GUEST POST | An American In Cuba
At 5:00 am, we cram into a Suzuki Jinmey, rolling the windows down to revel in the chilly pre-dawn air that will quickly evaporate with the rise of the hot sun. We're heading out from Santiago de Cuba and onto a dark highway.
Until this moment, our whole time in Cuba had been focused on food. My friend Marcella Kriebel, who at the beginning of the trip was just an acquaintance, is currently writing a cookbook on Cuban cuisine. She, her cousin Charlotte and I are traveling to the Eastern side of the island to meet with chefs and home-cooks to uncover the country’s culinary traditions, or at the very least, learn a thing or two about Cristianos y Moros (rice and beans). Every moment had been spent eating, thinking about eating, or discussing what we just ate. It had been heaven dipped in Baracoan chocolate.
Today, however, we are going deep into the Sierra Maestra mountains and into the heart of the Cuban revolution. It was here 58 years ago at Comandancia de la Plata where Fidel Castro, with the help of other revolutionaries (think Che) planned the last push to defeat President Batista. Obviously, they succeeded. Che became a symbol of struggle and a literal poster child for the revolution. And at 90 years old, Fidel still defends that revolution (although not officially since 2008). The three of us are making a side trip to the rebel’s secret hideout because we wanted to see the place that played such a significant role in the revolution’s narrative.
I didn’t really understand it until I got to Cuba, but the revolution really is inextricable from the Cuban way of life. Nobody was left unaffected by it. Within a few short years of the coup, Castro’s government had seized land and private property from middle-class to upper-class Cubans and nationalized it. Foreign owned land and businesses were also nationalized without compensation, which led the United States to impose the historic trade embargo against the island in 1960. The consequences of this embargo would come to define the country and as I had learned through the focus on this trip, shape its cuisine (stay tuned).
Fast forward to me, an American, standing at the doorway to Fidel’s cabin at La Comandancia. Tall leafy trees tower above. His bed is just as he had left it: made. It’s quiet here. Peaceful, even. The tranquility of this place makes it difficult to imagine Castro sitting here with his commanders strategizing on how to take the island from Batista all those years ago. If I had been here, I imagine I would’ve chipped in among the talk of guerrilla war tactics with a “how about we just go for a hike, though, guys?”
My eyes sweep the room and fall to my feet. I think how amazing it is that given the long history of estrangement between the U.S. and Cuba, I am even standing here. It’s been, to say the least, tense. Sure, we’ve all felt the ice melting as the sanctions softened the last couple years, but it still feels, I don’t know… awkward. Being here feels a little bit like knocking on the door of a neighbor I’ve asked the world to ostracize, but am now asking for a (literal) cup of sugar. So as I stand here, in this room that’s been empty for a half a century, I feel like I’m somehow imposing.
I wonder if other Americans who travel to Cuba feel like that. It’s hard to know how the process of normalizing relations will look. I know Cubans are eager for change because they’ve told me. I know Americans are eager to finally go to a place that’s been off limits for so long. So that change will inevitably come. I just hope that change happens on Cuba’s terms, developing at a pace that keeps the ideals of their revolution intact.
As we walk through the thick forest to meet our driver, I wonder how long it will be before the U.S. starts asking for more than a cup of sugar.