Visiting Havana as an Awkward Cuban-American
People keep asking me what my trip to Cuba was like. It seems to be a topic of conversation, and I can see why. It's a Communist police state with direct ties to a majority of this region, South Florida. Cuba reminds me a lot of LSD: Intense, with some familiar moments, but ultimately nothing like what I expected, and definitely nothing like what anybody described.
Quick disclaimer: My family's Cuban. I grew up around Cuban everything as a kid. My grandparents are from Ciego de Avila & Pinar del Rio. My parents were born there as well. I grew up in the city of Miami, so there's all of that too. But we have to remember: Cubans in Miami are not the Cubans in Cuba. They have similar dialects & behaviors, but the social conditions breed & attract 2 different types of people, despite the superficial similarities.
The big thing that stands out about Havana is that the people on the street are vicious. There's no amount of blending in possible - They know you're a foreigner. And a foreigner (or an "extranjero" as they call us) is rich. And being rich, that means you're a target. So every minute of every day that you're outside, people will be trying to woo you out of your money. It gets extremely annoying.
And sometimes, it can get a bit scary.
I had a situation with a taxi guy who tried to essentially rob me with his mouth at 4 AM in an empty neighborhood. He was one of these muscle-y Cuban dudes, and he was trying to intimidate lil' ol' me, your humble narrator, into giving him all the money in my wallet. I tried fumbling my broken Spanish throughout the conversation, but he was being relentless. Eventually, I lost my patience, snapped at the guy, and started walking away. My back tensed up, expecting him to run out of his car & jump me. So I secretly grabbed a pen that was in my pocket & was bracing myself to start swinging at this guy... But then I heard him do a loud TSK, and the taxi drove away...
See, the thing is, sugar used to be the dominant economy in Cuba. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, it's become tourism. So the police state that's established is there precisely to prevent the native Cubans from messing with the tourists, because that would really hurt the economy over the long run.
The police implement tough punishments for people who obviously hurt a tourist in any way. Now... This all went down in an empty neighborhood in the middle of the night. He could've mugged me if he wanted to... It certainly seemed like he was ideologically motivated to take everything I had on me. But the cons must've outweighed the pro's to such a degree, he figured driving away with only what I paid him previously was worth more than the trouble of robbing me. Is this a cool way to live for a people? Probably not. That brings me to my next point.
Saying you're from the United States makes a Cubans face split into two: On one side of their face, they seem very happy to be in your presence. You're from the Land of the Free, where the roads are made of gold & any dream could be acquired. On the other side of their face, is a clear detest & envy. They wish they were you. You can be whoever you want to be without having to ask The State for permission. In a few weeks / days, you'll be doing something that most people on the island can not do: And that's leave. And not just leave... but return back to your home in the United States. More on that in a bit.
Conditions are obviously not good in Cuba.
And this is figuring I was staying in Havana, which is supposed to be the modern / wealthiest part of Cuba. Social & economic conditions are oppressive. I definitely don't expect people to be happy-go-lucky about their situation. I mean, when I was working shitty minimum wage jobs, I secretly hated the wealthiest clients for stupid reasons: How they'd be spending more money on a sandwich they'd devour in 10 minutes, than I'd be making in 2 hours of labor. Things like that. Imagine that feeling, but everlasting as a destiny over a whole society.
So, they get by. And that's one of the curious things about the Cuban people that reminded me a lot of my family back home.
They're inventive, they're resourceful, they're prideful of the little they have (and appreciate more, nicer things). My dad's always been a tinkerer of cars & general life things. To be honest, he isn't very good at it. But neither are the Cuban people. The litmus test is the same: Does it work right now? Then it's "good enough" or "the same thing" as a proper solution.
Why are things like this on the island? Because there's a serious lack of resources on the island. Hardly any imports come in. The things the Cubans manufacture are more expensive & lesser quality than imports. Money is a very scarce resource as well. So you're basically stuck in an island with a limited amount of things, a finite supply of matter. That's why you see cars going back to the 1960's. It's out of necessity. And those cars are frankenstein'd together.
I met this one taxi guy who said he runs his own "little Capitalism" within Cuba, via his Airbnb, taxi, & tour guide services. He told me about how he'd order car parts from Miami as import little by little throughout the years, or as his family from the states come visits, and he'll store the car parts away to either fix up his taxi as he needs it, or sell it at a profit to other Cubans.
Another thing I noticed about the people in Havana was the dominant machismo tacky pride. This is well & alive in Miami. Everything is very base masculine, base feminine. Gender roles are extremely typical & strong. So any deviation is difficult to maneuver for them.
One of the nights I was walking around in a shirt with a giant image of Madonna. People kept talking to me like I was some freak from another planet. I presume they thought I was some decadent capitalist homosexual: Which to the standard Cuban appeared to create even the most minuscule bit of tension which could obviously be felt with each interaction. It got to a point where I was unable to have a standard conversation with anybody, so I walked back to my room & changed my shirt. Basic male / female behavior is expected & rewarded.
Which reminds me of a tip: If you want to get people's positive attention in Havana, it's all about how you dress. It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, what age you are, or anything. If you dress super sharp in Havana, you'll be ogled. Yes, you're still going to experience brave hustlers trying to shake you down for your last CUC, but you're the rock star foreigner so you have that advantage. Just keep your street smarts about you.
Speaking of street smarts, a few more things I learned. You're going to meet a ton of dudes hustling you on the streets. Mostly dudes, not chicks. They're going to come up to you & generally ask you the same question, "De donde tu eres?" or translated in their broken English, "Where you fruum mii freend?" Tell them whatever you want to gauge the different responses (The full-time hustlers have a response for any country). When I want to be left alone, I discovered saying, "La Luna" tends to throw them off for a second. Most jineteros don't have a come-back (yet) for that one. So they pause for a second, thinking of something to say. It's in that second you can either pivot your walk in an opposite direction or slip in a " Déjame solo"
I mean, my trip to Cuba was for a week. I met many different people, went to many different places, and mostly avoided doing the typical tourism circuit. I was there to Support the Cuban people, and when I had time off I used it to see & learn more - but most of it happened in the back streets, off the beaten path. I have a lot more events that went down I'd love to talk about, but just scrolling through this page I can see I've written plenty already. If you want to know more, feel free to contact me.
There's the story of the taxi driver who involved me as a wing-man in one of his street scams; how he was excited about taking me to a cockfighting ring on the outskirts of Havana early Sunday morning; how I confirmed with him 3 times over the phone in the preceding days; and then when the day came, he never showed up & his phone was mysteriously off for the rest of the trip. There's the story of when I tried searching for food in the middle of the day in Vedado, only to stumble into a small cafeteria that only accepts moneda nacional (the local currency, not the tourist currency): how the pizza I had & the espresso I drank wrecked my insides that night. The weird experience of how I stumbled into a real Santeria animal sacrifice... Being on La Rampa when all the lights shut off & the people inside the night clubs started pouring out onto the streets... Until the lights kicked back on, and the whole street celebrated lol.
Or how spaghetti & pizza is a thing in Cuba. Like... It's one of their basic meals. Cuban Spaghetti? Really? You'd think it'd be Cuban food, but no! I believe Miami invented Cuban food as we know it. For example, my favorite Cuban sandwich is the croqueta preparada. Many Cubans haven't even heard of it. Many Cubans in Havana have also never heard of Little Havana, which I thought was really interesting.
I remember when I was a teenager, going to Rey's Pizza Restaurant on Bird Road, on New Years Night with one of my friends. And the menu was pizza, but it was "Cuban-style pizza." I asked the waitress what Cuban-style pizza was? That seemed so weird to me. She was like: It's the way people eat pizza in Cuba. And I was like... Huh? That sounds hilarious & awful. And the lady got offended, smacked my hat, and asked me what I wanted to order. I did, I ate the damn pizza, and it was pretty alright. But I still never understood what Cuban pizza was. Wellllll, now I do! lol
Somebody told me that the street vendors that sell pizza in moneda nacional often run out of basic ingredients, so they'll substitute them with whatever works. He told me one vendor used melted condoms as a cheese substitute. He said some tourists had them, they got really sick, and the vendor got reprimanded somehow... Oh man. I honestly could see that happening.
Or just walking the malecon, high-fiving the kids who were dancing around a boombox; or filming the kids in the back streets of the Hotel Deauville playing baseball. Actually, those two small moments meant the world to me. I've really never felt more alone than when I was in Havana for a week by myself. And I found the environment to be hostile & cruel. Luckily, Havana lacked any true physical crime... Because I'd probably skip it if it did.
But the psychological impact of being surrounded by so many basic vicious people kind of gets into your head after a few days. So when I had those small interactions - high-fiving the dancing teens on the malecon; filming the smiling kids & family playing baseball on the street - they really struck a chord with me. In fact, I'll admit it, I got a bit emotional about it. BECAUSE IT WAS SO RARE TO HAVE A NICE, GENUINE INTERACTION WITH SOMEBODY IN HAVANA. Usually an interaction ends with somebody dry-faced asking for $1. Multiply that by 50+ people a day, and you see the mathematical conundrum.
Oh! And the time I mentioned how Miami partied for 2 days when Castro died... at the dinner table of a family in Vedado, Havana. There was a huge, tense silence for about a minute when I said that. Meanwhile in my head I'm like, "RIGHT! I'm in Cuba right now. I forgot." Then I had to change my tune a bit so they would've freak out so much. Vedado, by the way, has a reputation for being where the government brown-noses are, and the state-connected nepotism resides.
There really is a lot to talk about.
Like how different it is to make a line for anything (it's sort of a non-linear, somewhat modern approach to waiting in line). How slow everything operates (I mean, why not? What's the incentive to do better?). How inefficient the collective taxi system is...
How the Cubans concluded that I, a Cuban-American from Miami, was not Cuban, but in fact, fully American. Yet when I returned to America, I had a situation with a racist Publix bagger who literally said to me (unprovoked & without context), "Welcome to America! How are you enjoying your stay in America, sir?"
How bottled water is your friend, and tap water is to be avoided at all cost. How the shower needs to be externally heated with a whole fuckin' electric rig that you switch on & off (but only for showering). And on and on and on: All the roosters eating trash on the street, all the decrepit looking dogs & cats that look more Cuban than I do. How if a food item has the phrase "especial" on it, that probably means it's not of a quality "especial" but just what's available that day.
Or the drunk teens that passed me one night laughing when they saw me, saying I was "El Che." Meanwhile I'm holding my beer going, "Uh, thanks? I guess?" The state propaganda is so extreme in Cuba, the people see Che in the clouds.
I guess that's my penultimate point. The billboards. In Cuba the billboards remind you to be a constant revolutionary while deifying the original revolutionary figures of the recent past (and there aren't many that are state-sanctioned to be deified). In America, the billboards remind you to buy the new watch, call this attorney for traffic ticket claims, or to listen to a certain radio station. It's all about domination & consumption. In Cuba, it's about sacrifice & patriotism.
But the public space is still utilized in the same way. It's as if billboards aren't billboards at all - but actual locations in your brain. And the way The State utilizes this pocket of data in your brain says everything about the society's values. Because a people hum at a vibration of thought. You can overhear it in Cuba by walking by groups of people or homes, the snippets of conversations people say, "Freedom, brother..." "...Well, we keep persevering anyway..." ...El Che..." These were the random things I heard (translated obviously) in Havana that stuck out to me, but it was a lot like this generally for the week I was there.
The things people talk about in the idle time hum at at vibration of the billboards, of the state. And they're expressions of the deepest values of the society. A billboard's not just a billboard, it's how The State wants you to think; it's how you will think eventually.
Anyway, I remember the joy I experienced when I was admitted through customs in the United States. It took me a while to get used to fresh food being available anywhere at all times, drinking out of the tap (I know! I know! But at least I can!), walking on the sidewalk without fear of falling into a huge shit-encrusted hole, or pre-negotiating with a cashier somewhere.
I remember one image walking down the street of Vedado of this amorphous black blob that was at the end of the sidewalk. It kept moving but I couldn't figure out what it was. An animal? My eye-sight? When I finally got up to it, I saw that it was a turd that was horrifically covered in flies. Because I was close by, all of the flies lifted off the turd like an Egyptian curse - I screamed, and started running, definitely not needing dengue or any kind of weird tropical disease. You really don't see stuff like that in America. I mean, I know America sucks in its own way... but you really don't see stuff like that in the most urban, hip neighborhoods here. I don't know. Just a visual I wanted to communicate before I forget.
To end this off, I'll mention the good things. I walked away from Havana overall on the positive. It was a life-changing experience. I got to witness Cuba at the tail end of its 20th Century revolutionary moment, and also as it begins its transition into a Castro-less 21st Century. I was also able to experience my ancestral culture, which is pretty dope. It's one thing to live around it your whole life... It's something else entirely to go there, feet on the ground, and to smell it.
I learned that documentary in Spanish is "documental" and not "documentario." I learned that many of the flaws in my family are not the result of their unique stupidity, but is an expression of an originating culture - the Cuban culture. This actually freed me from a long sense of shame, knowing - hey! It's not just me! A whole island's like this! The family I stayed with in the Airbnb (located in Vedado) were incredibly patient & nice. Business people, yes. But it was a pleasant week-long transaction. It was nice knowing after a sweaty hard-ass day on the streets of Havana, I have a safe place to return to.
But most importantly... I learned how to eat a croqueta Havana style: 2 slices of Cuban bread, a slice of tomato, fancy salt on the tomato slice, and 2 croquetas of your choice.
Press down & eat.
Okay, one final point.
There's a book I read in preparation for my trip called "The History of Cuba" by Clifford Staten. This was one of those books I started as a teen but never finished because it was too dry. So I kept it around until I was "in the mood" to read it from beginning to end. On the eve of my trip, I did just that. It's a fascinating look at Cuba's role in the world, historically & today. Granted, the book was published in 2003, while Fidel Castro was still in power.
The book makes a point about the various leaders of Cuba throughout the island's history. The author claims all Cuban leaders have dealt with 2 things:
1) A powerful, hegemonic outside force.
2) Being dependent / vulnerable to a constantly-fluctuating world economy.
This is probably where I identify most as a Cuban-American. All my life I've felt dependent to outside forces not within my control, and so I've created a little island around myself to keep my drive, pride, and power moving forward - the whole held together with only charisma.