To visit Cuba is to journey to another world. There’s no Coca-Cola, no Starbucks, no Ford trucks. It’s a country that has been largely untouched by Americans since the 1950s and yet, somehow, its world has managed to keep spinning.
Two years ago, I was very lucky to visit Cuba. I was officially there on a student visa, a five-day pass that let me visit the country for “educational purposes,” something that’s been allowed by the Cuban government for a few years now. Unofficially, and unbeknownst to the government, I was there as a journalist, working on a project for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
As I spent my time wandering around Havana and exploring an urban farm on the city’s limits, I was struck by how much the Cuban people didn’t seem to care that I was an American. But look at me, I thought. I’m this rare bird, this child of a democratic land, don’t you know all the freedom I have? Don’t you want to know what it’s like across those 80 miles of ocean that so many of your friends and relatives have tried to cross?
No. Not a bit.
One child wanted to play on my iPad, but he grew bored quickly and went back to his soccer ball. A woman wanted to know if I knew any Rihanna songs but didn’t really care for anything besides “Umbrella.” One man wanted to know if I knew his cousin in Miami. When I admitted that I did not, he went back to asking me if I wanted to buy a cigar, which I did.
I bought a few, actually. They sit, unsmoked, on a bookshelf in my apartment, next to a bottle of Havana Club rum and a toy turtle carved out of a coconut.
I was in Cuba for five days, but it only took five hours for me to realize the Cuba I thought I knew didn’t exist. Mine was the Cuba from a biography of Hemingway and from watching Elian Gonzalez on CNN when I was a child. This was the Cuba of a people whose monthly salary is less than I make in a day but who still offered me a seat at their table and a bed in their home for “the next time you come to Cuba.”
When it was announced on Wednesday that the United States and Cuba were going to resume diplomatic relations for the first time in more than half a century, I beamed. I went back and reread every word I’d written about Cuba and looked at every picture and video. My reporting partner and I reached out to each other with glee, and I thought about how much my husband and I would love to visit the country one day.
As the doors to Cuba open and Americans can travel there more freely, without concern about the stigma and without Cuban officials stamping a piece of paper instead of their actual passports, I wonder what will happen to the country. I wonder how long it will take before the first Coca-Cola billboards go up, the first Starbucks manages to go into a corner lot or the first Ford truck rolls off a barge, and I worry.
I worry that the Cuba that I know, the Cuba with a deep sense of pride and national identity rooted in so much more than politics, will become lost in the shuffle.
The prospect of a Cuba that’s more free and open and capable of adopting policies that allow their people greater freedom is incredibly exciting.
But Cubans have just as much to offer Americans as we do them. In their years of “isolation” from the United States, Cuba has established a thriving tourism industry. People from across the globe travel to Cuba for its history, its ecology and its beautiful beaches. The country has fantastic food, music and art and, perhaps most interestingly, an organic agricultural system that would put to shame those in most developed nations.
In Cuba, a traditional embrace for two people is to grab each other by the elbows and give two kisses on one cheek, in quick succession. It’s a sign of familiarity many Cubans dispense with great abandon, as if whoever ends up on their shores is as close as family. In the months and years to come, I hope Americans and Cubans alike get to experience this beautiful exchange and that both are equally able to benefit from this newfound kinship.