A fictional short story highlighting and addressing common Americanized misconceptions of Cuba
Originally Published April 28, 2019
Upon disembarking their cruise ship in Cuba, an American couple walks out of the port into the streets of Old Havana. Instantly, a swarm of Cubans approach the disembarking tourists attempting to sell tour packages, trinkets, and souvenirs. The American couple bypasses the crowd of Cuban tourist workers as they search for a taxi. Conveniently, multiple taxis are lined up right outside the port and the couple walks over to the closest taxi.
They make eye contact with one driver, a particularly rough looking experienced man appearing to be roughly 70 years old and they yell out to him, “Quiero la playa.” Recognizing the couple’s broken Spanish and Yankee accent, the taxi driver motions for them to get in.
On the drive to the beach the couple is meticulously observing their surroundings, commenting on their initial impressions of Cuba. Witnessing the abundance of old automobiles and pervasiveness of deteriorating and dilapidated buildings, they start comparing Cuba to other Caribbean islands they have visited before.
Sitting silently, the taxi driver carefully listens as the couple remarks how the people of other Caribbean islands spoke better English and the infrastructure surrounding the ports appeared more modernized. Eventually during the ongoing commentary of the husband and wife, one says to the other, “This place is so underdeveloped.” This comment captures the attention of the cab driver as he quickly replies, “What is development?”
The mention of underdevelopment begins an extensive philosophical dialogue between the taxi driver and American couple. As the conversation progresses, the taxi driver politely debates the couple as they echo common Americanized preconceptions of Cuba. Covering prevailing notions of an impoverished, repressed, and authoritarian Cuban society where chronic supply shortages and an economic brain drain exists, the taxi driver is able to counter these misperceived conceptions typically attributed to the ills of Cuban Socialism.
When the couple touches upon the Caribbean commonality of Cuba’s reliance on tourism and a distorted economic system where workers in the tourism industry earn more money than doctors, the taxi driver swiftly replies. Alluding to an American superiority complex where the Caribbean is often misrepresented as a collection of islands complacently designed to cater to American tourists, the taxi driver explains how Cuba does not place the tourism industry on a pedestal. Rather it is accepted by necessity with the hopes of using tourism revenue to diversify the economy and maintain certain levels of social expenditure.
Additionally, the taxi driver explains that even though he has a PHD in economics, he chooses to work in the tourism industry in order to financially support his two children who are both practicing doctors. Sacrificing his own academic career to earn more money driving a taxi allows his kids to continue to work in the medical field.
As the conversation shifts towards discussion of poverty, repression, and democracy, the taxi driver begins to compare Cuba with the United States. Reiterating and confirming the notion that Cuba is an impoverished country, the taxi driver characterizes Cubans as financially poor, but socially advanced.
Referencing the presence of free education and healthcare in Cuba, the taxi driver explains how for an impoverished nation Cuba scores exceptionally well on education indexes and health indicators comparing favorably with developed countries. Pointing towards the United States, the taxi driver acknowledges that financial security is far more omnipresent than in Cuba, but the ambition to attend higher education or the alarmingly high costs of medical treatment forces millions of Americans of modest means into debt annually.
Countering the taxi driver’s criticism of American society, the American couple begin to discuss democracy, the freedoms afforded to them by the United States Government and their right to vote. Fixating on the fact that Fidel Castro was an authoritarian ruler of Cuba for approximately a half century, the American couple advocates their pride in being able to vote for political leaders.
In response to this waving the flag of democracy, the taxi driver indicates how the concepts of American and Cuban citizenship are vastly different and the right to vote has never been firmly rooted in Cuban citizenship. He explains how Cuba transformed from a Spanish colony to a republic of the United States and before Fidel came to power, Cuba was ruled by a dictator. Addressing elements of repression in Cuba, the taxi driver details how he attributes Fidel’s episodes of authoritarian measures to political necessity as the Cuban Revolution existed under a constant state of siege mentality after being the first Latin American nation to defy attempted U.S. backed regime change.
Shifting his focus to the United States, the taxi driver comments on the fetishized imagination of purity with the U.S. system of democracy. Suggesting the existence of repression in the United States, the taxi driver implicates the plight of African Americans throughout U.S. history and modern day forms of racial oppression evident through the policing nature of the War on Drugs and the ensuing system of mass incarceration.
Critiquing the U.S. electoral system, the taxi driver pinpoints the domination of two corporately controlled political parties, the disproportionate population representation of the Senate, an Electoral College that supersedes the popular vote, and the voter disenfranchisement of millions of Americans particularly minorities.
Eventually, the conversation concludes as they arrive at the beach. Upon exiting the taxi and saying goodbye, both the American couple and the taxi driver head their separate ways while still reflecting on what just occurred. For certain this half hour philosophical debate did not cause the American couple to fully abandon their ethnocentric views that have been ingrained in them since elementary school.
However, through this interaction with the taxi driver perhaps they will begin to view other nations and societies with a slightly altered framework. Instead of instantly reaffirming Americanized preconceptions of foreign countries, they may take the time in the future to digest unfamiliar surroundings before rushing to conclusions. Perhaps they will no longer automatically attribute development with modernization and actually begin to explore the question of what truly is development.
The story of the Cuban taxi driver and American couple is simply a fictional parable highlighting diverging views of the Cuban Revolution. The American couple symbolizes the majority of Americans who fail to question mainstream media narratives in the United States especially when it comes to foreign policy. By failing to question everything they see and hear it results in replication of the same language, thus producing the common narrative of Fidel being an authoritarian dictator and the economic struggles of Cuba being solely attributed to the ills of socialism.
In the fictional parable, the Cuban taxi driver represents a distinct segment of the Cuban population. Given his age being in the 70s, the Cuban taxi driver symbolizes the generation of Cubans who were alive before the Cuban Revolution and have remained in Cuba till the present day. The Cuban taxi driver represents the most ardent supporters of the Cuban Revolution. This segment of the population knows what life was like before Fidel and benefited greatly from the social policies of the early years of the revolution.
Additionally, their years of formal education coincided with the revamped education system of the Cuban Revolution. Therefore, the Cuban taxi driver uses similar talking points as the Cuban Government when defending the revolution. For instance taking pride in free education and healthcare and deflecting questions about repression within Cuban society by pointing towards the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
Understanding the current state of the Cuban Revolution is feasible only by acknowledging how global events have impacted the revolution. For a proper analysis, five distinctive periods of Cuban history need to be articulated. Starting with the colonial history from the transition of Spanish colony to Republic of the United States, centuries of colonialism planted the seeds for a nationalistic revolution.
Upon the triumph of the Cuban Revolution till the end of the 1960s represents the period of greatest revolutionary euphoria as Cuban society underwent radical transformations and the external global political environment appeared promising with the Third World Movement and the decolonization of Africa. During the time period of 1970-1989, Cuba increased their trade relationships with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe resulting in stable growth, but maintaining a dependence on the export of sugar.
The time period of 1990-2000 covers the economic crisis known as the Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the recovery effort, which consisted of radical economic changes. Lastly, we have the time period of 2001 till the present day. Throughout this time frame there is the emergence of growing economic possibilities with the Pink Tide Movement in Latin America and rapprochement with the United States under the Obama administration. However, new developments in most recent years reversed once possible economic opportunities with the recession of the Pink Tide, Venezuela’s economic crisis, and the Trump Administration breaking away from rapprochement and implementing further economic sanctions.
Thorough research of each distinctive time period reveals the Cuban Revolution’s economic motives and how they evolved within the changing global political and economic landscape. From the highly ambitious early phase of the Cuban Revolution where a complete social engineering of Cuban society both economically and socially was pursued, to the current Cuban economic state consisting of slight market reforms with Cuban characteristics, one ultimate objective has been maintained.
Economic sovereignty remains the fundamental pillar of the Cuban Revolution even as the changing global landscape has caused Cuba to evolve over time. As developing nations around the world have succumbed to economic policy prescriptions advocated by the western world allowing for increased globalization and sacrificing economic sovereignty, Cuba remains a defiant force continuing to pursue an alternative path of development. Precisely, the attempt to redefine development is the story of Cuba