I think my third grade daughter’s impressions of Cuba bring to light the many interesting aspects of Cuba- the beauty of the land, the beautiful architecture literally crumbling in front of us, and the social and economic impact of a first world country that literally closed itself off from the rest of the free-market economies of the world in 1959 and is just now beginning to change again. (She is correct, there is no toilet paper even in the national museum and a person stands by the entrance handing out little squares for a tip).
It really does feel in many ways like stepping into the past- all the old cars driving by, the old architecture, the lack of technology, internet, televisions. The culture also shows the repercussions of the 1959 revolution, when Castro took control of the government and nationalized everything. Our tour guide explained how wealthy Europeans and Americans had to leave and literally left keys in their cars at the airport because they knew everything would just be taken away and there was no point in even locking up. There was so much jewelry and furniture and possessions left behind. The history is fascinating, and even a quick brush up on the Cuban revolution on Wikipedia would make the trip more impactful for anyone.
Because of the lack of information about the free world, the people did not have access to internet, movies, television and so there is also a lot of propaganda we would hear. Everything is free, and the people are proud of that- health care, even homes, all given by the government, but then there is no aspiration to anything more. There is no point in working for anything because there is nothing better to have. There are very few stores that we saw, and even in grocery stores hardly anything to buy. We went to 5 stores just looking for bottled water- there wasn’t any, because everything is allocated by the government, not driven by supply and demand. My children really picked up on this concept, and the real-life education of the impact of a communist government on a country and people was invaluable. The people we met along the way were friendly and nice. Even when people tried to sell us bananas, or came up begging, we always felt safe. When asking us for help, the people did not ask for money- literally there is nothing to buy. Money doesn’t matter as much as things. They would ask us for shampoo, toys, clothes, because those are things you cannot get easily in Cuba. Education, homes, health care- but not the basic things we take for granted at home.
We loved the weather, the beaches, the buildings, and the charming architecture. But the most impactful part of the trip for us was experiencing a different government system first hand, and the impact on a country, in contrast to what we expect and are used to at home. When we walked into Newark after going through customs- we had culture shock in the reverse. All the restaurants, bars, store, kiosks- there was more to buy and eat just in 5 minutes at Newark than we had seen in a week. My daughter commented “Imagine what a person in Cuba would think if we put them in this airport”. Our trip got everyone thinking, we learned some interesting lessons about capitalism and how grateful we are for a country where achievement is rewarded. Given the negative political climate the children have experienced this year, it was interesting to ese an alternative to democracy and look at the American system in that light.
It is exciting to see the changes, but also made me wonder if all the beautiful buildings would be torn down and replaced with hotels and buildings less costly to design and build. Restoring all those old buildings would be so important but also cost much more than just tearing them down.