Visiting Cuba as an American

If you’re from the United States, you’re probably somewhat fascinated by Cuba. After 55 years of the embargo making travel to the island nearly impossible, Cuba has developed an enigmatic, forbidden-fruit quality.

That element of mystery and uncertainty made visiting Cuba in March a bit nervewracking for me. How will Cubans treat us? Will I be punished for discussing Cuban politics or critiquing propaganda? What if something goes wrong with my visa? 

The short answers: Hospitably. No. My visa was fine.

The longer answers:

Every Cuban I met was extremely kind and patient. I’ll admit that it helps that I speak enough Spanish to communicate reasonably well about day-to-day activities–ordering food, asking for directions, understanding my host mom’s house rules. But even in the untranslatable times, like when I gave the taxi driver the wrong form of currency (did you know there are two currencies in Cuba? It’s a bit confusing at first) or when I swore my host mom said she’d be gone for the weekend and to give my keys to the neighbors (I woke up the next day and she was there, and I have no idea what she meant to tell me), the Cubans took an extra moment to slow things down, simplify, and help me understand what to do next. This was true for strangers as well as people I knew, and because of this kindness I felt deeply comfortable traveling around the island.

American girl on plaza de la revolucion in Havana Cuba

Cuban politics also came as a surprise. Nearly everything in Cuba is political, from the art to the architecture to the infamous Cuban cars, yet people don’t quite openly discuss politics like they do in the US (I blame lack of freedom of the press). I quickly became aware of how I falsely assumed the Cuban perspective matched my American perspective; we’ve been taught to vilify Fidel Castro for his socialist policies and human rights infractions, yet my tour guide Anna explained that Cubans generally loved Fidel. This admiration wasn’t blind, either, since many people also saw his shortcomings and downfalls yet still revered him. Castro’s agrarian reform policy to redivide farmland equally among the people would be highly unacceptable in American capitalism, but I saw Cubans at the Museum of the Revolution donating to a huge metal mug to support the program. It’s a good reminder that our cultural, political, and media narratives shape our own perspectives, and that very few things are objectively good or bad.

street art in havana vieja, cuba. the grafitti says "te amo de fidel."

2 thoughts on “Visiting Cuba as an American

  1. Just catching up on your travel blog posts and I must have missed this one.

    Nearly everything in Cuba is political, from the art to the architecture to the infamous Cuban cars

    I can imagine following a visit to Moscow in 2005. It felt like any normal modern European city full of advertising boards for Japanese, American and European goods. But when you go into the Metro you can see the former Soviet past. It was full of elaborate mosaics and paintings. Although in the new capitalist Russia it felt more like art for nostalgia or a celebrating of history.


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