Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Emilio Cueto

Q. What expectations should Smithsonian Journeys travelers have about travel to Cuba?

A. Travelers should expect the unexpected. Cuba is rapidly changing in many ways, and the average Cuban resident now has more opportunities than ever during the preceding five decades to travel abroad, to buy and sell personal and real property, to receive unlimited remittances from abroad, to open small businesses (mostly services), to be employed by foreign firms, to practice religion with more freedom, to be exposed to more visitors (particularly Americans and Cubans living abroad), to access the internet. Travelers will be able to witness, understand, and measure the multiple signs of this emerging new Cuba, including the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. They should also understand that Cuba is a developing country and some inconveniences and hardships cannot be totally excluded from their travel experience. Finally, travelers should expect to be questioned about their unique, exciting experience by friends upon their return to the U.S.

Q.  What excites you about travel to Cuba?

A. The people. Cuba’s population is the result of contributions from pre-Columbian settlers, Spanish immigrants (Spain itself being a multi-regional mosaic), African slaves (coming from different areas within the Continent's Atlantic coast), French planters, Chinese indentured servants, Yucatan serfs, Jamaican and Haitian sugar laborers, Arab arrivals, Jewish refugees, Latin American political asylum seekers, and Eastern European socialist advisors. During the last five centuries, each of these groups has had to adapt in the pursuit of the elusive goal of living as equals and in harmony. From these various sources, the Cuban people slowly emerged, reflecting in its literature, visual arts, music, dance, customs, and character the multifaceted influences offered by the various ethnic groups.

Q. What kinds of insights do you hope to bring to our travelers?

A. I was born in Cuba and lived there until high school. I have returned to the island dozens of times during the last 39 years, and I have traveled extensively throughout all provinces, including the Island of Youth. Not only have I devoted many years to the study of Cuba’s history and culture, but having family and friends in Cuba I have learned many lessons about everyday life in the island. Given my background, I believe I can share with our travelers a sense of trajectory and movement, as opposed to a still picture, in the discussion of Cuba’s many realities. Last, but certainly not least, I can also bring the perspective of exile, without which no understating of the island can ever be complete.

Q. What do you enjoy most about accompanying Smithsonian Journeys travelers?

A. The questions they pose. Having been born in Cuba and traveling so often to the island while living abroad, I instinctively look at Cuba through my own peculiar experience, which is to be expected. Smithsonian Journeys travelers, however, necessarily bring new perspectives into the equation, and I am challenged to see Cuba through their inquisitive eyes. This, in turn, prompts me to reflect and craft more complex and nuanced answers in an attempt to provide such depth and context as will allow the foreign traveler to better understand Cuba’s condition. As a result, I have developed a richer understanding about my own country of origin.