Es un sueño estar aquí – it’s a dream to be here,” I told my new friends who had come to pick me up at the airport in Varadero, the skin around my eyes dark and sunken, yet my eyes bright, alert, ready to drink in everything Cuba. It wasn’t simply to flatter my Cuban hosts – it was true. A desire to conocer, to know, Cuba had been sparked several years back, during the year I lived in Nicaragua, volunteering for a mural organization, whose own history was rooted deeply in the artistic explosion of the socialist revolution in the 1980s, and I began to understand how intimately connected the two small nations were – and remain to be – despite the fact that Nicaragua’s decade-long attempt at implementing socialist reform caved to the pressures of a US-sponsored war, while Cuba forged a unique, gritty resistance to the overwhelming reach of (total) capitalist control.
lying into Cuba was surreal – I recall flying over the long fingers of the Florida Keyes and within minutes, meeting the island with my eyes and feeling the (okay, forgive me here) sense of an impossible magic that a country – tanto pequeño (so small) and tanta cerca (so close) to the United States somehow managed to overthrow the US-backed dictator, Batista, in 1959, and successfully reshape and take ownership over the structures of their society, and maintain the control (mostly) over those structures for the five decades to follow. Landing in Cuba was even more surreal. It was a Latin America I had never known before – ‘does it remind you of Nicaragua?’ one of my new friends asked me…(and I was surprised by the intensity of my response) “No!” I spat out.
The streets were vacant of the kind of desperate activity you see in Nicaragua – barefooted kids begging at the intersections and juggling objects, clowning for córdobas, women balancing baskets of fried pastries on their heads and hollering up at passengers on the buses stopped at the lights and leaking thick exhaust. Men selling watches, men selling remote controls for television, men selling bags of water, men selling bicycle tires, men selling whatever and people in their vehicles with their doors locked, hoping for the green light…hoping to move away from the crowds of people so desperate for a sale.
This scene I never once witnessed in Cuba. No, there was a different order. People in the streets – yes! plenty! People in the parks, relaxing on wooden benches. Children playing and roller skating in the streets. Lovers strolling the sea wall. Culture being lived and celebrated – book fairs, public art, and young people convening in the central square, draping themselves over one another, laughing, joking around – the drama of relationships and sex and flirtation on parade.
These are surface projections that echo a romantic understanding and discourse of Cuban Socialism, yes. But don’t blame me. It was a positive context to witness. On one hand, it made me angry and frustrated for a situation that seems sprawling and out of control in countries like Nicaragua. On the other hand, I felt hopeful – what were the Cuban people doing that was resulting in a context where the majority of people had access to basic food and water, housing, education and healthcare…
My friend from Costa Rica had warned me before I left:
“Cuba is unlike any other place in the world.”
He was right. I spent 15 days in the small country, traveling with a group of Canadian farmers, producers and good folks just generally interested in permaculture, organic alternatives, and food security. We had the rare privilege of venturing outside the clearly demarcated and regulated tourist zones in Cuba and traveling down its alligator shaped body to visit organic vegetable and animal farms, cooperatives, and roof-top gardens, and learning from the Cuban people how they’ve organized and adapted to years of the US-economic embargo and a changing agricultural system (collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989). During this time, I met many educated people: agronomists, forestry and agricultural technicians, experts in soil and seeds and livestock – equal numbers of both men and women in positions of leadership.
I also met the ‘guajiros’ – or campesinos – those who are romanticized by Cubans themselves, particularly an urban and educated elite, as humble and connected to the land and the ideal ‘Newer Socialist Man’ – who inspired in their ability to be inventive, resourceful and innovative, and share their knowledge with neighbours. They were succeeding in feeding their families and communities and they were proud to share many technique, examples and results of their passionate labour with the land.
My short but rich experiences in Cuba were full of learning, surprise, irony, doubt, frustration, hope and excitement. Cuba es Cuba and nothing else – my friend was right.
This blog is the first of many to come about a country and people that possess a seemingly impossible magic in the creative way they’ve used their resources and struggled to create food security.
It’s also a salute to the many campesinos and campesinos all over the world who are working hard to produce food for their families and communities, and who are up against immense challenges and structures put in place by the global food system that dominates the way people use the land and what they produce and how they do, or don’t, have access to food. April 17th is ‘Dia de la Lucha Campesina’ – or day of the Struggle of Peasants/Small Farmers. Via Campesina estimates that “there are 1.5 billion peasants on 380 farms…[growing] at least 70% of the world’s food.” And yet many of these people remain the poorest and most marginalized peoples in their communities. Check out La Via Campesina for more information.
Hasta la proxima.