By Jack Vertovec (Anth’12)
As the car bumped along the uneven Cuban streets I peered out of the window and watched the buildings pass by in the late afternoon sun. We neared the Barrio Colón, a small neighborhood in Central Havana, where I pointed to a corner and told the driver to stop there. As the car lurched to a stop, I paid the customary 10 moneda nacional (US $.40), opened the car door and hopped out into the noisy and muggy Cuban evening.
The car took off and as I crossed the street I could hear the different horns honking in the distance. I hurried up the old marble steps of the apartment building of my friends Ivan and Maria. As I approached their door I could hear that the 170 square-foot home was full of friends and family. I knocked and the door quickly opened with a familiar smile on the other side. I hugged Maria, walked inside and sat down on the sofa.
Everyone was engaged in loud conversation and the nightly news, covering provincial elections, was playing in the background. Suddenly the room fell silent. Everyone intently focused on the TV. Curious, I turned to look at the screen and saw the back of an old man, hunched over while casting a ballot. As the man turned around, I noticed his long beard and immediately recognized who it was. Of course, by this time, everyone in the room had already recognized Fidel Castro.
At that very moment, a family friend walked into the room, continuing the conversation she had left moments ago. Everyone quickly shushed her. At first she looked around the room, appalled that her friends would quiet her. Quickly though, she saw who was on the screen and with wide eyes whispered, “Dios” (Oh my god).
On the screen, Castro moved towards the camera and began to speak to the Cubans watching him from their homes. He explained what a great opportunity it was to vote for whom he thought would be the best candidate to head the providence of Ciudad de La Habana (Havana City Providence). He also thanked the hard workers who were committed to a free and fair election. After he spoke, the camera panned to the local broadcaster who also had a look of surprise on her face.
The tiny room erupted into loud discussion after the camera cut to the studio. Some people laughed at Fidel’s statement about “free and fair elections,” yet most people were only interested in discussing how old he looked and how death was inevitably close for him.
A friend of mine turned to me and claimed that he had not seen Castro speak in more than five years. When I asked him what he thought, all he replied was, “Wow, es viejo!” (Wow, he is old!). I laughed and urged him to say more. He smiled at my curiosity and began to tell me how Castro has become something of a myth and a legend. According to my friend, there have been more than 250 assassination attempts on his life. He explained that Castro looked so old because he is 86 years old and has lived through a lot of different times. His description of Fidel Castro was cast in a romantic light and had someone not known my friend, one may have thought he was sympathetic to the current regime.
This was one of the difficulties I ran into while I conducted research for my senior honors thesis while studying abroad in Cuba during the summer of 2012. I never received a black and white answer to any of my questions. If I asked someone their perception of Fidel Castro as a person, their descriptions were almost too good to be true. If I asked them to describe Fidel Castro as the face of the government, they would quiet their voice and speak of the inequalities and atrocities that existed. It seemed they were proud of their country and its historical figures. Yet, they realized they were missing financial and political opportunities that existed in other parts of the world.
In the Cuban context there was another dichotomy that existed when I asked most people to discuss the opportunities they thought could come in the near future. Many times they would envision more financial opportunities coming after the death of the Castros, when the leadership changes. However the vast majority of Cubans I spoke with rarely blamed their hardships solely on the government. Often they suggested the embargo, or blockade as they call it, played a large part in the poverty and hardships that exist in the country.
Soon after the Cuban “triumph of the revolution” in 1959, the United States had imposed an economic blockade that has deterred its citizens from traveling to and spending money in Cuba. Also, this blockade has been implemented in order to try to limit the amount of foreign investment and trade (both imports and exports) in which Cuba engages. The embargo was created by the United States government in an effort to “financially strangle” the Cuban people. The U.S. government hoped this stranglehold would push Cubans into riots, revolts and eventually an overthrow of the Castros. Ultimately though, there was one consensus that stood out — Cubans are just as interested as we are in the ability to pave their own way with what they have and they put forth the effort to get ahead in life.
Of course, the resources and situations that have been presented to the Cuban population have been both positive and negative since the fall of the Soviet trading bloc and the opening of a more comprehensive global market. My research interests involve this scenario, specifically the effects international tourism has had on Cuban society since its re-introduction in 1990. For my honors thesis I used street hustling as a lens to evaluate how Cuban society has rippled since globalization in the form of foreign currency and culture has impacted Cuban lives. The Cuban variety of street hustling is all encompassing, ranging from prostitution to interactions between a Cuban and a foreigner where free market goods are involved.
I had the opportunity to enter the country legally with a summer abroad course offered by CU-Boulder. This study abroad program consisted of class from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. After class I took a “maquina” — an old American car that acts as a taxi for Cubans (priced at about 40 U.S. cents per direction) — to Central Havana to interact and engage with Cuban culture. Sometimes I allowed myself to get “hustled” while other times I sat and talked with local Cubans. Eventually I met a few different people who I still consider great friends and family. These people are a large reason why I hope to continue studying culture in Cuba.
The day I met Ivan and Maria (pseudonyms for their real names) was exciting for me as a researcher. I had been walking for a while in the typical Cuban heat, 95 degrees Fahrenheit with about 95 percent humidity, and had noticed a few handwritten signs nailed to different trees. After seeing about five of these, I finally stopped to read what was written. At the top of the note was “SE VENDE” (for sale). As I read on I got the impression that someone was selling their house — an indication of the gradual changes occurring within the country. While reading, I heard a voice behind me ask if I understood what the sign said. I grinned, knowing I was about to meet someone who could help with my research endeavors. I turned around and saw a man and woman sitting on a bench, enjoying a bit of afternoon shade. I approached the two Cubans, shook my head and asked if they could explain.
Ivan began by saying, “En Cuba, todo es la propiedad del gobierno” (Everything in Cuba is the property of the government). He continued by explaining that recently the government had allowed people to sell or rent their homes, allowing private ownership to occur. This measure was one of many, which also included the allowance of cell phone use by Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s younger brother, as a means to slightly shift the economy towards the free market. I was excited by the explanation because it provided me with a firsthand account of the changes occurring. At that moment I had no idea how valuable and important this conversation would turn out to be for the rest of my trip and beyond.
The quick interchange with Ivan and Maria allowed me to cross a line into the “real Cuba” in which I was desperately trying to gain access. It was a turning point to get a behind-the-scenes look at how life in Cuba is lived, which was my intention of studying in the country.
Afterwards Ivan and Maria invited me to their apartment to have some coffee and a quick snack. I agreed and silently applauded myself for having received an invitation into a Cuban home.
At least twice a week I ventured to their small apartment to eat dinner and play dominoes. I conversed openly with Ivan and Maria about anything from politics to religion to sports. Their home was a setting where I built fundamental knowledge regarding the transitions occurring in contemporary Cuba.
Having this space to converse and interact allowed me to change my perceptions of Cubans. Before I left for the island I thought the people were going to be vastly different from my friends and family here in the United States. Of course there are differences among us such as the food they eat, their unbreakable tie to music and dance and their willingness to share with one another. But overall, we are all humans living on the same planet. We all love to share the company with those that we love. We also become excited when we think of transitions, such as a change of governmental leadership or even a new job.
Perhaps Cuba seems different to me because those transitions are much clearer. The times of old in Cuba are marked by a physically old body still grabbing the attention of full rooms of people, while the future is coming rapidly in the form of young faces like Miguel Diaz-Canal, Raul’s current “successor.” It is for this reason that I hope to have the opportunity to continue with my studies in this beautiful and unique Caribbean country.
Jack Vertovec (Anth ’12) graduated from CU-Boulder in December 2012 where he earned magna cum laude in anthropology and minored in ethnic studies. He is waiting to hear from three different graduate programs where he hopes to continue his studies on contemporary transitions in Cuba and Latin America. His thesis, regarding the transitions within Cuban socialism after the fall of the Soviet trading bloc, is in the University of Colorado Honors Program archives. Read the online edition of his thesis. Jack works as a program assistant at the CU-Boulder Alumni Association.