Islands are peculiar places. Separated from continental land masses for eons, they develop unique ecologies. Animal species, isolated from the predators, gene pools, and environmental vicissitudes of the mainland, evolve into life forms that exist nowhere else. Take, for example, the now extinct giant cursorial owl, which until about 6,000 years ago was the top predator on the island we now call Cuba. The raptor stood four feet tall and had the strength and the talons to hunt down large animals. If it could actually fly — scientists are divided on the question — it would have been the heaviest bird ever to do so. At the opposite end of the scale, and still extant, the bee hummingbird is the smallest bird known to exist, no larger than its bumble namesake.
These strange creatures are just two of the dozens of animal and plant species native to Cuba and found nowhere else, and they are among the many revelations that delighted me as I wandered through the special exhibition ¡Cuba! at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. I am a sucker for nature shows, and I was transfixed by the displays of birds, butterflies, fish, psychedelically colored snails, and even some living reptiles in terrariums. The dioramas of the four main ecosystems explored in the show — caves, forests, coral reefs, wetlands — are masterpieces of an art form at which the AMNH excels. Beyond these simple pleasures, I was gratified to learn about the critical work being carried out by Cuban scientists — including valuable collaborations with the museum — to study and conserve the ecosystems that support the island’s incredible biodiversity.
¡Cuba! offers a superlative survey of natural history. More problematically, it purports also to reveal the character and culture of the Cuban people.
¡Cuba! offers a superlative survey of the natural wonders of the Caribbean island. More problematically, the exhibition purports also to reveal the character of the Cuban people and their culture — a task hardly as straightforward or objective as the display of flora and fauna. In one gallery we encounter a series of life-sized photographs of contemporary Cubans — some on the island, some in the exile community — with quotations culled from interviews conducted by curatorial staff. These “Voices of Cuba” attempt to present the divergent opinions that Cubans have about their country. “In Cuba … health care is free. Even if an operation costs $60,000, no one is charged even a penny.” “I really wasn’t happy with everything happening in Cuba. Once you finished high school, there was no future.” “Besides natural beauty, Cuba also has another beauty — the spiritual beauty of the people and the solidarity of the people.” Overall the sentiments felt real, though also predictable and anodyne. (I thought of friends on the island whose views would have been more pungent, not to say profane.) Graphics on another wall cite data both laudable (“Literacy: 99%”) and not (“Government-owned media outlets: 100%”). I was impressed by the video that succinctly conveyed the complexity of Cuba’s history without glossing over its darker aspects, including the horrors of slavery during the Spanish colonial era, the United States’ opportunistic support of dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, and the brutal suppression of political opponents and human rights during the long regime of Fidel Castro.
So far, so good. But then I rounded a corner and was confronted by a vintage Chevrolet, meticulously restored and staged in front of a photomural of picturesque facades on the Malecón, and my heart sank. With this set piece, the exhibition dives headlong into cultural cliché and pandering nostalgia. The curators were correct, of course, to sense that the car — a two-toned 1955 blue and white Bel Air — would be a crowd pleaser. Every time I visited the show it was in constant demand as a backdrop for portraits. But the overwrought tableau obscures the unpretty truth: few Cubans can afford to reconstruct their decrepit old vehicles as joy-riders for tourists (and most would rather be driving new Toyotas), and many of the buildings that border the Malecón are in perilous disrepair. For a long time now North American media and tourism promoters have been serving up this sort of aestheticized decay while ignoring the grinding realities of Cuban poverty. From the American Museum of Natural History, I expected better.
Few Cubans can afford to reconstruct their decrepit old Chevrolets, and most would rather be driving new Toyotas.
But the Chevy was the least of it. The show featured a “Cuban Boulevard” tricked out with fake arcades and pseudo-historical storefronts, looking like a mini-mall at a low-rent Caribbean resort. Along the way there’s a painstakingly reconstructed cigar-rolling shop and a shrine to the Orisha spirits of Afro-Cuban religion. A vintage Zenith radio plays Cuban music from the 1940s. A street vendor’s pushcart is piled with plastic tropical fruits. Out in the “plaza,” café tables are set with resin replicas of traditional foods — rice and beans, malanga fritters, guava and cheese. (It was strange to see the foods that my Cuban mother used to prepare — the comfort food of my childhood — presented as “exotic” fare.) The final section of the exhibition, on contemporary art, promised some relief from the facsimiles; but ultimately it was too superficial to carry much weight. Touch screen menus brought up projections of visual and performing art, and walls were hung with posters. Coming at the end of the disjointed exhibition, with the marvelous wildlife, and the cacophony of kitsch, this low-dose injection of “high culture” seemed little more than an afterthought. 1
The plain truth is that even for an institution with the expertise, resources, and enlightened intentions of the American Museum of Natural History, it is next to impossible to jam both the natural and cultural histories of a land and its people into a single exhibition; and to attempt this sort of reductive curatorial exercise will inevitably demean the subject. For me, this jumble of natural history, cultural stereotype, and contemporary art provoked unsettling reflections on the persistence of a colonialist mentality that has long deemed the cultural production of some “primitive” societies suitable for display in a museum of natural or anthropological history, while that of other, more “advanced” societies merits presentation in museums of fine art.
The jumble of natural history, cultural stereotype, and contemporary art suggests the persistence of a colonialist mentality.
Just outside ¡Cuba!, for instance, there is the Hall of Plains Indians, where vitrines contain effigies of Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other North American tribes, living in teepees and wearing decorated bison hides, making pottery and grinding maize — all set in some distant time before the genocidal U.S. expansion. These permanent exhibitions were the products of an earlier era, but the special exhibition was produced now, focusing on the people of Cuba, ca. 2017. I found this depressing, and the upbeat message — decades of adversity have not quelled the indomitable spirit or vibrant culture of the Cuban people; sure, life is tough but they’ll always enjoy their music, rum, and Santeria — seems condescending at best. It seems also jarringly close to the noxious myth of the Happy Slaves of the Old South, who in sentimental novels and genre paintings were shown cheerfully picking cotton, playing banjoes, and eating chitterlings. To be sure, Cubans make the best music in the world and they know how to party; but the grim truth is that life on the island is one of deprivation for almost anyone who is not high in the government or does not have off-island family to send remittances or finance a business. That ¡Cuba! so smoothly glosses over these troubling facts is especially disturbing in these volatile times; for this feel-good exhibition serves to reinforce the stark disconnect between popular U.S. perception and contemporary Cuban reality.
This feel-good exhibition serves to reinforce the stark disconnect between popular U.S. perception and contemporary Cuban reality.
Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba in March 2016 — the first from a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge — seemed at the time to promise a new era of normalized relations for the two nations. The rapprochement instigated by Obama and cautiously reciprocated by Cuban president Raúl Castro was long overdue; but more than a year later, significant benefits to the majority of Cubans have yet to materialize. The trade embargo, first imposed by the Eisenhower administration in 1960, has yet to be lifted, and to date the most visible result of détente has been the relaxation of travel restrictions. In August 2016 a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale became the first commercial passenger plane to land in Cuba since 1962, and Americans can now more easily travel to Havana to take their selfies in front of old Chevrolets in situ. 2 But in a cruel manifestation of unintended consequences, the hotels and restaurants that feed the tourists are buying up most of the food on the island, leaving the shelves of local markets sparsely stocked. For the first time in a quarter century— since the so-called “Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its investment in the island — Cubans are going hungry.
Indeed, despite the ballyhooed expansion of tourism, the Cuban economy went into recession in 2016. 3 With prices for food and other necessities on the rise, many Cubans, whose meager state salaries haven’t budged in years, are hustling two and even three jobs (often illicit) simply to survive. Friends tell me that crime — formerly rare — is increasing. The introduction of government-sponsored wifi hotspots around Havana has been a much-cheered innovation, but most Cubans can’t afford a smartphone or tablet, which makes such items the frequent target of muggings. Well-meaning American friends tell me it’s great that Cuba is “opening up.” And yes, it is great — for Americans who want to vacation in Havana, for Cuban-Americans who are no longer restricted in the amount of money they can legally send to family on the island, and for Cubans who work in tourism. But for most Cubans, not yet. All of which helps explain why emigration — often by dangerous means — has surged. In 2016 almost 55,000 Cubans sought asylum in the United States — a new high since the Mariel boatlift brought in some 125,000 Cubans in 1980. 4
The desperation that drives Cubans to flee their homeland is confronted with brutal directness in the documentary Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death), directed by Olatz López Garmendia, which recently aired on HBO. (López Garmendia’s former husband, Julian Schnabel, who directed Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, is the lead producer.) López Garmendia, who worked surreptitiously after authorities denied her a permit to film, follows a diverse group of Habaneros around the capital and then travels to rural towns. She visits Cubans in their homes — some in decrepit buildings, with roofs and floors literally collapsing — and records their testimonies on the hardships of daily life. López Garmendia claims that she sought, and expected to find, more signs of hope, to give her story narrative balance; but she came up short. At the premiere at the New York Film Festival, in October 2016, I overheard Americans griping that the documentary was too negative (they’d been to Cuba; it’s beautiful, and the people are so friendly). Cuban friends found it depressingly accurate.
One month after the premiere of Patria o Muerte, and one week after the opening of ¡Cuba!, Fidel Castro died. Though long expected, the death of the leader who’d ruled Cuba for more than half a century still came as a shock, both for those who grieved the loss of a revolutionary icon and those who cheered the passing of a tyrant. But from any perspective, Fidel’s death was truly the end of an era; an era with which almost all Cubans were exhausted. At a recent conference at the City University of New York, “Fidel/Post-Fidel: Legacy and Change,” the journalist Anthony DePalma (author of a magisterial obituary of Castro in the New York Times) shared clear-eyed observations about the leader’s towering historical importance as well as his tragic flaws. Had Fidel died in 1969, ten years after his victory in the combat phase of the Cuban revolution, he would have been apotheosized as an incandescent hero who liberated his country (with Ché Guevara a mere footnote). Had Fidel died in 1979, DePalma further suggested, he would be remembered as the architect of an exemplary new socialist society, with systems of health care, housing, and education that were envied around the world. But Fidel survived for many more years, during which time it became evident that Cuba’s vaunted — and now crumbling — social services were unsustainable without massive subsidies from the Soviet Union (and more recently from Venezuela); that his unwillingness to modernize the economy had inflicted misery on his people; that his rigid ideology and autocratic rule had run the country to near ruin. 5
So now it’s the moment to ask: whither Cuba? More than ten years ago an ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his younger brother Raúl (then 75), who assumed the presidency two years later. Cubans waited hopefully as the more pragmatic Raúl instituted reforms allowing limited private enterprise and easing some strictures on daily life; but the common understanding — confirmed by time — was that no real change would happen while Fidel was alive. The elder Castro disapproved of the tentative détente begun by his brother and Obama, which may explain the sluggish pace at which Cuban officials have moved to implement the trade deals and other new opportunities now possible. Many hoped that his brother’s death would allow Raúl to reveal his true reformist inclinations, but this has not yet been the case. Raúl Castro has stated his intention to retire as president (but not as Communist party chair) in 2018; but those who are hoping that a generational transfer of power will galvanize real change are not reassured by the choice of vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel as the designated successor: Díaz-Canel is a party loyalist unlikely to exert much power over the military and other entrenched interests. 6
When Barack Obama took the stage at the Gran Teatro in Havana during the final day of his visit and declared “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” few imagined that one year later the future of U.S.-Cuba relations would be in the hands of a very different leader. Will Donald Trump follow through on campaign rhetoric to “get tough” with the Castro government and rescind Obama’s conciliatory directives? Or will Cuba be just a minor sideshow as the president flirts with Russia, confronts China, and pursues assorted splashier initiatives? My bet is that Trump the businessman will prevail. Before the boss began his presidential campaign, the Trump Organization sent teams to Cuba to scout locations for hotels and golf resorts. At the end of the 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt, whose statue sits in front of the Museum of Natural History, sought to wrest Cuba from Spanish rule and impose American economic control through ownership of sugar plantations. By the mid 20th century, during the kleptocracy of Fulgencio Batista, U.S. interests had diversified to gambling and prostitution. Donald Trump may well fantasize about a new era of economic imperialism rooted in tourism and real estate: Make Cuba Ours Again. I’ve no doubt Trump would have gotten along famously with Batista.
Trump may well fantasize about a new era of economic imperialism rooted in tourism and real estate: Make Cuba Ours Again.
But for all the chatter about business opportunities, the U.S. financial conquest of Cuba isn’t likely to happen any time soon. 7 I find Americans are often naive about Cuban politics and culture, and that they tend to view the situation through a self-centric lens. Many seem to expect that the lifting of the embargo will suffice to release a flood of new investment that will in short order transform the economy and the landscape. But the hard fact is that the Cuban government, with its entrenched and controlling bureaucracy, is neither prepared nor willing to implement domestic reforms or to receive foreign investment at the scale that is needed to revive the economy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d hate to see Cuba succumb to multinational developers or once again sell its assets to U.S. investors. I don’t want to see tourism become the dominant industry, and the country a playground for wealthy foreigners, like other Caribbean islands. In an earlier essay for this journal, I expressed my fervent hope for the post-Castro era: that the Cuban people will finally enjoy the civil liberties of an open society and the economic benefits of integration into the global economy, all the while preserving the hard-won achievements of socialism, including universal education and health care, and sustained income equality.
I still hear Americans express the desire to visit the island “before it changes.” But let’s hope they’ll be just as eager to visit when the streets of Havana are filled not with beat-up old Chevrolets but instead with late-model hybrids. For the Cuban people, the changes can’t come soon enough.