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The Unexpected Lessons Studying in Cuba Teaches You

Studying in Cuba

“If I lived in the United States, no one would treat me different for being black. There’s no discrimination there, not like here in Cuba.”

It was breaking my heart to talk with this quiet man who was so determined that there was a better life in my home country. I had walked over because he was carefully working away on his car, meticulously scraping detritus off the rear window with a razor blade. I was photographing a project about work and play in Cuba, because Cubans are the hardest working people I have ever met, and they find ways to inject playfulness into all aspects of their life.

In the five months total I spent studying and assisting with study abroad programs in Cuba over the years, it’s been obvious that by far the best thing about Cuba is the amazing people.

One of the most common things I am told is that no one is free to voice their opinion in Cuba, especially about politics. While it’s true that there is no freedom of the press and there are no constitutional protections for free speech, anyone who has ever met a Cuban knows that nothing will stop them from speaking their mind.

Havana, Cuba

It probably helps that I tell everyone I studied political science, I speak Spanish, and I make sure to not-so-subtly drop some cultural and historical references into the conversation, in the hope of proving I have done my homework. My political science background got many Cubans excited about trying to get my opinion on their country and their government, but I was always more interested in their opinions than my own.

In the five months total I spent studying and assisting with study abroad programs in Cuba over the years, it’s been obvious that by far the best thing about Cuba is the amazing people. I often meet people overseas who are more literate in American politics than most US citizens, but Cubans put them all to shame. With free education through college, Cubans are well-educated and often speak multiple languages. They’re very aware of their history (and ours), and politics could be considered a national pastime.

Discussing Race and Discrimination in Cuba

Back to the man working on his car, which was parked so close to an open-air corner bar that he had to stand inside to work on the left side of the rear window. The bar was tiny and quiet, and so ill-prepared for women that there wasn’t even a bathroom for us.

“Here, we can’t do anything. I can’t go into a hotel, I can’t use the internet. If a cop sees me talking to you, he will come give me a hard time. And it’s all because I’m black. I want to go to the United States, where you don’t have that problem.”

I struggle to explain to him that the US still has a long way to go, talking about police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, mandatory minimums, when he interrupts me.

“And jobs! Here, it’s hard for a man like me to get a good job. They say that’s not why, but you never see a dark-skinned guy working in the nice tourist spots.”

I try telling him about how people in the US are often profiled based on how “ethnic” their name looks on their resume, never even making it to the interview, but he doesn’t want to hear it. So we settle on one thing: both our countries would be a better place if they had no discrimination.

Police State: "We Would Never Face the Same Consequences as Locals"

“It’s mostly straight, and then we turn left. I’ll whistle when it’s time,” and with that, our friend trotted off to the other side of the wide boulevard, the Avenida de los Presidentes.

Cuba street art

“Where’s he going?” I asked my Cuban-American friend, who was closer to him.

“Oh, just to the other side of the street.”

I stared at her blankly.

“You know, so the cops won’t bother him. I mean, if they see a dark-skinned local kid with a mohawk they’re gonna give him a hard time anyway, and then if he’s walking with two white girls? It’s just less hassle that way.”

And she was right. If you spend enough time in Havana and actually hang out with Habaneros, you will eventually see someone bothered by the cops. And if you’re a white woman, there’s a good chance the person getting bothered is the guy you’re with.

“¡Coño! One of you should’ve held his hand. Now the cops are giving him a hard time. If you held his hand and said you were his girlfriend it would all be fine.”

On another night, on another street, in a different year, three officers had taken our new friend across the street for questioning, and a bunch of drunk twenty-something Americans were milling about, either unaware or trying to figure out what to do. But hearing that all the situation needed was a white girlfriend was enough to send a couple of them over to try to talk the cops out of it. The police had no patience for this, and threatened to cuff everyone.

In the end, the Cuban spent the night in jail, and we were never seen as a concern. We would never face the same consequences as locals.

Rations: "Sometimes I Sell My Shoes, Sometimes I Go Hungry"

“I bet you eat steak!” A young guy taunted us as we stood in a soccer field at an open-air concert. We couldn’t make heads or tails of this statement.

“Sometimes, yes? I don’t understand. Don’t you eat steak?” One of my compadres ventured.

“No,” he laughed, “they’re saving it for la yuma, the pretty tourist girls like you.”

I had been trying for weeks to learn more about Cuba’s government, especially its central planning, but facts are startlingly hard to come by in Cuba. Worse, I couldn’t even get someone to sell me the official party line.

Havana food

“You mean they won’t let you have steak? How does that work?”

“When the boats come in, the meat goes to all the hotels first, and all the politicians, of course. Then whatever is left goes to the restaurants where all the tourists and politicians eat.”

“So what do you get?”

We didn’t get our answer right away; he walked away as our extreme ignorance was becoming tiresome.

Eventually, I coaxed a few friends to tell my what their libreta, or monthly ration, entitled them to. Rice, beans, potatoes. A dozen eggs. A liter of milk a day, if you’re under seven. Some see the ration as a supplement, but once upon a time, it was enough to feed a person for a month. What about now?

“At the beginning of the month, it’s pretty good. I eat well. By the end, I have to make it work. Sometimes I sell my shoes. Sometimes I go hungry.”

He wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I didn’t press further.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

“I’ll never leave here.”

Another “fact” people love to tell me about Cuba is that everyone wants to leave, or else they hate the guzanos, the worms, who already have. And yet, every Cuban-American I’ve traveled with has been welcomed with open arms. While there are many Cubans who want to leave, most truly believe in and love their country.

“This is my home, and I love my country. I don’t always like my government, but nowhere else is really any better.”

Whether people are interested in staying or leaving can say a lot about their life. My friend has a nice, but small home, and doesn’t seem to have trouble locating food, although I don’t ask how. Similarly, farmers who work their own land and have plenty to eat had few complaints. But folks living in cramped neighborhoods where buildings can collapse and kill people at any given moment were less forgiving.

“I’m saving up to move to Miami. My brother is there, and he’ll help me find work. I just have to wait a few more years, and then I’m out of here.”

Still, when the topic of leaving comes up, it’s often around the concept of marriage. Or at least that’s what happens around foreign women like me. Until recently, most Cubans couldn’t leave the country except by marriage or defecting, and many still can’t. It’s hard to forget the simple fact that if I chose to, I could drastically change the situation for a Cuban man.

With salaries averaging $18-20 USD per month, I had been warned that Cubans make so little and tourist prices are so high that I should expect to pay my way and theirs if I want to hang with locals. I had also been warned about jineteros, or hustlers, men who provide the boyfriend experience in exchange for food, clothing, gifts, and of course, the ultimate prize: a green card.

La Boca, Cuba

Some are not so shy about it.

“Just live in the moment. We’re having a good time. You’re always so serious. Why don’t you just relax?”

“I am relaxed. I’m having a great day. I just don’t want to kiss you.”

“Oh come on. You came over and sat next to me during the baseball game. You wanted me to notice you.”

Capitalist Breakfast

“I can’t believe them. They don’t think I see them, but I do. I see how they get up early and take the food, hide the food. Don’t they understand that if they are hungry, so is everyone else? I don’t understand these girls. How were they raised?”

Our house mother was appalled by the behavior of some of our roommates, fellow American college students, and she was looking to me and another roommate to make sense of their actions.

We tried to explain that to an American, if you have something, it must be because you earned it, and therefore you deserved it. In this case, the girls felt that waking up early enough to hide some of the hard-boiled eggs meant that they had earned them, in spite of the fact that one was cooked for each person. After all, if someone wants their egg, then they should wake up early enough to get it.

“But, but you aren’t like that. You are American, and you don’t do this.”

My roommate reminded our house mother that she’s Haitian, not plain old American, but otherwise gave her an eyeroll to explain the capitalist breakfast practices of our roommates.

“I just don’t understand... but I see everything. They think they fool me, but I know. They are not good girls. For Cubans, if we had only one egg and seventeen people, we would split the egg in seventeen pieces.”

My house mother wasn’t kidding. Cubans are masterminds at making due with little or nothing, and while it’s common for folks to take a little off the top from government jobs, they don’t tend to scam one another.

Cuba is a Complicated Place

Cuba is a complicated place, and I don’t know that as an outsider I’ll ever be able to understand it. But I do know that the best way for me to learn is to keep talking to people who live there, and to keep hearing the good, the bad and the ugly from the people who know best.

Photo Credits: David Greenky, Street art, Havana, food stall, La Boca.
Photo of Delia Harrington

Delia Harrington is a digital storyteller who has been working in international development since 2009. She was a study abroad student or in-country staff on eight different trips and was a study abroad administrator for three years. She is a documentary photographer and feminist activist, focusing on the intersections of travel, inequality, and gender-based violence.