts, the vibrant atmosphere, and exciting political change, there seemed to be a sense of panic. It was as if the younger generation was slowly giving up on their country’s morale because they were so desperate to work in tourism, or to move out and gain independence. However from what I was told, the older generation is still so proud of what Cuba has become and what is to come in the future. Nonetheless, comments like “Now they’re [the younger generation] are hasslers for tourists, we never used to be like that,” lets you in on their nostalgia for how things used to be.
I am looking forward to returning in the future to see how Cuba progresses with its newly open borders. Property and land are now for sale, hotels are being built and US citizens can travel to Cuba more freely. The changes will no doubt be dramatic, however I hope the colorful energy and soulful nature of this place is maintained.