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Courtney Brooks: I am a 21-year-old American student living in Havana for three months. I am studying Cuban culture, history, film and music at Casa de las Americas. In Boston, where I attend Northeastern University, I study journalism and international affairs. I grew up in Vermont with my parents, two brothers and sister. My goal is to be an international journalist, and in the last few years I have traveled to Costa Rica, Ireland, Spain, and South Africa. I have also worked at newspapers in Vermont, Boston and Cape Town, South Africa. This summer I am going to be working in Dublin, Ireland and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Still in Shock

April 20, 2009 | Print Print |

By Courtney Brooks

Three American friends sit with three Cuban friends, taking in the sunset together.

Three American friends sit with three Cuban friends, taking in the sunset together. Photo: Sonia Kovacic

I have now been back in the United States for two weeks. Some days I wake up and am still shocked to be in my bed at home and other days it feels like a dream that I went at all. I have never been in a country for so long and understood so little of what happens there.

It isn’t right that a country which is so educated can be so poor. It isn’t right that professors and doctors earn so little while taxi drivers and waiters earn significantly more. I don’t understand how there is still racism in a country which claims to be equal, and how there is sexism when Cuban women are clearly as capable as any Cuban man.

In other countries I have been to I have seen poverty. I have reported in refugee camps and townships, and the experience was both humbling and heart-breaking, even uplifting to see how resilient people were. But I was never able to relate to people like I was able to in Cuba.

My friends in Cuba are as educated as I am, if not more so. They studied the same subjects that I do and their parents have similar jobs to mine. There are many things I enjoy doing which are also accessible to them. They can go to the movies, go out for ice cream, or share a bottle of rum on the Malecon.

But their lives are stagnant. I will never know what it is like to live with your parents throughout your adulthood. I will never know what it is to have no privacy. And I will always have options, even if I don’t have a lot of money. It is amazing to me that Cubans can stay so resilient despite all of this.

What I do know is that Cubans, and Cuba, deserve a better shot than the one they have been given. And I do know that something has to change.

I have left friends behind in many places, but they have always been moving on to bigger and better things, as have I. This is the first time I have left people knowing that it is likely I will never see them again, knowing I gave them a glimpse of a life they might never know. I was devastated, wondering when I was going to find such good friends again and what I would feel like once I was back home.

One of my favorite photos from Cuba was taken by my friend while we were sitting on the Malecon. Three American friends sit with three Cuban friends, taking in the sunset together.

It looks faded, as if someone Photoshopped a sepia tone on to it, and that’s how Cuba is beginning to feel to me. For my brief three months there it felt more real than anywhere I had ever been.

The frustration and societal issues are real, but so is the love Cubans have for their family, friends and country. The culture and beauty of the country and the people are real. And the hope that tomorrow will finally bring change is also real.

As the days pass the trip begins to feel like the photo looks, a fairy tale life I had once upon a time. But the photo is not sepia-toned, it’s pure Havana sunset, and although my experiences there will fade in my memory over time, I will never forget Cuba.


What's your opinion?

  • Michael N. Landis

    As Socrates approached the nature of knowledge, so too must we approach Cuba, with a certain sense of humility. That said, we can’t help but feeling that the Cubans deserve a better life. On the one had, life is out of balance when it revolves around mindless consumerism; on the other, in Cuba, it is also out of balance when there is (virtually) nothing available for most Cubans to consume (or, at least at a price they can afford). Let us hope that the Cubans will be able, through their own efforts, to arrive at a more equitable system, one which satisfies such needs. As Papa Marx once said: “Production for use, not for profit!” Currently in Cuba, it is production for profit–and only for use if your relatives abroad are sending you remittances, or if you have one of those desirable positions in the tourist industry! Otherwise, daily life is an unrelenting struggle.
    Thanks for your reports, Courtney. I found them both knowedgable–and from a refreshing perspective. Hope you can return again soon.

  • Jordan

    Courtney, thank you for your honesty. I am a Cuban-American and a graduate student at SAIS in Washington, and have also been a journalist in my past. Cuba is full of anomalies and confusing realities. I would caution you only to draw your examples carefully, as some of your paradoxes can be found in this country, too. I don’t say that to celebrate Cuba’s similarity to America, but rather to widen the opportunities for exposing its dissimilarities. Write to me any time and best of luck in your career.

  • Lina

    I have so thoroughly enjoyed your writings about the time you spent in Cuba. From my brief experiences as a traveler in Cuba twice over the last year, and as a young woman, I relate so strongly to your observations of the ‘after-shock’ of returning to our so-called ordinary lives. I struggle daily with longings to return to the country of such beauty and the warm hearts of the residents, contrasted with guilt I feel for the privilege that I would return to.