It’s Kate, your favorite columnist here (note to readers: I’m sorry if that was presumptuous, I just feel the need for some confidence right now—love, a second semester senior who still has no job). I wanted to start off and welcome you all back from “Spring Break!” Personally, I think it’s great to be back. The sky is blue, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining bright, and I have absolutely no work.
Actually, I’m drowning in readings and job applications and it’s been overcast since I got back, but that’s basically the same thing, right? Anyways, transitioning back to life in Medford post-break has been a bit more difficult than in years past. This year, instead of going back home or to close-by Montreal, I hopped on a plane to Havana, Cuba. The experience was nothing short of amazing. I looked at street art, drank cheap beer, rode in 1950s era convertibles, and was blissfully disconnected from the world (because I had absolutely no access to Wi-Fi). A picture-perfect setting for a “care-free” spring break.
But, as my grandpa always tells me, “Katie darling, there is no such thing as free lunch.” And, as always, my grandpa was right. While my actual lunches were super cheap, they came at a price—albeit not monetary. Touring through Havana as a White, bordering-on-upper class, American lady is a pretty loaded thing to grapple with. While travelling anywhere with my identity and an American passport certainly puts me in a particular position of privilege, in Cuba that privilege seemed to transcend to new levels.
To understand why, I’ll give a brief (but nowhere near all-encompassing!) history lesson of US-Cuban tourism. In 1958, a sweeping communist revolution displaced the regime of President Batista with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Following Castro’s decision to nationalize all US businesses in Cuba with no compensation, the US severed diplomatic ties and imposed a trade embargo in Cuba starting in 1960. In 1963, John F. Kennedy (often referred to as JFK if you are “in” “the” “know”) prevented US citizens from traveling to or making financial transactions with Cuba. While the travel ban was amended and enforced to varying degrees, it stayed in place for over 50 years…
…that is, until Obama began to ease travel restrictions in 2009. In 2011, he allowed charter flights from America to and from Cuba. In February 2016, there was an agreement signed that fully restored commercial flights between the US and Cuba.
Naturally, when this happened, lots and lots of American citizens (including myself) jumped on this new-found opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they (I) jumped on it quickly. The reason? I wanted to go to Cuba before it got overdeveloped and overrun by the tourist industry. The plan was perfect: I got to see a newly accessible Cuba, I paid very little money to travel and stay in Havana… buuuuuut, in turn I completely dissociated myself from a pretty problematic history of US imperialism.
When chatting with senior Bruno Olmedo Quiroga, a Bolivian-American who grew up in Miami, about my trip to Cuba and my problems with it, he told me that he almost chose to go there for Spring Break, too. But, before he booked his tickets, he thought a little bit more about his decision.
“I mean, I knew a lot of Cuban refugees growing up in Miami,” Bruno said. “And I would just hear these horror stories about families trying to get out of Cuba, or people trying to go back… I’ve heard some pretty messed up stories, honestly.” Bruno went on to note that, with the recent influx of tourism into Cuba, he feels like people have a very easy time forgetting about the complex implications of travelling there.
“There is a huge history of struggle travelling that direct route [from the US to Cuba] and the lifting of the travel embargo is so, so incredibly recent,” Bruno said. “Two years ago even, this wasn’t happening. And, as far as I know, there are still some Cuban-Americans who are barred from travelling to and from Cuba. How’s that for American exceptionalism?”
Marlene Jordana, a junior who identifies as Cuban-American, felt similarly to Bruno when thinking about the new “trend” of Americans travelling to Cuba. “It’s actually really painful to see people visit my country and act like it’s a thriving tropical hotspot but ignore all of the oppression of Cuban peoples. As a Cuban-American, you hear things from people back in Cuba and it’s pretty horrifying to hear how my relatives are still living while there is this completely made up, fake part of Cuba just for the tourists.”
When prompted for some examples of this phenomenon, Marlene noted how Cuban citizens aren’t benefiting from an increase in US tourism. “Cuban citizens still can’t really go to all of the spots that tourists can in Cuba. Also, a lot of profits from tourism go directly to the government and not to Cuban people. Many still live on food stamps and don’t have fair living conditions.”
One of the most interesting things that has resulted from a greater US tourist presence, according to Marlene, is that Cubans are now receiving even less food because of how much tourists consume. “Maduros, which are made from ripe plantains, are a huge staple of Cuban food,” Marlene explained to me. “Now, Cuban people don’t even see plantains anymore for their own meals,” as all of it goes to tourists.
After speaking with Marlene and Bruno, it became clear that my “care free” spring break came with some pretty negative implications. But I also wondered if American travel in Cuba had to be a zero-sum game. Was there a way to experience Cuba without putting a huge strain on the Cuban population? What about study abroad? Was it different?
Senior Lior Appel-Kraut, who studied abroad in Cuba last spring, offered some insight on these questions—her short answer was no, but with some caveats. “I loved Cuba, the friends I made there, and the time I spent there,” Lior said. “But I don’t really see my [study abroad experience] in Cuba as different from people who go for a week.” People want to travel to Cuba because it has become “trendy,” Lior noted. In her mind, she doesn’t think study abroad students are exempt from that.
Lior explained, “A popular feeling/statement among US students in Cuba about why they/we were there was to ‘be here before it changes’ or ‘before the US ruins it.’ She noted that this narrative is in no way exclusive to study abroad students. This is something I personally resonated with, as I know that I certainly expressed the same “reason” for my trip to Cuba.
Lior went on to say that when she was abroad, she felt like she was able to explore this narrative and gain a better understanding of how problematic it was, specifically how US students “view Cuba from a colonial/imperial lens.” Such a framework places Cuba and its people as static, firmly in the past (read: old timey 1950s cars and buildings). However, Lior noted that this completely “negates the dynamic way that Cuba and its people are, as of course things have changed since [the US embargo].”
While Lior noted the problematic nature of studying abroad in Cuba, she credits “being [in Cuba] for four months and being in Cuban classes with Cuban students and teachers in the government’s public university system” for allowing her to create relationships and learn in a way a tourist could not. “I did see tourists be incapable of creating a deeper understanding of Cuba in just a week” Lior said. But, then again, she noted, “studying there was being 100 percent a part of the same “trend” [as US tourism]…and what is four months compared to a year, or a life?”
So, now what? Travelling to Cuba definitely comes with a lot of negative implications for Cuban peoples (especially because US tourists will only continue to post pictures on Instagram of 1950s Chevy’s that are only “cute” and “trendy” because the US embargo made it so). At this point, the best thing I can do is admit that I fucked up in not putting the thought into being a conscious tourist—both before, during, and after the trip. The next time I talk about Cuba to someone, I’m not going to say how amazing it was or how “old timey” the cars were. Instead, I’m going to tell them my experience was one cloaked in US exceptionalism and privilege, and recommend a serious self-education before buying a newly approved commercial plane ticket.
Until next time,
Kate Hirsch, your favorite columnist