He was wearing navy slacks, a green button down gingham shirt and carrying a 6 pack of beer when he said, “Buenos Noches, how was the band?” We looked at him with confusion in our eyes and he quickly said, “I am sorry. I thought you were coming from the club. Where are you visiting from?” We said, “America.” He extended a hand to Simon and said, “My name is Raul. Welcome to our country, thank you for visiting.” We chatted about what brought us to Cuba, how we always talked about visiting Cuba, but as all places never visited, we said, “maybe next year” for years. Then came the announcement by Trump that he plans on reinforcing the Cuba travel restrictions, and so the day after, we booked our trip. “Fuck Trump. He’s no good for our countries. We are good people!” Raul seemed genuinely hurt and offended that Trump’s agenda was to return the relationship between USA and Cuba to a pre-Obama era. We talked until we reached our AirB&B, said our good night and he walked to his own home but not before wishing us an enjoyable time in Cuba.
This conversation with Raul made a lasting impression on me for several reasons. He looked sad, almost defeated, while discussing the state of affairs between our two countries. But it also made me see how while the boost in independent American travels can benefit those who work for private companies, it might also create unhappiness among those who do that have the opportunity to gain access to the tourism money. In this socialist country, the wage gap is clearly dividing due to tourism. People who work for the government make an estimated $20 a month with rationed foods and basic necessities. Those who work for private businesses such as restaurants and tour companies (or home renters such as AirB&B hosts) make hundreds a month. In a country where there is no concept of social classes, the dramatic gap between the rich and poor are obvious.
While Simon and I sat in a restaurant, ordering food that most Cubans have no access to, I felt a pang of guilt. Could our vacation, brought on by our curiosity of this once forbidden country, be causing a rift and unhappiness among the Cuban people? When they see us visitors, wearing shiny new clothes with fancy new gadgets, do they feel unsatisfied with the state of their own lives? As our friends down 6 dollar cocktails, one after the other, and gasping at how “cheap” our meals were when our check arrives, how did the servers feel?
During our trip, we went on a walking tour by two young Unversity of Havana professors who gave us a tiny taste of the local life. They took us to a neighborhood ration store, showed us the ration books, took us into an apartment complex with exposed electrical boxes that was definitely a fire hazard and rode the bus with locals. I asked as many questions as possible on their quality of life, their feelings toward tourism and happiness level. They explained that despite the everyday difficulties and hardships of living in a poverty stricken country, they believe that most Cubans are still quite happy. Cubans have a strong sense of community, bonded friendships, traditional family values and helping others in time of need is second nature. Crime is low so parents feel safe allowing their children to play outside even as the alleys of Old City gets pitch black, women walk around freely without fear of assault or harassment, and discrimination among the people is “almost non-existent”.
And everywhere I looked, their statement based on their own observation through daily life living in Cuba, seemed to be true. People genuinely seemed relaxed and happy. I found the Cuban people to be warm, helpful and friendly. Children playing soccer together, parent and child walking the streets arm in arm, couples openly displaying their affection without fear of judgment, friends laughing and sharing a beer, store worker and customer having a long conversation, elderly sharing their lunches with the stray animals… In a country with so little, they didn’t seem to lack the one thing the first worlds spend so much money trying to achieve… organic happiness.
How people spent their days in Cuba in 2017 was reminiscent of my childhood growing up in Korea. The days prior to internet and wifi… the days living under one roof with three generation of family, playing outside with my cousins, riding bicycles and playing with strays (yes, I really did that), playing make believe with friends using just our imaginations instead of staring at a glowing screen, when my city was my playground and, when my family felt safe and secure enough allow sundown to be my curfew even at 7 years old without a cell phone.
We look at people living in poverty and say poor them. But sometimes, I look at the way we live with all of our money, all of our stuff, endless of choices and options, pressures of social status and think, poor us.