Cuba: Why we made the trip, and what we saw


Elissa Vanaver, The Miami Herald


If not now, when?


The buzz around the topic of travel to Cuba has gone viral, engaging much of Miami in an unprecedented way.


I’m going. I just got back. Should I go? How do I arrange a trip? I’m dying to go, but not while mi abuela is alive. Can I tell my friends that I’m going?


Nothing new for Cuban Americans, of course, though some are looking at the to-go-or-not decision with fresh eyes. But the issue is engaging non-Cuban Miamians as never before.


For the faithful, there’s the timely cover of a pilgrimage, as Catholics make plans for the Pope’s visit to the island this month. For the edgy arts people, there’s the Havana Biennial in May.


The pending events have put a spotlight on President Obama’s liberalized Cuba travel policies. The steady stream of officious pronouncements of economic change within Cuba itself has added to the curiosity. Few would-be travelers are naive enough to believe that transformation in Cuba is imminent, but there’s growing interest in seeing what’s going on firsthand.


U.S. tourists to Cuba are still enough of a rarity to be most often mistaken for Canadians. English-speakers answering “Estados Unidos” to Cubans’ frequent queries, “ De donde eres?” are greeted in the street with bemused incredulity.


Even so, the “trend” has stirred the pot of simmering controversy over the embargo and Cuba travel restrictions for U.S. citizens. Last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen criticized a Cuba tour run by the Smithsonian Institution, which receives government funding. And candidates in Florida’s Republican presidential primary vowed continued isolation of Cuba’s repressive government.


No doubt the Castros take smug note of the fact that their tiny economic wreck of a country still inspires U.S. animosity. But that irony plays differently in the streets, where the average Cuban citizen finds our interest in them running counter to what their government would have them believe.


Meanwhile, the piqued interest in Miami -elevated even beyond the normal din- seems all but inevitable.


In a world that has become smaller and accessible to middle-class travelers, Cuba is high on a dwindling list of places where relatively few have traveled. The fact that the island is a 45-minute flight away makes it a pretty compelling draw -and not for a frolic on Varadero or a closer look at Cuban culture.


The motivation driving our recent group trip was the desire to more fully comprehend the life and history of a small place with an outsized role in shaping the community we live in. And what better way to see it, eyes wide open, than in the company of Cuban-American friends. Three of them, all of whom had fled Cuba as young people, were among our group of 19.


What we saw put color and context into a narrative that, to non-Cuban Miamians, often feels more like an abstraction than a fact. What we experienced as travelers was, by turns, surprising, predictable, tragic and encouraging… and enlightening beyond all expectations.


We watched as travelers at MIA packed flat-screen TVs and a full set of automobile tires for transport in our charter’s cargo hold. In our luggage, by contrast, was a tiny package destined for one Havana family -friends of friends- who asked only for wooden clothes pins.


We were stunned by the one-time opulence of Havana -a scope that exceeds the most spectacular of photo books- and dumbfounded by its ruination. The contrast gave scale to the loss and longing of the exile, and made the peril of crumbling buildings, reported in recent headlines, a comprehensible concern.


To hear official historians tout their restoration efforts -and also acknowledge they will lose the race with time more often than they beat it- gave insight into the pride of today’s Cuban citizens, and to their choice to remain.


They struggle and strive in spite of economic hardship and limited personal liberties, like a village on the edge of a volcano.


On a beautiful Saturday in Plaza San Francisco in Havana Vieja, over Tu-Cola and papaya juice, we delivered our clothes pins and asked our new friends about their life, a mosaic of making do. In all these years, we wondered, so many of your neighbors must have left. Why have you chosen to remain?


To stay or to go -no one is truly happy with the course they have chosen, said this middle-aged husband, father, freelance tour guide and photographer. He left his government job in the ’90s, when his salary was cut 90 percent. For him and for his wife and 10-year-old daughter, it was a question of family. Some relatives did not want to leave, he said. “We could not imagine living apart from them.”


The very next day we meandered through a beachside village as one of our travel companions searched in vain for the seaside home of her youth.


In those moments, we felt the anguish of a people torn apart by history.


We returned to Miami more connected than ever to its singular story -a place that has been defined by exile and the complexities that flow from it. Our experience there makes it clear that efforts to stanch travel to Cuba in this age of global interchange are doomed to failure.


We are a presence in Cuba, whether we are physically on tour buses or not. That’s a good thing. There’s no way tourism alone can prop up a system so enfeebled by the weight of government bureaucracy, market controls and limits on personal freedoms. More likely, the pressure from outside will come rushing over the dam and wash it away.


Many in Miami want to be a part of that tidal wave. They travel because they believe they have more impact on Cuba by connecting with Cubans than by turning their backs to the island.


And the travel issue, it seems, is becoming less a political litmus test and more a harbinger of a New Miami, a place where cultural boundaries are becoming more porous than real.



Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank