Equality is a fetish of the Cuban regime but the differences between conditions in the old center city colonial mansions and in the campesino barracks on the outskirts could not be more stark. There is some homelessness. A young woman there, a man here sleeps at night in a doorway. And there are beggars. One old woman staggered me. Sitting in the shade of the only tree on an otherwise barren hillside, she asked us for soap. We weren’t carrying any at the moment, but we returned the next day with two small bars for her. Her thanks were effusive. My wife I have traveled in some of the poorest parts of the Andes, Indochina and West Africa and encountered thousands of beggars, but we had never been asked for soap.
We once saw man sitting in a doorway distressing his jeans with a razor blade. Strange, in a poor country where campesinos have worn holes in their shorts, to see someone making holes in his jeans. Just another of a thousand ironies of inequality in Cuba.
Racial equality is another ambiguous aspect of Cuban life. The most avid supporters of the regime are the largely black inhabitants of El Oriente, eastern Cuba. With an estimated 70 percent of Cubans at least partially descended from slaves, Cubanos evince a broad array of skin colors, from coal black to pale white. On the street and in most settings, no racial discrimination is evident. But at a nightclub popular with university students in Camagüey we did not see a single black person among the 200 or so revelers. On television, all of the announcers, all of the interviewers and their guests, all of the attendees at conferences seemed to have pale skins. But in the baseball games (the most popular sport in Cuba), all the players appeared to be black. It hardly seemed different from the U.S.
It is clear that in Cuba, as I had recently found in Southeast Asia, skin color matters, and matters a lot. It is less a matter of race than of class—the paler the skin, the higher the class. Thus in Cuba, like Southeast Asia, many women walk with an umbrella to protect their skin from the sun.
It is one of the ironies of U.S. immigration that we think of Cubans as white, unlike Dominicans or Haitians or Jamaicans. In fact they are at least as dark, for under the Spanish, Cuba had more black slaves than any other country; but most of those who fled Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the 1959 revolution were from the paler-skinned upper class.
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Life in Cuba is lived in the slow lane. Moving slowly is a requirement, not an option.
Campesinos still mow grass with machetes and plow their vegetable plots with teams of oxen. They still subsist on Moros y Cristianos, the mixture of white rice and black beans that is the dietary staple. Cubans are still more likely to walk or ride in a horse-drawn cart than to get in a car, and the colectivo trucks many take to work resemble cattle cars.
They still wake up with small cups of the strong espresso they grow by hand. They still relax over the big cigars that may be the best in the world. They still pass the evenings with bottles of rum made from the cane they harvest. They still haul their produce to town in horse carts and shout their wares down streets hemmed in by centuries-old buildings, a few rehabilitated but far more falling to pieces.
“Peligro Derrumbe,” danger of falling down, is a ubiquitous sign. For me it means more than just the structure behind the sign but also the structure behind what can only be honestly called a failing state, a state that has converted the wealthiest country in Latin America into one of the poorest. Even Fidel, according to The Economist magazine, told the collective leadership in private, “The Cuban model has failed.” Yes, they have universal education and 98 percent literacy (higher than the U.S.) but there is almost nothing to read. Yes, they have free universal health care, but the benefits are partially nullified by bad diets. I saw 100 people waiting patiently in a clinic for eye exams, yet almost no one wears glasses; has a unique DNA endowed 99 percent of Cubans with 20-20 vision?
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Cubans are justifiably proud of their educational and medical achievements. “Without education no revolution is possible,” Castro once said. It is a pleasure to pass by the open window of a preschool and see toddlers playing happily in the morning and napping peacefully in the afternoon. Preschool is universal and free, allowing women to participate in the workforce—if they can find jobs.
But Cubans have paid a steep price for these achievements. Doctors can’t make a living, nor can teachers. Hundreds of thousands of educated people fled to the U.S., from where they send back remittance checks that sustain Cuban families and, ultimately, the Cuban state. It is ironic that the U.S. hostility that led to automatic legal residence for any fleeing Cuban has created the primary economic support for the regime we wish to bring down—in addition to helping rid Cuba of those most likely to oppose the government.
(Just before leaving office in January, and as a direct consequence of the U.S. reconciliation with Cuba, President Obama ended this automatic residence policy, with fateful consequences that still echo around the world. Hundreds of Cuban refugees seeking to go to the U.S. are stuck in Costa Rica. Australia has agreed to take them in exchange for the U.S. accepting 1,250 Asian and African refugees that Australia has imprisoned on two Pacific islands. These latter are the refugees that President Trump quarreled about during a phone call with the Australian prime minister.)
Another irony of U.S. Cuban policy is that it has created a powerful emotional bond between the two countries. Just about every Cuban we met had tales to tell of relatives in Florida, New York, California. And every Cuban we met—I can’t think of a single exception—greeted us fondly, as friends.
The U.S. embargo on Cuban trade, however, has been and still is a serious handicap for the Cuban economy. The European Union, the United Nations and the Organization of American States have all ended their bans on Cuban trade, and Obama has canceled most U.S. regulations, but the embargo is still the law in the U.S. and only Congress can completely repeal it. Signs throughout the country criticize El Bloqueo as inhumane and genocidal. A mention of the embargo at Fidel’s funeral ceremony brought resounding boos from the crowd.
With all their disappointments, historical as well as contemporary, the Cubanos we met still hope that, if not this year or this decade or this century, then maybe in the next, life will get easier. The Spaniards, the Americans, the native dictators, the revolutionary Communists have all let them down. But on this huge island of unending sun, fertile soil, ample rain and gorgeous beaches along two coasts and on thousands of offshore islands, it is impossible to relinquish all hope.
Viñales is a small town in western Cuba in the most beautiful valley on the island. Small monoliths covered in dense green growth rise up vertically out of the cultivated fields of the verdant valley. Small roads with more horses and carts than cars wind sinuously through the valley. Here and there a tiny stream waters vegetable plots and orchards. Extensive networks of caves lace the hills.
It is evening in Viñales and we are returning tired from a long day of walking through the valley, exploring caves and taking a boat on an underground lake. In the late afternoon we circled back on a ridge overlooking the valley to watch the sun set among the strange hills.
As we near our casa at dusk, a mile or so in the countryside outside the village, a boy passes us. He is riding a horse bareback and galloping at full speed. Several minutes later he again passes us, still at full gallop. And a third time, and a fourth, before turning into a small, neat farm beside the road. He is riding not for work but for pleasure, not because someone has ordered him to but because he wants to, not to get anywhere but to enjoy the moment, where he is, what he is. That is Cuba, and that boy showed us how to journey through it.