It’s hard to believe that, 25 years ago, Wim Wenders ventured to Cuba to create what would become the “Buena Vista Social Club,” an unexpected hit. The album, released in 1997, introduced audiences around the world to pre-revolution Cuban music.
What is usually lost in those sweet strains, though, is the reality of life in 1990s Cuba.
\u0009 At that time, the country was struggling to emerge from what the Cuban government called, “The Special Period in a Time of Peace.” After the former Soviet Union crumbled and Cuba lost its main trading partner and underwriter, the island was plunged into years of extreme rationing. Cubans lacked everything from shoes to food, toilet paper to medicine. There were transportation shortages and regular blackouts. Families — like mine — struggled to bring what they could on trips, one a year, or once every other year depending on who was in the White House, but this was hardly enough.
Given that backdrop, it’s no surprise that the “Buena Vista Social Club” would become so popular. It glossed over the real struggles of average Cubans, painting decaying buildings and old cars in oversaturated hues, and mingled the melodies of “Dos Gardenias” with cigar smoke in the tropical air.
It perpetuated the myth that Cuba is a place stuck in time, that Cubans may not have much but are content with their lot. It was a vision so strong that it continued to echo, literally, in the streets during the Cuban Thaw of 2015-16, when a rush of Americans took advantage of President Obama’s more-open travel policies. By then the “Buena Vista Social Club” soundtrack was performed seemingly nonstop in every corner bar and restaurant in Old Havana, songs I’d never heard there on my trips prior to 1997.
\u0009I am grateful this phenomenon brought attention to that era of Cuban music and gave those musicians the recognition they deserved. I admit, I do love the music. They are the songs my mother sang to me when I was growing up in Florida, and I’m looking forward to the release of the 25th-anniversary album, which includes yet-unpublished tracks from the original recording session. However, it is important not to lose sight that this release is happening during another “special period” arguably of even worse suffering.
When COVID-19 hit, Cuba was dealing with the economic fallout of the Trump administration’s drastic and cruel policies that severely hindered travel; shuttered the U.S. embassy leaving Cubans with almost no options for getting visas to visit loved ones or participate in cultural exchanges; and cut off remittances so that Cuban Americans can no longer send money to their families. Now the pandemic is pummeling the island. Despite having developed not one, but two vaccines against the disease, Cuba lacks the supplies to produce and administer them, including a lack of syringes.
President Biden, who campaigned on a promise to restore Cuba engagement, has continued to uphold his predecessor’s policies, adding additional sanctions in the wake of the July 11 protests across the island. Exacerbating the situation, Cuba closed its borders in March 2020 to try to contain the virus. Now, with no income from tourism, the country is even more financially strapped. Cuban citizens must again wait in long lines for food and the most basic supplies — if they are even available — and regular blackouts have returned.
Across the Florida Straits, the Cuban-American community is divided between those advocating for a return to more-open policies and those who think strengthening the embargo is the path forward. But let’s be honest, the embargo is more than 60 years old — one of longest in modern history — and Cuba, like its people, remains resilient in the face of these pressures. However, lessons from the Cuban Thaw show how a more-open policy could benefit Cuban citizens when many turned their homes into AirBnBs, opened cafes and worked in the numerous tourist-adjacent industries.
With the re-release of the “Buena Vista Social Club,” I look forward to hearing the lovely sounds of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” — “Maybe, Maybe, Maybe” — again. But rather than singing along this time, shouldn’t we as Cuban Americans be urging Biden to set aside his policy of “maybes” and develop one that will really help Cubans — our loved ones, after all — still there?
Katarina Wong is the associate director of fellowships at The OpEd Project. She is writing a memoir set in Havana about her Cuban Chinese American heritage.