Before I went to Cuba in 2014, I honestly did not know what to expect. The decision to go to Cuba was made last-minute—I was in a small town in Northern Mexico then, trying to figure out where to go next. I have heard the stories about travelers leaving to Cuba from Northern Mexico and decided it would not be a bad idea to check out a new country.
As a result, I embarked on a journey to Cuba, a mysterious place that had been out of the public eye for Americans for more than half a century.
To my uttermost surprise, Cuba was infinitely fun and very different from what one might have had expected. By the end of my five-day excursion in old town Havana, I had totally fallen in love with that city and have dreamed of a future return ever since. Additionally, I saw the enormous benefits that an improvement in diplomatic relationship between the United States and Cuba could bring to people in both countries.
Before jumping into the details, I want to say that, from this point on in my article, I will take on a risk to describe my experiences in Cuba solely based on my time spent in old Havana (or “old town” in Havana) and Hemmingway’s private mansion, which is 10 miles east of Havana. With a full disclaimer, I understand and believe that the lives of people who live in other parts of Cuba are really different from the lives of people who I saw in old town.
If one asks me to describe my fondness to Havana in one sentence, I would recount it as a unique blend between the old-time, historic European and the warm, hospitable Latin American cities. The ancient architecture in Havana is being preserved incredibly well—perhaps a consequence of the city’s lack of development—and, as a result, tourists find themselves wandering into a historical city brimming with delicate nineteenth-century European architecture. Nevertheless, contrary to many European cities (like Edinburgh, where you almost feel you can hear the sound of a needle dropping on the floor in the evening), Havana is full of energy, an energy that is innate to Latin American people, who are generally known for their hospitality and genuine expressions. As a result of its history and its geography, Havana becomes an incredible place that offers simultaneously artistic pleasantness and glee to visitors.
Nevertheless, there is also shadow under the brightness. Because of the embargo the United States put on Cuba in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution, Cubans suffer from lack of raw materials and a good variety of food in their day-to-day lives. Even as a visitor, I had seen and experienced the pain of living under the embargo. For instances, when I was waiting in line to use the public bathroom, I overheard two women discussing the difficulty of getting good quality sausage from the ration center; when I was coming back to the city center from Hemingway’s residence ten miles east of Havana, my driver had to stop in the mid-way to repair a worn tire, and resumed our journey after he finished replacing the old tire with a slightly less worn “new” tire (because of the embargo, Cuba lacks some of the most basic resources like rubber, used to manufacture tires); when I was enjoying the hotel’s free breakfast, the lack of diversity of food on the table is evident. The embargo caused tremendous pain to the lives of Cubans, which only was served as the negative example of U.S. hegemony in the country.
The United States embargo against Cuba was originally intended to be the 'stick' that would promote a democratic transition in Cuba. However, in the past 56 years of the embargo's effect, not only has Cuba not transitioned into a democracy, but the United States has obtained worse relationships with the Latin American neighbors in America’s backyard (since nearly all the Latin American countries support the Cuban Revolution ideologically) and has given the Castro regime a convincing reason to stay autocratic and communist.
Rather than isolating Cuba from the international political arena, engaging with the current Cuban government gives a better chance for political change to happen on the island. As President Obama is conducting a groundbreaking visit to Cuba this week, I believe it is time for people in America to rethink US-Cuban relations. The island possesses strong geographical significance, inexhaustible sunshine, good rum and cigars, and used to be a vacation paradise and important trade partner to the Americans in the 1950s. Reestablishing the American influences on the island and improving the US-Latin America relations are of America’s best interest. With the lifting of the sanctions and the introduction of more lenient traveling restrictions on Americans, living standards in Cuba could improve drastically. An increased number of US visitors and more trade would lead to a stronger bonding between the U.S. and Cuba, which would in turn make the political liberalization more likely.
Caroline Lu CM ’16 is an economics major. She lived in China for many, many years and London briefly for one year while she was studying abroad at the London School of Economics.