The first time I heard about Cuba was from my Dad, when I asked him why his cigar was more special than the others he would smoke with his pals. The second time was in the form of the Che Guevara T-shirt, which by the mid-2000s had already become a cliched joke.
When I told a relative about my upcoming trip there, she explained her personal vendetta against Fidel Castro, who she blamed for ruining her 1959 summer vacation. Others want to talk about the old-timey cars. Personally, I’m interested in seeing if the economic woes of the Cuban people are as bad as the U.S. news media makes them out to be.
These anecdotes exhibit common tropes of how people in the U.S. view their Caribbean neighbor. The cigar represents the decadent Havana nightlife that existed in the American psyche prior to the Revolution. El Che represents the heroism of the Cuban Revolution, an ideal which, when confronted by the fact that Comrade Che and Company were real people who inhabited the real world, leaves over-idealistic communists feeling betrayed. The ruined vacation represents the animosity U.S. patriots and certain Cuban expats feel toward Fidel Castro. And the cars represent the idea that Cuba is simultaneously past its prime and stuck in time.
As a Communist myself, Cuba represents a model of “actually existing” socialism along with China, Vietnam and north Korea. These countries have adapted to the end of the Cold War in separate ways, but, in my opinion, Cuba has retained the most similarities to the old Soviet-style planned economies.
I can read about the USSR of old and the Cuba of today, but that cannot compare to seeing it. I am very curious and excited to see how a planned economy plays out on the ground.
There’s a good chance that once I return to the U.S., I’ll have lost my health coverage, but I’ll still be able to buy over-the-counter medicine from any convenience store. Compare that to a country with universal health care and some of the best-trained doctors in the world, but with critical shortages in over-the-counter medicine.
I know that like all tropes, none of these impressions of a country come anywhere close to representing the truth. But it’s a good idea to take account of symbolic baggage in an attempt to leave it at the door.
By this time next month, I will have joined the 27th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba. This is a project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace. IFCO was founded by progressive churches in 1967 to practice an activist form of Christianity. In 1992, it organized the first caravan to protest the so-called Cuban Democracy Act, which updated the U.S. blockade against the country.
During the Cold War, Cuba was able to receive aid and goods from the USSR, but afterwards the country was left to fend for itself and suffered severe shortages of essential goods. The caravanistas delivered 15 tons of humanitarian aid, including powdered milk, medicines, Bibles, bicycles, and school supplies. This aid increased year after year, despite often being detained and fined by U.S. officials.
In a brave act of defiance, IFCO has refused to apply for an official license to deliver aid, recognizing that these licenses are really an attempt to manipulate the Cuban government into accepting “regime change.” The caravanistas have continued this direct action even after the Obama détente, which made travel to Cuba easier for U.S. citizens.
Now that Trump has started to reverse some elements of the U.S.-Cuba thaw, we are unsure of what sort of response we can expect from his State Department. But we are sure that we will challenge it!