Friday, January 20, 2012

Report from a National Geographic trip

Reporter Jen Beasley is just back from Cuba and shares her impressions below.
In December, I was so proud to be traveling to Cuba on a “People to People” exchange that I insisted, with a forlorn “por favor?,” that the guard stamp my passport—not standard practice for Americanos since we’re usually sneaking in. The stamp burned hot pink, my sanctioned rebellion against the U.S. embargo. I went to Cuba drawn to the idea it was a time capsule, standing still as world events ticked on. I wanted to see that before it changed.
Cuba’s retro streak is not only expressed in Chevrolet tailfins and fedoras. 1959 is now. Ubiquitous signs proclaim “Year 53 of the Revolución”—”of”, you see, not “since.”  No inkling the “revolución” may, somewhere along the way, have settled in to a less-romantic status quo. Che lives on, lionized, like in any American t-shirt shop. Viva Fidel.
This makes being American in Cuba disorienting. Streets ooze with propaganda–“Socialismo o Muerte”– and one grapples with question of our principles vs. theirs. Once at a hospital, the guide boasted 400 kidney transplants were performed there, “all successful.” “All successful?”  No deaths, no rejections? Yes.  Somehow everything in Cuba is always successful.
Constantly, Cubans are admonished that the U.S. is “making every attempt to subvert and destroy the revolution.” Yet, being an American in Cuba actually felt safer than being an American in many of our own cities. Cubans welcomed us warmly.  They were eager to talk, really wanted to sell us things. A man said, “We are so happy to greet our lovely enemies. Enemigos!” And smiled.
We met many prominent Cubans through the people-to-people format: Party bigwigs, wives of Cubans jailed in the U.S. for espionage, doctors running free clinics. But we met the other Cuba, too–beggars asking not for coins, but soap, realizing the item so scarce due to their rations was free to us at hotels. We weaved between the “real Cuba” and the “tourist Cuba,” our accommodations too nice, our food too abundant. We came home with more questions than answers.
But the question I set out with–What’s it like?—was answered. It’s complicated, and it’s 1959, and I’m glad I saw it. Because it won’t be forever, and maybe not even for long.

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