Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Seeing Cuba through an old man’s eyes

Article and photos by Trevor Klein
The Daily, of the University of Washington
May 14, 2008

A long line stretches down the block from the Casas de Cambio (Cadeca)
the government-run shop where foreigners exchange their currencies for Cuban pesos.

A mural painted on a building in Cienfuegos reads, “We are a people of homeland or death,”
one of the more popular government propaganda slogans in Cuba.

Francisco “Pancho” Arencibia, my host father for nine weeks of our ten-week program,
stands in the light from the sunset in his garden behind the house.

Every afternoon, Francisco “Pancho” Arencibia steals a quick break from his chores. He glances around surreptitiously to make sure his wife isn’t looking, and then heads out an old screen door, through his meticulously kept garden to his patio overlooking the Bay of Cienfuegos. Looking back once more to be sure he wasn’t spotted, he reaches behind an old 2-by-4 and pulls out his secreto de la guerra, his war secret, a flask of Cuban rum he sips on while watching the sun fall behind the fishing boats.

Pancho was my host father for nine weeks during last quarter’s UW Tacoma study abroad program to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba. He is 64 years old — old enough to remember Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 — and his face showed deep creases from decades of emotion.

Every month, Pancho pays about $200 — 10 times the average Cuban salary — for a license to rent the rooms of his house to foreigners. Even so, he hasn’t met many people from the United States. Travel is restricted by the U.S. government, and licenses are hard to come by. Our program, comprised of 14 students and a UW Tacoma professor, is one of three licensed studies abroad to Cuba in the entire nation and the only undergraduate program that is still able to make the trip.

Everyone I met on the island, especially Pancho and his wife, Josefa “Fifi” Sánchez, shed a bit of light on the people and politics of a country that remains shrouded in obscurity, despite its location only 90 miles from the Florida keys.

Life in Cuba is a constant struggle. The people use battle references for everyday situations — I would soon discover that Pancho’s “war secret” was only the beginning.

While helping me study for an exam one night, Pancho put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Venceremos” (we will overcome), one of Castro’s tag lines from his drawn-out speeches. That word is painted across a great many walls in cities throughout the island. A common response to “how’s it going?” is “aquí en la lucha,” or here in the fight.

The battle they are fighting isn’t against another nation, though. It’s a battle for life, a battle they are constantly fighting in order to sustain themselves. In that struggle, though, I saw so many Cubans maintain an optimism unlike any I’ve ever seen. As Pancho says and his wrinkled face attests, they’re “always smiling.”

One night, the power went out. Before I had even left my bedroom to see what was going on, Pancho was setting up battery-powered lamps, and Fifi was on her way in with a candle. It was as if they were expecting it to happen. Standing in the dim, fluorescent light in the kitchen, Pancho put his arm around my shoulder, looked around the room with a smile, and said, “Here’s a little taste of the special period.”

In the early 1990s, Cuba entered what it calls the “Special Period,” an economic crisis that crippled the nation. Having endured the embargo imposed by the U.S. government for nearly 30 years, the island nation had been forced to trade with and become dependent on the only other countries it could: socialist states, primarily the Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade and most of its oil imports.

Just 10 years ago, Pancho and Fifi lived in a house where electricity was a commodity that came once a day for two hours. The lack of a constant power supply meant refrigerators were useless, of course — the food would spoil as it warmed every night when the power went off. It also meant that if they wanted to do anything after the sun went down (get a drink of water, read a book, go to the bathroom), they would have to use candlelight. Any cooking had to be done over burning charcoal outside, as there certainly wasn’t any gas or electricity to run a stove.

Desperate to stimulate the economy, Castro reluctantly began encouraging growth of the tourism industry, injecting a bit of capitalism into the socialist economy as a last resort. It worked.

Now, Pancho and Fifi’s house has electricity 24 hours every day, running hot water, a small gas range and two refrigerators: one for the family and one for the food they prepare for their guests. That’s how quickly things have turned around in Cuba since tourists were welcomed in the early ‘90s.

Much of the country, even with the influx of tourists, still lives out of reach of the tourist economy. They can’t afford the licenses to rent rooms in their houses to foreigners, and they live on government salaries and rationed food. Pancho’s upstairs neighbors are a middle-aged couple and their daughter, who is in her early 20s. None of them have access to tourist dollars, and their three salaries are barely enough to get by on.

“They’re great people,” Pancho said, furrowing his brow and staring at the floor. “But it isn’t easy.”

I eventually realized how torn I really was about what things are like in Cuba, and the longer I stayed, the less I enjoyed being part of it.

After soaking in the culture for 10 weeks, it seemed so much like the people in Cuba are desperately trying to put up a good front — especially when foreigners, like the students in my program, were around. They told us that everything was wonderful despite the blockade and that the revolution is alive and well.

“Even after [Fidel] dies, he’ll be the same for us,” Pancho said. “He’ll pass into immortality.”

They told us that Castro will live on forever in their hearts and that through a unified tenacity — a resolve to overcome (venceremos, they say) — they can live more virtuous lives than those of their oppressors.

The thing is, they’re trying just as hard to convince themselves as they are trying to convince us that the revolution’s ideals still apply, and that it can still be deemed virtuous at all. People in Cuba are beginning to succumb to a plague of doubt. Even Pancho, who remembers the revolution with a smile, admits that the new tourist economy has its virtues.

“The country has been embargoed for many years, so there has been a shortage of all kinds of food and clothing,” he said. “When the [tourist economy] was introduced, I saw the opportunity to acquire these things without too much work. It’s better from an economic standpoint.”

The younger generation — the one that grew up during the Special Period — is far more optimistic about capitalism and far more skeptical of the socialist system than its parents, revolutionaries who are clinging desperately to the belief that what they’ve worked hard to achieve was for the best. Our group got to know a great number of younger Cubans, many of whom were making arrangements to leave the country. One was getting married to a Norwegian girl he wasn’t in love with so he could leave the island with her. He planned to eventually move to Spain to live with his mother. Several others had started finding illegal ways of making money from tourists, such as shuttling them around in unlicensed taxis.

What I can’t help but wonder, and what another student brought up during our last day of class, is what happens when that younger generation isn’t young anymore? What happens when people like Pancho, who were around to see the revolution, who know what it feels like to be a part of something so profoundly patriotic and have spent their entire lives hanging onto an ideal, see that ideal crumbling before their very eyes? What happens when they’re replaced by a generation that grew up watching tourists live luxuriously — like they never could — in front of their very eyes?

The country isn’t as utopian as everyone so desperately wants it to be. The longer I stayed there, the more I realized that.

One day, we visited a tourist attraction: a crocodile farm with a re-creation of an indigenous Cuban village. Dozens of huge crocodiles were behind fences lined with tourists. Prices were outrageous, nearly everyone there had a camera and every 100 yards or so there was a small shack where you could buy cigars and bottles of rum, or T-shirts with a photo of Che Guevara.

The façade put up by the Cubans who worked there was astoundingly superficial and transparent. Small groups of employees speaking in rapid Spanish openly insulted the tourists right in front of their faces, knowing they wouldn’t speak the language well enough to understand. It was a near-perfect illustration of the façade I saw Cuba’s tourism industry using to mask how things really are in the country.

As time went on, I began to see past Pancho’s wrinkled smile and through his eyes, glazed over and tired from a life of endlessly working toward a goal that never got any closer, toward the light he believed with all of his heart and soul was at the end of the tunnel but has yet to appear. No matter how many times he told me about Cubans’ solidarity, I still heard young adults talk about leaving the country. And no matter how many times he smiled and told me that life was getting better, I still saw Pancho sit down to the same bowl of rice and beans almost every night.

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