A Week in the Forgotten Country: One Student’s Experience in Cuba

One morning, we were sitting at breakfast in our homestay within the newer part of Havana. Our breakfast consisted of the usual items – eggs, ham (for me), cheeses, fruit, bread and amazing Cuban coffee. During our casual conversation, we learned that our host, Isela, was one of the highest-ranking women leaders of the Communist Party, as was her husband, who fought alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution. Learning this information gave me a new insight into the interconnectedness and complexity of the Cuba, a place not fully understood throughout the world.

When first arriving in Havana, I was expecting a sense of military bravado, darkness and secrecy of the past. American University offered me the opportunity to travel with 12 other students to learn more about U.S.-Cuban relations. With former President Obama easing tensions between the two countries, Cuba has been a prime location for many to travel and learn more about the country. Yet Havana felt like any other ordinary city. Our tour guide, Orlando, welcomed us at the airport, as we had to enter into the country for educational purposes and could not deviate from that. As we made our way from the airport into the city, I couldn’t shake the notion that this wasn’t the Cuba I was expecting – more nuanced than what our country has been told through the media. Though we could only see so much during our weeklong stay on the island, it was a refreshing feeling to look beyond stereotypes and figure out this experience for myself.

During this week in Havana, I was able to learn the history of the country that I feel as though I missed out on due to poor relations between the countries and misguided media interpretations. My view of what Cuba was changed drastically once I was within its borders, learning from Cuban citizens. Our group was able to hear from prominent Cuban economists, doctors, and entrepreneurs. These were people who were strongly invested in the revitalization of Cuba, a pouring their hearts into making their country great. I felt inspired seeing the love that Cubans had for their country, but I also saw that they knew where they stood within the global community.

The various speakers that we had throughout the week were candid about the limitations that the U.S. embargo placed on their country in the 1960s. The U.S. implemented the blockade through economic, financial and commercial restraints, which deeply affected the country. Even as recently as the 1990s, new restrictions were added, as President Clinton made the process of U.S. subsidiaries working with Cuba more difficult. The U.S. embargo set Cuba up for failure, and the country suffered a decline in the second half of the twentieth century. Even though the embargo was the U.S. response to Communism, it still confuses me as to how such a tense diplomatic relationship persists. With President Obama’s guidance in easing these tensions over the last few years, there has been a noticeable change on the island, specifically in Havana with the leap in tourism. Yet, the past still lingers.

Orlando told our group stories of how people would jump over the Malècon, which separates the land from the ocean and would attempt to swim to their freedom, 90 miles away in Miami. Many did not make it to the end of their journey – a telling example of the dark cloud that still hung over Cuba. With the recent death of Fidel Castro, many Cubans wonder what could become of them as they define themselves within a new era. President Obama made the important point that because the Cold War had ended, diplomatic relations must be attempted once more. Experiencing Cuba with this in mind, I began to form my own ideas of what peace could look like.

The most beautiful part of the trip was being able to visit the prominent Afro-Cuban neighborhood across the bay from mainland Havana called Regla. Upon arriving, the disparities between mainland Havana and Regla were incredibly steep. Our group met with Obsesión, a top Afro-Cuban hip-hop group in the area (and very popular throughout Latin America and the Caribbean). Despite the language barrier, through the generous translation provided by Orlando, I felt as if a connection could still be made. We discussed the concept of Blackness within Latin America and the U.S., how Black women cope with loving their hair and how to still be connected with the Diaspora as a whole. The experiences Afro-Cubans had in their country and experiences of African-Americans/Blacks in the United States were parallel. There is a popular saying within African/African-American communities: “nothing separates the African Diaspora other than a boat ride.” That never felt more true than during this moment. I felt connected to the bigger community of the Diaspora, and the experience of speaking with Obsesión brought the whole trip together for me.

One thing I learned on our trip was that Cuba still operates with a one-party system, which makes me wonder what diplomatic relations could look like under our current administration. In my vision, I see how our countries could work together but still respect one another in how we engage politically, culturally and socially. For years, Cuba has been labeled as the forgotten country as their economic ties have been severed, keeping them from being competitive in the global market. I believe our countries could benefit wholly from one another if each party is willing to take the extra step. While our countries’ relationships are uncertain, I do know one thing for sure: with the political turmoil that the U.S. has been in, visiting Cuba during such a historic time has meant everything to my development as a person in the International Relations field.