It was Wednesday night in Havana and I was with a group on a people-to-people art, architecture, and ecotourism tour. With all the hoopla around lifting the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, we felt that we were experiencing a ripe moment. Three of us sat on a terrace atop our old town hotel musing about contradictions surrounding us. On our first night with the group an architect and historian gave us his assessment of the grand city and the many challenges faced by this final island of communism crumbling in our midst. With all the gusto he could muster, an emboldened member of our band of visitors shouted, “CAPITALISM.” I can't say there was a gasp, but it was a brazen statement to counter the scholarly lecture given in earnest by our host.
If ever there was an us vs. them moment, it was at this moment -- winner or loser; rich man, poor man, preacher man, humble man. In an instant we knew what the conversation was really about. Communism and Capitalism. There were twenty-two Americans in the room and one Cuban. The lecturer paused and said that there was not a simple solution or a one-word answer to the complexities of what made Cuba, Cuba. We would later be told by another historian on a visit to a vast cemetery or what Cubans grandly called their necropolis that what truly defined the Cuban spirit was to be the opposite of what was.
So atop what we decided might become a five-star Four Seasons Hotel once the economic tides turned we began a several hour discussion fed by our dinner wine about what the hell would be the best road for Cuba to take. A few minutes into our dialogue we realized that the subject was too vast to consider, so we decided to look across the square at a building likely occupied by 30-40 families, a handsome building with a beautiful façade like so many we had photographed on our short visit.
Cuban Americans’ ire is oftentimes the painful memory of having majestic residences overtaken as neighbors departed following the revolution only to have unknowns occupy these privileged spaces with multiple families who eventually drove out the original owners on all floors or in large estates. To the generations of homeowners it was the ultimate horror of seeing their life’s history and earnings evaporate alongside desperate actions to protect their families by moving from their motherland. To those of lesser means, the revolution created a new social order fueled by desire to overturn political corruption of a dictator who failed to realize the price he and the homeland would pay for allowing abject poverty and unearned riches to reach extremes.
One of us said that the building occupants should be relocated, perhaps across the bay to public housing supported by generating new wealth from the building-- perhaps a Hilton might work in this space. Another wondered why several generations of families should be asked to abort the lifestyle created by those who determined their fate. “Build a shining new city overlooking the city near the fortress,” was another’s answer and use taxes from development to reconstruct the old town. An hour into this babbling, it was painfully obvious that unbridled capitalism was no more the answer to this dilemma than was failed communism.
My recollection of Business 101 was that capitalism was mainly focused on corporate systems energized by private sector profitability. Corporations are designed for profit and have no conscious. The American version of Capitalism has been to create incentives for large economic forces to flourish and provide improvements to the standard of living through earnings. In many circles the theory has become almost the framework of patriotism.
On this night, however, it was hard to imagine that the brute force of Capitalism was the answer to the anguish of the many who a revolution forced from their beginnings or created new beginnings. For the life of us, we couldn’t imagine a Starbucks or mega CVS on every corner, as well meaning as the more progressive of corporations tends to be. Under the stars on a terrace with hotel rooms guarded by rusted rails and antique furnishings behind our doors, we could imagine but one answer to the conundrum of what to do with CUBA. Do it differently, without arrogance and righteousness. Build dignity to accompany the immense pride exhibited by a people who have little but pride to get them through their days. And, above all recognize that Cuba is very American, likely the reason that Soviet influence and occupation was never going to work in a place that will always be opposite of what is assumed or expected.
This is not and has never been the economic toy of Spain, England, France or others who have sought to enrich themselves through misery of the Cuban people. This is a place ripe for reunion with its neighbor to the north, a place that sees its heritage as connected to Florida, the Gulf States and the Caribbean. This is where we begin to reunite the natural fiber of a people and their roots peacefully.