Guantanamera. If you’ve heard the patriotic folk song, you know how catchy it is—how quintessentially Cuban. (If you haven’t heard it, check out how Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa herself, does it up. The Sandpipers had an international hit on their hands with their version from the late ‘60s, but zzzzzzzzzz. Oh, I’m sorry, was I typing?) You hear Guantanamera on street corners and in bars. Young bands pound it out and so do old crooners. To say it’s a theme song of sorts is putting it mildly.
Suffice it to say, Guatnanemera just sounds like Cuba to me. And when we talked to our Cuban guide about the possibility for U.S.-based tourism in the future, she brought the catchy anthem into the equation. And what she said has wedged itself more vividly in my head than anything else I heard during our visit.
Yes, she said, yes she wanted the embargo to end, for relations to improve, and for herself to be able to visit the U.S. and to have U.S. tourists visit her home. But all her yeses were tempered with hesitation. Not the hesitation that many in the U.S. have voiced about the cultural dilution that can occur with rapid globalization, but something more…concrete.
“We just don’t have enough,” she said. “We don’t have enough electricity. We don’t have enough hotels. We don’t have enough mojitos.” She paused. “We don’t have enough Guantanemera.”
For our guide, the spotty Cuban infrastructure was a problem. Roads from the first half the 20th century are literally crumbling and full of potholes. Roads from the ‘80s and ‘90s simply stop in the middle of nowhere, an obvious sign of the Soviet collapse. Electricity and hot water? Eh, maybe. If you’re lucky. Public transport? An overly crowded bus that sometimes comes, more often not. Other than that, try an unregulated cab, or that old standby…hitchhiking. Hardly the stuff of tourist daydreams, to say nothing of the fact that if said tourists are pulling all the electricity, all the “best ofs,” what’s left for regular Cubans?
But more than that, our guide was saying that there weren’t enough resources available to widely to share the robust Cuban culture with the hordes of Americans she envisioned flocking to her island if travel restrictions were lifted. It’s not like they could just instantly ramp up, rewind to 1959, put a smile on, pick up a guitar, and start back where they left off. Cuban culture is alive and well, but could it survive under the crush of a massive tourist influx?
Her concerns were so much more intricate than some that I’ve heard batted around stateside—fear of Cuba becoming (or re-becoming) another American playground in the Caribbean, full of generic everything. I understand that concern—maybe because I have the luxury of having that concern—but she was voicing something a little different than that. She wasn’t scared of a McDonalds coming in (in fact, she asked a lot of questions about what it was like to have everything available to you, 24/7. Most of the few shops we saw in Cuba were full of nothing more than empty shelves.) she was scared her nation didn’t have enough, in terms of basic commodities, to exchange for it. And what would happen then?
I can’t answer those questions, but I can ponder them…and I think about them a lot. What will Cuba have to deal with if and when it opens fully to U.S. tourism? How will they get their electrical grid up to par? How will they produce the food they need to feed tourists, let alone themselves? How will they get tourists to come and experience their cities and not just cluster around anonymous, all-inclusive beach resorts?
And how do they handle it when--and I stress when and not if--they succeed?
And so I'll leave the question open-ended, because I'm far from having an answer other than knowing that patience and great care must be the watchwords as we all move forward.
Thanks for sticking with me as I worked all this out of my head--and onto the blog--in the last few weeks. Viva Cuba!