Visiting Cuba is like landing on another planet. Contrary to what we read, this is no Orwellian nightmare. I saw no thought police, just about no murals with Fidel's image, and I did not see one person who looked defeated. In fact, the people generally look happier, and have more spirit, than the typical New Yorker. That's not to say this is a utopian dream. The photos you've seen of the 57' Chevys, the war torn houses, and the hospitals that look like garbage dumps are real. In fact, Havana makes Detroit look like the Upper East Side of NYC.
Other images you might have expected are missing. I saw very few policemen. And I didn't see one tank patrolling the streets. The only soldiers I did see were guarding the Museum Of The Revolution, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were just part of the display.
I did see a lot of spirit and national pride displayed, especially when it came to the Cuban national team playing in The World Baseball Classic.
I even saw religious services. Even though Cuba is officially an atheist state, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Christians are allowed to practice their faith.
I heard there is virtually no major crime, though I did see prostitution, and the black market runs rampant. Just about everyone I met tried to sell me something, or asked me to send something from America that they could sell
Now here's something you might never expect: strong criticism of the government. The openness was surprising. I didn't see one person who didn't criticize it. Young people generally called Fidel and Raul dictators, with ministers that are "old men," out of touch with reality. But, interestingly, many people I met say the Castros only exert authority when they have strong disagreements with Cuba's elected assembly. Others say the assembly makes the laws and approves any dictums that come down from Raul. Who knows?
It's obvious to Cubans, especially younger ones, that if socialism is supposed to improve the quality of life, Castro has failed big time. They see that Cuba is just another 3rd world country with a failed economy, where people live on the equivalent of $25 per month. To be fair, the government does guarantee Cubans a certain percentage of caloric in-take to stay healthy. And Cubans do look very healthy. In fact, their life expectancy is exactly the same as ours.
Cubans are also guaranteed health care and an education, and illiteracy has virtually been eliminated. That's the good news about education. The bad news is that a good percentage of people with Masters Degrees are forced to wait tables. One of my tour guides learned six languages as an undergraduate and graduated law school. I gotta tell you, he's pissed." Why," he asks, "provide such a great education without being able to make use of it?"
I found something even more surprising than open criticism of the government. The younger generation, the angriest group of the Cubans I spoke to, do not want to lose the gains made by the revolution. While they do want to get rid of the Castros' repressive government, they want to keep the socialist economic system.
Criticism is also on display in the National Museum of Fine Arts, where there are many works of art that make critical statements about the government. One, for example, is a "birdcage" in the shape of Cuba that clearly expresses the anger Cuban people feel about being caged in by a repressive government. I didn't see too many pieces praising the revolution. I did see many wonderful paintings with Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero and advocate of freedom of expression, as the main subject.
Next door to the art museum is the Museum of The Revolution, where praise for the revolution and its leaders, Fidel and Che, are on display.
Remember that photo of Fidel riding into Havana on a tank? The tank sits right in front of the museum. (It's always great to see the real thing.) But also on display is the museum itself, showcasing the failures of the revolution. I've never seen a museum in such disrepair, just like many of the other government buildings.
This museum is really the only place I saw something praising the revolution. I barely saw billboards with Fidel's image. It's almost sad; Fidel and Che images are most visible in gift shops for tourists! These iconic figures are not pushed as heroes of the revolution, but peddled as pop hero merchandise.
Talking about merchandise being peddled: There are malls in Cuba with stores that sell the same name brands we're familiar with!
What you don't see are ads in newspapers advertising our name brands. The daily newspaper is just what you'd expect. It's a mouthpiece of the government. The paper has just one editorial writer who's Frank Rich, Rush Limbaugh, and Keith Oberman rolled into one. Fidel Castro!! He writes a daily column. And evidently Fidel's got something in common with Rush. Both fulminate about Barrack Obama scheming to destroy their way of life.
I know this. If the paper accepted letters to the editor, I'm sure we'd see a lot of angry response to Fidel's Obama columns. Most Cubans I spoke to cheer the election of Obama. They believe he'll improve relations and end the American economic embargo.
In the main, the people I spoke to believe the American embargo has just the opposite effect intended. It provides Castro with the propaganda tool he needs to maintain control, and contributes to the repression and starvation the Cuban people experience. The end of the blockade, the Cuban people feel, will bring American tourists with the money and freedom needed to create a new beginning for Cuba.
Andy Schupak is a freelance journalist living in New York.