By Matt Kelly
A new book by Jason R. Old, professor of Spanish and Latin American Culture at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, sheds light on the people of Cuba, a timely topic given recent decisions to open up trade with this island nation. “I invite you to enjoy my anthrotouristic journey through Cuba, as I seek to understand Cuba’s system, their culture, and their overall way of life,” begins Cuba: Behind the Embargo. Old is a self-described scholar of Che Guevara steeped in the Marxist-Leninist literary tradition, yet his views shift somewhat throughout his travels. Though he sets out thinking socialism is well suited to the island’s people, he returns home feeling “more confused than when I left.”
Behind the Embargo is most enjoyable when describing the natural environment and the warmth and generosity of Cuba’s people. Readers can easily imagine Old taking in the scenery from a taxi car window, bumping along a dirt road lined with royal palms, fanning himself as the sun beats down on the Soviet era lada (car), the driver cracking a joke now and again. He relays the easy-going attitude of local guides who show him the countryside: its winding trails, majestic waterfalls, and damp secret caves. Moments like these, enjoying serenity in the humid jungle, are Behind the Embargo’s best. “The most important things that I took away from this adventure were the beautiful places that I had the privilege to see and all of the amazing people that I met,” Old writes.
As Old converses with fast-made friends, however, the realities of their daily lives are slowly revealed. At first, though, he is either unwilling or unable to see the desperation that later becomes apparent. He reflects later in the book that early chapters may seem naive to readers.
One particularly ironic scene occurs as a well-educated woman named Miriam recounts the illustrious history of her neighborhood, all taking place in front of the ruins of her demolished home, the last wooden structure in the community. Government officials felt it should be “updated,” and so destroyed the history that Miriam worked to document. The irony appears lost on Old, who admires Miriam’s willingness to see this demolition as a “learning opportunity.”
As a tourist, Old chooses to stay in government-approved housing called casa particulars, which are typically run by families with favorable views of the Castro regime. Casa particulars are privately operated and usually located in nicer areas with better infrastructure.
As his journey continues, Old is able to remain in impoverished areas for longer periods of time, getting a view of Cuba that most tourists are not privy to. Though he praises the Cuban government’s achievements (free health care, education, food, etc.), he also begins to notice shortages of medical and school supplies.
Old eventually criticizes Cuba’s lack of freedom of speech, its low state-imposed wages, and what he calls the “brain drain,” whereby an absence of economic opportunity incentivizes people to earn income illegally, work in tourism, or leave the island altogether. One daughter of a family he stays with says that she doesn’t “see the point in studying when she can make more money working as a maid” in her grandmother’s casa particular. Though the author ultimately thinks the American embargo is this “brain drain”’s most likely cause, he points to several internal problems as well.
Old’s most pointed complaints are directed at the government’s tourism policies, which he says are keeping Cuba locked in the past. Tourists are prohibited from going to certain parts of the island, ostensibly for safety. This prevents visitors and locals from truly enjoying a cultural exchange. Through these laws, as well as Internet censorship policies that prevent hotel and tourism businesses from promoting themselves online, Cuba is refusing to enter the twenty-first century.
Despite Cuba’s ideological differences with the United States, there are many similarities. Old humorously observes that in both places, billboards bombard citizens with messages of one kind or another. “I am not entirely sure which style of billboard I prefer: the provocative sexual innuendoes of the capitalist marketing in the United States … or the overtly socialist propaganda, revolutionary rhetoric and quotes that permeate just about every Cuban street corner.”
Readers will enjoy Old’s description of the Cuban countryside, cuisine, and people, but what makes Jason Old’s anthrotouristic account interesting is his changing worldview. Seeing his opinions shift as the book progresses is a lesson to American readers on both ends of the political spectrum. Open-mindedness is a virtue.
Though Old is perhaps too kind in his final analysis of Castro’s regime, Cuba: Behind the Embargo serves as an educational glimpse into the lives of everyday Cubans. Hopefully, as America eases the embargo, more first-hand accounts like this will be told.