I live in the United States, in a democratic society with a largely market-based economy. In the back of my mind, I have always known this is a blessing, but day-to-day life desensitized me to the significance of my circumstances.
Last month, I visited Cuba on a People-to-People program. While waiting in line for passport control in Havana’s José Martí International Airport, I chatted with a Cuban expatriate who was returning to see family. He told me I’d see things in Cuba that wouldn’t make sense to me, but that a Cuban would understand. Understanding certainly is relative to one’s experiences, and his prediction proved to be a recurring theme throughout my visit.
Cuba is an enigmatic place. The Cuba I saw was full of warm people and had a palpable, vibrant culture. The Cuban government’s achievements through universal healthcare and education are astounding, particularly in light of the United States’ economic sanctions.
At the same time, what I heard about life in Cuba was troubling. The prevailing political and economic systems eliminate choices and make daily life difficult. For example, Cuba’s food ration and dual currency systems contribute to an extensive underground economy. Residents must turn to this black market for many goods, including products as basic as chicken and eggs.
The contrasts and contradictions between what I saw and what I heard were conflicting. Admittedly, I still do not fully understand all that I experienced. Yet, my brief exposure to life in Cuba affirmed my conviction in self-determination.
It’s hard to predict what you’ll see in the photographs above, but I hope you can imagine what I saw—that my liberties are tied to the liberties of this stranger, who, living only ninety miles from the United States, faces an entirely different reality when he looks out his window in the morning. Although we’re both North Americans, I am free to speak, publish, assemble, associate, petition, and travel (except to Cuba) without fear of retribution. Decidedly, he is not.
Chris Beagan lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as a historical landscape architect. He traveled to Cuba with his alma mater, Cornell’s Adult University.