How Do You Like Our Shithole Country?

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We hadn’t been in Cuba for 24 hours before someone asked us:

So… how do you like our shithole country?

The question, of course, was a reference to Orange Julius’ statements regarding immigration. It was embarrassing. Still, it is a question that should be answered.

So… to my Cuban brothers and sisters I say “I love your shithole country!”

Last week was my second visit to Cuba. My wife’s presbytery has a decades old relationship with the country. Apparently, back in the day, church members doubled as international agents of espionage as they pulled off some pretty badass cloak and dagger to get into the country. Now, it’s a little easier, though Darth Cheeto seems to be threatening to undo the progress made by the Obama administration, a recurring theme.

This trip was a pastor’s retreat, connecting pastors in Baltimore and Central Florida with Presbyterian clergy in Cuba. I’ll leave others to tell the story of the retreat, as it’s not my story to tell, but I do want to talk about the beautiful country and how visiting it seems to recalibrate my brain.

I should say that before my 2016 visit to Cuba, my only other international trip was to Haiti in 2011. (Sorry, Canada! You don’t count!) The Haiti trip was profoundly life-changing, but also a bit traumatic. Haiti is a rough place in parts and seeing poverty on that level shook me. To the extent that Haiti is a “shithole country” it is because of the effect of U.S. policies and the unfortunate frequency of devastating natural disasters. It was only during my trip to Cuba that I began to deal with some of the trauma that I had experienced in Haiti.

That first trip to Cuba was a bit of a personal revelation. We spent time in the town of Cabaiguan and then went on a hike in a joint venture between the young adults of Shannon’s church and those of the Presbyterian church in the town. The people and the country were beautiful! The hospitality was like nothing I have ever experienced before. We ate like royalty that week! I also have a great fondness for the Cuban pace of life. Why the siesta has not taken hold as a norm for all of humanity is baffling to me!

Parts of Cuba feel like stepping back in time. It is not uncommon to see people being carried back and forth by horse drawn carriages. I was reminded on this trip how overwhelming the smell of diesel fuel can be when it hangs in the air. The streets of Cabaiguan are populated with cars from the 60’s and 70’s. Veradero, where we stayed last week, has a few more modern cars. Still, there was a quaintness to seeing chickens running up and down the streets. Shannon commented that it was first time that she had literally seen a chicken crossing the road.

Veradero is more “modern” because it is a touristy beach town. We saw travelers from Russia, Canada, Finland, and China in the restaurants and markets of the town. At one point we were asked if we were Canadian by a women working at a corner store. We answered that we were American to which she replied “Cuba is better. Mas tranquilo!” She gets no argument from me!

Veradero’s beaches were beautiful! Despite temps in the high 50’s to mid 60’s, we took a couple of lovely strolls along the Caribbean Sea. A somewhat chilly walk on the beach is still a walk on the beach! Twice now I’ve seen the Caribbean Sea and I can’t imagine that water gets more beautiful than that. It’s a striking shade of blue that seems only to exist for the sake of inspiring awe.

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I’m not gonna lie to you… I had a lot of rum last week. The beer in Cuba doesn’t quite reach my beer snobby standards and Bourbon is in short supply, so I had to settle for rum cocktails. We stayed at the Presbyterian church in Veradero which conveniently has a bar right around the corner. That’s kind of the dream! This particular bar made several of my favorite Bourbon-based cocktails only with Rum. They were, like everything in Cuba, wonderful but much sweeter than I am used to. Those people sure do love their sugar!

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In my limited international travel experience, I always seek to hear what people think of the States. It was difficult to fight the urge to continually apologize for the current administration. More than once I found myself saying “I think he’s crazy too!” In the time between my two visits, the feeling went from one of hopeful optimism for our countries’ relationship to a palpable fear that we were taking a few steps backwards. It was a little heartbreaking. Art throughout the country was displayed that said “build bridges, not walls”. The Cubans seem more optimistic about the future than I am.

Cuba is fascinating for me because it is a place where Communism isn’t some far off boogie man, but a lived reality. While I still think that there is a great deal that we could learn from their national healthcare system, Cuba certainly takes some of the bloom off of the rose of socialism. Some of the talking points against socialism have merit when you look around Cuban society. Capitalism creates initiative for innovation that seems to be missing in Cuba which is a shame because the people are clearly creative and entrepreneurial at heart. There is a perceived ceiling for achievement in the country and the best you can do seems to be to pick a field a study where that ceiling is high enough to take care of your family. That said, the end results of communism and our system of crony capitalism seem to be virtually the same: money in the hands of the few and power and subsistence living for the rest. While I still believe that sectors of the economy would be better served with a socialized system, Cuba keeps me from over-romanticizing the benefits of socialism.

“This is not the real Cuba” we were told by several people throughout the week. Looking over the tourist town of Veradero with a myriad of foreign faces, I could see why they said that. Much of what was on the streets, in the markets, and on the menus was catered toward Western, white visitors. At one point we visited a Beatles Bar and I kept asking myself “what the hell is a Beatles Bar doing in Cuba?” It was also interesting to note what the government was willing to do to cater to their foreign investors. Our two translators worked in the tourism industry. They pointed out as we drove by the posh, seaside resorts that Cubans were not allowed to stay in those places, but that the jobs they created were coveted. It’s not much different from tourist towns in the states when you think about it. “Real Cuba”, I imagine is the place where people take care the people in their community, where they work and sing, and dance, and take siestas! Real Cuba is what we saw in Cabaiguan, a place that almost seems forgotten by time, but where the people struggle and live together in community. It occurs to me that “real” life can never be lived in an experience where you are made to feel inferior to others.

Of course, anyone who thinks that Cubans are inferior has clearly never spent time singing, praying, eating, and laughing with them…

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