A trip to the Interest Section and a lesson on socialism
Wednesday in Havana was really quite remarkable. It was the total opposite of everything we had grown accustomed to, but the ironic thing was that it was because we visited an office full of Americans. We visited the American Interest Section in Havana, which represents the United States in Cuba. There isn’t an embassy in Havana because of the relationship between the two countries, so it is actually on Swiss controlled soil.
I’ve had trouble in writing this first blog because I have absolutely no idea how to confront what’s been running through my head. I feel lucky that my first day of writing includes one of the most unique days on the trip so far, but I also feel like it deserves that much more thought and consideration. So I’ve decided to just be blunt and say this: it was definitely a weird day. It was the first example of Cuban police officers treating us like the American tourists we are. It was weird to be around more English speaking Americans outside of our group. The day just had an odd sense to it.
I’ve dreamed up a myriad of ways to address this conflict of ideas that I’m having as well. On one hand, I have learned everything I know about Cuba through one lens, so exploring it through 12 days of remarkable firsthand experiences has been a real eye-opener. On the other hand, we have to walk a fine line because we’re taking in only a few weeks of knowledge at the surface level and trying to weave it together with our own opinions. I feel that as a student, this is what has been so surreal for me. In classrooms, we always hear that teachers want us to mesh our own opinions with the ideas we are presented, but being able to live in a place and breathe in the actual existence while creating opinions is fantastic.
I was worried about writing this because I wanted to present my own concrete opinions of what I have experienced and what I’ve heard and seen. In our group, I feel like that’s what everyone is striving to do: form a solid opinion about a new place in a short amount of time. But that is what makes Cuba, Cuba, as we’re all starting to learn. The second we feel like we’re finding our grasp of what the essence of Cuba is, one hour of conversation can make a concrete answer feel so far away again. We visited the American Interest Section in Havana today, and that’s exactly what happened. We had spent close to two weeks garnering as many opinions of Cuban people, students, and professors as we could, but an hour long talk with an American diplomat only introduced more doubts and questions that needed answering.
Going to the Interest Section was an intimidating experience. We had to go through a lot of security: first Cuban police, then more Cuban police, and then some Cuban police working for the United States. We weren’t allowed to have or use any electronic devices—even a voice recorder that I had grown accustomed to using at the university. We were all given badges, and could not take any pictures, except for the one picture we were allowed to take outside:
I felt really uncomfortable while visiting the office today. Between the security, the passports, the baggage checks, and everything else we experienced, there was an ironic ease I felt once we left and stepped back onto the Havana soil I have grown to love. What makes it so strange is that I feel like I have little to nothing to say about what we talked about while at the Interest Section. We heard all the opinions we had learned in the States, and had heard repeated when we told people we were visiting Cuba. “You’re really visiting Cuba? What if you get kidnapped?” We heard about the U.S. stance towards Alan Gross, the Cuban Five, the South Florida Lobby, towards socialism and towards Fidel Castro, and it was all to be expected: the opposite of what Cubans tell you.
It almost verges on comical in the way that these two countries are connected—while the problems are economical and political, it sometimes just seems like two kids splashing each other in the swimming pool.
Across from the Interest Section is the Cuban Anti-Imperialist Plaza, which has replaced Plaza de la Revolucion as the place where rallies and protests are held. At the far end of the Plaza, there is the statue of national hero Jose Marti, holding a child and pointing an accusatory finger right at the Interest Section.
Later in the day, we talked with a Cuban professor, Raul Rodriguez, and got some more information on the U.S.-Cuban relationship. Personally, one of the most important things that he talked about was the difference between individuality and individualism, and what he said really struck me. He said that within socialism, individuality is necessary. It is the personal level, the will which drives Cubans in their lives, and it is this sense of being that will push Cubans to do things like open businesses under the new laws. Rodriguez then said that individualism is something that doesn’t fit in a society built on solidarity, that individualism is selfishness, and that socialism is designed to prevent people from isolation and to connect everyone. For me, after a long day of politics, it was a beautiful thing to hear.
May 25, 2011