The trope goes something like this – visit Cuba now before it becomes westernized with McDonalds and Subways; before the Americans ruin it and it becomes another Caribbean dump. That’s not entirely untrue, but that’s not the real reason you should visit Cuba.
Cuba was wealthy, well-educated, and boasted the region’s best educational and health care systems prior to the Revolution, but it was not an island paradise. The American puppet Batista regime stifled dissent and a permanent underclass lingered, which bred the discontent which culminated in the 1959 revolution. The Revolution is approaching its Diamond (60th) Anniversary and as the Castros still hold on to power, visiting Cuba offers a chance to see up close and personal the failure of the Cuban state.
Let’s not get into a capitalism v. communism discussion here. Let’s concede that the Castro regime is brutally oppressive and mismanaged the economy but the U.S. Embargo also shoulders the blame for the long-term economic downturn of the Cuban state. What does this all point to?
Though the architecture and classic cars are stunning, the real reason you should visit Cuba is to interact with the people. My trip was shaped by the narratives of those I interacted with –
- My driver Marco, from Cuba’s aspiring middle class
- His boss Liber, owner of All Ways travel agency and part of the well-connected elite
- Abel, a young Cuban man with no job beyond a small handicraft business and hitting up tourists for handouts
- Miguel, the true believer, the one who maintained that the Cuba truly was a paradise
- Carlos, the old man who needed milk for his children, who cursed the Cuban government
All told a unique story and all helped to form a picture of a country that is far too complex to be labeled good or bad, poor or rich. Each country is unique in its own way, but Cuba is acutely unique in our world.
Cuba is going to change and we should be thankful for that, for the people have suffered long enough. American products and culture will not be the savior of Cuba, but more liberalized trade and thawed diplomatic relations will certainly help the Cuban people better unlock their potential. More importantly, increased personal freedom, both in speech and commerce, will be vital for Cuba to outgrow as a nation its currently stunted growth pattern.
We see it already, as the Castro regime has slowly eliminated burdens on entrepreneurial ventures over the last few years, and start-ups have boomed, even if primitive by western standards. Nevertheless, the recent visit of the Pope showed some things have not changed — dissidents were not permitted to meet Francis and were kept under house arrest to ensure they would not be a disturbance.
Cuba is on the precipice of change, but the change you need to see is much more important than new buildings and new cars – it is a systemic change that will allow Cubans to better fulfill that deep human longing to work and to profit from their own hard work.
It is the people that remain by deepest memory of my first trip to Cuba. When you go, leave the confines of your hotel and tour bus, leave the confines of nightclubs and restaurants geared toward tourists, make it a point to talk to others and you will meet a remarkable people struggling to survive, uncertain of the future, but ready for change. That’s why you need to go to Cuba now.
Read more of my Cuba trip report:
Planning a Trip to Cuba
Los Angeles to Havana in TACA Economy Class
Visa Requirements for Visiting Cuba
Day One in Cuba: A Tour of Havana
Day One in Cuba: An Evening Surprise
Day Two in Cuba: Accused of Being An American Spy!
Day Two in Cuba: Escorted Flying
Day Two in Cuba: The Juxtaposition of Two Cubans
Havana to Los Angeles in TACA Economy Class
10 Tips for Visiting Cuba
Why You Should Visit Cuba Now