I went to prison last week. I wasn’t just visiting; I stayed for a whole week. The prison is on an island, and the whole island is the prison. But it’s no small island prison like Alcatraz. No, this island is about 750 miles from tip to tip. Prisoners are able to move around the island. But what they aren’t allowed to do is leave. So where is this island prison? You may have heard of it—it’s name is Cuba.
For Americans, Cuba seems like an unreachable far-off paradise destination in the Caribbean full of cigars and smiling people. It is an untouchable enigma to us because of the embargo, which included travel, placed against the Cuba by our government 40 years ago. And why would our leaders impose such a harsh measure? Because of Cuba’s steadfast commitment to communism and continual denial of basic human and democratic rights to its people.
At first glance, visitors today might miss the long lasting effects of this policy. Havana’s diverse architecture is incredible. Everywhere, from Old Town to the quiet Playas neighborhood we stayed in, is crammed with neoclassical mini mansions, Roman columns and baroque filigree. (I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I had to look that up. But it was amazing to see.)
In addition to newer cars, Havana’s streets teem with those classic Chevys and Fords. We stumbled on a quintet of musicians practicing for a gig from the living room of their ancient apartment in Old Town. Our taxi drivers made certain to point out each cigar factory and rum house.
But behind the façade, everything is crumbling. The paint on those gorgeous old houses is peeling, and the insides are dusty, cracked and worn. The bodies of those classic cars have been patched and filled over more patches. It is a national pastime to cobble together a few pieces of metal to keep those old engines running just a little while longer. No one has any extra income for house paint or that broken wooden shutter. And if they did, they’d probably spend it on something else anyway, because ultimately all property belongs to the government. Why improve something that isn’t yours?
Only those who have a government connection or who are somehow connected with tourism can ever dream of owning a new car. All the classic American vehicles arrived in the country before communism’s takeover. After that, imports stopped. The average person survives on government food rations that last about two weeks, and they stretch whatever pitiful income they earn for food for the next two weeks.
I left the island feeling very sad. It was the first time I experienced communism’s effect on a society firsthand. Freedom suddenly seemed so precious. I can live where I choose, buy whatever I have money for, purchase gasoline without showing my I.D., live wherever I want without reporting to a neighborhood committee — the list goes on and on.
The Cuban people are beautiful. They are smart and well-educated. Communism has provided them with excellent schools, but after graduation there is very little work. We met an English professor who spoke near-perfect English who was working as an under-the-table house painter. Our bicycle taxi driver was a civics teacher who supplemented his teaching salary by driving tourists around three days a week. A retired marine engineer lost his pension and all his benefits when he left the communist party.
Two dance teachers and a factory worker conned us into buying lunch for them, then tried to get us to give them money for milk. Why milk? Because the government only gives milk to households with children under the age of two. Black-market milk that goes for more than $10 a quart might be watered down. Nearly everyone we spoke to had a relative in the US or else planned to get to the US. A housewife proudly displays photos of her two adult sons, who had left for Florida in a row boat. They made it, and are now relishing America’s freedom, but as defectors, they can never go back to visit their mom.
I felt like every Cuban Convertible Peso (they have a separate currency system for foreigners that has an inflated and false value) I spent went directly to a government that I agreed with less and less. Until communism falls, I don’t think I can ever go back. I just can’t support a government that chooses to treat its people like prisoners.
There are hints of change in the air. International investment is slowly creeping in, and there are some signs that the new Obama administration will ease restrictions against Cuba. This beautiful nation needs so much more than a few more beachfront hotels and restaurants. Its people are crying out for freedom.