I traveled to Cuba as a student in the summer of 2003 without knowing what to expect as part of a rare student study abroad program. I was torn between romantic images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as revolutionaries toppling the Batista dictatorship and capitalism and much darker portraits of Castro as a repressive despot crushing freedom of speech and other liberties. I attempted to empty my mind of biased notions of Cuba imposed by western media and construct my own perception of the day-to-day life for Cubans living in Havana.
During my two month stay as a student in Havana, I built strong relations with several Cuban university students. I felt fortunate to meet people who were warm in welcoming me and eager in sharing their realities and views with me. I was afraid that the students would either try to hide the negative parts of their lives or that they would exaggerate how bad things were to gain my sympathy or blame the U.S. This was not the case. It impressed me how nuanced, critical, and open people were when talking about politics or any other topic. They quickly rejected any constructions of the U.S. as an evil empire or Castro as a ruthless dictator. The feeling I got from students and others I met towards Castro was that he was an aging father-figure. They had respect for Castro’s accomplishments in leading the revolution of 1959 and in expanding the right to a quality education and healthcare to everyone; however, they were also quick to criticize and make fun of how Castro tends to talk for hours while everyone falls asleep and hasn’t seemed to catch the wave of the 21st century where the world is becoming more and more interconnected. The more Castro tries to keep out the influences of U.S. media and create restrictions on aspects of daily life, the more creative the Cuban people are in finding ways around these barriers.
The Cuban people are not isolated in a backwards country silenced by a repressive regime as much Western media would lead you to believe. The Cuban’s spirit of rebellion, their creative struggle to survive under impoverished conditions, and their determination to claim their freedom of expression is most clearly reflected in their music. In Cuba, there is rhythm everywhere. I expected to go to Cuba and hear classic salsa music similar to the sounds of the world renowned “Havana Social Club;” while some restaurants catering to European tourists play this kind of music, the majority of the music I heard in Cuba was far from limited to these traditional genres. Timba (a particularly Cuban pop version of salsa), rap, reggae, rock, techno, hip hop, funk, jazz, and fusion (a mix of all of the above) were among the many rhythms flowing out of open doors, resonating from concerts on the Malecón (a wall and pedestrian pathway along the sea), and pumping in small clubs and bars. The diversity of music reflects the diversity of culture and colors of the small island as well as the diversity of people’s attitudes towards life. The lyrics, while difficult for me to understand despite a pretty good grasp of Spanish, were full of messages decrying racism and oppression and calling on Cuban people to unite to work together to re-build their country and escape poverty. While from afar we only see the aging face of Castro and hear the sweet sounds of traditional salsa, inside Cuba the youth are creating new vibrant rhythms and leading changes with energy that combines Cuban culture and values with those of the 21st century globalized community.
There are still many problems in Cuba. As a middle-class American it was difficult to see people struggling to have enough food to eat. It was the first time in my life visiting a restaurant where the only things on the menu were beans, rice, and chicken. I began to get used to conserving water for when there wasn’t any to shower with or drink and using candles when the power went out. It was a bit of a shock waiting in a line for hours to get ice cream at la Coppelia or to catch a bus packed with people and no A.C. The Cuban people are extremely strong and resilient in their ability to make the most of the little that they have and continue to laugh and enjoy life.
Adriana Harvey now works as an economist in Washington D.C. She hopes to one day travel to Cuba again.