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A scene from the El Capitolio neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

HAVANA, Cuba — It takes less than an hour to fly from south Florida into Cuba. But descending through the clouds toward the island nation felt like entering another universe.

Before we even touched down I could feel the threshold I was passing through.

From above, I could see old vehicles traversing dusty roads. I could see fields burning. I could see brilliant colors that have come to symbolize Cuba’s vibrant culture.

When I told people I would be visiting this island nation with my family at the end of 2018, there were mixed reactions. About half seemed excited. The rest were puzzled. “Why there?” they wondered.

And, to be honest, I really had little idea of what I was getting myself into. I underestimated the political complexity of Cuba. I didn’t realize the level of poverty in the country. And I definitely had no idea how welcoming and hopeful its citizens would be, despite their very real struggles.

At every turn, I found myself incredibly confused. How does this place work, with its unusual economy sucking energy away from its immense potential? And then there’s the history — so much of it — entangled in a head-scratching relationship with the U.S. that I still can’t fully wrap my mind around.

A vintage car travels down a street in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The country’s economy is obviously struggling, but at the same time Cuba and its people clearly could have a bright future. They have some of the best healthcare outcomes in the world and a landscape with much to offer. Its citizens are hoping to benefit from that, even as they acknowledge their nation is straddling a precarious line between financial chaos and tourist mecca.

Here’s a snapshot of Cuba today: Many people make less than $100 a month if they work a government job, which most do, but often supplement that with side gigs that raise their income to sometimes $200 a month or more. That means there is a lot of incentive to work in the socialist nation’s limited private industry or in tourism, where tips can be generous — and necessary to make a life.

At the first bed and breakfast we stayed in, one of the employees was a trained veterinarian. But as a mother of three, she said she could make more money working in hospitality. A cab driver we met was an engineer, but couldn’t make enough in his trade so he ferries tourists around Havana.

Parts of Cuba’s capital city look post-apocalyptic. Buildings are decrepit because no one takes care of them.  They frequently collapse during the summer rainy season because of disrepair. But for a city that feels like it’s disintegrating, it’s so beautiful at the same time. I kept wanting to wrap myself up in its energy like a blanket.

A vintage car passes a street in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 31, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The colorful, romantic images of Cuba that include fedoras, great music, old cars, rum and cigars aren’t wrong. They’re just very nuanced. If you don’t take into consideration the extreme poverty alongside those vibrant traditions, you’re missing the picture.

Consider this: a nice Cuban cigar costs only a few dollars. That might not seem like a lot, but considering the low wages in the country, they are often out of reach for Cubans.

Yet, Cubans I spoke with were generally happy and hopeful. They spoke of their free and easy access to health care and universal education as positives. The woman we met at the bed and breakfast kept repeating the same phrases when she spoke of Cuba’s future: “vamos a ver” and “poco a poco.”

Translated: “We will see” and “little by little.”

That doesn’t mean they are content with their economic reality, but they said they are optimistic. America plays a big role in that outlook.

Former President Barack Obama’s visit in 2016 was a watershed moment. People in Cuba are still talking about it. Conversely, everyone I spoke with didn’t like the Trump administration or its decision to roll back some of the restrictions loosened by Obama. But they generally like Americans.

Two men stopped me in the Cuban mountain town of Viñales to find out where I was from. When I told them the United States, they gave me a big, excited hug.

“Don’t believe the lies about what Cubans feel about Americans,” one of the men said in Spanish, telling me the U.S. was his favorite nation.

Two men on horseback make their way through along a path near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It was difficult to piece these feelings and realities together. The math, to me, didn’t add up. Cuba is embracing pieces of capitalism to the benefit of many, but most people seemingly are still being left behind unless they can hustle their way upwards. It reminded me of China, where capitalism and communism have a backroom agreement to coexist.

The creation of those divides would appear to go against everything communism stands for. How could it not spell socio-economic friction in the years to come? And what would happen to Cuba if, say, tourism dried up because of geopolitical realities? What then?

“Cuba is not as black and white as it seems,” one person told us.

I’d recommend a trip to Cuba to anyone who is able. There are still travel restrictions that bar visits for tourism. My family, 20 of us — yes, 20, ranging in age from 15 to 83 —  went for educational purposes. You can also visit for family reasons, official government business, journalism, research, religion, support for Cuban people and humanitarian projects.

Cuba has a painful record when it comes to human rights — and that cannot be ignored. There’s still plenty of communist propaganda — like signs demanding people adhere to socialism — and clear repression of private economic growth. I saw plenty of people living in poverty, something that was hard to square while enjoying a mojito in Havana’s restored old city.

An homage to Che Guevara looks over the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A sign of the lack of access to the outside world for Cubans: Internet is something you can really only get in a public park, and it’s fairly expensive.

You will, however, learn so much. Cubans are welcoming to outsiders. They want to talk about their lives and experiences and interact. The culture is rich with music and art.

It’s a beautiful place worth attempting to understand.

A scene near the town of Viñales, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul