I spent a perfectly happy childhood in Cuba. When I was ten, because of politics, my family scattered and I ended up in New York where I proceeded to become a standard issue American. Over the holidays I decided to go back home after nearly 58 years. I had been back before but as a tourist, accompanied by my wife and son, traveling the tourist routes, doing the tourist things. This time I decided to go alone and stay in my hometown of San Antonio de Los Baños not far from Havana. I checked into the only hotel in town. I rented a car to get me around, and set out to travel the streets, and relive the life I remembered from my childhood. I was there for two weeks and what I found was heartening, saddening, and bewildering.
It was easy to bring back the memories of my town for little has changed. The same nineteen fifties Fords and Chevys are still running. There are more horse drawn carriages than I remembered, and something new, trucks packed with people instead of cattle make up for the lack of official buses, and everyone needs to make a buck somehow. The old buildings are decayed, some have completely collapsed. Evidence of construction is seen but no sign of actual work anywhere. People get around on foot, bikes, horses, anything that will get them there cheaply. Seeing the mix of vehicles and people traveling on nearly nonexistent roads and highways against buildings that can best be described as remnants of an earlier era, seems like, as my young cousin put it -"the world's largest theme park...only that it's real...the people are not actors."
This is not the Cuba tourists see. The tourist routes are relatively well maintained, musicians are sure to play, food and amenities are plentiful. But leave the tourist track and you'll soon discover food is scarce. There is no milk, little fish, even sugar is scarce. Why so on an island known for plantations, fishing, and farms? To put it bluntly, because nothing works in my homeland. Fifty-five years after the revolution Cuba is the "anti-country" - for no matter what is tried, no matter what is promised, it only gets worse. I went to a department store where a cousin works and was surprised to find many locals buying expensive articles. I asked him where the money came from since the salaries, if any, is the equivalent of a few dollars a month? His answer was simple - from Miami. It is no secret the people of Cuba today are being supported by relatives in the U.S. and other countries. Taking one of six daily flights at the Miami airport it is easy to see how much merchandise is carried daily - everything from big screen TVs, to bicycles, to huge shrink-wrapped bags with who knows what contents. All that, plus the dollars we exchange for Euros and then change for Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC). And here is the rub - a CUC equals nearly twenty five times a Cuban Common peso (CUP). The average salary for a Cuban is around 350 CUP a month.
Still, there is the ever-present “Revolución!” -- a revolution that has not abated in 55 years. Every billboard, every “ad”, every TV and radio commercial, even every news report is crammed with the now tired revolutionary slogans. A neo-catechism is ever-present, for the revolution, in my opinion, is patterned after the Christian gospel. Each of the nine days following the first of the year commemorates a different city reached by the Castro brothers on their way west to Havana during the first nine days of 1959. This is a secular religion with little originality and no climactic ending, rather, a slow withering into complacency. No crucifixions, no miracles – just two aging men and their apostles trying to keep their dream alive. All this happening in a country with no Internet access, and limited email servers.
I feel for my native country. What is it about the Cuban psyche that allows such calamities to happen? Cuba has been a free nation since 1900, but has rarely seen prolonged periods of happiness. Popularly elected presidents have become dictators, while generals have forced their way into dictatorships. There has been much corruption and bloodshed in my country. Families have been scattered yet again. Today a young person in Cuba hopes to grow up only to leave, and the old make do from day to day. The cruel saga has lasted much too long. We all get old. I want my perfectly happy childhood back, even if only for a moment.