The real Cuba, the indie scene, the bombshell barfers, and how Cubans made Miami

Letters from the Issue of July 21, 2005

Cuba: Perception vs. Reality

Trust me, it's more than drunkards and Jesus freaks: Kathy Glasgow's article "The Rum Chronicles" (July 7) reminded me of the old story about the blind men and the elephant: Each fellow has a very different description of what the animal looks like, depending on which part he is touching. During a short visit to Santiago Province in eastern Cuba, Glasgow saw chronic drunkenness and hopelessness, a slice of Cuban life that certainly exists. But her arrogant expansion of this experience into a metaphor for the entire island's condition rubbed me the wrong way. As an American who has lived in next-door Holguín Province for the past several years, I think her simplistic reduction of Cuba's very complex society into drunkards and Jesus freaks needed another perspective.

Alcoholism certainly is a problem in Cuba, as in every poor country in the Americas, but based on time spent with one particularly rum-addled family, to conclude that it is emblematic of this nation is a cheap shot. In our densely populated district of Alcides Pino in Holguín City (which, by the way, is only about 130 kilometers from Santiago, not the 180 miles Glasgow reported it to be), we have plenty of drunks and a smattering of fundamentalist Christians, but both of these are sideshows to life here rather than the main event. Most families where I live are so busy in la lucha, the daily struggle for food and water, that, were they the boozehounds Glasgow's kinfolk in Santiago seem to be, they and their children would quickly be hungry, thirsty, and unwashed. I assure you that is not the case.

Cuba certainly has a lot of unpleasant aspects to life, and abuse of alcohol is one of them, but why is it that visitors from Miami have a myopia that allows them to see only the negatives without noting anything positive? Every place I have lived has good things and bad things about it; Cuba is no exception. Obviously we suffer a lack of many luxury items and certain important individual civil rights that are standard equipment in the States, but we enjoy other "quality of life" benefits that are only distant memories up north. For example, while desperately poor, our Holguín neighborhood is safer by far than Detroit and Washington, D.C., the two large U.S. cities in which I've lived. Contrary to the Miami party line, this is not because Cuba is a police state with a cop on every corner, but rather owing to the fact that everyone in the barrio knows everyone else, and people aren't afraid to speak out to other folks' kids when they misbehave. (Telling neighborhood toughs in Detroit to knock it off can get you shot!) People here communicate with their neighbors on a daily basis in a way that has long since disappeared in U.S. cities.

We are in the midst of a terrible drought in Holguín, and every day I see teenagers carrying jugs of water for old people, families and neighbors pulling together to make sure no one goes without. Look, I don't want to make it all sound wonderful; like any tight-knit community, the downside is that everyone knows your business. Los chismosos, the neighborhood gossips, make sure of that. The anonymity that characterizes life in any big U.S. city doesn't exist here, which occasionally drives me crazy, but the endemic loneliness I acutely remember from my time in Detroit and D.C. are also practically nonexistent. There is a lot less privacy, a lot less crime, and a lot less loneliness. Is this better or worse? Each person must decide.

As for Glasgow's description of pigs and chickens living in the yard, another oft-repeated image used by Miami exiles to illustrate what a dirty hellhole Cuba is -- hey, our meat and eggs are a lot fresher and cleaner than what I scarfed down for decades up in Gringoland. Has she ever visited a factory meat-packing plant in the USA? I'll take the hassle of pigs grunting at night and roosters waking me in the morning over eating the hormone-packed, antibiotic-laced products of feed lots or chicken concentration camps that provide cheap meat back home.

I could go on about the good and bad of life here, but I'll conclude by saying Cuba is deep and complicated. There are 11 million Cubans on the island, and they are every bit as prone to differences of opinions regarding the ups and downs of their lives as are Americans or Canadians or Mexicans or any other people. When I begin hearing simplistic Miami shibboleths about how terrible everything is, or their opposite number in leftist tales of a tropical socialist paradise, I look for the exit. I know from firsthand experience it is neither.

A few quick cultural corrections to Glasgow's piece. The Cuban government did not "outlaw" dollars last fall, but rather devalued them against the local currency and stopped accepting them for goods and services. This difference is significant because before 1994, greenbacks were in fact outlawed and you could be jailed simply for having them in your pocket. This is not the situation now. You can walk into any bank and change dollars into "chavitos," the convertible peso, albeit at a lousy rate of exchange.

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