With twenty other USAmericans I had never met or heard of, I went to Havana and Pinales, Cuba, on a Witness for Peace delegation in early February, 2016. We stayed nights in the clean, rough dormitory setting of the Martin Luther King Junior Center in the working-class neighborhood of Marianao, except two nights in the Pinar del Rio region of western Cuba, where we stayed in a handful of homes set up like airB&Bs to provide guest accommodations. We met with artists, educators, farmers, a journalist, a Parliament member, an historian, and other speakers, sometimes at the Center and often in locations that reflected their vigorous commitments. Every such event was a surprise as it turned out, as even a book fair or a terrace tavern turned out to afford a capacious new corner of Cuban cultural and civic life and spirit.
Since returning from my ten-day delegation in Cuba, about ten days ago, I have noticed relative lapses in remembering to take my most essential orienting equipment (cell phone, appointment book) to work in the mornings. I have noticed myself more resistant to and strategically avoidant of multi-tasking. And I have noticed how a cyber-friendly cultural environment can be demanding of multi-tasking, even in rural Maine, where most of my workplace communications are in person or by telephone. Waiting for a slow-thinking laptop is difficult. I stop watching the spinning rainbow and walk away. I have noticed myself more willing to take a walk, to allow flowers into my home and office, to realize I’m pushing too hard or moving too fast and change that almost immediately.
In Havana’s various neighborhoods, occasionally I saw a fading stenciled or painted image of Jose Marti, of Che Guevera, or of the Cuban flag, on concrete or plaster walls of homes and other buildings. Never Fidel or Raul. I almost never saw a poster advertising anything. Do people learn where to buy something, what special events are happening, all by word of mouth? Perhaps they listen to the radio. I never noticed any posters or posted notices even for the Havana International Book Fair, which I saw was clearly attractive to a great many citizens of every age, few of them carrying any purchases around. To see merchandise may have been part of the charm, as well as a warm sunny afternoon in a 350-year-old fort on a peninsula reaching out from the city into the sea.
In a society and culture with free universal health care, there seems to be no need to purchase health insurance or negotiate claims for repayment, saving its citizens many hours a year to relax and enjoy one another as time passes. To me, the appearance of physical, behavioral and psychological wellness among Cubans was remarkable for its absence of scarcity. For instance, I hardly ever observed obesity, worrisome behaviors, tacit threats of aggression, or looks suggestive of anger, numbness or despair.
I didn’t notice any attitudes of servility or assumptions of pressure among Cubans. Self-acceptance and patient attention to circumstances as they are seemed to be common, perhaps universal. I might say, now, with hindsight, nearly two weeks later, that I spent ten days among a people with a steady commitment to survival and community, which they manage in daily life with a unstudied, unstated and resilient sense of equanimity.
I am sure I missed a lot, and I didn’t initiate many conversations with Cubans I passed or paused near on the street. When my Spanish is more fluent and my ear better adapted to Cuban usage, I may learn more from this and that person whether my observations are accurate from their points of view and how they feel about things themselves. My learning, outside the meetings and conversations of our delegation’s copiously and wisely scheduled activities, was primarily nonverbal, as I preferred it, allowing me time to observe, daydream, explore, snap photographs, and wonder at whatever I noticed without drawing any particular conclusions.
On a before-breakfast walk very near the end of my stray at the Martin Luther King Junior Center, I went behind a building I’d passed with curiosity walking back to the Center on the exhaust-filled 51st Street at night a few days earlier. Combinado Deportivo Jesus Menendez was signed across its block-wide blue-and-white-striped facade. I peered through dirty ceiling high windows into huge rooms nearly empty inside, walls coated with painted murals, some formally abstract, others casually anecdotal. Out back, I saw basketball courts missing a net and backboard, an empty swimming pool whose diving board looked unlikely to get replaced, the metal walls screening it tangled on the ground, and unsecured, undisturbed, rumpled and rusting steel screens covering concrete steps leading underground. A few men were playing racquetball in an open court with tall concrete walls, paint peeling amid the graffiti, and a boy parked his bicycle at a bench to change into his soccer team outfit before teammates and coach arrived. Other people ran or walked around a large track. A woman walked into a small set of stable steel installations to do stretches and chin-ups. It was Sunday morning, and people were using their local exercise park to start a sunny day well.
The building at Jose Marti International Airport that we used for our charter flights in and out of the island was remarkable for its calm. There were no TV screens. No loudspeakers played us music or barked announcements about security and boarding orders. There were more than enough molded plastic chairs for five times the occupants of the room to sit on, facing one another in comfortably spaced rows. The only café was tucked into a corner such that I scarcely noticed it. In another corner a bookstand was set up for government publications clearly aimed at the tourist market, featuring romanticized accounts of famous women of the Revolution and wildly overpriced maps – the kind I’d expected to see offered for free at the unoccupied information stand near the parking lot. Anyone who’s been through a major US airport in recent years can imagine the contrast with Miami International.
There was nothing I needed to buy throughout my ten days on the island, my meals being well-provided for at the center, my backpack of snacks an ample supplement. I didn’t need to see goods advertised. I knew markets were likely to have much narrower choices than back in the States. I didn’t mind, for myself. I didn’t much think about my not having to think about such things, alternatives and opportunities to indulge in luxuries not immediately present. I didn’t much think about my general impression that the people of the city knew what to expect and how to take advantage of the unexpected without doing one another harm. To be just me walking in the city, or in the country, was to be anyone, so long as he was plainly a foreigner here, as anyone could see.
I cannot but think that these observations are related to the Revolution and to the US-imposed blockade on Cuban commerce. What will change as the embargo is, somehow, gradually reduced or suddenly expires, I don’t pretend to know. Some who may know how to read the government’s will and strategy told us enough to lead me to think no corporation will be allowed to outweigh the government in any key decisions or stakeholding. So it will be interesting, not necessarily just more of the same. Meanwhile, change is universal, constant, inevitable. What will remain about the same, I am particularly curious about.