In April, I traveled to Cuba to connect with the Cuban people and to see a country that battled with the United States government for decades following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
The recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the two countries began in 2014 under former President Barack Obama and subsequently loosened travel restrictions for US citizens to the small Caribbean island, joining scores of Canadian and European visitors.
There were many sides to the story of life in this small communist nation of nearly 11 million inhabitants and a reported GDP above USD 80 billion in 2015 (Trading Economics).
Foreign travel to Cuba inspired a growing cohort of Cuban entrepreneurs offering transport and housing. In cities like Havana and Trinidad, Cuban citizens welcomed opportunities to earn more money above their abysmal state-controlled salaries. But the hope of new income was contrasted against heavy taxes by the government on all earnings leaving most Cubans still struggling desperately to get by.
In Cuban towns, the poverty of means was also observable even if the spirit of the Cuban people remained optimistic and determined. A group of friendly retired tradesmen sat on a park bench and spoke of the “peaceful” people of Cuba, the quiet life there, and their “rich” history. If they harbored any grievances against life under Castro, they weren’t showing it.
In a larger bustling town, I listened to a group of men express a desire for improved economic relations with the US while fiercely playing dominos on a broken wooden table ready to collapse at any moment. That same day I accompanied a lively group of older fellows smoking Cuban cigars. These men waited for a government bus to take them to work harvesting crops but the bus never arrived.
And there was no shortage of government inspiration. Billboards everywhere defended solidarity, hard-work, and the unity of the Cuban village. The revolutionary message starred Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, among others. Cuban TV reminded viewers of the achievements of the late Fidel, paid homage to fallen revolutionary heroes, and rehashed the struggle against the imperial west.
If the Cuban people were unhappy with life or bothered with the endless propaganda, they were rarely willing to speak of it. Instead, they soldiered on in an acceptance of things as they were, some blissfully happy and others in apparent resignation to life’s “struggle.”
A starving man approached me at a service station on my last day. His bare feet and skeletal frame were visible to anyone who noticed. He pointed at my bag of snacks and I gave him everything without hesitation. Within seconds I observed him grinning and grunting amidst ferocious bites.
I appreciated the simplicity of Cuban life and the warmth of the people. I despaired at the overwhelming poverty, the decaying buildings and public services, and the mostly government- controlled life under a veil of unity.