Barack Obama recently became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. The island was also on commentator Stephen Whitley’s wish list of places to visit. But Cuba always seemed out of reach until the recent easing of restrictions on travel. He learned some lessons during a Spring Break trip there.
The first three days I found Havana exciting and picturesque. The antique cars were charming, even though they spewed exhaust fumes and lacked basic safety equipment. The buildings, many in a desperate state of disrepair, gave the city an old-world flavor. The University of Havana was the perfect example of what a university should look like: Beautiful buildings perched on a hill overlooking the city, students smoking, flirting and talking as they would at any university in the US.
Then on the third day I was there, I met Alejandro. He told me he attends the University of Havana and is in the information technology department. Unfortunately, he does not own a computer, so he has to write his code by hand. His family does not have a phone in their home. He makes money by selling jewelry, sweets or flowers on the street when he has to.
The lack of economic mobility, the lack of personal freedom for Cubans, the squalor many Cubans have to live in on a daily basis seemed somehow quaint until I met someone I was beginning to care about. Then it became personal. While many 21 year olds throughout the world work multiple jobs to make ends meet, Alejandro’s struggles seem more futile. While he never voiced this, I felt as though even if Alejandro did eventually graduate and get a good job, nothing much in his life would change except he might not have to sell flowers on the street.
That in the 21st century, a smart, personable guy who speaks three languages would have to sell flowers on the street to buy extra food for his family seems somehow abhorrent. He should be able to search the internet, communicate with the outside world without censorship (I figured out when I got home that my text messages to the US were intercepted and read, because they arrived at my friends’ phones broken up by symbols). That a whole nation of people is not able to participate in the global information age and are seemingly still living in a version of the 1960’s was shocking.
President Obama’s trip to Cuba is hopefully the beginning of the thaw in the cold war relationship between our two countries. Supporting continued dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba will eventually lead to improvement in the lives of 11 million Cuban people, people like Alejandro who just want to go to school and have a future that is less restrictive both politically and economically. People we have in our power to help.
Stephen Whitley is a writer and professor of English at Collin College.