Dos Gardenias, two gardenias, is a poignant Cuban love song. The haunting lyrics tell of a lover who fears losing his beloved to another. He will know this has happened when the gardenias in the garden die. In the 1999 Academy Award nominated documentary about Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, Ibrahim Ferrer, Jr. sings Dos Gardenias with such emotion, the song breaks your heart.
In Cuba you don’t need a lover or an old song for that to happen. The island’s beauty can break your heart. So can the people.
This crumbling paradise beckoned me for years. Forbidden, seductive Cuba enticed me with its culture, music, food, politics, old American cars, architecture, and historical significance. Throughout my adult lifetime, it was illegal for me to visit. Thanks to a people to people program, I was finally able to go through a legal, licensed agency. I visited in the fall of 2014; months before President Obama opened the door to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Verdant, rolling hills are surrounded by sapphire, turquoise, and emerald waters. Eden. The cities and small towns feature the best of Moorish and Spanish architecture, punctuated by Roman and Greek influences. Decaying buildings are replete with intricate tile designs, elaborate wrought iron, scrolling stonework, and ubiquitous balconies where laundry hangs drying in the sun. Ropes tied to baskets are attached to pulleys. They dangle over balcony railings and wait to deliver merchandise purchased from street vendors who happen by, hawking whatever meager goods are available that day. No one wants to climb stairs in the heat and humidity. The humidity, along with sea air, and years of neglect has ruined most of the glorious architecture.
I have traveled. I’ve been to pretty places. Places I’ve liked a lot. Places I’ve gone back to. But there is no where I’ve been that got to me in the inexplicable way Cuba did. In part, it is guilt. I feel responsible, somehow, that my government has helped to cause the poverty and the utter lack of resources I saw while traveling through the island in September. I am not uninformed nor am I naïve. Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies are disturbing. Their allies are not our friends. I know the politics. I know there were missiles pointed at us six decades ago. We forgave Japan for Pearl Harbor. They forgave us for Hiroshima. We moved on. It is perplexing and confusing to me why we can’t do the same with Cuba.
I understand that the Castros, Fidel and his brother Raul, have their own issues and accountability for past decades of Cuban struggle and poverty. But that is theirs to sort out. As an American, I am embarrassed that eleven US presidents found it acceptable to isolate a country that is ninety miles from our shores. The Cuban people feel related to us. Many of them are. Nearly everyone I met has a relative living in the United States. Yet, Cuba and the Cuban people carry the label of terrorists according to the United States State Department. Sanctions which accompany the label combined with the trade embargo, in place since the 1960s, have helped cripple the Cuban economy. Our goal was to humiliate the government and force a collapse. We have attempted for years to force a two-party system on their country. We have tried to influence their foreign policy and to limit Cuba’s friendship with Russia and anyone else we didn’t like. Clearly, it’s a failed policy. After more than fifty years, the Castros still reign. When Fidel resigned as President in 2008, his brother Raul took over the title. The embargo and sanctions have failed to depose them. The most significant contribution of the embargo is the dire economic effect it’s created for Cubans. They have shouldered the burden of doing without basics like food, electricity, and a decent transportation system, not to mention conveniences such as air conditioning. I am well aware that the Castros have responsibility for bungling their economy in numerous ways. They have made bad choices. But in my opinion, the attempts on the part of the US government to impose our will on Cuba has contributed to the poverty and ruin you see in Havana and everywhere throughout the island. And for that, I feel guilty and apologetic.
Cubans tell you they harbor no ill will towards US citizens. They are able to separate the people from the government, but you have to wonder how they can do this. They are taught to read using primers that explain the triumph of the revolution. In order to move from middle to high school, they must pass exams which include Cuban history. Cuban history as taught by the state run schools using state published texts. Yet, Cubans who are raised in a culture of lies, half-lies, bent truths, and fifty-year-old phrases like “the triumph of the revolution,” don’t hate us. Quite the opposite. Not only don’t they hate us, they don’t seem envious of us, or bitter about how little they have. They don’t want much, apparently. They definitely don’t want capitalism, at least the ones I met don’t. I met many Cubans during my trip, not all of whom were people who were arranged by my tour. Although much of the time was spent on pre-arranged visits to schools, cultural experiences, senior centers, and nursing homes, during my down time I was free to go anywhere. I had unmonitored conversations with taxi drivers, bartenders, hotel workers, and people who were out enjoying what few cool breezes they could find in the evening along the waterfront. Cubans want simple things, like food at reasonable prices that is available when they need it. Often they can’t find chicken, eggs, or milk. Or toilet paper. Let me be clear. It is not that they are too expensive, which is also a problem. Availability is the bigger obstacle.
The continuing embargo with the US keeps other countries at bay and affects imports as well as exports. If countries trade with Cuba they run the very real risk of fines or worse; the wrath of America. If cruise ships want to continue to have ports in the US, they cannot stop in Cuba. Since few countries will purchase Cuban goods, Cuba has virtually stopped producing.
And still, the Cubans don’t hate us. They should, but they don’t. That, too, breaks my heart.
They don’t hate the Castro brothers either, it seems. They just accept that things are, for now, the way they are. When you ask what they envision after the Castros are gone (Raul has stated he will step down from the presidency in 2018) no one knows. No one can imagine, or even speculate about what happens next. For most, this is all they have known. Ever since 1959 and the triumph of the revolution, a Castro has been in power. For a Cuban, trying to imagine a Cuba without a Castro leading them is akin to imagining an alien life form taking over the Earth. It could take any shape, or it could look very much like we do. The future of Cuba is filled with endless possibilities. Or not.
Cubans agree things could be worse. They were much worse after 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed during, as they refer to this time, “the special period in time of peace.” Russian money stopped flowing and the single greatest export, sugar, ceased to have a market. Sugar factories still lie dormant. “The owner of the product is the owner of the country” is a phrase you hear repeated. At this point, there is not much product. Supplies, always scarce, became more so. All those miles and miles of fertile land lie fallow. After the long, harsh special period, in the late 1990s Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez offered some assistance in the way of mutually beneficial trade and things got somewhat better. But since Chavez died in 2013, the economy slowed once again. Now, the nation is not being held together by much, although China has an obvious presence. Tour busses and most appliances are made in China. While vendors deny it, some goods sold in craft markets that are offered as hand-made, have the distinct and all too familiar appearance of mass-market products, although they are missing the “Made in China” labels.
Aside from all the humanitarian reasons the US should drop the embargo, if the United States doesn’t find a way to resume an economic relationship with Cuba, China is visibly waiting in the wings. China's President Xi Jinping visited with Fidel Castro in Cuba this past July. His visit came shortly after one by Russian President Vladimer Putin a few weeks earlier. Both Putin and Xi are said to be actively cultivating investments in Cuba. Even more disturbing, earlier this year a North Korean ship was photographed in Cuba’s port. The ship was later found to be carrying obsolete arms dating as far back as the 1960s. Opinions vary as to the purpose of the weapons, but that is not the main point. Our isolation has encouraged other alliances. Will lifting the embargo and cultivating a relationship change Cuba’s foreign policy? No one knows. What is clear is we stand nearly alone in our belief that sanctions and the embargo are effective.
On October 28, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly, as it does each year, voted on a non-binding resolution to repeal the sanctions. The resolution received 188 favorable votes. Three countries abstained. Two countries voted no: Israel and the United States.
Before the vote, the Cuban foreign minister gave a brief speech. He requested that the United States and Cuba attempt to “…live and deal with each other in a civilized way…”
Cubans don’t complain much about their poverty or about their leaders. They accept hardship and scarcity. They don’t know anything else. Cubans think standing in line for an hour to get ice cream is normal. Some admit to wanting to leave in order to pursue career opportunities and a better income, but they assure you they love their country and it makes them sad to think about leaving. I am not suggesting there aren’t dissidents within the country. There are groups of anti-government Cuban activists who are promoting a more free and democratic society.
Cuban privileges are expanding. They can now own businesses, restaurants and hotels, if they can afford to buy them. I ate in several privately owned restaurants, or paladars. One seaside paladar near the infamous Bay of Pigs had the best food I ate in Cuba, although the menu was limited and based on available supplies. Black bean soup, fried plantain, yucca, and succulent pork were seasoned and cooked to perfection. Speaking with the owner, he told me his wife is the chef and the recipes are traditional, passed down through her family. He pays taxes on his profits, but is allowed to keep what he earns. Since most Cubans have no computer, he keeps a careful, handwritten ledger of all his transactions.
Cubans can now grow produce on land that is leased from the government and they can keep the profits they make. But a lack of equipment such as tractors and irrigation systems limit the ability to farm.
These are small signs that Cuba is changing. The way of life the Castros sustained for so long is dying a natural death. I hope the future brings prosperity to the people. Caribbean countries have a hard time with this. Look at Cuba’s neighbor to the immediate south, Jamaica, to see what can happen when Eden falls into the wrong hands. I’ve visited Jamaica numerous times over more than thirty years. Corruption, over development, and squandering of resources are rampant and have ruined the natural beauty of the island. Jamaicans are exploited and are even poorer than most Cubans. I refuse to go to Jamaica anymore because tourist money doesn’t help Jamaicans. My heart would break if that happens to Cuba.
The lover in the song Dos Gardenias fears betrayal. Maybe that is what the Castros have feared all along. Given a choice, given a free election, the Cubans may choose to love another. But like the gardenias, the leaders are, inevitably, fading away. Even in tropical Cuba, in the fall flowers fade and die. The roots lie dormant over the winter, gathering energy in order to bloom again in spring. Cubans are waiting in the garden for another leader to bloom. One they can fall in love with, one who will protect them and keep them safe, but will let them thrive. They deserve all the help they can get. We need to lift the embargo and the travel restrictions.