So close…just 90 miles off the coast of Florida…but worlds away. That’s how I describe Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and the site of my vacation last week. “Vacation” is not an apt description of my visit there, however. As much as I enjoyed spending time with my brother and his Cuban family-in-law, mine wasn’t the kick-back-and-sip-a-daquiri type of vacation. Being in Cuba was hard work.

Getting there was easy enough. President Biden has loosened restrictions on US–Cuban relations so the gates are open once again. I flew from Miami to Havana without incident. Sadly, the plane was nearly empty.

Cuba tourism has been hit hard by the pandemic. The country relies on tourism to supply its people with the necessities of life—like food— so when COVID hit (and when our immediate past-president restricted travel to Cuba), its most important source of foreign revenue got dry-docked. In addition, climate change is negatively affecting local food production, Cuba has been slapped by inflation like the rest of us, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine has created fuel shortages. Without fuel, the garbage trucks can’t run. Without garbage trucks, heaps of smelly waste pile up on street corners. Rubbish draws out rodents, rodents enter houses, and—you get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.

There is beauty in Cuba, however. For example, Cuba produces some of the best ballet dancers in the world. I brought home linocut etchings from an artist whose son is a principal dancer with the Kansas City ballet. And the tiny country boasts nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We think we have it bad because we have to pay six dollars for a gallon of milk. In Cuba, there is no milk. There are no dairy products at all, unless you think powdered milk is dairy. (Does it come from a powdered cow?) My hosts haven’t had a chicken since June. They heard there were eggs at the corner store so they rushed with their ration book to stand in line and came back with seven eggs—for a household of four with two guests. They eat a lot of beans and rice but while I was there we ate rice without beans because there were no beans to be had. They loved the boxes of Jell-O I brought them and had never tasted anything like the fruit rolls I made for them in my dehydrator at home.

The country’s power plants are old and cannot keep up with demand. As temperatures rise in Cuba like everywhere else, house fans run more often (don’t bother asking if there’s air conditioning). In order to spare its utility equipment, the government implements rolling blackouts. The first one I experienced lasted two hours but in Viñales, a smaller community west of Havana, the people had to suffer through an eight-hour blackout the day before my brother and I arrived there. A blackout means no fans, no refrigeration, no lights. Internet access isn’t even available when there is power. (Our host in Havana is a lawyer with the University of Havana. He makes $29/month. He cannot afford to spend $8/minute at a sluggish public computer that may shut down due to an unpredictable blackout at any moment.)

Our hosts used to have a 50-year-old refrigerator that worked well. (Cubans know how to keep things running. It’s a national vocation to lift the hood of an old car and be able to fix what’s broken.) But the Cuban government determined that the old fridges were drawing too much electricity so they required all households to get rid of their perfectly functional refrigerator. Each house was inspected to make sure every resident complied. The old, solid refrigerators were replaced with cheap units distributed by a foreign manufacturer. The rubber seals have eroded and the doors don’t close tight. Cold air escapes, and what little food there is is at risk of spoiling, especially during a blackout.

Very quickly I’ve painted a dire picture of how miserable life is in Cuba. Yet I witnessed intelligent people being kind, generous (as much as was possible), fun and affectionate. Violent crime is very low. The country has a literacy rate of 99 percent. Our hosts’ son and daughter-in-law, the top two students in their class, are in their last quarter of residency before they earn their medical degrees. They taught me how to play double-nines Dominoes (the national pastime) and we played all night, despite our limited ability to speak a common language.

During my stay we sang our national anthems to each other, we discussed music (“You don’t like Michael Jackson?” they asked in disbelief.

“No. I like James Taylor, ” I replied. They’d never heard of him.) We drank Cuban beer (which is difficult to find because there is very little aluminum for canning) and rum (supplied by my brother, who purchased both on the black market). We discussed politics, theirs and ours. (“What do you think of Trump?” they asked. “The US should give Guantanamo back and eliminate the embargo from all countries,” they said.

“Can you help me understand the Castro of the Revolution compared to the Castro of the 21st century?” I asked. It is complex. There are so many layers. He gave them free, quality healthcare. He took away their farm. And that’s only the beginning.)

The family we stayed with talked about how bad things are in their homeland but they didn’t let it keep them down. They spoke of the future, of the efforts being made to give their children a better life, and of the love they share between them. And with us.

My flight out of Havana was completely full. I wondered how many of the Cubans on that plane would never return. Cuba is a place they love, my hosts explained, and a place they wish they could leave.

You may let The Thunker know what you think at her e-mail address, donoholdt@gmail.com.

© 2022 Sarah Donohoe

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