Two weeks ago, I took a mid-winter trip to Cuba. At first, nothing I saw struck me as that different from what I’ve seen in other Latin American countries. It all seemed familiar and easy. But soon enough, the differences became apparent. Entire aisles in the grocery store filled with a single product because it’s all the store could get that week. The difficulty of getting internet access. An excess of people still relying on horse and cart as their main form of transportation. The dual currency system. The live music on every corner of old town Havana. And of course, the classic cars.
When I planned this trip, I wanted to ride in many of those cars, preferably decked out in a retro style sundress and sunglasses. And I did get to ride in many of those beauties: a DeSoto Deluxe circa 1940, a Buick Roadmaster circa 1950, a Ford Fairlane circa 1955, and many more.
But why are they there? The cars are a prominent visual symbol of the nonsense that has been going on between the United States and Cuba for sixty years. The Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago and China became a major US trading partner forty years ago. Yet our leaders remain happy to let this small island neighbor suffer, this island we once ravaged through mafia infiltration, gambling, sex work, and seizing control of most of its natural and public assets. Why? Because we haven’t been able to force them to capitulate to our political will.
Everywhere we Americans travel, we are confronted with the ruins of European colonialism. We look at the decimation of cultures and massive loss of life from wars of independence, and we somehow think we’re above it. Even if we are willing to acknowledge the atrocities our settlers perpetrated on the Native Americans, we’re often willfully ignorant of our own malicious imperialism. We are the ultimate offenders when it comes to election interference, especially in Latin America. It’s why I just shrug my shoulders when people complain about Russian interference in the US elections. Because, karma. The Cuban revolution should have been a surprise to no one. What would you do if your country was being run roughshod over by a giant and infinitely more powerful neighbor? The American-backed Batista had to go.
No, I’m not a fan of communism. Communism is stupid, plain and simple. It’s a bullshit economic and political structure that never has worked and never will. The people in power will always be corrupt and enrich themselves at the expense of the working class (which theoretically doesn’t exists in communism. Isn’t that a happy lie?). A black market will always exist, especially now with the power of the internet. Vast numbers of people at the bottom will have ambition and creativity and drive that can only blossom in a free market economy. Communism has always led to major famine, mass killings, labor camps, fear and suppression of free speech and access to knowledge, and forced travel restrictions that push people to risk their lives to defect because nobody actually wants to live in a communist country.
So, yes, I believe that most of the problems in Cuba are the fault of the Cuban government itself. It’s time to acknowledge that the idealism of young Fidel and young Che doesn’t work in reality, their incredible successes in education and medicine aside. But I also believe that the Cuba embargo is sour grapes, American politicians pouting like spoiled brats because we can’t force Cuba to give in to our political demands. An embargo only punishes the people at the bottom, and heavy government propaganda shoved down their throats from birth conditions Cubans to blame the United States for their troubles, not their communist regime. Likewise, our government tries to convince us that it’s all their fault and they should just do exactly what we want because we’re the best and then all their problems will be gone. We should know better than that.
Back to those cars. They aren’t actually this super cool part of Cuban culture like they are in America whenever you happen to see one here. They aren’t someone’s pet project, lovingly restored as a hobby because that person has a job that affords him tons of discretionary income and free time. The cars are a necessity. They were scooped up when Americans and other wealthy invaders and Cubans alike fled the political upheaval. Many of the ones we rode were bare bones. No ceiling or side panels, no levers to roll down the windows or open the doors, no suspension. Those things are luxuries. Cubans scrape together parts to keep them running because it would take them a dozen lifetimes to save enough to buy a new car.
Sorry if you expected a happy go-lucky, “Visit Cuba now!” travel post. But if you’ve read this carefully, you’ll understand that’s exactly what I’m saying. And if you still can’t read between lines, let me say it explicitly. Visit Cuba now. Cuba is beautiful and vibrant and unique, and the people deserve better. Spend your money on staying in their homes, eating their home-cooked breakfasts, and touring in their classic cars. Support the local artists and musicians. Bring toiletries and baby products and toys to donate. It’s the least those of us lucky to be born in a free country can do to help people born into an unfortunate political situation and to make up for America’s destructive foreign policy.
Thanks to my travel partners for the wonderful photos, especially @ladyalltrails who was officially our unofficial trip photographer.