Over spring break, the Vassar College Choir, Women’s Chorus and Madrigal Singers visited Cuba. We traveled about Havana and Matanzas for choral exchanges with two professional Cuban conductors and their talented choirs. While we were carted around the beautiful areas of the cities, gazed upon artwork in carefully maintained museums and swam in the crystal blue waters of the Florida Strait, Cuban pro-democracy demonstrators were planning protests for President Obama’s visit the very next week. As my classmates and I enjoyed the government-funded façade, the few brave Cuban protesters were planning to speak out for their freedom of speech and assembly. On March 20, they were dragged out of the streets and squares by the Cuban police and hauled off to jail.
I was born in Miami and I have lived there all my life. From a young age, I have listened to my friends’ abuelitos tell of their escape and their triumph of settling in America. All are grateful for the opportunity to live in freedom and pursue success in our country, but wary of the still-existing oppressive regime in the country they left behind. I was too.
My classmates were not and did not see the situation as I did. We were lucky enough to witness no violence while visiting. That said, we did witness the practical applications of the Communist government that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the 26th of July Movement instilled upon Cuba.
Of course, our tour guides painted a beautiful picture of Cuba. They named Cuba a “socialist” government, complete with free education and healthcare for all. They claimed that all people are given housing, rations and clothes for work or school. With no income inequality, Cuba sounds like a dream; a dream that many Vassar students seek to realize.
While this sounds lovely, the realities of Cuban life are far more complex. Income inequality does not exist, likely because there is little income to speak of. The average worker is paid 24 dollars a month by the government (75 percent of jobs are government jobs).
Our guides claimed that the people “did not need the money” because of the provisions of the government. Still, many children attend school with no shoes or never experience even a modicum of luxury. As just one example, Yannay, our guide, said that many children have never known the taste of candy simply because their parents cannot afford it.
As the goods in Cuba are scarce and expensive, many families turn to a black market, in Spanish por la izquierda (“to the left”), to find more affordable options. Often appliances are bought this way, though they require hundreds of dollars that many Cuban people do not have.
Living conditions are substandard. Few Cuban people have access to air conditioning. Like Miami, the heat and humidity in Cuba can be stifling even with air conditioning. In addition, entire families may live in just two or three rooms.
As soon as you step outside of a tourist plaza, it is clear the houses and buildings are in disrepair. As the government’s top officers buy new cars and live in extravagant mansions, the people are left behind in squalor, few lucky enough to own the 1950s cars we foreigners find so charming.
Due to the ration system, items such as toilet paper are in short supply. Every time we went to the bathroom, we would pay to get toilet paper and hand towels. Even our hotel did not have air conditioning in every room, nor did they keep our rooms very clean.
There were bugs everywhere. The showers shut off when too many people are showering and the toilets spit water back at you when you flush. Oftentimes, we were encouraged not to flush at all. No wonder everyone on the trip was ready to leave within the week.
Though the tour guides did not voice much discontent towards their standard of living, the truth oozes from every crumbling brick, from the tanks and jets outside of the old Presidential Palace (now a Museum of the Revolution) and from the beggars walking the streets. In truth, the Cubans do not appear to be happy and can do nothing about it, for fear of being arrested and silenced.
Most of my fellow travelers did not acknowledge the suffering behind the façade. I had put off writing this article for weeks, simply because of my fear that many will not like what I have to say. I have learned that the truth is difficult to accept when people have been indoctrinated by propaganda.
This is the Cuba that some of my classmates did not want to see. This is the Cuba I saw. Not one person on that trip was from Miami and not one was Cuban. Before we claim that our tourist-oriented, rose-colored choral tour was the real Cuba, we have to step back and see the human rights violations and tragedies of these people.
We have to remember why so many Cubans risked their lives to flee Cuba, and virtually none have ever returned. With the opening of Cuban-American relations, we can only hope that the struggles of Cuban people are not ignored. The political leanings and views of those who leave Cuba have towards their former homeland are informed by the oppressive conditions they once lived under.
I hope that the pro-democracy protesters do not fight in vain, but so long as we praise Cuba, their voices will be silenced by ours. Drowning out the experiences of those actually living under these conditions ignores the complexity of their day-to-day struggles. For six weeks, when people asked how my Cuba trip was, I’ve responded, “Fun, it was fun to bond with other students.”
Now, no matter the reaction, I think that the candid approach will better serve the Cuban people’s cause and reflect their struggles. I am grateful to Vassar for the opportunity to experience this firsthand.