Nine Misconceptions About Cuba

By Janelle Clausen

Most Americans see Cuba through nostalgia and distance. They will comment about its 1950s cars, cigars, rum and aging infrastructure, not to mention its wonderful weather and beaches. Meanwhile, they safely put the nation’s struggles at a distance. Or they’ll assume it’s an oppressive regime with a total lack of freedom that has yet to change since 1959.

Based off of what we saw, Cuba is far more complex and nuanced than that. Of course, it isn’t perfect. There are plenty of 1950s cars, the infrastructure is falling apart, and Cuba has some work to do on human rights. But there are many dangerous misconceptions that we need to address. Cuba, after all, is our neighbor, and it wouldn’t hurt to understand them just a little bit better.

1. It’s Communist.

May 1963: Then president Fidel Castro and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. Photo: AFP

May 1963: Then president Fidel Castro and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. Photo: AFP

Just because they’re led by the Communist Party, it doesn’t mean the nation’s Communist. The leading party doesn’t dictate the governing system. Cuba is a different model of socialism, currently introducing limited free market changes, with guarantees of education and healthcare. There would be no private (or “non-state”) sector or class differences if it was Communism.

2. It’s “Castro’s Cuba” and the regime will fall when the Castro brothers die.

A painting of a photo done by Roberto Chile, hanging in a restaurant. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

A painting of a photo taken by Roberto Chile, hanging in a restaurant. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

The 1959 Cuban revolution came in wake of massive discontent and Cuba’s decades as a nation whose destiny was controlled by outsiders. The government was corrupt, elections chaotic, violence all too common. The Castros (enjoying major support) symbolized the will of the people: a desire for independence from all this. Cubans primarily speak of reforms and an “evolution of the socialist model,” not a total abolition of all that’s been accomplished.

3. No dissent is tolerated.

Cristina Escobar speaks with students about the unique state of journalism in Cuba. Photo Credit: Rick Ricioppo.

Journalism has been in crisis mode for quite some time, Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar said, but even Raul Castro is pushing for a tougher media. You read that right. Photo Credit: Rick Ricioppo.

“Cubans were always chronic complainers” in private, said Marc Frank, the longest serving foreign correspondent in Cuba. “Now you can publically disagree for the first time.” Since the Soviet Union withdrew from Cuba, the trend has been for restrictions to be lifted. A small independent press is growing, there’s a complaint column in the state newspaper, and some outside media making waves. “Private media is banned, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar said. Still, not all is perfect and it’s a work in progress. Dissent is allowed, but organizing action against the government is not. Also, as a side note, there is plenty of religion in Cuba too.

4. They’re uneducated and isolated from the world.

A student reaches down for a book from an outside stand in Old Havana. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

A student reaches for a book from an outside stand in Old Havana. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Talk to a Cuban, and they’ll tell you about their history and what happened yesterday in the world. “Cubans are super well informed,” Escobar said. One example she gave was a waiter saying they were very worried about the elections in Ukraine (a topic few of us worried about). Another general example comes from nearly every Cuban knowing the significance of December 17, 2014: the day Obama called for the normalizing of relations in Cuba.

5. They hate us.

Look at these mean Cubans! Talking about sports abroad in the Parque Central posing and smiling for a photo! Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Look at these mean Cubans! Talking about sports abroad in the Parque Central posing and smiling for a photo! Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Cubans hate the decisions our politicians make, not the people. A former diplomat (insert name here) said that Cubans were incredibly excited about the normalization of relations with the United States. Ambassador Carlos Alzugaray later explained that the shared cultural history the two nations went well beyond baseball and Coca-Cola. And, based off of our observations, people were mostly happy to talk to us Americans from New York.

6. Cuba’s weak and dependent.

Cuba's flag flies as high as its ambition. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Cuba’s flag flies as high as its ambition. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

To an extent, Cuba relies upon tourism. But they survived an 85 percent slash of their economy, and have for the most part, relied on themselves to provide for visitors and their own goods for the last half of a century. And although the country did rely on the Soviets to help their economy, the Cuban government was able to dictate their own foreign policy. Cuba and its people would absolutely benefit from the embargo being lifted, and life would be much easier, but the Cuban people have survived thus far on their own. They live their independence movement.

7. It’s a completely masculine society where women aren’t equal.

A woman helps lead a religious festival in Old Havana. Photo by Briana Lionetti.

A woman helps lead a religious festival in Old Havana. Photo by Briana Lionetti.

One of the goals of the Revolution was equality across society, gender included.  Yes, women are subjected to cat-calling, domestic violence still occurs and apparently prostitution is an ongoing issue. But according to Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas magazine, women aren’t doing too bad: they make up the majority of the labor force, professors, scientists, doctors, judiciaries, and are better educated. They’re also very politically involved compared to some other countries. “Cuban women don’t want to have eight children,” he said. A consequence of this, however, is that Cuba’s not replacing its population.

8. It’s not a safe country.

A Cuban law enforcement officer rides a bike in Vinales. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Every one of our family members told us to be careful and stay safe. That was hardly a problem. Cubans, while aware of a lack of individual rights, appreciate safety as a consequence of the Revolution. Police and security forces are everywhere. You’ll never see a gun in the hands of a citizen. And, if you’re a tourist, you are considered a priority since Cuba relies on you for income. The most common crime is a “crime of opportunity,” like someone snatching a camera if you leave it somewhere.

9. Traveling to Cuba is easy now.

From left to right: Kayla Shults, Briceyda Landaverde, Alexa Coveney and Briana Lionetti.

Don’t let these smiling faces fool you. Getting through check-in and security at John F. Kennedy International Airport was the easiest part. Photo by Briceyda Landaverde.

Obama may have announced the beginning of the normalization of relations, that’s just what it is: the beginning. The embargo is still costing the Cuban economy dearly, effectively barring any country from doing business with Cuba unless they’re willing to sacrifice doing it with the United States. The travel ban is still in place, unless you meet one of the twelve exceptions to be able to go to Cuba (and “vacation” is not one of them). Even if you somehow draw out an effective itinerary, fill out all the paperwork, work with the governments and so on, Cuba’s infrastructure is struggling to accommodate the more than 3 million tourists they expect to get next year. You have to make reservations months upon months in advance.

Everyone on this trip contributed reporting. 

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