It is strange and somewhat disconcerting to be a tourist in a Communist country. Of course, you can just follow a tourist guide around and not think about it or stay in a posh resort that is wholly capitalist despite the national politics. I always like to try and understand a place when I visit to the extent my few days immersed in the local culture will allow.
Since I only had about five full days in Cuba, I decided to just stick to Havana so that I could try and get a good sense for it and save the rest of Cuba for another visit. There is plenty to do – and think about – in Havana so I was never bored. I also went on these crazy walks all over Havana that lasted for hours and frequently resulted in me being lost for some portion of the walk. The wonderful part of that was that I discovered Havana in a way I never would have just speeding by in a pretty refurbished automobile from the era of Trump’s fantasy America.
I did feel that I should do that at least once, and since I had gotten lost trying to walk to Plaza de Revolución, it seemed a
good case for a fancy ride through Havana. I would definitely recommend at least one ride in a classic car. Mine was very expensive compared to everything else in Cuba but, as a gringo, I just accepted I was contributing to the economy.
Plaza de Revolución is a lot different in person that it looks in photos. There is the fancy metalwork saluting Fidel and Che, which is a compulsory tourist photo. The square is gigantic and generally eerily empty. The military presence is very obvious and you realize you are in a police state. It feels like someone is watching from a hidden camera every moment. There are lots of signs marking where you can no longer wander.
Communism and other forms of dictatorship make me nervous. I was relieved to get out of the Plaza de Revolución and to another part of Cuba that felt hopeful and festive. When I was in China, my hotel was close to Tiananmen Square and, despite being a major hosting venue for the Olympics, which had just ended, no taxi driver seemed capable of finding it so I spent a lot of time in Tiananmen Square. It is an unnerving place to be deposited. Mao is always looking at you and there are plenty of dudes with rifles milling about. One of the most bizarre sights was the soldiers standing guard in front of a giant display of the silly Olympic mascots. There should have been a sign saying “Welcome to China! It’s complicated.”
All countries are complicated but Communist countries increase the complexity by an exponential degree. Theoretically, all this communism is FOR the people and offers them a better life than the capitalist pigs would have allowed. But it’s never really gone down like that. Every supposedly Communist state is a little different. ALL love propaganda! All are comfortable suppressing the truth, controlling the media and rewriting history. Visiting a Communist country really makes one appreciate the freedoms and benefits of democracy even if not all of its attributes are sublime.
When I was in China, it was entertaining to read the history of Shanghai through the Chinese government’s eyes. In Cuba, you can get the same experience by visiting the
Museo de la Revolución. It is located in the former Presidential Palace so worth visiting just for the architecture. You will certainly learn about the Cuban Revolution. You won’t learn much beyond that, though, and it’s all glory and sacrifice and the 1960s. Just another aspect of Cuba that feels like a time capsule.
It’s important, though, to note that young Castro was a noble guy. He did some good stuff. It’s easy to go communism bad, capitalism good, but it’s not at all that simple. Probably why the vast majority of the people who score high on happiness and quality of life on those international indices live in socialist countries. The best system includes elements of both.
And Castro and team did some remarkable things in Cuba. They defeated the United States of America! They got rid of the mob and the casino culture that had overtaken the economy. They sent young disciples out to rural Cuba to teach everyone how to read so that Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They also have free education and healthcare and some basic food is provided by the state. It’s an idealistic concept that would have appealed to the very young men and women who masterminded the Cuban revolution.
The tough part, though, is how to sustain that kind of system and how to be able to interact with a world that doesn’t share the same system.
The original system was more crazy fever dream than well-reasoned new political and economic philosophy. As an example, I learned that Che Guevara was appointed President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry in addition to being in charge of Agrarian Reform. OK, first, TOO many major jobs. Second, SERIOUSLY, who appoints a dude who’s a doctor and a guerilla war expert to run the money stuff???
I would encourage you to go to Cuba and check it out for yourself. Go with an open and inquisitive mind. There are some good ideas there. There is a lot of idealism. There is a lot of pride. There is also naivety. Cuba is an example of incredible idealistic ideas brought to fruition – but it is also a cautionary tale that it’s really important to have a plan that’s sustainable and pragmatic enough that your revolution will actually achieve the ideals you hoped it would for the long term. The hardest part begins the day after the victory parade…