I first went to Cuba in the summer of 1999. The goal of the trip was to see what Cuba was really like, so I decided to forego the regular touristy choices of beautiful resorts and package trips. I chose a hotel in the center of Old Havana, right next to this beautiful San Cristobal Cathedral. During my stay in Havana, I explored both the old colonial and the new post-revolutionary parts of the city. On many occasions, moving around Havana involved avoiding the police officers whose goal is to contain the tourists in certain areas.
What is happening in Cuba is tragic. Old Havana is crumbling, in spite of the half-hearted efforts by the government to repair at least the most famous buildings of the colonial part of the city. The carnival is a pale shadow of its glorious historical self. There is nothing for the people to celebrate, so they just move listlessly down the Malecon for the benefit of the tourists.
The poverty is obscene. Even more so is the people's indifference towards the dirt around them. You would see a group of people in their 30ies or 40ies sitting next to a heap of rubbish and drinking rum in the sweltering midafternoon heat. Far be it from me to condemn Cubans for this attitude. Nothing around them belongs to them, so why should they care? The prostitution is shocking. It feels like all people do is attempt to sell their own or anybody else's bodies. Even when you manage to establish a genuine personal contact with a Cuban, a moment will come when yet again you will be seen as a potential customer.
It is fashionable to blame the embargo. It is also incredibly US-centric (yes, I looked it up, and this word actually exists.) Whatever happens in the universe, the root must inevitably lie in the actions of this all-important country. Well, in Cuba's case this explanation is just silly. It is absolutely obvious to me that if the embargo had never existed, the result would have been exactly the same. It is not about the US absence from Cuba, it is about who was there. The Soviet Union managed to transform the Cubans into the Soviet people. While I was talking to the Cuban people, observing their actions, hearing their opinions, listening to their dreams and life goals, I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing: these were the Soviet people. They just spoke a different language.
The cynicism, the indifference, the belief that prostitution is the best career and is more respectable than any kind of a job, the emotional detachment from everything and everyone, the dog eat dog mentality - all of this has nothing to do with the embargo. This is the legacy of the country where I was born.
Many people still analyze things through this warped Cold War mentality: the US bad, the Soviet Union good. This is so wrong. The Soviet Union destroyed Cuba. Maybe (even probably) the US wouldn't have done much better if Cuba had spent the last few decades under their inflence. But we need to lay the blame where it belongs. In the case of Cuba, the current horrible state of things can only be blamed on one place: the USSR.