14 August 2016
Going to Cuba was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My second major at Emory in the Reagan ‘80s was “International Studies” with a focus on Soviet and Latin American politics, Cuba being the connection. My mother was there as a bobby-soxed teenager in 1959 and flew out Havana the day Castro took the city. The one paper my she saved from her college days was about Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Cuba has always seemed completely off-limits to me. But if Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, I can see Cuba from my balcony here on Isla Mujeres. Actually, it’s just over the horizon. If I had a frisbee and a good south-eastern trade wind, I could probably land it inside a cell in Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. government is still actively creating terrorists. So why not just go?
That’s what Andrea and I did. On a mad impulse we bought tickets to go. On Tuesday I went scuba-diving and on Wednesday I was on a Cubana Airlines flight over the water from Cancun to Havana. Barely an hour in the air and we were there with our hastily prepared visas and access to the world’s last “socialist paradise.” (Your Nikes are made in Vietnam and your iPhone is made in China, so they are disqualified and nobody is claiming North Korea as anything but an Orwellian nightmare.) Off to the land with no internet, leaving our wi’s and fi’s behind.
There’s so much to write about the experience. We were there as the country was getting ready for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday. I can’t believe the guy has been there my entire life. His brother, Raul Castro, has somewhat normalized relations with the U.S. and since Obama eased the embargo, you can feel the Starbucks shops just lining up to come in and change the nation overnight. Ask anyone from a small-town what Wal-Mart has done to America. Havana had plenty of construction cranes and the new hotels were coming. I’m sure the names “Hilton” and “Trump” will become part of the new oceanfront skyline. (Although nobody seemed to know who Donald Trump was. God bless them.)
It reminded me of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1991, right when the country opened its doors to the west. The people and infrastructure in Prague had no idea how to handle the rush of tourists who wanted to come and look around. There were no hotels or restaurants and capitalist entrepreneurialism was a foreign language. We stayed in people’s homes and ate whatever we could find in beer halls. When I returned in 1992, all that had changed. Western money flooded the “Paris of the East,” and there were billboards proclaiming (in English), “There are now four McDonalds in Praha!”
So we’ll see if Brother Raul lets that happen to his island. I have feeling it’ll look a lot different next time we go back. We stayed in a wonderful casa in the center of the city that might be a Quality Inn this time next year.
But I thought I’d write a little but about gender on the streets of Havana. Cuba has been known for being on the vanguard of gender equality issues for a long time. Women, like Celia Sånchez, were at the forefront of the revolution in 1959, fighting alongside Fidel and Che. The Federation of Cuban Women was formed shortly after that. Half of the judges and justices in Cuba are female, over a third of the parliament is female and 62% of university students are female. There are great feminist Cuban rappers, like Krudas Cubensi and Obsession and 31 Cuban women are competing in the Rio Olympics. (Watch for Yorgelis Rodríguez in the heptathlon finals.) Unlike in the United States, gender equality is a part of the Cuban constitution. “The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.”
So it must be a great place to be a woman, right?
Andrea and I were walking around our little neighborhood on Friday morning, just behind the Cuban capital building and some guy, seeing her, angrily shouted out to his friend, “She got fucked by the French!” He probably thought I was French and what was this brown girl doing with a white guy. It was in Spanish so I totally missed it but Andrea was visibly upset. After a similar comment she felt abused enough to return to our room and just hang out, away from the catcalls. She was shaken as the daily war on women followed her all the way to a communist outpost that supposedly outlawed sexism before I was even born.
Cuba is an incredibly diverse place, from dark Afro-Caribbean to Europeans (and probably some Hemingway descendants). Andrea, who would be punishingly sexy in a medieval suit of armor, noticed the comments were coming from men of color and asked me why that was. I assured her that white men were not free from the same behavior but there might be some good feminist explanations of the race-gender interaction.
I took a moment to play professor and tackle it from three of the many feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists would argue that black Cuban men have be raised with a different relationship to women than white Cuban men which may be more vocally aggressive and seeing a Latin woman with a white man viewed as a betrayal of an ethnic subcultural value. Marxist feminists would say that even in allegedly communist society, poor people still exist and are alienated and poor black Cubans are alienated the most. (Stats back up that black Cubans have the lowest paid jobs.) So Marxist Feminists would argue the one place those men have power in a patriarchal world is over women. (Stats also show black women in Cuba experience more domestic violence.) Finally, radical feminists argue that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in spite of popular values of gender equality, finding any way possible to subordinate females, either through institutional means (less pay) or old-fashioned scare tactics. So on our little block, mostly populated by men who were poor and dark-skinned, it was the catcall.
I don’t know if this discussion was of any value to my wife. The conversation became one of how do we get men to raise their sons right so our daughter won’t routinely experience the same harassment. We both absolutely loved our brief time in Cuba and want to return as soon as possible, before Starbucks and Wal-Mart (and future bankrupt Trump casinos) erase a nation frozen in revolutionary amber.
There’s a great line about Cuba – “Cuba got three things right: education, health care, and baseball. And it got three things wrong: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The food can be pretty bland. I would say it’s been wrong on lots of human rights issues as well (although the last ten yeas have seen massive improvements for the lesbian, gay, and transgender populations). But all the socialist good will hasn’t stopped men from being dicks. I have to side with the radical feminists on this one. You can get rid of capitalism, but until you get rid of patriarchy it’s the same old shit. Cuba libre.