Seeing through the Blinds

As we started to get our bearings in this beautiful but confusing country, the suspicion that we were hearing and seeing a very limited view of Cuba began to surface. In fact, many of the visits seemed to be giving us only general information instead of any real insights.

There were certainly two main themes that seemed to follow us wherever we went:

(1) Cuba is progressing and doing a lot of great things
(2) The US embargo is to blame for any misfortunes Cuba may have in midst of this progress

In almost all of the meetings (ranging from government officials to JVs to rum companies to biopharmaceutical groups) the US embargo was cited as the key challenge. Each time it was mentioned, it felt like an implicit attack.

A few examples:

Our official trip kicked off with a series of speakers and top government officials (economists, minister of higher education, etc.) When asked about Cuba’s challenges, the response was focused on the US embargo. When probed further, one of the economists showed the first signs of emotion and commentary (vs. the constant speeches of general information that we had been hearing until then) in saying that Cuba was moving forward without regarding the US embargo. ‘We cannot wait for the US’ he said not without a strong sentiment of bitterness that everyone in the room could detect.

Another example is on our recent visit to a biopharmaceutical group. After a presentation overtly touting the accomplishments and advances of Cuba’s healthcare system, we asked about what challenges they faced in supplying to hospitals drugs and pharmaceutical products that Cuba did not directly produce. The response, without missing a beat, was that the US would be the nearest and most cost efficient supplier of such drugs without the embargo. The implication: the US is to blame for Cuba’s hospital deficiencies.

Some less antagonistic examples included the Havana Club rum company which talked about the fact that the US market would be a major source of growth for them, or included the building of a billion dollar port whose profitability depended on the lifting of the embargo.

The US embargo was a constant theme in all of our discussions.

Additionally, all of the discussions painted too rosy of a picture. Everyone seemed to be marching to the beat of the same drum with the two talking points mentioned above. While any tour group would do its best to show the best sides of a country, the similarity of the messages we were hearing again and again makes the rosy picture more suspect. It was in this absence of the whole truth or at least the absence of a multi-dimensional perspective that we started to really see Cuba – still in its essence a state-controlled society. Just as the state controlled nearly all aspects of the daily lives of Cubans, the state also controlled what a CBS student tour group saw. Some of the students went so far as to calling it a propaganda trip – which, given the aformentioned ubiquity of propaganda here, is not so surprising.

And so, the question we asked earlier about whether Cuba is really that different/off – was answered precisely by the fact that we were asking that question. The picture of Cuba we were seeing was one which was supposed to make us not see Cuba as being that off – but the fact that this picture was able to be controlled – affirmed how off Cuba actually is. Yes, as I said before – confusing.

Caroline Oh ’13

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