A woman friend of mine who lives in Miami recently traveled to the Island with her children. As her father is Cuban, she wanted her children to meet the family members who are still there. She had postponed the trip again and again, without knowing why. Something told her that it could be an experience full of run-ins and incidents. Fortunately, the family relationships unfolded with pleasantly surprising spontaneity: the children and their Cuban relatives on the Island got along as if they had known each other their whole lives.
The sad part of the trip was not the family, or the odyssey of travelling to what was once the Paris of the Caribbean - today a ramshackle city strewn with garbage. She was prepared, or at least aware, of the blackouts, the potholes, the smell of kerosene, the jug and pail of water for bathing, and the most elementary food deficiencies. What she was not prepared for was seeing how Cubans treat their own.
And she does not understand it, among other reasons, because only 90 miles away, Cubans are like "princes." There, Cubans are able to do what no other Latin American can in the US, or an Englishman, for that matter: legalize his immigration status and become a citizen in a short period of time. In the south of Florida they control politics and the economy. In fact, upon marrying a Cuban, he achieved a different migratory status, one allowing him to find good jobs and continue studying. And offending or humiliating a Cuban citizen because of his nationality can land an American in some very hot water.
She claims to have detected, beginning right at the airport, a culture of apartheid, discriminating against those Cuban nationals who, unmistakable with their suitcases, beads and hats, were returning to their own country. They moved her and her children up in the line, passing other mothers with small children, because she was "not Cuban." After that, and occasionally, it was harassment: the relatives who accompanied her to restaurants and shops were considered potential jineteros, or swindlers.
Very perceptively, she made a sad observation: despite all the snubbing of Cuban citizens, who have nothing to give, and the fawning over foreigners (outsiders thought to have it all, to be able to do it all), Cubans are still, at heart, friendly people. They know how to love and to give. They are, like Havana, a ruined city that is falling apart, but that can still be rehabilitated.
Somehow, the Cuban capital today is faithful to my friend's observation. Cities, their buildings, parks, theaters, schools and hospitals resemble their inhabitants, their people. It is they, and their spirit, that shape the atmosphere, and this, recursively, returns to the people the magic of living in peace, and hope. This is what anyone notices when they go to Madrid, Paris, New York or Mexico City: tourism is not all about the Gran Via, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire Estate or the Angel of Independence. The essence of tourism is the local people, as foreign visitors are often treated better than the country's own citizens.
In an effort to expunge the legacy of the Gómez-Mena family (Cubans whose crime was to be millionaires who actually got the country to produce something), they have established a centenarian foreign company just a few steps from the statue of José Martí in Central Park. The luxurious Hotel Manzana – no longer belong to the Gómez clan, but rather the Kempinski family – is surrounded by icons of Cuba’s republican culture and politics, as well as dozens of buildings and houses propped up to prevent them from collapsing. Allusions to the past, the slap in the face perpetrated by the Marinesthat produced such outrage,are not mere coincidences. We may always suffer from a strange neuroticism, hating and loving all that is foreign at the same time.
Staying at luxury hotel in the middle of a city devastated by abandonment, and a population suspected of being a band of rogues, is not really tourism. There can be no true tourism where there is no water, or street lighting, or care for the environment, because everyone's prime concern is to have a plate of food to eat. As my friend said during her brief visit to Cuba: what most disturbs and pains the tourist are the people who live on the island. They seem to be destroyed inside. And yet, at the same time one can see that, with adequate restoration, the Cuban people could shine. Like five-star hotels.