I once got hate mail for a smiling photo I took in front of the Ministry of Interior Building in La Habana, Cuba. You know, the one in Plaza de la Revolución with the Che Guevara outline on the facade. ‘Anonymous’ questioned how I could be smiling in front of a building that depicted a man responsible for great horrors, or some kind of rant along those lines. Really?! Now a girl can’t smile in her own photo?
I felt rather annoyed by this message because my visit was in no way politically motivated. I was smiling because I truly loved every minute I spent in Havana and I was ecstatic to be exploring Cuba’s heart and soul. I loved the genuine smiles and the pride people have for their country. I loved the smell of hand rolled cigars, and the sound of guitars that filled the streets. I loved hearing the personal tales of my tour guide as well as his insights into the country. I loved seeing where Hemingway drank and where he wrote. I loved the pastel coloured walls, the slogans, and the graffiti depicting revolutionary leaders. I loved the cuba libres, and the rum, and even the black coffee.
Does every visit have to be political or can we enjoy a country for what it is?
No country is perfect. Why must we nitpick at all the little differences? Isn’t the whole premise of visiting a country that you come with an open mind, willing to learn about ways that are different than yours, even if your views differ? I am well aware of the problems that exist in Cuba; I have not just studied them in the textbooks, I have also seen them first hand during my visits. But is it really fair to dwindle Cuba’s complexities down to one word – communist?
I purchased a copy of Che Guevara’s Diarios de Motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries) at a local market during my most recent trip there to Cuba. I finished it in less than two days under the shade of an umbrella while I gazed out at the Straits of Florida with the distinguishable figure of a naval ship looming in the horizon. I can honestly say I admired the spirit and optimism of a young twenty-something Ernesto who wanted to make a difference in Latin America.
So yeah, I’d go back and stand in front of that building again, this time with an even wider smile.