After two weeks touring Cuba with an Eckerd College economics class, I keep returning to the advice of a tour guide at a Santeria cultural center: "I hope that you enjoy my country, but please do not try and understand it."
Indeed, it is a complicated place: a socialist country with a growing private sector and an increasingly stratified society, a warm and gracious people who hustle for every dime they can. Havana is a thing of beauty that seems to be crumbling before your eyes, but large expanses of countryside are preserved in all their stunning beauty.
One night we wandered the narrow streets of a dusty colonial-era town called Trinidad where worn-out Russian cars share the road with horse-drawn carts. We rode back to our modern beachfront hotel in a rattling 1948 Buick with no shock absorbers and an antifreeze bottle under the hood as a gas tank, and headed to a place where the only Cubans were the help and the only guests were Canadians, Italians and South Americans.
There were surprises: the sheer number of private businesses, many legal, many underground. And disappointments: the realization that the best Cuban food is in Tampa and Miami, or that hot water is not a given.
The Communist Party still rules, but Che Guevara would be disappointed that the free market is winning. A taxi ride in Trinidad cost me $8 one afternoon but $10 later that night. The driver shrugged and gestured to all the people in town for a festival. Simple supply and demand.
Uber and Lyft would love Cuba — taxi regulations seem to be nonexistent — but Internet access and functioning cellphones are hard to come by. Trying to communicate with each other without text messages was a First World problem that required patience and planning. "How did people get together before cellphones?'' one of the students asked me.
Salaries are controlled by the government. The average Cuban makes $20 to $30 a month — even doctors — but it takes $150 to $200 a month to survive. Free education, health care and subsidized food rations help but are not enough. The result: Private business are everywhere and nearly everyone does something to make money in licensed restaurants, markets and sidewalk stands or in the booming underground economy.
Cops take bribes to look the other way, teachers privately tutor, people sell new clothes in their homes and streets and many beg for money or offer friendly advice to tourists in hopes of scoring a buck. It's hard to walk down a street in tourist areas of Havana and not be approached to buy cigars, which may or may not be genuine.
The result is an increasingly stratified society. Those who work in the thriving tourism industry — as official government guides, artists, musicians, waiters, hotel maids — keep their tips and make the equivalent of a year's salary in two weeks. And no income tax.
That, along with remittances from relatives in the United States, allows them to supplement the basic rations they can buy each month at government stores — rice, beans, sugar, salt etc. — with some fresh meat or fruits and vegetables, or purchase a weekly "package'' of American TV shows and movies. There are no traffic jams in Cuba because few people can afford cars. We saw hundreds of people along the highway between Havana and Matanzas with their thumbs in the air hoping to catch a ride.
The class, led by economics professor Peter Hammerschmidt, was there to study the economy but encountered far more: seven distinctly different cities and towns, countless museums and cultural centers, astonishingly talented musicians, dancers and visual artists and a constant stream of propaganda, some subtly delivered by affable government tour guides, some plastered on billboards along largely empty highways.
Like the lack of toilet paper, Cubans seem to have adjusted to the lack of freedoms Americans take for granted. There's only one newspaper, Granma, run by the government. TV news is also government-controlled. This was not the police state we expected to find, though there was certainly police presence, particularly in tourist areas. They seemed friendly enough, but our students soon learned the limits.
The 18 students on our trip kept journals of their experiences and blogged about their observations, which evolved as the trip continued.
"The Cubans I have met on this trip seem to be so happy with simplicity," wrote Clara Suarez-Nugent, an international business and religious studies junior. "I spoke to a young Cuban guy named Junior at a music venue who told me how happy he was to have Americans here so we could see just how much liberty they really have. 'Look at us,' he said, gesturing to the crowds around us dancing and drinking and laughing. 'This is true freedom.' "
Still, there are limits. At the Havana Museum of Fine Arts, once banned and censored art from the 1970s, '80s and '90s — some of it provocative commentaries on the oppression of gays — suggests a new tolerance by the Raul Castro regime. What was missing was art reflecting the current conditions. I asked our guide if such work can be displayed in Cuba. Things have improved, he said, but added: "There is still censorship."
Spend enough time anywhere and you begin to glimpse below the surface. In Cuba that occurred in encounters with average Cubans on the streets.
"Some of the Cubans, only shortly after telling us how much they love Cuba, quickly would follow up by saying that if they ever had the chance to go to the United States, they would never return to their home island,'' wrote Dylan Sauchelli, an environmental studies junior. "Even more striking is that a few of the Cubans we have met down here were afraid to even be seen with Americans and I have personally witnessed one get stopped and questioned just for being near us along the Malecon."
While using the WiFi at a Havana hotel, I ran into a filmmaker on an unauthorized visit to make a documentary, including interviews with the large number of prostitutes who work the streets, nightclubs and hotel lobbies. We ran into him a few nights later and he told a few of the students about the pitfalls of unauthorized travel. "He was approached by Cuban secret service," Sauchelli wrote, "had to delete all of his work, and was being tailed ever since. … Only minutes after he left, Cuban police came over to where he had been sitting and demanded the passports and visas of the couple who had taken his spot. The experience was surreal and as these experiences begin to mount, it is clear that there is another side to Cuba that we have only begun to see." The students put their journals away, just in case.
Sergio Betancur, international business and Spanish sophomore, had similar observations from a walk with fellow students one night in Havana and encountering a friendly man named Elvis. "He told us that the police in Havana enforce many strict policies, one being that a poor local Cuban like himself could not communicate freely with tourists, especially American tourists like us. He said many people lived in fear of the police because they didn't let them speak freely but that he was not. He told us about the extreme poverty in which most Cubans found themselves and even showed us the inside of a few of his friends' houses which were all in a very decrepit state. He has definitely brought forward the poverty and difficulty most Cubans face every day and changed the way I see Cubans and the conditions in which they live."
But the social infrastructure the Cuban government has built impressed the students. Sam Cochran, an international business sophomore, was struck by "the fact that it may be the only country in the world with a population of educated people stuck in deep poverty." Low birth weights, low crime, housing for all. "There are a lot of negative aspects about the revolution and socialist state of things, but it has also done a lot of good which seems to be overlooked in the United States. … Actually being here has let us see that Castro has fed, educated and clothed a large population of people who used to be even worse off during Batista's control."
The package tour we were on was carefully crafted to put the best face forward, something that was pretty obvious to the students. "For a week now we have seen what the government wants us to see and we as educated students should be more reluctant to adopt the propaganda force fed to us," wrote Christina Rosetti, a communication and journalism junior who will graduate this year. She has deep ties to Cuba: A distant relative is a former president and another is a successful artist. She later wrote about trying to play an innocent game of pickup soccer at the University of Havana and being shut down by police.
Ultimately what impressed our students the most was the Cuban people themselves, their sense of joy in the face of poverty. Aino Pihlava, an international business major, wrote: "What keeps surprising me over and over again is the friendliness of the Cuban people. Everyone we have met has been very approachable and nice. One night in Trinidad a group of us went to a local Casa de la Musica to listen to some music and see the city center.
"We were almost immediately surrounded by the locals, who were interested in where we were from. After discovering we were from America, they asked us to dance with them. Some of us had never danced salsa before, but it didn't matter. We had a wonderful time in Trinidad. … I will treasure this night for the rest of my life."
We were in Cuba at an historic time. On the day we peered at the Cuban and American guard towers facing off at the Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuban and American negotiators began formal talks in Havana to normalize relations. A mile from the base, hotel workers gathered around a TV smiling at news of the start of the talks. We were in Caimanera, the closest town to the base — so close most Cubans are forbidden from visiting for fear they will seek asylum at the base. Cuba is an island nation surrounded by water but you hardly ever see boats on the water: They are escape vessels and their ownership is strictly regulated.
I left with a sense that change will not come fast. Cuba does not seem prepared for a sudden influx of American tourists and the changes that cellphones and the Internet would bring to its strict control of information. The embargo is a relic of the Cold War that has had a crushing effect on the Cuban economy and only provides the government with an excuse to cover the failings of its centralized government. Still, anything seems possible in Cuba.
We left Cuba with hope and optimism for the future but also recalling something our guide said to us at the start of the trip: "In Cuba we have a saying: Everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed."
Tom Scherberger is director of media and public relations for Eckerd College and was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Bay Times for 20 years.
Read the Eckerd students' blog posts and see more photos at eckerdwt15cuba.tumblr.com.