I’ve just returned from Cuba. Somebody asked me how it was. My answer was “Better than I expected. Worse than I expected.”
Like other Americans my age, I lived through the events of the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. But I was too young to understand what was going on. I only knew that there was a place called Cuba, run by a bad man named Fidel Castro. Later, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis were a mere backdrop to the significant events of my world: friends, boys, school, boys. Cuba eventually settled down into an afterthought.
My urge to go to Cuba was born, one day, at National Airport, when I was returning from Seattle, and my suitcase was temporarily misplaced at baggage. I waited for about 30 minutes, standing at the now-empty conveyor belt, watching Anothny Bourdain in Cuba on the monitor above me. Bourdain’s message got to me, loud and clear: This place is changing fast. If you want to see Cuba before the entire country is homogenized and sanitized, go now.
I wanted to see Cuba before McDonalds would arrive, before international investors would have a chance to throw up resorts and highrises, before the crumbling mansions would be renovated. I wanted to see the Cuba that was taking a deep breath, before the bulls eye of progress would be smacked on its head. As soon as I got home, I searched for tours to Cuba.
I knew that there had been great wealth in Cuba before the revolution, wealth that started during Spanish rule, created by the vast sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations. Later, the wealth came from tourism. Havana was America’s playground, ruled by organized crime, with the colonial veneer of old money and social graces. It was vice that was educated, cultured and knew how to use the proper utensils at the dinner table. It was everything that Las Vegas could never be.
What surprised me was the size of Havana and the number of mansions. Neighborhood after neighborhood, block after block, the mansions stunned me. This was not the wealth of any other big city I had seen. This was a wealth that covered the entire city. The architecture was mind-boggling. The avenues, the boulevards, the parks, the plazas. This was Fantasyland.
And virtually none of it had been maintained since the revolution, in 1959. Havana is a science experiment, a post-apocalyptic vision. Some mansions have crumbled, but most remain standing. They are filthy, many are covered with mold. There was been no maintenance, no landscaping. Many stand empty.
Castro nationalized all businesses after the revolution. The wealthy fled, mostly to Miami. The people who remained were the ones the revolution was fought for, the ones who worked for the wealthy, with none of the benefits. Castro gave them free education and free medical services. He turned some of the mansions, the yacht clubs, and the social clubs into museums and libraries and schools. He gave them the message that if they worked hard, they could have a good life, in this new agrarian utopia. The reality was otherwise. Jobs paid very little. The US embargo meant that only shortages were never in short supply.
Over time, many Cubans moved into rooms in the mansions, one bedroom per family. You can see them in the historic, downtown area, hanging their laundry over ornate wrought iron railings or jerry-rigged balcony clotheslines. Others moved into the vast, open interior plaza-like areas of mansions and built tiny houses, one shoved up against another, with lanes between the rows. They managed to run wires for electricity and divert pipes for plumbing. Homes that served one family now serve 10 or 20 or more.
The people of Cuba are masters of survival. They are generous, open-minded, caring, spirited people. They look out for each other. They live surrounded by an astonishing natural beauty and a crumbling man made beauty. They have survived colonialism, slavery, organized crime, revolution, Fidel Castro, the US embargo, the fall of the USSR, and all other adversities heaped upon them. They are sure to survive whatever the future brings. They will do so with the help of their music, their art, their resilience, and their undiminished love for their country.
Cubans have many colorful sayings. This one says it all: Life is short; but it barely takes a second to smile.