T-bird Tales: American in Cuba

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

Habana Vieja
Habana Vieja

Cuban social relations exhibit an amazing level of cultural authenticity; an authenticity which is genuinely extended to every traveler visiting the island. Before arrival, my perception of Cuba was skewed by anti-Communist and anti-Revolutionary propaganda that flooded the media throughout the now 58-year US embargo and travel ban. Pro-Revolutionary sentiments, socialist propaganda, and dictatorial politics still prevail in the country, but it’s essential to draw a dividing-line separating the controlling government and the common people in the midst of long-standing exclusionary policies.

This article does not intend to analyze Cuba’s revolutionary politics. Instead, I wish to give a traveler’s glimpse of the Cuban people, their personal sentiments towards the long-standing US embargo’s economic strangulation of the island, and how their internalized “cultural policy” preserved authentically Cuban aesthetics.

Nostalgic Havana

Havana is an energetic hub of street culture, classic rides, cuisine, art, music and dance demonstrating a flourishing culture. Culture and business ventures are interlinked to create a familial network of dependability, and within the network ethical principles such as loyalty, friendship, and respect prevail. While traveling to the countryside town of Viñuales, our taxi broke down, and within minutes a caravan of other taxi drivers pulled over to fix the vehicle, and offered our crew new means of transportation. Cuban hospitality, with the exception of negotiating rates, extends to travelers as well.

Upon arrival in Havana, our Airbnb connection offered free transportation from the airport, exchanged our currency at a better rate than the Casa de Cambios, took us to a telephone company to purchase a cell phone chip card for in-country use, and then extended an invitation to a New Year’s Eve get together in their home, which soon moved to a live rumba venue for an unforgettable nightlife experience. Havana nightlife flows with Mojitos and Cuba Libres as the streets vibrant with Afro-Cuban tones and roaring Bel Airs, reminiscent of the American Graffiti era of American culture. It’s truly moving to see a culture not only rich in tradition and interaction, but also excited to share those customs with everyone. Overshadowing the vibrancy looms eroded grandeur architecture I would describe it as an infrastructural shell of what Cuba could be. However, the run-down appearance and lack of lucrative employment and/or ownership options is impenetrable to the will and resolve of the Cuban people.

Internalizing Culture

Viñuales on horseback
Viñuales on horseback

If you live in or were born in a commodity-driven Western culture, the following might seem unrealistic: When Cuban citizens socialize they look each other in the eye, have a deeply meaningful conversation, and refuse to depart until both parties have satisfied the conversation’s purpose. At one point I thought I was witnessing a heated argument between two men sure to boil over into violence, but then one man broke into song and dance, quickly dissolving the perceived tension. Latin Americans in general are notorious for their hospitality and welcoming demeanor. Need directions somewhere or advice on a good restaurant to eat? Ask any local and not only will they happily introduce themselves and start an intimate conversation, but will most likely offer to walk you to your desired destination while providing local advice and casual conversation along the way. If they don’t have the answer or resource you desire, their brother, friend, uncle, nephew or cousin does and they won’t stop until they’ve exhausted their chain of resources.

Cubans must rely on one another for survival, and that reliance strengthens their resolve under the socialist regime in which individual pursuit of economic prosperity is stifled. Social status divisions are predominantly non-existent given the universal access to healthcare and education as well as government regulation prohibiting private enterprise. In the midst of U.S. economic sanctions excluding them from the capital investment flows of globalization and government ownership/taxation of all property and enterprise, the Cuban cultural resolve strengthened. Being a political science graduate and an American, I was of course intrigued yet hesitant to engage in any political discussion with local Cubans. However, in the right moments, I found that most locals were open to talk about their politics and the U.S. embargo. Remarkably, Cubans high education and literacy rates give them a sophisticated perception on both topics and I never once felt animosity for being an American, a result of understanding that politics, not people, cause divisions between nations.

Considering these personal sentiments and experiences I had with the Cuban people, I’d like to shift to a more historical background to explain how the strong cultural element came to life, and still prevails today.
Cuban progressive nationalism is reflective of Marxist-Martiano socialist ideology that developed in response to Soviet oppression during “El quinquenio gris” (the grey years). “El Ideario Marxista y Martiano” conceptualized the Cuban civil society in terms of a “creative overlap” between ‘artistic public spheres’ (Sujatha Fernandez), state institutions, and market forces (Miller). This uniquely Cuban ideology developed as a response to Western “Imperialism” and Soviet “Authoritarian Centralism”, both of which were considered foreign oppression and colonization. The Revolutionary movement adopted the policy of “Rectification” to re-establish an authentic Cuban cultural policy that preserved historical Cubanism, and created a civil society conducive to aesthetic productions which reflected both the principles of the Revolution and the individuals.

Socialist propaganda in Cuba
Socialist propaganda in Cuba

It is argued that the revolutionary government connected “the radical elements of Cuba’s existing cultural traditions to the revolutionary project of cultural decolonization” (Miller). This policy of “authentic universalism” appealed to Cuban sentiments in the way that consumerism appealed to the American citizenry. Castro and his supporters intended to build a revolutionary culture appealing to pre-existing sentiments that linked people to their ancestral roots, customs, and cultural identities. It was a connection between preserving legitimacy and enforcing “cultural decolonization” to re-establish what it means to be Cuban, and what better avenue to create this discourse than through aesthetics. This theory argues that the revolutionary government gained a reserve of power and influence because they removed the elitist states from cultural policy and made it about the people operating in a universalistic realm. People could relate to and support a movement that moved their emotional side through culture. The revolutionary government understood this about their people so began financing the creation of aesthetic institutions in music, art, theater, writing, and dance such as the Instituto Superior del Arte and Teatro de Arte Popular. Humanism became “the central value of Cuban culture”, and despite the controversial oppression and economic stagnation, the government continued to effectively preserve and promote the ideology of cultural capital.

Doing Business in Cuba

So how do you travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen and what are the business opportunities? Travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens is gradually opening up, but official tourist travel is still prohibited if it fails to lie within one of the 12 approved stipulations (listed on the State Department website). From a business perspective, the Cuban government maintains strong restrictions on foreign direct investment or ownership on the island. According to John Kavulich, President of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, “you can invest in a third company that has investments in Cuba provided the majority of the company’s revenue does not come from Cuba and [provided] you have non-controlling interest in the company.” Joint ventures with government operated bodies are an alternative option for those seeking business opportunities in Cuba, however, don’t expect an even cut of the profits. Tobacco farms I visited in the Viñuales region claimed the Cuban government takes 90% of their profits off the top, and one farmer remarked “because it’s Cuba.” Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning in favor of opening up relations between the U.S. and Cuba, however, the U.S.’s changing political environment could abruptly reverse progress made by the Obama administration. The relaxing of tensions and mobility of currency and people is a bittersweet movement. Cuba’s cultural uniqueness exists because there is an absence of commodity markets that create a watered-down and materialistic mindset. Injecting American consumerist society at the wrong pace could jeopardize or dilute a wealth of cultural knowledge, but some degree of economic liberalization is the right thing for the hard-working Cubans.

A historical timeline of U.S.-Cuba relations from 1960 to the present is essential to understanding the current Cuban society, so I will provide a brief timeline recap:

1960: President Eisenhower initiates a “powerful propaganda campaign” and partial economic embargo against Cuba to undermine the Castro regime.
1961: Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 enacted a “total embargo upon all trade”.
1962: FAA of 1961 amended to prohibit aid to “any country” providing economic assistance to Cuba.
1963: Kennedy administration prohibits American travel and commercial transaction with Cuba.
1975: The Organization of American States (OAS) votes to end sanctions against Cuba, specifically allowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to sell products in Cuba, and removing penalties for other nations conducting trade with Cuba.
1977: President Carter abolishes the travel ban.
1982: President Reagan reinstitutes the travel ban and reinforces the embargo.
1990: Mack Amendment – prohibits foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to engage in business in Cuba and ceases aid to countries purchasing from Cuba.
1992: Cuban Democracy Act – prohibits foreign subsidiary trade, travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens, and family remittances.
1996: Helms-Burton Act – U.S. citizens allowed to sue foreign investors profiting from American-owned property formerly seized by the Castro government.
1999: Clinton administration relieves some embargo restrictions such as remittances sent to Cuban families from the U.S.
2004: Presidential Proclamation 7757 – President George W. Bush bans vessels from traveling to Cuban ports from the U.S.
2006: 15th Consecutive year UN General Assembly votes in a favor of resolution to end embargo. 183 in favor; 4 against (U.S., Israel, Marshal Islands, and Palau).
2009: President Obama relieves travel ban restrictions allowing Cuban-Americans to visit.
2014: In December, President Obama and Raul Castro agree to reestablish diplomatic relations.
2015: Obama administration approves travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba based on 12 stipulations without requiring official OPAC license approval, including educational travel.
2016: March 1, direct flights to Cuba from the U.S. mainland approved for airlines.


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