How has cuba changed since your first trip there?
I went to study Spanish at the University of Havana in 2003. Cuba wasn’t as open then, so there weren’t nearly as many tourists. The whole country was geared toward just survival. For example, there were very few new cars. Now, you see brand new Kias, brand new Fiats. A couple of rides from the Hotel Nacional were in Mercedes Benz taxicabs.
I always picture those 1950s American cars.
They’re still there. The average population still drives those cars around, and some of them are taxicabs. So if you feel like riding around in a 1957 Chevy convertible, you can.
What else has changed?
Right now they have paladares, which people are allowed to open up in their houses, and those are very good places to eat.
Regular people have a little more access to the Internet now, but it’s costly for them. I understand that they just decided to link up to a fiber-optic cable that runs underwater, so if we were going there now, our emails would be a lot faster.
What do Cubans today say they want most?
What they talk about is travel access. The very next day after we left, they opened it up so that people can now travel with just a passport and an exit visa. And people were lined up to do this. The people who still have trouble getting visas to leave the country would be doctors and scientists, because those are valuable people and they don’t want to risk them not coming back. And they do not want to give some dissidents travel access, because they know they’ll go outside the country and complain about the Cuban system.
Did students learn more about that firsthand? I imagine that the government wants you to hear from people who support the system.
One of the interesting things we did when we were there was talk to a Cuban assemblyperson. The United States has five Cubans in prison here for spying and sabotage and so on. What they were here for, of course, was to spy on anti-Cuba Americans. They’re in jail here and Cuba wants them released.
On the other hand, Cuba has an American in prison, who they claim was there for reasons that were anti-Cuba. So this is almost a stalemate. In the morning, we were getting the story from the Cuban assemblyperson, who told us what you would expect, and in the afternoon, we visited the United States Interests Section, and we got the story there that you would expect.
Do the Cuban people want capitalism and private property?
They may want it if they feel that it might give them more freedom and economic stability. But when they look deeper into it, they may be satisfied with what they have, which is free healthcare, free education, and a daily stipend for food and for housing. In a capitalist system, those things would fall by the wayside, at least to a certain extent.
They might prefer a socialist system, but they do not want a communist system. If you live there, you know it’s a communist country because there still is censorship. The newspapers still carry the party line. Cuban television is still censored.
With John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in the second Obama administration, do you think there’s an opening for better U.S.-Cuba relations?
Yes, I do. They both have been anti-embargo. They feel the embargo’s a waste of time. They feel it’s useless. They say, “We have these great relationships with China and Vietnam, both communist countries. What’s the problem with Cuba?”
There are still some old cold warriors who probably will not thaw until both Castro brothers are dead and gone. They will never forget that [Fidel] Castro was successful in the Bay of Pigs and wanted to put up missiles for the Soviet Union down there. I don’t think they’ll ever forgive him for that.
What’s your favorite thing about the country?
The music is fabulous. Very soothing, very rhythmic, there’s lots of drumming. And it feels like it gives the people a good sense of being. You know, things are tough, things are rough, but that music keeps them in a good mood. Everywhere you go, people are playing the guitar, they’re singing.
This time, I went to a baseball game. Baseball is the same, but there’s lots of drumming going on at the game. We went to the national ballet. They did a great job with The Nutcraker. It was a very multiracial cast up there. In fact, the principal dancer was a black man, which I’ve never seen in that production.
What stood out about student responses to the trip?
Their excitement. After the very first day, they really got into it. The only serious complaint I heard was at the end. One student said, “I don’t want to see any more pictures of Che Guevara.” You do not see any photos of Castro, but Che’s all over the place.
For me, if I could pick out one negative thing about it, it would be that the food’s not spicy enough. They don’t have pepper on the table. You have to ask them for hot sauce to put on the food. I don’t go for that too much.