THE BLOG
01/15/2015 12:28 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

The Fantasy of a Cuba Where Time Stood Still

Ruth Behar

"I want to see Cuba before it changes..."

That’s what everyone is saying lately. Flights to Cuba and the island’s hotels are almost all booked up for the year. The mad rush is underway -- Americans want to get to Cuba before Fidel Castro dies, before the U.S. embargo is lifted. While growing numbers of Cuban rafters throw themselves into the perilous sea to get to our shores, fearing that U.S. immigration policy will soon change, Americans rush in the other direction to see the once-forbidden island that they assume is on the verge of being turned into just another Americanized tourist destination.

This assumption -- that Cuba has remained frozen in time for more than 50 years -- is rooted in a long American romance with the island. As early as 1821, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the American desire to possess Cuba, declaring, "I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States." Although territorial dreams were held in check (except for the base of Guantánamo), the U.S. sought to develop Cuba in its own image. The Hotel Habana Libre, where Fidel Castro set up his first office, was the Habana Hilton. Cadillacs and Buicks were tested on the Malecón before they raced down Route 66. Corn Flakes and Colgate were available to Cubans who could afford them.

Many Cubans came to resent their role in this Pygmalion script. And so they bit the hand that fed them and carried out a revolution in the backyard of the United States. A Caribbean island whose legacy was tobacco and sugar, gambling, prostitution and tourism, Cuba claimed a greater role in history than anyone dared to imagine. The U.S. response was to slap Cuba with an embargo that turned the island into an object lesson of how a naughty country could be punished. When Cuba then turned to communism, those who stayed chose a life without the limitless flow of American comforts and commodities.

Curiously, the fascination that Americans today have with the island has everything to do with the fact that Cuba managed to exist for a half century without the United States being there. Cuba represents a welcome departure from what many consider the worst aspects of American culture. Those who have already visited Cuba feel blessed to have gone before the "ugly Americans" swarm the gates. A neighbor in Ann Arbor put it this way: "What's so compelling about going to Cuba is to be away from the things I don't like about the U.S. You can go to Bali or Thailand and still see a McDonald's on the corner. Visually, there's something so gratifying, not seeing anything that represents the commercialization of our world. That the U.S. is not there is a huge relief."

Rather than feeling triumphant about the spread of capitalism, my neighbor is concerned about the destructive influence that American-capitalist values will have in Cuba. There is already an anticipation of nostalgia. Once the authenticity and charm of Cuba vanishes, Americans will no longer have such a poignant and nearby destination to express disaffection with their own culture.

Cuba is a fantasy preserved in amber, an enchanted place where time supposedly stood still after the U.S. went away. Sometimes it seems Americans want to go to Cuba to gawk at the absurdity of the island's great utopian hopes, to gaze pityingly as Cubans struggle to navigate a byzantine system just to put food on the table, to gasp at the ruins of Havana as if they were at Pompeii, to ride in an immaculate 1950s muscle car wearing a Che T-Shirt, imagining themselves revolutionaries, to unplug from the Internet so they can truly "connect," to step into this strangely exotic flora without having to suffer themselves, knowing that at the end of the day an air-conditioned hotel room will offer them a good night's sleep in the tropics.

It is a mistake not to recognize that Cuba has been in flux all these years. The political system may be unchanged, but Cuban society and culture haven't been static. Long before Raul Castro's announcement of resumed ties with the United States, the key question on all Cuban tongues was when the americanos would be coming back. The yumas are the best tourists; you can count on their 15 percent tip. But will they exploit Cuba as they did in the past? Genuine believers, who made sacrifices for the revolution, are worried. But many Cubans dream of a living wage, getting an iPhone, shopping at a Home Depot for supplies to fix their houses, traveling and seeing family and friends, and communicating easily with the rest of the world.

Not that Cubans are isolated from the world. Far from it. I know someone who jumps through hoops to get three hours of time on the Web every night. She buys the time from a friend who is married to a foreigner and has full access. This is how she keeps up on Facebook and sees what's on sale at Target. It's a dial-up connection, turtle-slow, but if there's a blouse she likes, she saves up, then asks a mula, who goes back and forth to Miami, to bring it on her next trip. And those ubiquitous American cars -- they're called almendrones, or almond husks, for a reason -- if you pop open the hood, you'll see that all the innards have long since been replaced by modern Lada, Toyota, and Hyundai parts. Cubans humbly say they have to inventar. But they aren't simply inventors. They are creative geniuses whose ability to crack the Rubik's Cube of capitalism while living under communism reflects a postmodern savviness rather than a premodern backwardness.

Let's face it: Cuba has already changed. For the sake of turning a new leaf in U.S.-Cuba relations, it would be wise for Americans to ask themselves whether they want to engage with a fantasy of Cuba, or the real place in all its complexity and contradictions. The moment has come to cease thinking of Cuba as a primitive country frozen in time and to treat its people with the respect they have paid such a high price to attain.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").