“But everything is destroying itself, at the moment. Cuba is filthy, people are dirty, sick and hungry.”
“It doesn’t matter, the government will cover it until they can no longer hide the damage. And the world will pretend it is not happening until total catastrophe makes it utterly immoral to look away. We need a catastrophe. This country needs a natural disaster.”
I had a love/very discouraged (not quite hate) relationship with my researcher friend. We had very different ideas about life on the island – I detested the circumstances of the island. I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner.
Suffice to say, Lacie and I disagreed more often than not in our opinions of Cuba. She had an odd love of the island and its people. She participated, passively, in the indescribable, ill-defined-yet-defined prostitution, poverty and hardship of its people. She enjoyed visiting the island. She enjoyed dating the men and paying for their meals, drinks, in a quiet exchange for love and sex. She used the men as she used her Cuban friends, making “friends” with families as a means to obtain things cheaper than in the tourist dollar (the Cuban convertible peso, or CUC).
She justified her actions by saying they used her as well. They used her for sex and company. She used them for sex and company. She would proceed to tell me I needed to make “connections.” Make life easier for myself. She believed love and friendship crossed all borders and boundaries, race, color, nationality, creed, citizen to tourist. I believed all the same things except love passing between Cuban citizens and Cuban tourists.
There are exceptions, of course, but that relationship, in my experience, was always dependent on money. What drink I could buy them, what internet access I could make available to them, what croissant I could give them, what extra clothes I could leave for their mother. The currency for sex was no longer money, but bread and shoes.
I kept a journal while on the island and my first entry is telling. I remember my initial impressions of the city, the reminders of all the harsher elements of city life in Cuba: the pungent smell of piss, shit, dust, moldy water and a faint hint of what smelled like dead animals, the (as one French researcher put it) aggressive state of poverty and the constant panhandling of merchandise and one’s self on the island.
My entry stated, “I do not approve of any of this. I do not approve of my existence on the island, I do not approve of the way people must live on the island, I do not approve of what people need to do to survive on this island, I do not approve of the close to apartheid-like system (the dual currency system, the haves and the have-nots, the Cuban citizens and the tourists) which separates the population at all points in their daily lives and I do not approve of the tourists who spend their money and vacations here overlooking citizens’ quality of life only to enjoy and benefit for themselves the luxuries that are restricted to Cuban citizens because of their government-imposed poverty. I will use this time to write about what Cuba’s reality entails. I will write about the Cuba I see, not as a tourist, but as a researcher.”
When asked about my trips to the forbidden island, I always feel embarrassed by how negative my descriptions of the island sound. However, I don’t know how else to state the truth and so I always chime, as afterthoughts, “Havana is very safe, there are no drugs and very little domestic violence.” Those are clarifiers, phrases used to comfort my friends and the listeners of my travels. But I find that those statements are misleading.
My “returns” to Cuba are never glorious returns to a beautiful nation and tropical island. Rather, they are returns to a ghost city, a city whose past lives constantly amidst the present.
As a result, as I walk the city, I constantly feel haunted myself: as if all the refugees in the United States, their family members who died in the Revolution, and those who died in the many wars that preceded the ‘60s, somehow still walk the choleric streets of Havana today.