Passion vs. possession
Cuba with all its marvelous idiosyncrasies
September 4, 2002
It has been over a month since I returned from Cuba. During this time I have
developed and shared my photos, talked about my trip endlessly with friends and more
than one stranger, and returned, distractedly, more than once, to that incredible
and powerful experience in my own thoughts. Still, I have a difficult time sitting
down to gather my feelings in writing. See photo
I think this difficulty stems from the vastness of emotions I have for Cuba. Where
does one begin to describe its amazing and educated people, or its magnificent and
crumbling architecture? How to describe the sound of a salsa band wailing in a hot
Havana street? Or explain the magic of the sea air and chaotic parade of life along
the Malecon? Some things can be written about, but others are only be understood
through experience -- many things about Cuba are forever beyond the power of my words.
Cuba is a seductive, inspiring, wretched, and endlessly complicated place. I arrived
in Havana fully aware that I was an outsider, but felt an instant connection to this
place of contradiction, struggle, and its uncertain future. I went there through
a program called Global Exchange, which promised a "reality tour" of the
Cuban culture. In my brief month there, I glimpsed many realities, and I saw how
Cuba faces an identity crisis not unlike Iran.
It is important to understand just how much Cuba and Iran have in common. This idea
could be expounded upon in far greater depth and scope, but I choose only a few aspects
that stand out. Indeed, in Havana I often felt that Iranian and Cuban history in
the 20th century are very alike, though many of the resulting realities are quite
The paths leading to our respective revolutions are eerily similar, the result of
a tyrannical regime at home and foreign intervention by the United States. Batista
and Pahlavi headed corrupt client-state regimes that were subservient to U.S. interests,
and each was generally reviled in his own country and known to history as a dictator.
Both Iranian and Cuban revolutions had cultural aims as well as political ones --
they aspired to replace (what was perceived to be) an existing moral decadence for
utopian-like notions of a new society and government. Charismatic leaders embodied
much of both revolutions -- Fidel and Khomeini are viewed as larger than life figures
and both command a cult of personality that was instrumental in bringing about their
Revolutions. The visages of Che Guevara (by birth Argentinian) and Khomeini dominate
signs, walls, and billboards throughout their particular countries.
Finally, Iran and Cuba continue on as international
symbols of defiance of America -- both have a rich legacy of defying the United States,
though at no small price. Iran and Cuba still endure the harsh U.S. economic embargoe
on their most valuable exports because they refuse to meet certain interventionist
demands made by the American government.
Iran and Cuba also face some similar and complex social issues that challenge their
respective established identities. Officially, each state claims that its revolution
is strong, healthy, and popular at home -- but the slogans and ideals of an older
generation and aging leadership do not resonate very well with new generation who
does not have its own say in the affairs of their lives.
The children of post-revolutionary Iran and Cuba grew up bombarded with the political
ideology of their governments and underwent an intense campaign of political socialization
in their educations and personal lives. Despite the tireless efforts of their governments,
people, above all others young people, in Iran and Cuba, have a difficulty relating
to the stagnant values preached to them by aging icons of another era.
Unfortunately, the leaders in both states seem indifferent or downright hostile to
the sentiments of their youth population. What consequences this indifference will
bring have yet to be determined, but change seems to be inevitable. This is something
many people spoke to me about while I was in Havana.
Meeting people is easy -- all one has to do is walk
the streets, sit in a park, or make eye contact and smile. There seems to be a sense
of freedom here, as if you could approach almost anyone. Cuba's educational achievements
are world renown, and people are very informed of what is happening in the world.
I found the art of conversation highly developed in Cuba, and people exude a great
passion for speaking and communication.
I had the privilege of meeting many dynamic individuals during my stay, who befriended
me and patiently answered many of my questions, helped me explore the city, and invited
me into their homes. Many were fascinated by the notion that an Iranian born in America
had come to Cuba and spoke Spanish quite comfortably.
Our interactions did not take place in bars or over dinner in restaurants; most Cubans
do not have much, materially speaking, but are extremely generous with what they
do have. More than anything else, I was struck by the patience that people had, and
how a passion for living endures in the absence of material possession. It is the
exact opposite of life one encounters here, where status, self-worth, and satisfaction
are defined through consumption, ownership and wealth.
Whether asking about cultural and economic conditions under the Russians (a professor
loved to tell me about his prowess with the Russian language) or simply asking them
if they were happy, I received a kaleidoscope of perspectives that continues to challenge
any set opinion I might have about life in Cuba. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the "Special Period" that ensued, Cuba's livelihood is newly
dependent on tourism, so much about Cuba has already changed within the last ten
Goods are not as plentiful as they were in the past, and much of what
is produced or imported is for use by the tourism industry. Tourism has had a profound
impact on Cuban society, and is reshaping social relationships, sexual relationships,
and reintroducing the idea of class into Cuba.
Some people have prospered during this period and would like to see "reforms"
take place much faster. Then there are those who feel threatened by the "museum-ification"
of their culture and detest the growing sexual tourism economy, and second-tier society
that is being created by tourism. Regardless, the influx of foreigners is creating
an interesting social dynamic.
It is very difficult for young Cubans to get exit visas to leave the country, so
most people are intensely curious about travelers and life in their countries. The
conversations about life in America always proved to be energetic affairs.
I didn't always agree with the perceptions they had regarding America, or how some
people felt any kind of life in the U.S. was better than what was to be found in
Cuba. Many times, people believed life in the U.S. was like a romp through the gardens,
everyone with high salaries and big homes, blond wives, and enormous tables laden
But there were those who saw having all of that as possible, but coming at a price.
Americans have no sense of connectedness, they live all their lives slaves to a notion
of individualism without knowing their neighbors or families, and they try to reach
happiness through owning things without ever really knowing what happiness is about.
I found myself agreeing with this surprisingly accurate thought about how Jose Marti,
a Cuban poet-thinker widely regarded as the Father of his country, expressed the
same thoughts over a century ago while living in New York City.
There is much that I haven't done justice to, or spoken
about, or explained as well as I would have wanted to. I know that there are many
things I still long for that I left behind in Cuba. What I find myself missing the
most, what I see as profoundly lacking in the United States is the exuberance many
people have for life despite owning little or nothing at all. I found it inspiring
and very beautiful that happiness, even a joy for life, can exist with what many
in our society would consider inadequate means. It reminds me that happiness is not
dependent on the things we own, nor is happiness the exclusive domain of the rich
Cuba reminded me that there is another way to live, to breathe, to see the world
in that we are not as condemned to our lifestyle as much as I once thought. For me,
Cuba was a much-needed burst of love and color and music -- a place to let old definitions
of life die and let new ones be born. I believe it to be one of the best places I've
visited, and a place I will go back to. And I can't help but think how tantalizing
Cuba is, with all its marvelous idiosyncrasies, patiently waiting only ninety miles
from our shores. See photo