Rachel Parikh reflects on her recent trip to Havana in preparation for our Cuba Open Quest in November 2016.
Perhaps more so than any other trip I can recall in my life, I stepped off the plane with no sense of what to expect. Cuba, an island country just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, has been isolated from much of the world for decades.
What exactly does this kind of separation mean, how does it play out in daily life, and what is the impact on people who live here? In the words of a young Cuban I met during my week’s visit, “Well, it’s complicated…”. Through conversations with him and many other people I met, I began to uncover the story that is Cuba.
Danilo: A young man with deep roots
This particular young Cuban, Danilo, was one of our guides. He works for a government-run agency that organises cultural exchanges to Cuba. Over mojitos one evening, he talked about life here, his work as a guide, and his dreams for the future. Each time we asked him a question, he paused for a moment and responded, “Well, it’s complicated…”.
It is complicated. An average government salary is paid in pesos – the moneda nacional – equivalent of US$20 a month. Danilo makes ends meet in part because, as a Cuban, he has a roof over his head, free education and healthcare. Until quite recently, almost everyone worked in the state sector. With his fluent English, education and people skills, he finds opportunities to earn money through tourism outside his government job. The pay is better, and made in Cuban convertible pesos, the currency used by foreigners in restaurants, hotels and other privately-run businesses.
And still, life is hard. Many of Danilo’s friends left the country to start new lives elsewhere. So what keeps him here? Well, it’s complicated. While moving abroad holds the promise of opportunity, it also means starting anew in a place where he doesn’t know anyone. Cuba is home. He grew up here, it’s where his family is – this is where he feels rooted. It’s an enormous amount to give up. And it’s an exciting time to stick around, especially now with change in the air.
Alberto: A baker in search of flour and kindness
Change is part of the reason Alberto came back to Cuba. He is the first Cuban chef to receive the prestigious Michelin star, and after 16 years in Italy, he’s come home to be part of the change process. He wants to bring back kindness. He says people are exhausted and sometimes feel hopeless from the daily struggles they face.
Alberto decided to open his own bakery in a country that already provides a free bread roll to each person every day. Why did he choose to do this? For him, bread is a metaphor for life, for health, for meaning. The juxtaposition of his bakery next to a state-run bread shop is striking. “They thought I was crazy,” he said, speaking of the authorities. “They told me to open an animal hospital instead.”
When we enter the shop, we are greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread. Alberto welcomes us and we sample his delicious food. There are posters on the walls with nutritional information, and bags of grains, sesame and sunflower seeds, and whole-wheat flour on the shelves. He buys some of these ingredients in Cuba and imports others from abroad. At the end of each day, Alberto goes from one shop to another to find basics such as flour and grains, which are often in short supply in Cuba. Sometimes they are simply unavailable.
Nothing is straightforward. The inspectors keep stopping by to check on his activities. He was recently fined for painting the outside of his shop. The spare part he needs to fix his recently broken refrigerator is unavailable. Life for Alberto is… well, it’s complicated. But he’s continually inspired by the difference he can make by bringing wholesome food, a friendly smile, and a personal touch to his neighbourhood.
Norma: Clearing a path for people to be themselves
Norma Guillard, a black lesbian activist and a retired social psychologist, is another person who is dedicated to improving the lives of her fellow citizens. Norma founded the first organisation of gay and bisexual women in Cuba – this in a country where anyone suspected of homosexuality was sent to a work camp forty years ago, gay students were expelled from the University of Havana, and neither teachers nor doctors could be openly gay. Even today, the government does not recognise gay unions, and homosexuals are barred from the military.
As we sat together in a mutual friend's living room, I was struck by her drive for equality, passion for diversity, and – in particular – how she lit up when she talked of her work with women in underserved communities around Havana. I left wanting to learn more about this immensely courageous woman.
Roberto: Breaking the taboo on racism
Talking of courage, Roberto Zurbano – former editor of the prestigious cultural institution and publishing house Casa de las Americas – was dismissed from his post in 2013 after he wrote an article in the New York Times on his perspective of racial inequality in Cuba. As a leading intellectual in the country, Roberto wants to make it possible to have an open dialogue about race.
Cuba is a multi-racial society. Blacks, whites and people of mixed race live side by side. The narrative since the Revolution is largely one of equal opportunity for all. The reality, however, is quite different. The question of racial identity goes back to over three centuries of slavery. Today in Cuba, race is a taboo topic, and Roberto wants to change that. He is concerned that a large number of people will remain marginalised and left behind, simply because they do not have the same opportunities and economic advantage as white Cubans.
Roberto wants to create a business to help create prosperity, happiness and identity for, and with, Afro-Cubans. One of his first tasks is to raise money in a community that has so little. Opening a bank account is a major struggle – getting a loan is impossible. You have to find a way, he said. You keep plugging away and try different things until a door finally opens. Cubans even have a term for it: resolver. It means figuring out a way to make it work.
Jorge: Human ingenuity at work
Jorge, our taxi driver, is a master of resolver. He proudly drives a bright blue car straight out of the 1950s. Since the US embargo against Cuba, it has not been possible for local people to get spare parts and, until recently, even buy cars.
Today, an old Russian Lada sells for the equivalent of US$10,000. Who can afford that? People keep vintage cars on the road with improvised parts, twine, tape, and sheer ingenuity. This has to be innovation at its very best.
Amiley: Using technology to solve human challenges
Amiley is an internet pioneer. She created the country’s first website, Cubisima, in 1999 when it was illegal to buy or sell houses in Cuba. The website originally connected people who wanted to exchange their homes but today, it’s a marketplace for a multitude of things.
In its earliest days, Amiley’s computer code was hand-carried from Havana to Switzerland. It was then uploaded to a server in the home of the website’s investor, a Swiss man married to a Cuban who wanted to use technology to help local people. And how did Cubans get online to post details of their homes and find new ones? Well, even today wifi access is rare, unreliable and expensive – only available to the privileged few. So, back in the early days, getting online was truly an arduous and complicated affair.
Reflections on my week in Cuba
It was a momentous time to be in Cuba in the week leading up to the historic visit by a US President. I got to witness people’s anticipation, the beautification of parts of the city in preparation, the heightened security, and the eyes of the world upon this island.
I flew out of Havana just hours before Obama arrived. I was struck by how the story was covered by the media back home. I realised that the oversimplified narratives we create about countries, societies and people are often based on our own world views, fears and judgments. It reminded me that the only way to understand a country is to spend time with its people, to listen deeply to their stories, and to share all of the complexity and contradictions of their lives.