By Matt Samson, Departments of Anthropology and Latin American Studies
The day when we returned from Cuba, I was struck (even more than when we left) by the short two-hour flight to a place that in many ways could be another planet because of the 60 years of political tension that separates the two nations. The difference between the neo-tropical vegetation in Cuba and the temperate vegetation in North Carolina is striking–the texture of the air and even the smells contrast–and the physical, human-constructed landscape IS vastly different not only because of the different cultural contexts, but, I suspect, in many ways because of the restrained consumerism in Cuba’s socialist economy. There is little propaganda (one Spanish word for advertising) encouraging you to buy or sell, and this plays into the image sometimes of a depressed landscape. At the same time the beauty of Havana, which itself bespeaks of a bygone era, is itself part of the double-edged consequences of relative poverty where, seemingly, most people have enough–at least in terms of basic material goods.
To be clear, we heard other stories, including at least one mention in an ad hoc interview of how to include dissident voices in Cuban society. And without minimalizing or making excuses for the Cuban system, it is important to reflect on the “other” stories in our own context–about our policing and prison system and the injustice embedded in it, about our own rates of children who grow up in poverty and the consequences of such a start in life, and, even as I post this from Guatemala, about our views of migration and the lengths to which our system will go to preserve the “rule of law” and, one suspects, some mistaken notion of cultural purity. This was my third time in Cuba, and first since 1990. I thought then, and I think now, that the only way to really begin to understand Cuba is to stay there for at least three months. Reflecting on Cuban reality reminds me of an anthropological (and sometimes even theological) admonition of the dangers embedded in “assuming unwarranted familiarity with cultures not our own.” This includes the manner of critique at times, as well as the temptation to speak for others. I’m still in the stage of formulating questions about the South-North conflicts of our day and what kinds of questions we should be asking each other about such a brief exposure to Cuban reality.