While President Obama calls for the U.S. and Cuba to “leave the past behind” and enter a more open era, contributing editor Josh Eells motorcycled across the country to find how Cubans all around the country think of their mostly unknown neighbors to the north. Here’s what they said.
When President Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday for his three-day trip to Cuba — the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years — the first thing he would have seen as his motorcade left the airport was a giant billboard that read BLOQUEO: THE LONGEST GENOCIDE IN HISTORY. The bloqueo, or blockade, is what Cuba calls the 56-year American embargo; on the billboard, the second O is a noose. Cuba’s propaganda may be many things, but subtle is not one of them. From the moment Americans touch down in Cuba, we know exactly where we stand.
Or do we? I recently spent three weeks traveling through Cuba by motorcycle for the upcoming Adventure Issue of Men’s Journal (on stands April 1) . I circumnavigated the entire island, visited all 15 provinces, and stayed in more than a dozen towns and cities along the way, from tranquil Baracoa in the east to bustling Havana in the west, usually sleeping in casas particulares, the private homes, of everyday Cubans. I am in no way an expert on the country, but from what I saw, Cuba is a fascinating, heartbreaking, confounding, and frequently contradictory place — and no one, not even Cubans, seems to know exactly where it’s headed.
From our isolated perch in America, it’s easy to forget that we’re the only ones who don’t go to Cuba. Far from being an undiscovered paradise, there are tons of tourists already in Cuba: They’re Canadian, British, German, Dutch, Polish, Spanish. The Chinese influence is especially notable, as China has invested in the country like they have in many Latin American and African nations that the U.S. has overlooked. Almost all my fellow motorcyclists rode Chinese bikes — Lifans and Jialings and Huoniaos — and if a car wasn’t a pre-revolutionary Chevy or Buick, odds are good it was a Geely, a Chinese make. At the DMV in Havana, I sat in the office of a friendly female clerk who had a cartoon drawing of a lady tacked to her wall, with a caption that read: “How are the Chinese like women? No one can understand them, and they’re dominating the world.”
Obviously it’s getting easier every day for Americans to visit Cuba, as travel restrictions are loosened practically once a month. But even though visitors from the U.S. were up 77 percent last year, once you get outside of Havana, Americans are still pretty rare. In multiple rural towns I visited, I was the first American some people had ever met. Some older Cubans — many of whom came of age during Castro’s revolution and who still remember the corrupt Batista regime — were more skeptical about America, but younger ones were unfailingly warm and enthusiastic. American flag prints were on display everywhere: on bandanas, on women’s stretch pants, on the dashboards of ’56 Chevys, and even on a young man’s red-white-and-blue, beer-pong-themed tank top. (The stripes were red with white Solo cups; the stars were ping-pong balls.)
Most Cubans I met were insatiably curious about the United States. Near a small village called Alto de Cotilla, in the Sierra Cristal mountains, I stopped to chat with some twentysomethings selling chocolate and oranges on the roadside. They peppered me with questions about America, both innocent and pointed: Was it cold there? Did we have different kinds of trees? Did the trees have leaves now? What kind of jobs did people have? Was it true people in the north were richer than those in the south? Why was that? What did Americans think about Cubans? What did I?
That said, Cubans are also not as isolated as we think, especially when it comes to American culture. Although access to the internet is limited and expensive and bandwidth is glacially slow, there’s an underground network of USB hard drives called “El Paquete” (“the packet”) that lets Cubans keep up with all the latest movies, TV shows, and news from abroad. One taxi driver I stayed with in Havana recounted the plot of several Fast and Furious movies to me (prompted by our conversation about the eighth installment, which is reportedly filming in Cuba later this year), and an old man I had breakfast with knew that Mets centerfielder Yoenis Céspedes (a Cuban) had signed a contract extension before I did. My favorite such moment came at a monument near the Bahía de Bariay, the pristine bay where Columbus first made landfall in Cuba more than 500 years ago. A young tour guide who’d been admiring my motorcycle hurried through a two-minute spiel about the place, then proceeded to ask me all about the Discovery show American Chopper, which has been off the air since 2010.
But often, just when I would think we were closer than I realized, I’d be reminded of how far our countries are apart. In Santiago de Cuba, I was talking to a young lawyer about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated Santiago in October 2012 before continuing north to wreak havoc in New York. In a lame attempt to commiserate, I told him the storm had knocked out the electricity in my apartment for four whole days. He smiled and told me they were without power for two months.
Near the end of my trip, I rode to Playa Girón, a small resort town on the Bay of Pigs. The road was lined with signs commemorating the Americans’ 1961 defeat: THE VICTORY OF SOCIALISM and THE MERCENARIES ADVANCED TO HERE. I bunked with a fortysomething couple who had opened their casa for business just a few days earlier: The husband was a carpenter, but there wasn’t enough wood, and the wife worked at another casa in town and saw that it was a good way to make some extra cash. A lot, actually: In a country where the average salary is 500 Cuban pesos ($20) a month, one night hosting a guest brings in as much as $30.
At breakfast the next morning, while their daughter did her homework, the three of us talked about the recent rise in Cubans fleeing the country, racing to get to the U.S. before relations normalized, out of fear that the preferential immigration policies for Cubans might be revoked. They had a friend in town who’d paid a smuggler $10,000 — the equivalent of 30 years’ wages — to get her on a boat to Mexico. She’d crossed the U.S. border by foot, and was now living and working in Ontario, California, near L.A. “There’s a lot of risk involved,” the husband said of the journey by smuggler. “But people are worried about what will come next.”
Things are changing rapidly. A few days ago, the Starwood hotel chain announced it would take over management of three Cuban hotels, making it the first American hospitality company to do business on the island. Regular commercial flights from the U.S. should resume later this year, and President Obama just announced that Google is in the early stages of bringing high-speed internet access to the country. Cubans are also getting in on the entrepreneurial act: At a motorcycle rally in Vedado, I met Ernesto Guevara, Jr., one of Che Guevara’s sons. A lawyer by trade, he recently started his own motorcycle touring company, La Poderosa Tours, named after the bike his father rode through South America, later immortalized in The Motorcycle Diaries. The poverty and oppression Che saw on that trip inspired him to become a Marxist revolutionary; now his son offers multiday tours to wealthy foreigners at $4,000 a pop. If there’s a better metaphor for the Cuban experiment in 2016, I didn’t see it.
Mostly what I saw was hope: hope that the American government would end its embargo, hope that the Cuban government would loosen its autocratic grip, hope that the country would soon be a normal member of the world community. I heard it from young professionals in the upscale neighborhoods of Havana and from weathered farm workers in the countryside. But the best way I heard it may have been from an old man in Remedios, on the very first night of my journey. We were sitting in the living room of his casa, watching a speech in the U.S. by President Obama on TeleSUR, the Venezuelan news network. The viejo went on a long rant about America and imperialism and economic oppression that I could only half-follow and only occasionally agreed with. But then, at the end, he said something I understood very clearly. “I am from the middle of Cuba,” he said. “Cuba is in the middle of the Caribbean, and the Caribbean is in the middle of the Americas. So I am an American. We are all Americans.”