U.S. Nostalgia for Cuba

I am going to Cuba for a conference, my first visit to that island. When I mention these travels, I almost invariably get a positive reaction. A few older relatives responded nervously, memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis still vivid. The majority view was positive, however but almost uniformly tinged with regret for the transformation thought to be overtaking Cuba. Numerous people expressed their envy that I will see the island "before it changes."

We Americans tend to think of Cuba as frozen in time since its 1959 revolution. Pictures of old American cars, in mint condition, lovingly cared for by Cuban mechanics (who are not by the way burdened by the need for high-tech computer equipment that new cars require for even basic maintenance) impress residents of the United States. Such images suggest a Cuba that, whatever else it might be, has something in common with a small-town American car show, with proud owners of beautifully preserved cars lining the streets.

The implication of this frozen-in-time image is that when the U.S. cut off relations with its second closest non-contiguous neighbor, Cuba went into a time capsule: untouched by technological advances and isolated from the world. While there may be some truth to its isolation (at least from tourists) for the first thirty five years after the revolution, in the last twenty years Cuba has received increasing numbers of vacationing visitors. In an island with a population of about 12 million, a few million tourists a year--mostly from Europe, Canada, and other Spanish speaking parts of the Americas--makes a considerable impact. For the automobile fans, a less impressive corrective is that Cuba also received many small cars from Soviet-era Eastern Europe after 1959. Interspersed with those Buicks and Pontiacs, in other words, are Vazs, Polski Fiats and perhaps even a Yugo or two.

The idea behind the regret American friends routinely express is that the U.S. will change Cuba and "not for the better." (An NPR story recently pursued this line, in fact, interviewing Cubans about how they felt about the prospect for Americanization: http://www.npr.org/2016/05/21/478962937/the-u-s-influence-on-cuba-s-rapid-cultural-change )

A frequent follow up comment declares that it is better to visit before we ruin it, through economic development that will bring in fast-food and upscale coffee. We seem certain of the potential of modern American consumer culture to destroy other cultures and local variations among them. Americans are not alone in this, of course, since the "McDonaldization" of the world has been opposed in countries on the receiving end of U.S. economic expansion. What Walmart does to local economies within the U.S., resident opponents and U.S. visitors fear our chain stores will similarly do to undermine foreign local economies.

Some American tourists travel to feel at home, of course, only with other weather and maybe room service delivered in another language. But many travel internationally hoping to go somewhere that feels different. It is disappointing to find the same places to eat or sleep in other countries as we see in our own. Even if we don't consume the sub sandwich, the burger, or the dessert drink masquerading as a coffee, its presence reminds us of the global reach of American culture.

In feeling nostalgic about Cuba, supposedly preserved in a moment of a half-century ago, perhaps we are not missing so much pre-revolutionary Cuba as the United States of fifty years ago. Retro-American cars (and people who take care of them, even if they do so for lack of an easier option) appeal in part to our nostalgia for the mid-century U.S. For my part, if it is true that I am about to visit 1950s America, I hope that Cubans don't reproduce the weak coffee that earned comments from international travelers to the U.S. up through the 1980s. A cup of strong coffee trumps the lure of nostalgia anyday.