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Undeniable Cuba — People, Politics, Perspective

Undeniable Cuba

A perspective on Cuban people, ideas & politics,

and their effect on your mind and body

© Ron Levy, 2020

Cuban cigars, the envy of the world. Old Havana

For 50+ years, Americans were not supposed to go to Cuba. At least, not without US approval. The embargo between our governments has nothing to do with the supremely kind people, the blue-green water, endless bays and coastlines, beautiful underwater caves and natural, healthy, unprocessed food, or, for that matter, the lack of billboards and other icons of “American” consumerism.
No, the embargo has more to do with political arrogance, and for that, we have missed a success story. Despite political posturing and polarized tensions surrounding immigration, hispanics and communism, Cuba is a thriving, inspiring country that is showing the world how pride in their heritage can overcome prejudice from others; how individual and community peace and happiness apparently don’t depend on the latest technology or fastest food; how salsa and a little meringue is not something you eat but how you move.
We came to Cuba through Mexico, as many do. With dual nationalism, it was relatively easy for my family to visit. Cuban officials allowed entrance with a wink of an eye and a warm smile. It was a stress-free introduction into a society that would relax our minds and bodies more than we ever imagined for the next 3 weeks.

Classic 52 Buick in front of Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

Dancing is easily the national pastime, along with baseball. Both can occur unannounced at any time of the day, anywhere. Salsa music fills the streets as sure as the warm caribbean air fills your lungs, and together they urge to you reevaluate your biases, values and options for extending your trip.
After the first few days, and most notably nights, I was gently overwhelmed by one inescapable feeling: I felt safe here. Walking the streets alone at 1AM, I never once felt apprehension, even when strangers would approach and walk with me, just to talk, ask where I’m from, etc. The first time that happened, my walls were up, replaying some of the movies and experiences from traveling to over 50 countries since the 1970s. But the honest, genuine, relaxed vibe that permeates the residents takes over, despite my initial hesitations. Cuba’s rhythm is undeniable. Like the music, you can’t help but join in the dance.

Men relaxing at a cafe in Havana, Cuba

Perhaps because of the lack of ambition compared to the U.S., or the general disdain for consumptive attitudes, the emphasis here is more on interacting, doing, being, enjoying, dancing, etc. At 2:00 AM, people were walking around, dancing, drinking, talking to neighbors, eating, etc. Strangers will approach and walk with you, genuinely curious what you think about Cuba. Music plays everywhere all the time. Live music. No cover. More intoxicating than the Cuban rum, the smell of cigar, and the undulating skin. Cuba’s charm hits you on all burners, all senses. Everywhere.
Photography was relatively easy here, though I avoided using the Single Lens Reflex cameras in favor of the smaller point and shoots like the Canon G15 and even my cell phone. The point was not to catch the greatest resolution or D-max, but to capture the energy of the moment – arguably the soul of Cuba. I found subjects willing to be photographed everywhere, as they were, with no extra fear of the lens than most other cultures. (The hardest cultures for me to shoot have been Arab and orthodox muslim societies).
After a few weeks traveling through Old and New Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and every drop of salt water in between, and talking with cab drivers, doctors, lawyers, residents and travelers, a consistent observation surfaced. Despite all the academic theory and political discourse about communism, socialism and the relative security, value and/or corruption of government regulation, most Cubans showed a palpable pride and contentment with the lifestyles they were able to enjoy here. Admittedly, this could have been the picture they wanted to paint for foreigners, but there were other notable idiosyncracies that contributed to this contentment.

Though most of our preconceived or politically influenced opinions about Cuba are based on our tenuous relations with Russia and China, the truth is that Cuba’s political system has provided numerous social benefits. One that was echoed by many people I met, and which I have heard from other citizens in communist countries as well, is the genuine idea that the government is taking care of them. Seeing consistent daily, visual evidence of happy, healthy, secure people and neighborhoods around the country confirmed this view.
There is a lot of confusion over socialism vs communism. In theory, they are both forms of government in which the emphasis is on public rather than private ownership.  The central government decides all of the laws and services for the people, whereas in a democracy, the citizens vote for representatives and decide more directly on these things.
Socialism is more a middle road between democracy and communism. It evolved from the Industrial Revolution, where an ever widening gap developed between the rich and the poor working classes. Protests and criticism by influential people such as Karl Marx led to changes in laws and, in Cuba’s case, entire Constitutions devoted to more equal treatment of all people.(See for an excellent, concise summary).
Today, people are more willing to discount negative perceptions of socialism and communism (loss of some freedoms, adherence to “oppressive” laws or religious dogma, lack of legal recourse, etc.) in favor of social “security”, lack of community or political tension over “class struggles”, and freedom from foreign manipulations. One of the biggest direct benefits appreciated by all Cubans is universal health care. Thuogh citizens are generally in good health, there is little, if any, anguish over how to afford treatment for medical care, skyrocketing monthly insurance premiums, or the corruptive influence of drug or medical advertisements. Just knowing that your physical health is being taken care would seem to produce increased mental and emotional health as well. (For excellent insights into Cuba’s development, globalization and preservation of  sovereignty, see the small paperback by Dr. Jose Lara: Cuba Socialism within Globalization, 2008).
Another massive benefit to  citizens is free higher education for all, including doctors and lawyers. This reflects the government’s priority of investment in people, rather than business incentives or tax right-offs, i.e. the “public good”. The huge corollary benefit here is that it provides an excellent health education for a higher percentage of citizens than the US or other countries. Presumably, knowing more about health and medicine will lead to longer, healthier lives.
Related to the free education benefit is the ethics of social conscience: Doctors go into the health profession without the corruptive influence of financial gain that is so pervasive everywhere else. Salaries are fixed by the government for doctors, lawyers and other jobs. As of my last trip (2014), Cuban doctors were paid roughly $30/day for their services. Aware of this ahead of time, most students entering this field clearly have a genuine desire to help their fellow man, rather than material gain.

Cuban stir-fry Easter meal at a pension in Trinidad

Our cab driver for 3 days, with his granddaughter in Trinidad

Despite this purity of attitude, most doctors don’t make enough to support their families. So after “work”, many of them drive cabs and make ten times their daily wages. Yet rides are cheap for visitors, often being as cheap or cheaper than other forms of transport around the island, especially if you have a party of 2-4. To me, this didn’t indicate a consumptive or ambitious attitude, as their cars, clothing and lifestyles (I visited many homes) never once indicated a lavish lifestyle. It would be socially suicidal for one doctor to have the kind of over-the-top homes many do in the states. As mentioned before, the society polices itself on many levels; outward elegance is never seen, though internal living spaces can be spacious and comfortable by American standards.
Crime is supposedly very low in Cuba, and violent crimes, including any related to guns, virtually non-existent. While there are probably smaller infractions such as stealing food (the government doesn’t release statistics), the community essentially polices itself with internal moralities, despite (or possibly because of) street-corner cameras. We had one incident where a street vendor in a formal market knowingly shorted us a few dollars worth of change. We complained to him and told the other vendors nearby that we had no money left now to buy their items anymore. We even looked vulnerably and hunched our shoulders questioningly at the corner, rooftop cameras, but never got our change.

Revolutionary Argentine leader Che Guevara helped Fidel Castro rise to power in the 1950s

 Aside from that, all know that Big Brother is watching them, but, as mentioned above, they trust their Brother. He (Castro, Che Guevara) has given them a peaceful coexistence amongst the larger superpowers to the north and south. He has afforded them an insular, protected life of beautiful weather, abundant resources (mostly because of their non-consumptive lifestyles that allows land and animals to rejuvenate in sync with the population), beautiful landscapes and seascapes, and a stability that is hard for most Americans to understand, much less accept.
Some of the laws are openly ignored, or challenged throughout the country. Yogurt is illegal, as it is a milk product, and milk products, including cows, can only be bought through government-owned facilities. We bought yogurt on the “black market”, which was simply a private home around the corner from our hotel. It was the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest yogurt I’ve ever had.

50 year old US cars parked at the Capitol Building in Old Havana, Cuba

The retro cars of Cuba understandably become the most visual icons of the country. Stuck with American imports from the 1950s, Cubans were forced to become the undisputed experts at rejuvenating and maintaining life support for those classic Chevy’s, Fords, Buicks and Dodges. They became a badge of honor for the country and its owners. For only a couple bucks more than a regular taxi ride, you can ride, top down, in one of these spacious, comfortable symbols of luxury anywhere in town. Built for the good life and maintained for generations, these dream machines transcend transportation, gliding you along on a timeless journey that elevates any passenger to James Dean status. You feel the magnetism that Cuba must have had for Hemmingway, and more recently Redford, Beyonce, Will Smith, and Katy Perry.
Speaking of driving, if you happen to hit a cow, you will go to jail. It is a felony. It has nothing to do with animal rights or sensibilities, and more to do with public and resource security. This is how an island with limited land and resources protects its citizens with strong laws to discourage fast or drunk driving.

Secluded beach resort, Playa La Luna, near Cienfuegos, Cuba

Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too, for cheap in Cuba. Stroll the malecon (boardwalk) from New to Old Havana, take a ride in 1950s luxury, enjoy the lack of fast food, watch a baseball game played on a roundabout in the center of town, and, in short, don’t plan much. Life will unfold in front of you in the rhythm that is Cuba and the mood of the moment, from a culture that keeps its beat to a different drummer than we do.
To sum it up, “Resistance is futile”. Drop the political baggage and let the Cuban vibe do its thing with your heart, soul and body.
The whole country reminds me of the opening line in a chapter from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense and imbibes delight through every pore”.

Cuban dogs are the height of fashion, Old Havana, Cuba

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Ron Levy’s photographs have appeared in commercial and editorial publications worldwide for 35+ years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and subways in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and “bucket-list” hotspots in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.

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