One begins to feel there is something different about Havana before ever leaving the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Travelers carry large bundles of goods for family living in Cuba. Older American women passing by make disapproving comments about travel there, a hint of lingering McCarthyism in their voices. The flight attendant makes jokes about the city in Spanish, the full meaning of which I can’t understand but the tone of which tells me there’s a statement embedded somewhere in them. There’s a tension, an excitement, an intrigue, a hope – much like the city itself.
I arrive at Havana’s José Martí International Airport Terminal 2, a small, un-air-conditioned building that used to serve as the hub for private jets and chartered flights. There are no jet bridges, and I climb down the large rolling staircase onto the tarmac. It’s not all that different from other small Caribbean airports I’ve flown into, but the history – the mafia, the Kennedys, the revolution – makes all of this seem very foreign.
The women working security in customs are wearing tight, Fidel-green mini skirts and fishnet tights, quickly allaying any predisposed American fears I might have had about entering a Communist country for the first time. At least some things aren’t censored. And with a process easier than boarding a plane in the U.S., I’m in – that forbidden island, the Pearl of the Caribbean.
For so long, Cuba has been wrapped up in mystery and a hint of danger for most Americans. On one hand, it’s vintage cars and romance, Hemingway and The Godfather. On the other, it’s Communism and cold wars and the monster in the closet. For those whose families left, it’s something else: loss, affection, a phantom pain.
“Oh, how exotic,” people respond when I tell them about my travel plans.
But Cuba isn’t exotic; it’s Cuba, a real place, with real people. It’s fascinating, complex and uncategorized. By the end of the first night in Havana, I’m perplexed and in love. Though there are only 90 miles between Havana and Key West, Cuba feels thousands of miles away from anything I know.
I’d tried to briefly educate myself on Cuba’s history before arriving. Shortly after the discovery of the New World, the Spanish colonized the island, bringing with them disease and centuries of African slavery. Much of the country’s farmland began being used for sugar, concentrating the country’s industry and concentrating wealth among those who ran it. After multiple attempts to gain independence from Spain, Cuba finally did so in 1898, with support from the United States. Spain’s ruling presence was quickly replaced by American occupation and influence, including influence on the economy and politics.
One of Cuba’s early presidents was Fulgencio Batista, whose first term led to a relatively progressive constitution in 1940, as well as several freely elected presidents that succeeded him. However, not content to be removed from power, in 1952 Batista reclaimed the presidency through a coup. This time it looked more like a dictatorship, with a side of corrupt dealings with the mafia. It’s no wonder Cuba was poised for yet another revolution.
Sixty years later, the 1959 Communist revolution still permeates everything, and it feels more personal than political. Billboards with pictures of Fidel, Raúl, Che and Camilo dot the landscape like the Marxist Beatles, quotes and statements like “homeland or death” printed like lyrics. You say you want a revolution. In a country where advertising is banned, they’ve figured out how to cut through the clutter so many marketers face.
But the revolution is more than an event. It’s referred to almost as a state of being, a lifestyle, a thing that must be maintained. It’s also the year the clock broke, the dividing line between “before” and “after”. Regardless of your opinion on it, it’s what defines your life. It’s when the narrative shifted, when families split, when your countrymen were exiled, when Havana was turned into a decaying and beautiful time capsule.
Havana is a stunningly beautiful city, despite the peeling paint and crumbling infrastructure. With little driving modern development (the newest part of the city is Vedado, and it dates back to the 1950s), much of the city’s original structures have been kept. Old Havana boasts elegant Spanish architecture – tall columns, intricate tiles, bright colors and terraces overlooking the streets. Without the resources to maintain them, buildings collapse in Havana every day, and the ones that remain look time-worn and weather-worn. In a way, it’s a part of its character, like a face made more captivating by its deep wrinkles and the story within them.
The streets of Havana brim with life. Music floats through the air all hours of the day, friends congregate in doorways, tourists and locals alike catch a breath of heavy, sticky air and observe the streets below from their balconies. There is no boundary between street and sidewalk, car horns blaring and bike bells ringing to part the sea of pedestrians in the streets. Friends greet each other with holas and kisses, and after dark, they gather on the seaside Malecón – jokingly referred to as “the nation’s couch” – for nightly parties. Art weaves its way through the city, from murals on the sides of buildings to the hip Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old cigar factory turned mixed media art gallery, music venue, bar, restaurant and nightclub.
Cuba today is a country of contradictions. There is free healthcare, but it can be difficult to find Tylenol. There are palatial hotels with water you can’t drink. There are ‘get out the vote’ campaigns all over the city, but only one political party. The general sentiment? “It’s complicated.”
Don’t try to understand it. Just enjoy it, I’m told.
The opportunity “to travel back in time” is part of the charm for tourists who live in a world of mass production and the cloud and planned obsolescence. We know we’d build million-dollar condos on the Malecón, put McDonald’s on every corner, and we flock to Havana for the fact that they’ve resisted this urge, tuned out the bottom line whispering in their ear, both the angel and the devil on our shoulders. We look to Havana as hindsight not in 20/20 but in 3D – a world of craftsmanship and simpler times and human connection we can reach out and touch.
But in Havana, an influx of capital doesn’t sound so bad. The things Americans tend to romanticize are at times, a simplification (Cuba has in fact experienced many changes the last 60 years); at times, a source of Cuban culture and pride and at times, a symptom of economic hindrances that many Cubans would like to see change.
The deck should be stacked against Cuba. Years of occupation by foreign powers. Decades of restrictions from its own government. The “Special Period” where ally support dwindled and the country was sent into an economic spiral. And if that wasn’t enough, the United States, after years of meddling in Cuban politics, turned its back on the small island, treating it like a leper, banning it economically, shutting it out relationally.
Salaries in Cuba are more or less fixed around $25 a month, regardless of position or experience. Everyone receives food rations – enough to cover part but not all of their nutritional needs. Housing, conditions notwithstanding, is provided, as is healthcare and education. I don’t witness the sheer desperation that exists in some of its impoverished island neighbors, but survival can be a hard job, with monthly salaries stretched to meet the many needs beyond the government ration card. Shortages on basic goods like deodorant are common – rooted in the government’s elimination of all branded products, sluggish production and a lack of trade opportunities. Opportunity also feels generic, rationed. Desperation could easily be replaced with resignation.
But Cuba has always run on ingenuity…and things in Cuba are slowly changing. I travel to Cuba under the Support for the Cuban People visa, which requires me to spend the majority of my time and money with private entrepreneurs – a fluctuating concept in today’s Cuba. After Raúl Castro took over the presidency in 2008, he began easing restrictions and allowing individuals to open small service-based businesses. The budding private sector includes casa particulares, rented rooms or apartments in a Cuban family’s home, and paladares, family-owned restaurants that are also often located in a home.
Coming from a place where commerce is the norm and “non-profit” is equated with “good,” it’s eye-opening to be reminded of the power of business. It’s shifting the dynamics of equality, but also of poverty. It’s turning people with PhDs into cab drivers, causing students to forgo college for a job as a waiter in a private restaurant – one of the higher paying professions thanks to tips in CUCs, the tourist currency, which is tied to the dollar. It feels like a different type of revolution is brewing, one built on mixology classes and Airbnb.
And Havana is like a flower growing in the desert, determined to bloom even in harsh conditions. Fine dining restaurants are tucked away in rotting out colonial mansions. Trendy European-style brunch spots thrive in a country where everyone gets only five eggs a month. Dinner service continues each night despite shortages on certain ingredients. List the menu items you don’t have tonight and move on.
In the private restaurants I visit, the staff are young and beautiful and hip – Instagram-worthy without Instagram. Trendy movie posters and old signs hang on the walls, the spaces minimalist and urban. This could be Brooklyn or Portland, except these aren’t old things for the sake of being cool. These are born of necessity and economy and embargo.
It’s an uncertain place to embark in an uncertain profession, but the budding small businesses in Havana aren’t just functional; they’re artistic, brimming with ingenuity, resourcefulness and life. The core human desire to create is splattered across the city’s paladares like the graffiti that lines the city’s streets. The country’s newly permitted class of entrepreneurs are not just working to make life better for themselves, but to build something that matters.
In a place where survival is given, people still fight for something more.
The Cuban people are proud, patriotic, with a certain joie de vivre and a deep love for country. Everyone I encounter asks if its my first time in Cuba and then checks to make sure I’m having a good time — something Cubans haven’t forgotten how to do despite the challenges of daily life. Beaming eyes and smiles greet me when I say, yes, it’s been “muy bueno”. Cab drivers play their favorite Cuban artists for me when they find out I’m from “la cuidad de musica” in Estados Unidos. It’s like being introduced to someone’s lover after years of secrecy, and they hope you love her too.
While the desire for progress is clear, it’s also tempered with a desire for that progress to come from within, to preserve the things that are special and resist the mistakes of others. At its core is the determination that’s always been there – independence. The right to be uniquely and unapologetically Cuba.
On the last day of the trip, I take a salsa dancing class at a family-run studio on a rooftop in Playa, a quiet seaside neighborhood on the west side of the city. Salsa originated in Cuba, and it’s still very much a part of the country’s rhythm, its beating heart.
I try to memorize the steps, to overthink the dance, to count, to turn the beat into math.
My teacher and dance partner, far more focused on feeling than perfection, scolds me:
“Stop anticipating what’s coming next. You know the steps; relax and react to what happens.”
It’s a philosophy that guides salsa, but perhaps also life in Cuba.
The government keeps changing the rules around private businesses, expanding opportunities then increasing restrictions as businesses become more successful. With everything centralized, in a country where change has been promised a thousand times and yet always feels right around the corner, you can’t anticipate – only react and keep moving.
I begin to see that’s part of the ironic freedom of Cuba – when things are complicated, you can live in the tensions, something Americans are seemingly forgetting how to do. When you have little control, you can let go of the desire to cling to it. As a visitor, you have to let go of the desire to draw conclusions, to fit Cuba into a neat little box in your mind.
Instead, you have to steep in Cuba, and as you do, the grit and the history and the complexity becomes art and magic. It’s the music in the streets, the old woman dancing salsa on her balcony at midnight, the sunsets on the Malecón, the longing and the hope. It’s waking up to breakfast on a terrace and dirt in the streets, to daiquiris and a mother trying to make this month’s rice and milk last. It’s all the things at once, which makes it feel so real and so alive and so human.
And maybe that’s why we love Cuba – because it’s complicated like us. It’s a desire for equality and a desire to make more of our individual lives. It’s the search for independence and collective identity. It’s joy and struggle, roots and wings, pain and pride and the human spirit that will always seek to create and soar.
It’s all of us.