Nearly 4 years ago, when Cuba and the United States governments announced they would take the first steps towards putting behind decades of hostility and start developing a normal relationship, many people from around the world reacted with dismay. Disappointed and concerned that Cuba was going to lose its exotic touristic appeal in the face of an opening that would allow all the signature American brands to come and ruin the “untouched” urban landscape, thousands of foreigners rushed to the island so that they could “see it before it changed”. Travel agencies and small tour organizers alike embraced the fear-mongering slogan to profit from the ignorance of people who had no clue about what normalizing relationships with the U.S.A. really meant, but most importantly, what it really means to “see Cuba before it changes”. In this article, I’m going to explain why the conventional notion of seeing Cuba before it changes doesn’t make sense, and what is so ironic about it.
When people say they want to see Cuba before it changes, no matter how much they elaborate about caring for the Cuban people and a potentially negative turn in economic and social dynamics, what many really care about is their photos. It’s their Havana pictures ruined by the foreseen presence of a MacDonalds restaurant or the expect arrival of a Starbucks coffee shop. It’s the loss of the exotism offered by a tourism destination that doesn’t have to be shared with loud Americans; where the iconic symbols of American and corporate global influence are absent; where a different economic and political system survives in sheer defiance 90 miles away from the most powerful country on earth. Above all things, though, this is an aesthetic concern. True, there are those who think deeper about the possible negative consequences that open trade with the influential north could have, but let’s be honest: the fear is primarily about the picture.
What I find really ironic (and utterly ridiculous) about this animosity and rejection of the “American” is the fact that so much of what people from around the world come to enjoy in Cuba is related to the island’s close relationship with the United States of America! Let’s go example by example, so that you don’t have to be so worried next time you hear the two countries want to be friends.
- The most obvious one. These charming, gas-chugging machines are the living ghosts of an era when the United States literally owned Cuba. It’s so damn obvious and ironic that these ambassadors of American technology rank among the top 4 iconic images of Cuba. It’s them as # 1, the character folk with a massive cigar in # 2, our traditional music from back in the day as # 3, and the Malecón (sea wall) featuring pre-Revolution architecture as # 4.
- See those gorgeous buildings whose beauty you’re constantly charmed by, irresistibly taking pictures of them while literally on the verge or orgasming from awe? Well, none of them were built after 1959. None of them. After 1959, construction stopped incorporating those aesthetic standards from the capitalist era. The edifications you’re marvelled by represent either our colonialist or our capitalist past.
- If you’ve ever felt seduced by the contagious rhythms of Buena Vista Social Club, you’ve been touched by a cultural product that was conceived during Cuba’s capitalist era. What’s really fascinating here is that most of Cuba’s famous rhythms and dances have all been created while the country was pretty much a possession of the United States. Get this straight: Son, Rumba, Mambo, Chachacha, Guaracha, Danzón, Bolero and Trova, to name the most visibles ones, are rhythms that emerged while Cuba was in deep ties with the United States. This is in NO way an exultation of capitalism or a glorification of those days. It’s merely an impartial observation to point out how much of Cuba’s capitalist era you’re heading there to enjoy.
- The people and their traditions: Cubans didn’t become the joyous, smiley, friendly and hospitable they are as the result of the Revolution. We’ve been awesome for a long time, including the colonial and post-colonial eras! So, don’t worry, getting along with the USA is not going to turn the whole character of our nation into something else.
As you can see, Cuba’s connection with the United States is part of what people unconsciously come looking for here. It is a surprisingly blinding fact how all those iconic symbols seem Cuban, when they are indeed American. In fact, there’s a whole industry that revolves around exploiting our connection with our US past.
Now with Trump in power, a bucket of cold water has been poured onto what could have been the start of a better life for ordinary Cubans. In addition to that, the continued hostilities keep adding suffering to a nation that has seen family –its most important value—shattered. Decades of enmity between the two nations have turned Cuba into a broken society scarred by migration.
Dear friends from abroad (especially the fearful): the improvement of relationships between the two countries is not going to ruin your Cuba photos. Indeed, if anything, it’s going to improve the quality of your pictures, because those Cubans who inhabit those houses about to fall apart might be able to fix them and paint them, allowing them to recover their former glory and contributing to the beauty of your souvenir photographs. Visiting urban Cuba won’t have to be like visiting ancient ruins. Think about it.