My month-long co-op to Cuba has been in the works for much longer. It began my first year at Antioch when I started working for Community Solutions and was told of the possibility that I could travel to Cuba as a part of my work with them. I remember watching The Power of Community, Community Solutions’ first documentary about Cuba, and how it portrayed a different Cuban lifestyle than the one I was used to hearing about through my family. Growing up as an American, you usually are exposed to a biased narrative about Cuba. My family in Mexico also had their own opinions formed from their visits there, as did some of my friends. However, in anticipation of our trip to help work on Community Solutions’ second film about Cuba, The 100-Year Plan, we met with the director and gained another new perspective on life in Cuba, but all of this was only leading up to experiencing what the country was actually like.
During the month leading up to our trip, I worked with another student at Community Solutions, both of us doing a lot of research to get a feel for what Cuba was like and what we would need to know to be prepared. I had never done so much research before visiting a place. I tried hard not to let any bias I had seep through as I went into the process. But Cuba required a certain type of planning. I needed to know what cities I was going to, where I would stay, and how much money to bring since I wouldn’t have access to American banks, ATMs, or credit cards throughout the trip. Limited contact to others via phone and the internet added mystery and even a bit of fear. What was this going to be like? We found out quickly that we were getting information that conflicted with what our families had said, what our friends had said, and with the movies we had watched. I realized that this was going to be a much different trip than any I had ever taken before.
I remember the moment we left the airport and began to look around. It was late at night and there were almost no cars. I remember not seeing any advertising except for the propaganda painted on walls and posted on billboards, usually including pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara with quotes from the revolution. Seeing the neatly trimmed lawns reminded me of footage I had seen of Pyongyang, North Korea.
Over the next few days, we realized that the economy in Cuba was entirely dependent on tourism and the money foreigners brought in. This thought was only further solidified as we traveled to other parts of the country. Tourists often used a different currency than those who lived there, usually the CUC (the convertible peso) which was equivalent to the U.S. dollar or moneda nacional which is a currency subsidized by the government that equated to 25 CUP for every CUC. Almost every Cuban person we spoke with had something they could gain financially, making it very hard to get a deeper understanding of people and their lives without always wondering what they wanted out of their interactions with us.
Towards the end of our trip, it was announced that Fidel Castro had passed away. This was a historic time and there was 24-hour news coverage of this for the next 9 days during a period of mourning that prohibited alcohol, music, and many other activities. We saw montages of Fidel, a documentary about his life and revolution, and people tearing up as they walked up to his picture in the Plaza of the Revolution. I realized that these people felt very differently about this man than I did. As we stood in the Plaza and witnessed the heads of state from Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Mexico, and many others talk, we were surrounded by thousands of people chanting his name. Some people looked on with admiration while others sat on the ground and did not pay attention.
I realized that my perspective on Cuba is just that, another perspective. My thoughts are shaped by what I saw but I know there are many other factors that cause me to see things the way I do. It is important to take all opinions into consideration and respect the different views people have. Just because I see things one way doesn’t mean that other perspectives of Fidel’s life and death aren’t valid. Everything I heard about what Cuba was like, from friends and family, from research, and from Community Solutions, none of it was really untrue. They were just all different perspectives, all influenced by different factors, about the same place.