Havana: Must Every Visit Be Political?

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?

Laundry on the Balcony and the Capitol building

Silhouttes in Havana

Che Guevara - Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

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?

Apartments in La Habana, Cuba

Cafe Taberna - La Habana, Cuba

Buildings in Old Havana

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?

Graffiti of Che Guevara, Havana

Cuban slogan

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.


  • memographer says:

    Enjoyed it. I’ve almost dropped a tier reading the second paragraph 🙂 I got the same feelings while there. Love Cuba! It is a very unique country and Havana was always in the Top 10 of my bucket list. Cant wait to get back.
    memographer recently posted..Kid- and Pet-Friendly Salzburg ZooMy Profile

    • memographer says:

      Read: I’ve almost dropped a tear 🙂

      • Audrey says:

        Glad you enjoyed the post. It sounds like your visit to Havana was a pretty special one. 🙂

        • memographer says:

          I’ve almost dropped a tear 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.” 🙂

  • Jackie D says:

    I want to go to Cuba SO BADLY. Do those colors even exist anywhere else in the world? I had this same politics issue when I was just in Israel, a place where it is essentially impossible to ignore politics, but I personally found it to be fascinating just because Israel is the most political place I’ve ever visited, so I’d never really experienced that environment before. Very different from all of my jaunts through France.
    Jackie D recently posted..Places: The places I’m headed next!My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      The colours are so bright! That’s one thing I like about Latin American countries – beautiful colonial architecture with the most cheerful colours under the sun. I can see how your time in Israel would be different from the rest of your travels. I imagine it would be difficult to ignore the politics when there seems to be so much tension in the area (at least in the way the media portrays it).

  • Considering I’m smiling next to bullet holes in the Museo de la Revolución in a recent post, I am certainly not going to judge you!

    I do think it’s hard to separate Cuba from politics if you spend much time actually exploring the country and not just eating and drinking at an all-inclusive resort. That said, everyone is entitled to an opinion on Che Guevara or any other political leader or movement, and even if your opinion isn’t that Che makes you smile, you are certainly entitled to smile in any picture you want!
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    • Audrey says:

      I agree with you. I think the longer you stay in the country, the more aware you become of the politics. I feel like with every visit and every interaction I have had with locals I’ve learned a bit more, but I still can’t truly fathom what life would be like there.

  • rem says:

    I have a trip planned to Cuba early next year and can’t wait. Little bit worried about smiling in photographs now though!

  • I remember when I was being criticized for smiling in the photo taken in front of Potala Palace in Tibet by one of the Free Tibet organization ;-(
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  • Shing @ The Culture Map says:

    It’s belittling that a person would vilify you for a smile – a personal expression that as you say is brought from the experience of travel, learning and discovering new ground. I’ve heard people say that they would never visit countries like China, Russia and Cuba because they’re so embroiled with the word ‘communism’. And that’s such a shame because people and culture define a country not their government.

    Your pictures are beautiful, I hope to visit in the near future with a huge smile in tow!
    Shing @ The Culture Map recently posted..THE PERKS OF LIVING IN A CAVE IN PETRAMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked the photos and I hope you get to visit the place soon. 😀 I would love to hit up Russia and China in the future.

  • Zhu says:

    I smile on each and every picture I took in China! I hate when people make things too political. There are the people of the country and there is the government. Hell, I went to the US when Bush was president, doesn’t mean I supported him!
    Zhu recently posted..Hurricane MarkMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Haha, I laughed at your comment about visiting the US during the Bush presidency. 😉 I can’t say a political figure has ever stopped me from visiting a place either. I went to Argentina when Cristina Kirchner was in power and I’m certainly no fan of hers.

  • Amanda @ Farsickness says:

    First of all, I absolutely love the photos. Cuba has been on my must do list for some time and you’ve just reignited the desire!

    Secondly, smiling in a photo in front of a building with Che Guevara in is a far cry from, say, throwing up the victory sign at Auschwitz. Some people take every chance they get to politicize things. Unnecessary.
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..Capture the SeasonsMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I’m glad you liked the photos. And I hope you get to visit Cuba at some point! I’ve heard from some American friends that it’s possible to ‘sneak’ your way in via Mexico… 😉

      • Amanda @ Farsickness says:

        Yeah, it’s not to hard. I’m from the Detroit area and I knew a bunch of people who would just fly from Canada. The Cubans apparently don’t care and will not stamp your passport if you ask kindly 🙂
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  • Your photos are absolutely beautiful – and that’s silly that people got so upset about such a small detail. Oh and have you see the Motorcycle Diaries movie? It’s actually really good.
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..A Mini Irish RoadtripMy Profile

  • Stephen S. says:

    I agree people need to travel with an open mind. Traveling is about learning and experiencing different cultures. People who nitpick I feel like are missing the point.
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  • Priyank says:

    Hi Audrey! Sad that some people see the world in black and white. You summed it up nicely, one word cannot warrant putting an entire country into one bucket; that’s just wrong! I’ve got some random and nasty comments of a political nature as well, e.g. when I went to Russia and wrote a post on Lenin. 🙂
    cheers, Priyank
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  • Alana - Paper Planes says:

    1. I’m jeals you can go to Cuba. I need to marry a Canadian or European, then get a new passport to go 🙂
    2. Politics anywhere is huge, but (usually) it shouldn’t get in the way of experiencing/enjoying/learning about a place and isn’t necessarily indicative of people’s everyday lives, what they think/feel/do/believe.

    I met someone who had been backpacking through Syria and Iran recently and looooved it. They had such great things to say about both places and thoroughly enjoyed their time there – and that’s great! The more we can see the bad and good of a place/group of people and appreciate the better it will be for everyone.
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..>> Why I’m Not Going Home Yet >>My Profile

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    Well, I can tell you that none of my travels will ever be politically motivated.

    I think Anonymous may have had a Western education…. we like to only tell one side of the story, the one that makes the US look good.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Italian Flavors and Ohio Ingredients in a German VillageMy Profile

  • Maria says:

    I agree with Alana, “The more we can see the bad and good of a place/group of people and appreciate, the better it will be for everyone.” Your posts certainly aid in that quest Audrey. Thnx!
    Maria recently posted..21 Linear FeetMy Profile

  • This Battered Suitcase says:

    LOVE this post! I totally agree with you – it’s unfair to judge a country by one thing, even if that thing is communism. I had an amazing time while in Cuba earlier this year, and yes, I smiled in all my photos, too…as you said, I had an amazing time. I was in awe of the beautiful architecture, coffee, cars, nightlife, atmosphere, and, most of all, its incredibly kind and openhearted people. As another commenter wrote, people and culture define a country, not just its government.

  • Hara Hee says:

    Havana is a great place to be in! I would want to visit there on my time off work soon. Thanks for posting such a great travel diary! 🙂

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  • Mw says:

    You are very welcome to Cuba again, you are a brave, honest girl. As a Cuban, I admire and follow the Ideas of the “Ché”, as millions in cuba do. Not all is so perfect in our Country, but our Ideas of freedoom and social justice are indeed right. Sorry about my english… like your blog

    • Audrey says:

      Gracias por leer. Disfruté mucho su país y espero poder visitar de nuevo en un futuro. Cuba es un hermoso lugar y me he sentido bienvenida durante cada visita. 😀

  • Ceri says:

    Good for you, girl! If every visit to a place was political, I’d have spent the last year and a half of my time in Mexico being absolutely miserable … because we all know how politically corrupt this country is.

    I think it’s important to respect another country’s culture and history but, by doing so, you should enjoy the people and how they live rather than wander around sulking thinking about the injustices or violence or anything else of its political history.
    Ceri recently posted..The Next Big MoveMy Profile

  • José says:

    Very nice photos, and precisely my sentiments! I’ve visited many nations, from the four remaining Communist nations, to South Africa during apartheid (and afterward as well) – not because I am supporting a particular political position, but to learn and extend myself to people in those cultures. We were in Cuba last week, and the music, resilience, humour, art, reconstruction going on and so much more are the attractants – a vibrancy, an openness and directness from the majority of the people. Loved it all – and found myself riding in the back of a 1949 Chevrolet Deluxe convertible riding down 5a Avenida, the Malecón, etc. in the late afternoon – fantastic!

  • Sarah Fazendin says:

    Great post! Especially for Americans, a lot of destinations can become “too political” and Cuba is right at the top of that list. But it’s on my bucket list for sure. Thanks for sharing!
    Sarah Fazendin recently posted..3 Turks & Caicos Villas Under $1,000My Profile

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