By Ramze Suliman
The best way to get to know a person, a country or even a dictatorship is to come in without any preconceived notions. It sounds much easier than it is.
I first came to Cuba 6 years ago, simply because I loved the cigars. I had been a cigar smoker for two decades and wanted to see the birthplace of my favorites. I really didn’t know much about Fidel Castro or the people that he ruled over. I just knew that this island has always held its own mystery and I wanted to see it for myself. I had no idea if the Cuban people would be friendly to an American or if the Cuban government would even allow me to enter the country. I just knew I had to come.
Much is being said about the death of Fidel Castro at this moment. Most of it is being said by people who have no idea what Cuba is really like. Most Cubans who live in Miami or other parts of the States, have never set foot in Cuba. I know that some of this is the reason for their anger. To not be allowed back to one’s homeland is painful and unjust. While I have not suffered at the hands of this regime or any other government, I live with an open mind and a fair bit of skepticism. I don’t have a ton of faith in my government having my best interest at heart and I know that no matter where you live in the world, you get that countries spin. With this in mind, let me tell you about my experience with Castro’s regime firsthand and my opinion after spending a considerable amount of time in both countries.
The first thing we should all agree on is that a regime and the people it rules over are two very separate things. Since the first day I arrived in Cuba, the Cuban people have been some of the most welcoming, charming and giving people I have ever met. They treat everybody as an equal and throughout their suffering and lack of basic needs, keep a smile on their face and music in their hearts and in the streets at all times. Nobody has ever rolled their eyes or treated me poorly because I am an American. If anything, I would say they treat me a little better. I believe that they all understand we are their closest neighbor and have a lot of the same dreams, goals and lifestyle choices that we share. I have enjoyed my time with all of them and have made some very dear friends.
The Cuban government as far as it concerns me has been nonexistent. They have a very hands off approach with tourists and if anything, seem to look out for our safety at all times. Tourism has become Cuba’s number one source of revenue and I believe they know to protect this. I have never had even an uncomfortable moment with any government official and have felt safe and protected at all times. I wish I could say that about our own government who continues to abuse my rights on an ongoing basis every time I travel, simply because they can.
As far as the Cuban government goes in relation to their own people, I have seen mixed results. You would have to be blind to not notice that the people here have a healthy respect and yes, sometimes fear of this government. This is just not a Cuba thing. Travel around enough or simply go into an urban city in the US and you will see similar fears. We just sell them different. I know that certain freedom of speech has been repressed and there have been questionable practices in how they deal with dissenting opinion. I just don’t have enough firsthand experience to make the judgement about how different it really is from the lives we lead at home. Again, I think we just sell it better. We pretend we live in the land of the free but swarms of citizens, minorities and financially repressed individuals all over the States would disagree. We have a government that wants to tell you who to marry, what to do with your own body, push pharmaceuticals on you that lobbyist have paid for while making others illegal and locking up millions of people in the process. More of our citizens are killed in street violence in one weekend in places like Chicago than die in Cuba in a year. Again, we just sell it better.
I am not a historian on what happened in Cuba in the 1950’s. I do know more than most. I know the Batista regime that was overthrown was crooked, racist, in bed with the mob and was sucking the poor Cuban people dry, while a few of them got very rich. The countries natural resources where being sold to the highest bidder and very little of that was trickling down to the average Cuban. When Batista fled Cuba in 1959, he left with the equivalency of 4 billion US dollars. This is what he could pack with no notice. How much do you have to rape and pillage your own people to walk away with that kind of money? I believe when Castro came in, he did what our elected officials do all the time. He over promised and under delivered. I certainly do not agree with a lot of his methods. Then again, I do not agree with ours either.
Cuba today has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They have the highest doctor to citizen ratio in the world. They have some of the best free medical care provided to ALL citizens. They employ more women than men. They have better racial equality. Free education through college. Safety in the streets like I have never seen. Ultra-low crime rates and virtually no gun ownership. Point all the fingers you want but you have to give those things their fair due.
I do believe that things are changing for the better. 10 years ago, a Cuban couldn’t own a car, a house, a business or a cell phone. Today all these things are possible, albeit with high government taxes and out of price reach for many. I believe that Raul has been much more forward thinking and in reality, he is also coming up on 90 years old and soon enough no matter what anybody wants, there will not be a Castro leading Cuba.
Since Fidel’s death a few days ago, I have noticed very little difference in Havana. The music is silenced for 9 days in respect. The alcohol sales have stopped in retail establishments but continue in restaurants. The city is much quieter but more or less indifferent. People have long accepted a 90-year-old man would not be around forever. I don’t even sense any relief or great sorrow. Most seem to be more concerned with what our new dictator…er president commandante Trump will do. See the future of the average Cuban trying to get by in Cuba actually hinges more on what WE do than what their aging dictators do. Our stubborn 6-decade embargo has done nothing but hurt the average Cuban and in the end, like that great Sinatra song, Fidel did it “his way” and died a very old man in his warm bed.
This should be a great time to reevaluate our positions in the world of bomb first and spread democracy later. Helping only those that have natural resources we want or worse yet arming those who we have chosen to side with. Maybe we should clean our own house first and stop worrying about that ridiculous fence that will keep those ‘awful” hard working people out. Love may not conquer all but hate will destroy us all.
To find out more about Cuba or the author please visit https://ramzetravels.com/ or check out his book “Havana for Americans” on Amazon.
This was printed in the December 25, 2016 - January 7, 2017 edition