Natalie Morales is a 31-year-old Cuban-American actress, writer, and filmmaker. Born in the Miami suburb of Kendall, she’s appeared in such movies as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and in such TV series as CSI Miami, Girls, and Parks and Recreation. She’s obviously an attractive young woman and a gifted actress. But recently she showed that she’s also no dummy. In an absolutely terrific and powerfully written essay, she provided a definitive response to the useful stoogery that has spiked among bien pensant Americans in the face of the new rapprochement between Washington and Havana. It’s such a splendid and authentically felt piece of writing that the best tribute we can pay to it is to quote from it at length and to bow before its intelligent, gutsy, and forthright author.
In the piece, entitled “Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined,” Morales recalled that a week earlier, she’d dropped off “a bag of stuff” at the house of a friend. The friend’s husband was about to visit Havana and had agreed to deliver the “stuff” to Morales’s relatives on the island prison.
What “stuff” was Morales sending to her family? Well, the list began with “two packages of Cuban coffee.” Morales acknowledged the apparent absurdity: “Yes, that’s right: I’m sending Cuban coffee to Cuba.” Why? Because “Cuban coffee is too expensive for the average Cuban to buy in Cuba. So they make do – Cubans always make do – reusing old coffee or grinding in some split peas if they have to get their fix. I, on the other hand, buy it for three bucks at Target.”
Every month or so, Morales went on to explain, she and her family in the U.S. send what we might call CARE packages to family members still living on the island. There’s money, of course. And clothes, shoes, food. Morales’s family, she wrote, “cannot survive without our help. For many Cuban-American families all over the States, this is just a regular part of life, another bill to pay each month.”
After all these decades, this appalling situation should be common knowledge among educated Americans. Yet at dinner parties and Hollywood shindigs and press interviews (or, as she puts it, “pretty much any situation where someone who considers themselves ‘cultured’ finds out I’m Cuban”), she always has to deal with the same inane gushing over the island – “as if the country itself were somehow a sexy woman or delicious food” (bingo!) – and the same declaration that: “I have to go there before it’s ruined!”
So depending on the situation (and how dumb I would like to make that person feel), I will say some version of this: “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown? Make sure you hurry and go observe these human beings in the time bubble that was created especially for you so that you could post a #nofilter photo of it on Instagram.”
I appreciate good art direction just as much as anyone else, and I see that Cuba looks like a beautifully destroyed photo op. But it’s not your photo op. The old cars are not kitschy; they are not a choice. It’s all they have. The old buildings are not preserved; their balconies are falling and killing people all the time. The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does.
Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. (That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists, and I, for one, think Moore fell for their North Korea–like propaganda show pretty hard.) There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.” That was it. And this is in Havana, the big city. I can’t be sure, but I’d imagine things there are a lot better than they are in more remote parts of the country.
Be aware of what’s going on there. Try, if you can, to stay in people’s homes—casas particulares—instead of hotels. They’ll take much better care of you, the food will be much better, and you’ll be putting a little less money into Castro’s tourism pocket. When you go, ask the people to tell you what’s really going on…not the version they’re supposed to tell you. Things are changing in Cuba, and maybe instead of seeing it before the change, you can actually be a part of the change for the better. Also, for God’s sake, please don’t wear a fucking Che t-shirt.