I’ll tell you up front that my personal vehicle has crowns of rust on the rear wheel wells and an interior that smells vaguely of dog puke. It’s a 2006 Mazda3 with 150,244 miles on it and it gets me around my modest world well enough, but I sure never considered it the stuff of headlines—until I went to Cuba, an experience that tuned up my feelings about several American phenomena.
I’d booked the trip because I wanted to get out of this American time. Cuba seemed like a prime destination for escape: a nearby yet isolated island where the culture had developed without… well, us. But after United Flight 1502 had touched down in an airfield where lush green hangs over the encircling chain-link fence and a rusted sedan dropped my husband Fletcher and me in trash-strewn central Havana, I began to understand that Cuba isn’t so much a great place to get lost in as a place to get found in.
“Why are rich countries rich?” Alexander asked us, from the front seat of his 1955 Easter-egg-pink Ford Fairlane. He glanced our way in the rearview mirror, beneath which a huge yellow Taxi sign rested on the glossy pink dash. His tone tipped us off that his query was rhetorical, so we waited patiently for the answer. “They suck something from somewhere else,” he said. “And that’s why Cuba is poor. We never suck nothing from no one.”
What little we knew about Cuban history confirmed this, so Fletcher and I nodded.
Alexander wondered aloud about the US embargo—el bloqueo, as it’s called here. How could Washington still be afraid of Cuba? He gestured at the scenery, mostly vegetation punctuated by the occasional lone roadside vendor selling ropes of garlic or handfuls of potatoes. “We have nothing here,” he said.
“You know what the Cuban dream is?” he continued. “To own a car.”
We hadn’t, in fact, known this. And while Alexander himself was apparently doing well by this metric, most of his country is not. Cuba is famous for its antique American cars, a favorite attraction for tourists. But to Cubans, those ancient vehicles—whose only original parts are their steel bodies, welded together and repainted untold numbers of times—are just evidence of their island’s pervasive scarcity. There certainly aren’t enough cars, or buses, or motorcycles, or motor scooters, for all the people who want them. This was a fact with which I became personally acquainted on my second day in the country when Fletcher and I tried to buy bus tickets out of the capital city. Everything, we’d discovered, was booked. Everything! And the bus stations were mobbed with people trying to get their hands on tickets.
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I was learning that Cuba is a lot more complicated than it appears from the north side of the Straits of Florida. In the United States, we generally only talk about Cuba since 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power, publicly renounced US imperialism, declared his communist intentions, and cozied up with the Soviet Union. Washington responded first with the embargo, now more than half a century old, and later with several attempts to topple or simply assassinate Castro. No dice on unseating or killing el líder (despite the CIA’s poisoned cigars and exploding seashells), but the embargo, which prohibited trade with Cuba and made it illegal for Americans to visit—and which surely hurts innocent Cubans far more than any government official—has stuck. In 2016, President Obama relaxed some of its rules so that Americans can now legally visit, subject to certain limitations; our new president could rescind that freedom on a whim.
But there’s another part of the Cuban story, the part where American corporations expeditiously capitalized on the destruction left behind by Cuba’s long war for independence from Spain, buying up land and taking over much of the island’s lucrative sugar industry at the turn of the 20th century. The United Fruit Company, more famous for inflicting lasting damage in Central and South America than in the Caribbean, ran a titanic sugar operation in Cuba, and did the same thing there as in other Latin American countries: It extracted wealth and funneled it to American bank accounts. When Castro came on the scene with plans to overthrow US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, he was successful in part because that grim history of American exploitation helped make his revolution popular. In the United States, we generally omit this part of the story.
And once you’ve glimpsed that fuller picture, it sure seems like Castro had justice on his side when he emerged victorious on New Year’s Day 1959, although things soon grew complicated for the Cuban people. It’s true that Castro would orchestrate certain genuine social achievements like a national health-care system and near universal literacy, but he also set about executing his political opponents and closing down radio and television stations that weren’t controlled by the state. Over the ensuing decades, large numbers of people were imprisoned for political crimes, and others starved for lack of basic foodstuffs under the communist regime. Things got especially tricky when the Soviet Union, a crucial trade partner for the little country (given the US embargo), imploded. Millions of Cubans fled to the United States and elsewhere. Like so many other struggles in human history, what had begun as an uprising against an oppressor became a new form of oppression. And despite its embargo and its past acts, the United States, the former oppressor, became, for many Cubans, a sort of savior.
From the back seat of Alexander’s 1955 Ford, we toured the Bay of Pigs, the very spot where thousands of CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed under the cover of darkness in 1961 with doomed hopes of overthrowing Castro, and where American B-26 bombers (slyly repainted to look like Cuban Air Force planes) flew overhead on orders from officials in Washington who hoped for the installation of a pro-US government. Washington wasn’t motivated by a desire to help the Cuban people, naturally, but rather to refashion this Caribbean island into the American toy that it had for so long been.
Today, around that same bay, there’s a string of quiet beach towns where you can buy fruit from a horse-drawn cart—not because horse-drawn carts are quaint and charming, but because the fruit vendor couldn’t get his hands on a car.
Two Cars in Dallas
Cubans don’t chat about the matter casually, but there were 7,900 reports of arbitrary detention of Cuban citizens by their government in just eight months in 2016, according to Human Rights Watch. Those detained are regularly accused of “counter-revolutionary,” or anti-government, activities. It’s common practice for detainees to be beaten and held for days without access to a phone or other means of communication. At the same time, the government maintains control of all sanctioned media outlets and blocks access to nearly all others, so information is scarce. Independent journalists are routinely jailed.
As it turns out, just a few days before I landed in Cuba a journalist was arrested while en route to Havana, where he planned to cover a ceremony in which political dissidents would present an award to a Uruguayan diplomat who had spoken out against the Cuban government. The journalist, who had previously co-founded a magazine that’s critical of living conditions in Cuba, was charged with “fomenting enemy propaganda.” He never made it to Havana to cover the ceremony, but that didn’t really matter, because the Uruguayan diplomat was denied a visa to enter the country, and the whole thing had to be canceled.
I was still only becoming acquainted with such facts when I met Cedro, who gave Fletcher and me a brief walking tour of sewage-scented central Havana. We quickly began to chat and soon our conversation strayed into his personal life, including the fact that both his children had left Cuba in search of opportunity elsewhere. His older son had gone to Costa Rica and then traveled north until finally crossing the US border. Now the son and his wife live in Dallas, where they own two cars. Cedro emphasized the part about the cars. So they were finally living the Cuban dream—in north Texas.
Cedro was a lot more delicate when it came to discussing Cuban politics. Dancing around my questions about life here, he finally shook his head and said, “One president all these years? One person can’t do it. And here, the president also controls the army.” He pantomimed getting shot.
One afternoon in Havana, while I was walking along a promenade that stretched from the capital to the coast, I passed a group of police with two muzzled German shepherds. Milking my foreign innocence, I went up to them and asked, “What are the dogs for?” I figured they might not be too forthcoming, so I offered a possible answer: “Drugs?”
One of the officers, a woman, nodded. Then an officer by her side made a gesture I’d already seen several times: the right hand closing over the left wrist. I wasn’t sure quite what it meant in this context, but it didn’t seem impossible that it was the fate of nosy foreigners, so I nodded, smiled, and continued on my way.
In Plaza Vieja, in Havana’s most touristy neighborhood, I met a kid named Alex who works as a bow-tied waiter at an open-air café. We first spoke in Spanish, but when I faltered he switched to flawless English, explaining that he’d taught himself the language by watching old American movies. A self-starter, you could call him. He told me that he has family in Nevada, but when I asked if he was considering emigrating, he shook his head ruefully. He has to keep working to support his family here, he said. But if he could, he went on, he would head for the United States and go to college.
Brief though my trip was, I met many Cubans like Alex. And each of their stories was a reminder of the pull of the superpower to the north, whose economy is still a magnet for the rest of the planet. Despite deplorable American politics, past and present, the United States still glowed with the promise of something better.
Hitting the Road in a Mazda3
From the Bay of Pigs, we took a shared taxi through Cienfuegos, a city in central Cuba, and then south toward the coast again, speeding through Jurassic Park–like terrain in a 1948 DeSoto as the wind blew my hair. We hiked a damp forest in a mountainous region and spotted a prairie warbler, a yellow songbird that migrates thousands of miles to nest in the Northeastern United States, often in trees outside my home.
When only a day remained before our flight back to the States, we climbed into another shared taxi, a 1990 Peugeot, in which Fletcher rode shotgun and I sat in the narrow back seat with a French couple. On our way to Havana, we soon got to chatting with the driver, Jimeno (not his real name), who looked to be in his early 30s. This was not, he told us, his car. Rather, he works for a company that pays him peanuts to spend 14 hours a day shuttling tourists between the coast and the capital city.
For a while, we drove on in silence. Then he said something I hadn’t heard from anyone else. Perhaps, he commented, sometime after 85-year-old Raúl Castro, the country’s president, passes away, there will be an actual election in Cuba.
“Do you think that will happen in your lifetime?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” he said.
Since Fidel’s reign began 58 years ago, the Cuban people have not had a meaningful say in their country’s future. Over the same period, the United States has elected 12 different presidents.
I had come here because I wanted to escape the newest of those presidents and this fearful time in the United States. In choosing Cuba, I had exercised a small, touristic freedom that we may soon lose, depending on how our new leader uses his considerable, though not limitless, power. But I had escaped nothing, it turned out, in part because in our present world of intricate and intricately connected troubles, a world in which vast population transfers are becoming commonplace and in which literally millions of people are crossing borders in varying states of desperation, it’s an illusion to think that anywhere could be an escape.
Instead of leaving my country behind, I spent two weeks in Cuba rediscovering it. I grew intimately familiar with some of the worst of our history, which so many of us are quick to ignore or elide, but also with some of the best parts of our national identity. For all our screw-ups, and even as we continue to create disasters around the world and deny our responsibility for them, we’re still a place of possibility. It turns out that even my rusty Mazda is evidence of that.
And here was the secret prize in my box of Cuban crackerjacks: Our new leader and his benighted crew in Washington suddenly looked so much smaller, shrunk to the size of a half-forgotten island, shrunk to the size of a single episode in an endless history. I had glimpsed some of what’s bad about my own country, but also what remains hopeful, and both are far bigger than Donald Trump and will surely persist long after he’s but an unsavory page in history. More importantly, each of us here in the United States has a small yet crucial role to play in what happens next. It’s something I think about every time I put the key in my Mazda3 and hit the road.