24 Jun Blog: The Place of the Vultures: Cuba on the Cusp of Change
Confronting Caribbean Challenges researcher Jessica Vance Roitman was recently in Havana, Cuba for the yearly Association of Caribbean Historians conference. In this blog, she contemplates her role as a tourist feeding off the island’s perceived authenticity.
I recently returned from my first trip to Cuba, where I attended the Association for Caribbean Historians conference. There were fascinating papers, stimulating conversations, wonderful hospitality from the local organizing committee, and the 1930s charm of the Hotel Nacional, where the conference was held. Yet what struck me the most on the trip was the vultures.
I’ve never seen so many vultures. The skies above Havana were filled with them, slowly circling, a constant dark presence overhead. I found it very hard not to attribute some deep meaning to these creatures. The most obvious symbolism for the vulture is of a creature who feeds off of others. Was I such a vulture, consuming Cuba, feeding off of the ghosts of an imagined past, frozen in time?
It’s a trite metaphor to associate tourism with vultures, but one I haven’t been able to forget since I returned. Some tourists want to go to the beach resorts at Veradero, but most, like me, are seeking a respite from modernity through a temporary immersion in a culture ostensibly less sullied by modern society. With its iconic 1950s Chevrolets being driven down streets lined with old Spanish colonial mansions, stores graced with ‘mid-century modern’ signs that remind of us of a seemingly gentler world of consumerism, Cuba still appears somehow ‘authentic’ – an imaginative, utopian realm of the past where those of us disenchanted by post-industrial life can find something we miss in our own societies.
This may not quite be ‘dark tourism,’ yet I still somehow found it slightly distasteful. The fascination with the decay and disintegration, a reveling in the nearly post-apocalyptic landscape of facades slowly crumbling, laundry hanging limply in the tropical heat from rusted girders of buildings, blank faces staring out of glassless windows onto the street scene below, as we snap our pictures. The wrinkled old European and North American men, their wispy white hair plastered to sweaty foreheads, paunches straining against their newly-purchased guayaberas, walking down the street with beautiful Cuban girls, maybe just barely out of their teens, swaying unsteadily on cheap shoes with heels far too high and skirts far too short.
Fidel Castro famously referred to tourism as “the evil we have to have.” And he was right. As Gert Oostindie wrote about his own recent trip to Cuba, tourism is vital to the economy, yet the inequalities that this dependence exacerbates are almost inevitable. And tourism doesn’t just threaten the socialist system. If tourism is not managed carefully, it will destroy the very thing that bring tourists there in the first place.
Tourists want Cuba to stay idealized and statically rooted in tradition, with the old cars and the crumbling facades. We want The Buena Vista Social Club. We want Cuba in a mode of remembrance. If Cuba loses that, if the gentrification continues apace, if the boutique hotels breed unchecked, if Havana becomes clean, tidy, and Disneyfied, it becomes just another Caribbean island. And this is the straightjacket for Cuba seeking economic development. Tourists can take their pick of islands with beach resorts, most with a decades-long lead on Cuba in providing the services and infrastructure demanded by mass tourism. Cuba won’t be able to compete. So it must continue to encourage visitors to feed off its past, its perceived authenticity, without losing this very same authenticity . An unenviable conundrum indeed.
(Jessica Roitman is a researcher at KITLV working on Caribbean History. Her project, ‘The Dutch Windward Islands: Confronting the Contradictions of Belonging, 1815-2015,’ examines the intersection of migration, governance, and (hybridized) identities on the islands of Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius.)