Havana Is Not Your Hipster Playground
Tourists to Cuba see an exotic island lost to time, but I see a country in desperate need of meaningful change
By: Chris Vázquez
Photo: Kriangkrai Thitimakorn/Getty Images
I am beginning to understand that there is a fundamental difference in the paradigms by which Cuban Americans and non-Cuban Americans view Cuba. I was recently approached by a friend to lead a trip to Cuba for her company. The group would consist mainly of non-Cuban Americans between the ages of 28 and 35. The travelers on my friend’s trips tend to be in the midst of life transitions, and they embark on these excursions to experience nature and gain new perspectives.
On the surface this opportunity may sound like a dream come true, but I found myself feeling unenthused. My Cuban heritage is my passion, and this is precisely the reason I was not very motivated to lead the group: I’d always thought that if I took people to Cuba, they would be primarily Cuban Americans, and the trips would be centered around “cubanidad”—the essence of being Cuban. Exploring your roots while discovering and understanding the Cuba of 2019, and connecting with the Cubans of the island, would be central to the experience. My fellow travelers and I would all fall somewhere on the timeline of the Cuban diaspora, all members of the exile community by association. We would have all grown up on the cuentos and the conflicting notions—that Cuba was once the greatest land God ever created but now the desolate aftermath of a failed revolution.
As a young kid growing up in Hialeah, Florida, the epicenter of the Cuban exile community, everyone in my first-grade class shared a similar origin story. Our loved ones proclaimed that they lived in paradise until 1959, when they were forced to leave it all behind to come to the United States—a move they widely viewed as temporary because, well, why would you want to be anywhere else? Still, going to Cuba now would only mean giving money to the regime and dishonoring the sacrifices of our families. The stories felt like having candy dangled in front of my face and then being slapped when I reached for it.
For my community of young Cuban Americans, going to Havana today and seeing the contradictions for ourselves is shocking. The identity crisis is almost indescribable. We did not pretend to know Cuba, though we have identified as Cuban our entire lives, and because of this association we have always felt Cuban… until we actually set foot in Havana, that is.
Seeing the Cuba of today, we feel like outsiders in our own ancestral land. What we implicitly thought we knew because of those damn stories goes right out the window, and it’s nothing like what any of us thought. It pains us to see the gorgeous architecture now filthy and reduced to rubble. The spirit and “Cubanness” of the people livens our souls, but it breaks our hearts to see them living the way they have to.
But it’s nothing like what they warned us about either. Amid the rubble, the long lines, and the classic cacharros, there are people hustling, living, helping one another, creating opportunity for themselves, luchando, resolviendo, y sobreviviendo. Once you get over the initial shock, it’s there, clear as day: These are our people.
These are the people who fought for independence—independence from the Spanish, independence from the United States, independence from themselves. These are the people who sent their children off alone on planes to give them better lives; these are the people who crossed 90 miles of sea on makeshift rafts; these are the people who built Miami and established a powerful community in the most powerful country in the world.
When young Cuban Americans travel to Havana it breaks our hearts. We see through the facade that traps Americans who are not of Cuban descent.
We, the young Cuban Americans, because of the cubanidad that binds us, understand what we are capable of, what Cuba is capable of. We understand their limitless potential because it is our history. It is in our blood; it is what we built in Cuba and what we persevered to build abroad. The strength of the 11.2 million Cubans on the island and the 1.5 million abroad is one; it is theirs, it is ours—Cuban and Cuban American.
We implicitly understand how beautiful Havana once was, how we made it that way, and how we then started over and made Miami that way. We understand the ingenuity, passion, and creativity; the love, spirit, and warmheartedness; and the work ethic, the commitment to family, and the willingness to sacrifice living within every cubano.
Consequently, when young Cuban Americans travel to Havana it breaks our hearts. We see through the facade that traps Americans who are not of Cuban descent, and it torments us. By contrast, non-Cuban Americans often see the island as a novelty. In talking to many such Americans who are “obsessed” with Cuba, I’ve realized that the experience for them is the equivalent of going to a forbidden island lost to time. The reactions are often something to the tune of:
“Oh wow, no internet, it’s so primitive.”
“Oh my gosh, I want a picture in my flowy sundress outside these ruins.” (While standing in front of someone’s residence.)
“The people have nothing, but they’re so amazing and welcoming! It’s like a fairy tale land; I love being able to come here and just disconnect—I hope it never changes.”
Basura! A fairy tale is exactly what that narrative is. To them, Cuba is a hipster’s playground—a place where Instagram models, travel-diary nomads, and all these other 2019 bullshit buzzwords can frolic around for a few days or weeks before returning home. Their paradise, my hell.
Don’t get it twisted: Cuba is a beautiful place filled with amazingly incredible people, my people. But these people deserve so much more. Cuba was the pearl of the Antilles, the preferred island for the Spanish, and the envy of Latin America. Havana was beautiful the way San Francisco and Barcelona are today, not the way ancient Aztec temples or Egyptian pyramids are; but what was once the vibrant home of my abuelos and their contemporaries is now a pretty, boho chic relic for American visitors.
The paradigm through which I, and many Cuban Americans, view travel to Cuba is rooted in the stark contrast between the beautiful narrative we were raised with and the painful realities of modern-day Cuba. It is because of this paradigm that I could never comprehend how non-Cuban Americans can view Cuba, and the Cuban people, with the same curious fascination one might have for an isolated tribe of indigenous people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. To know, through the stories and through my upbringing, what Cuba was and to know what it is today breaks my heart.
I want Cuba to change. I want it to change in whatever way my people living there today want it to change.
Yet, I am also filled with so much hope. I now understand that the paradigm through which many non-Cuban Americans view Cuba is often devoid of the historical context that was woven into the fabric of my upbringing. I understand what the Instagram tourists mean when they say, “I hope it never changes.” They are enamored by the beauty they see in Cuba and its people, and they fear it would be lost through modernization. But still I say, “Pa’ fuera!” to that. Cuba is no foreigner’s playground. Cuba is a land of tradition, beauty, history, and life.
No, Havana should not be the preferred getaway for a weeklong technology detox; but I want to set the record straight that regardless of their views, non-Cuban Americans traveling to the island already do wonders for the Cuban people by contributing to a broader policy of engagement as opposed to the United States’ historical policy of isolation. The key to ethical travel to Cuba, though, is being intentional in that engagement.
“Support for the Cuban people,” the broadest exempt category of individual American travel to Cuba, requires travelers to patronize the private sector and promote civil society. This type of travel fosters the people-to-people interactions that create the mutual understanding that ultimately changes perspectives. And the best part? You don’t have to be Cuban American to embrace it. All you have to do is start an honest dialogue and exchange ideas respectfully. These are the seeds that lead to meaningful change, and change is a good thing.
I want Cuba to change. I want it to change in whatever way my people living there today want it to change. I want internet in homes and cafes, structurally sound apartments, and next year’s model vehicles on the road. It may ruin your little getaway, but it will dramatically improve their standard of living. And if they want a Starbucks and a McDonald’s on every corner then so be it. It sure beats ration cards, long lines, and empty shelves in state stores.
I do, however, hope that it won’t be Starbucks and McDonald’s. I hope it’ll be “Cortaditos” and “Fulano’s Fritas” or something authentically Cuban — but they aren’t mutually exclusive. I want the Cuba of 2019 and beyond to be a country built by Cubans, for Cubans—not a place for visitors to sip mojitos and take pictures next to the dilapidated homes of locals for their next Facebook post. And trust me, meaningful development will not diminish the beauty of the island or denigrate the culture of the country, and it certainly will not change the warmhearted spirit of the Cuban people.
This is the best I could ever explain the ever-so-subtle feeling in my stomach when I was asked to lead that group of well-intentioned, adventure-seeking Americans to Cuba—and why I ultimately had to say no. I want to lead my people, the Cuban-American people, to the righteous land of our ancestors. I want to eat dinners with friends we meet on the island, talk as equals with one another, explore development opportunities, discuss politics and philosophy, have cafecitos with families, and reconcile past and present.
My dream is to convert the diaspora into one giant Cuban family. And I want to do it by harnessing the power of cubanidadto create an almost instant familiarity and trust among Cubans no matter their age, views, birthplace, or what side of the Florida Straits they live on.
Go to the profile of Chris Vázquez
Proud, third-generation Cuban American creating community through cubanidad • Email: firstname.lastname@example.org • Instagram: @cubanochris_