“Socialismo o muerte.” I’m trying to soak in the beauty of my first moments in Havana, Cuba, but I can’t help but catch the revolutionary statement plastered on the brick wall coming out of the airport. The Cuban Revolution was 57 years ago, but I feel as if it was yesterday by all of the blood red propaganda and glorified warrior faces staring back at me along the streets. There’s never a lack of creativity for the presentation of this state-sponsored, one-way conversation. “Segue el combate.” “La historia me absolverá – Fidel.” “Patria o muerte.” “Hasta la victoria siempre.” As one of the first Americans in Cuba since the lift of the embargo, I can’t help but wonder how this system works. The road signs and constant monuments tell me exactly what the government thinks. I crave the real Cuban opinion.
I begin to ask questions of our Cuban tour guide, Raiko, as we sat in the breezy second story of the hotel in Santiago. He’s a tall, dark, slender 28 year old who loves to play the fence between government answers and truly revealing responses. Starting easy, I ask him about his favorite parts of the country. He quickly responds, “society. This is one of the only places I know of where neighbors truly help neighbors.” Nodding in agreement, I continue the inquiry. “What’s your least favorite part? Do the young people want more than Cuba can offer? Do you feel like Cuban citizens can truly have opinions independent of the government? Can you tell me about the CDR (Community for Defense of the Revolution)?” We had grown close enough that I could ask all of the tough questions, and I was more than happy to press in. He was very frank in return. Raiko told me about the CDR representatives that live in every housing complex in the country, how they evaluate every resident’s ideology, and how their reference is required when applying to any job. He expressed his frustrations with the education system as students are not invested because it is free of charge and all resulting salaries are the same regardless of performance. I noticed throughout his answers he seemed to pause a bit before responding to the next question, weighing the consequences behind his dark eyes. Sometimes he would even put air quotes around what he would say, implying the government would make him say that but he doesn’t necessarily always agree. By the end, I discovered that the current millennials represent the first materialist generation Cuban has ever seen. The young people want more, and it is creating a bit of panic as the government discerns how to react. Raiko finished by saying, “Socialism has good things and bad things, and capitalism has good things and bad things. I think we all need to find the middle.” We continued to sit together, playing dominoes and casually sipping rum, letting the conversation of immense difference and some slight frustration soak in.
It was through my Havana host mom, Myrna, that I caught more of the commercialist vibe of the young people in Cuba. She loved to catch me after meals as I brought my dishes into the kitchen. In asking about my day, she always added her snippets about her thoughts on our events. As a retired professor in her mid 50s caring for her 76 year old mother and 18 year old son, Myrna typically provided old and new perspectives on places and activities without solely landing on one specific opinion. As she folded my laundry, she picked up a pair of Nike shorts, saying, “all the young kids want these here,” in broken English. She described how the younger generation in Cuba is starting to want more than Cuba can currently provide. Spanish passports only allow Cuban citizens to travel to certain countries. Consequently, some Cubans travel to Ecuador with their Spanish passports and walk to the United States to buy material goods, coming back to Cuba and selling them illegally for almost 10 times the price. She explains, “I don’t understand it, but the young people just want more.” As I left the kitchen, Myrna’s words left me questioning whether the Cuban government will pull the rug out from underneath the young citizens or if the millennials have enough power to change the system.
Across the country West to East, from Havana to Playa Giron then Santiago to Santa Clara, the propaganda expanded. The agrarian presence intensified as the material availability lessened. With less chance to speak to natives in the area, the environment had to speak for itself. Increase of broken cardboard doors instead of iron fences, decrease in cars over horse drawn carriages, and increase in bare bodies rather than fully-clothed screamed for attention from me as a tourist and from the government as the controlling body. From my air-conditioned safe haven of a bus, I can’t imagine a life without the basic necessities. The blurred faces passing by suggested that the limited opinion Cubans are allotted to have doesn’t really reflect the true hearts of the people. I tried to imagine driving a tour bus of Cubans through American streets. What would they see? What questions would they ask to understand or defame our way of life? Recognizing the flaws in America’s heartless capitalism, I feel myself aligning more with Raiko than I believed I would. Both countries have heart-wrenching poverty, significant government presence, and severe problems in the educational systems that inspire the growth of the nation as a whole. There is little indication of the direction of these problems in the coming future, whether they will finally subside or only growth with continuing governmental conflicts. There is no telling where either country will end up within the next year. As I drift to sleep on the bus, seeing the blood red “socialismo o muerte” just before my eyes shut, my only thought is: what a difference 90 miles makes.