Margaret and Dick   


April 2013: The Cuba chronicles
Four days in Cuba, much of it spent shaking our heads in wonder.  How could it be so different than we had imagined?  Many friends have told us it's near the top of their lists, but they don't know how to go.  It's so easy and so worth the trip!  Read on.  We'll be launching a few more installments in the days to come.

Why now?  Oh, right, the embargo
Turistas en Cuba

Cuban socialism
Sometimes a cigar is just...  


Why now?  Oh, right, the embargo.

I admit it:  upon arrival, we were nervous as we approached Cuban immigration.  Decades of subliminal dirty-Commie messages had left their mark.  And then there was our tour leader’s admonition, “Remember to ask them not to stamp your passport or you’ll have to carry your Cuba people-to-people license every time you enter the US with that passport.”  One by one we approached the booth for our encounter, copious paperwork in hand, with the immigration official.  It was my turn.  Walk up, stand on the footprints for your Cuban entry photo, and whimper “Please don’t stamp my passport!”  “Okay,” the official said with a smile.  “Welcome to Cuba!”  With a click, the door at the end of the booth opened, and I entered the forbidden land of Castro.

Three nanoseconds later, all nervousness disappeared as we headed out to the parking lot with our cameras.  As others waited for their checked bags, we gave our carry-ons to our friendly tour-bus driver and feasted our eyes on cars of the American '50s.  They were everywhere.  By the end of the trip, we would understand how Cubans kept these cars running and what the cars meant to their enterprising spirit.  The surprises kept us smiling day after day.  There is literally no place else that even vaguely resembles Cuba.

Our goal was to visit Cuba before the US-imposed embargo is lifted (any day now, right?) and a flood of American tourists forever changes the island.  Before the arrival of fast-food joints, Walmarts, billboards, and traffic drags Havana, now frozen in time, into the 21st century.    

Many friends had asked with a conspiratorial wink, “How are you getting in?  Through the Bahamas?”  Actually, no, we took a direct flight from Miami, on an entirely legal tour.  Friendly Planet is one of fifteen companies operating tours under the “people-to-people” program that had been halted during the Bush years but was reinstated early in the Obama administration.  We don’t normally take organized tours, but current US regulations make this the obvious choice.  Four densely-scheduled days allowed us to understand Havana more deeply than we could have done on our own.  

Arrival in Havana is similar to arrival in other third-world airports, baggage claim stuffed with sacks brought by US-based Cubans as gifts to family and friends.  At the Miami airport, I had declined a request to add an HDTV to my baggage.  I can't think of any happy ending to a story that begins with taking responsibility for a stranger’s luggage.  Besides, it would have meant standing in line at baggage claim instead of prowling for photos in the parking lot.  During our visit, when our tour guide assured us that “in Cuba, you would much rather – much rather – be convicted of murder than of selling drugs”, I knew I had made the right choice. 

Our first stop on the tour was Plaza de la Revolucíon, site of Fidel’s famous four-hour political speeches that had up to a million spectators.  I remember feeling sorry for the Cubans who had to sit – no, stand – through those speeches.  After a few days in Havana, I’m not sure that coercion was necessary:  hanging out together on a holiday would be a natural Cuban activity.  I’m also thinking that rum might have been involved.  Che may be gone and Fidel may have dropped out of sight, but la Revolucíon appears to be alive and well.

When the US embargo is lifted and as the Cuban government evolves, watch for a resourceful Cuban people to advance rapidly.  Cubans have figured out how to manage huge obstacles.  Look under the hood of an antique American car (as one of our fellow travelers did) and you’ll find it completely refitted with replacement parts from many countries – except the US, which won’t allow the shipment of supplies to Cuba.  These antiques share the road with new compact cars from many countries – except, of course, the US.    

The ham-fisted US embargo weighs heavily on the economy if not on the government.  The Havana cruise ship port sits empty, because any ship that dared to dock there would be blocked from all US ports for six months afterwards.  Yes, many Miami émigré Cubans lost property in 1960.  But isn’t it time to find a way to move on? we wondered.  If the US had maintained its embargo on China after their 1948 revolution, our relations with China would still be stuck in the Mao era.  Perhaps a younger generation of Miami Cubans is ready to move on.  Ironically, the Castro government gains political strength from the heavy-handed American policy and uses the embargo as a tool to continue restrictions that wouldn’t last long in an economically liberated environment. 

So surely the embargo will be lifted, right?  We asked our Cuban tour guide.  She shook her head.  “Your Congress will have to revoke the law, and they’re never going to turn their attention to us.  They’re too busy fighting each other about gun control.”  

Hmm.  Good point.


Turistas en Cuba

Friendly Planet put us up at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the grande dame of Cuban hotels that was built by the U.S. Mafia in 1930.  Staying at Nacional is reportedly a bit of a crap shoot:  you either get one of the splendid restored rooms or stay in much smaller quarters on the higher floors.  We won the Tyrone Power room, where the Hollywood star stayed when visiting Havana with Cesar Romero in 1946.  Some might consider the hotel a faded beauty, but we loved its antique charm and excellent service.  Why was it a surprise that the hotel was teeming with tourists?  Canadian, European, Russian…  The embargo has no impact on non-US tourism, which is now more important to the Cuban economy than sugar.

We had heard that Cuba limits tourist contact with local folks, but the walls are economic rather than physical.  Cuba’s dual currency system – one for foreigners, another for locals – effectively prevents most Cubans from entering tourist restaurants and shops, similar to the segregation we experienced in China in 1987.  Prices at the tourist joints are in CUCs (Cuban Universal Currency) and seem reasonable by standards in the developed world, but the 20:1 exchange rate puts access well beyond the means of most Cubans. 
Monthly food rations, established at the time of the U.S. embargo, remain a subsidized source of rice, beans, sugar, milk, eggs, potatoes, and bananas – approximately 50% of a citizen’s caloric intake.  Everybody, including the government, admits the ration system should be abolished.  But for the lowest-earning quintile, rations are critical for making it through the month. 

In observance of the U.S. State Departments’ requirements, our tour manager made every reasonable effort to keep us with the sanctioned program.  But on organized visits as well as after-hours forays on our own, we experienced no barriers to contact with “real” Cubans.  Our Cuban tour guide encouraged frank discussion of the plusses and minuses of the Cuban social model. 

Our “Discover Havana” tour gave us glimpses of cultural and artistic life in Cuba in four jam-packed days.  A senior center that shares on old convent with a preschool.  An elementary school.  In the countryside, a cooperative farming community (with a destination coffee shop) and an organic farm.  Folk-art installations.  Choral music.  A ballet school.  Music everywhere, always accompanied by mojitos.

We felt like typical tourists only at the visit to Hemingway’s country villa, joining the throngs of tour groups to squeeze along narrow pathways and peek into the house windows.  No one is allowed inside:  this shrine is preserved as if Papa Hemingway might return at any moment.  He had gone to the US in 1960 for treatment of long-term depression and soon thereafter committed suicide in Idaho.  His wife donated the house to the Cuban people, who revere him as a cultural hero.  The house remains frozen in time, with overstuffed furniture, animal trophies, and art works by the likes of Goya, Miro, and Picasso.

In counterpoint to the open cultural exchanges we experienced, internet censorship in Cuba is quite real.  We found Wi-Fi access only in our hotel, at a price, and its glacial speed certainly inhibited communication.

And then there was the intriguing case of the disappearing Facebook posts.  In a comedy of errors, we had found ourselves short on cash, and U.S. credit cards don’t work in Cuban ATMs.  Margaret posted on Facebook:  “So here, in the land of $1 earrings and $2 beers, we’re counting pennies.”  Within an hour, the post was gone.  She posted it again; same result.  In another post, she mentioned that the economic sanctions that make U.S. credit cards useless in Cuba are a consequence of the U.S. prohibitions for transacting business with Cuba.  Same disappearing act.  Big Brother is alive and well somewhere along the line, but who besides Facebook has access to its content?  And why would Facebook be is censoring individual posts from Cuba?

Your insights are most welcome.  We are stumped.


Cuban socialism

I wasn't looking forward to the scheduled evening with a Cuban economist, as I expected to hear a rote recitation of the Communist party line.  To our surprise, this well-traveled academic gave a nuanced presentation and was open to very direct discussion.  For the first time I appreciated what Cubans today feel Cuba had been before Castro:  a U.S. colony.  “Free trade” in the ‘50s meant “the U.S. buys our sugar, and we buy U.S. products.”  U.S. companies dominated the infrastructure, and Cuba was America’s playground.  With sugar as the principal export, farmers planted sugar to the neglect of other crops.  Half of the food from this fertile country had to be imported from the U.S.

We have all heard about land expropriation under Castro, and I don't wish to minimize the ordeal of thousands of refugees who left with only the shirts on their backs.  We did not know, however, that in the preceding Batista regime some wealthy landowners had accumulated over 100,000 acres, and many U.S. companies owned over 10,000 acres.  The Castro government divided these huge properties among new owners who could have up to 600 acres on the condition that they stay and work the land.  

With the launch of the U.S. embargo, Cuba was cut off from its #1 trading partner.  Our cold-war foe Russia was waiting gleefully in the wings, and soon after Castro declared Cuba a socialist state.  The Soviets helped “socialize” Cuba, and the remains of that structure remain in force today, far outlasting the communist state in Russia.  

Cubans claim that the two lasting legacies of the Castro era are universal literacy and universal medical care.  I did some fact checking:  Literacy did leap upwards, helped by an army of young urban idealists who dispersed across the countryside.  Before Castro, less than 60% of the country was literate; today over 99% of Cubans are literate, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

We passed little neighborhood medical clinics – all free.  How does that work?  According to the New England Journal of Medicine (01/24/2013): “For a visitor from the United States, the Cuban health care system seems unreal.  There are too many doctors.  Everybody has a family physician.  Everything is free, totally free — and not after prior approval or copay.  The whole system seems turned upside down.  It is tightly organized, and the first priority is prevention.  Although Cuba has limited economic resources, its health care system has solved some problems that ours has not yet managed to address.”  On the minus side, “Physicians get government benefits such as housing and food subsidies, but they are paid only about $20 per month.  Their education is free, and they are respected, but they are unlikely to attain personal wealth…  No market forces compel efficiency.”  Our economist told us that because everything is “free,” people come in with a headache and request a full body scan.  It’s hard to convey the concept of limited resources when full body scans are free.  But MRI equipment costs somebody – the government, hence the people – a pile of money.  

With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans endured a brutally lean decade without the support of their benefactor.  Tourism, actively promoted to build foreign revenues, grew to three million visitors a year, a million from Canada alone.  The government initially segregated tourists from ordinary Cubans, but no such impediments exist today.  This new liberty gives a financial boost to owners of private residences, shops, restaurants and taxis.  

We asked the economist what will happen when Raul Castro retires in 2018 (at age 86).  If the U.S. lifts the embargo, he doubts that U.S. companies will return to control, since other countries (Canada, EU, Israel, China, ...) are already well established.  The dual currency system must merge into a single currency within the next few years, but the transition must be made gradually to avoid crippling inflation.  Conditions are already liberalizing; locals can now buy and sell their houses.

Well then, how about travel?  Anyone is permitted to get a passport.  A few years of hard work in the underground economy could provide enough money for a plane ticket.  But a visa to visit another country?  That’s another matter entirely, and many a proud bearer of a new passport is disappointed to hear that they must be accepted by the prospective host country.  So most Cubans are still stuck, for now.


Sometimes a cigar is just …

“In Cuba, everything is impossible, but also everything is possible.”  People find a way.  

One evening Margaret and I enjoyed a leisurely dinner away from our guides.  (The group was going to hear the Buena Vista Social Club.  Okay, so you’re scandalized that we went out to dinner instead.  But you’re not surprised.)  It was our finest dining experience in Cuba, at a privately-owned cafe near the Cathedral square. 

After dinner we strolled around Old Havana and then settled in to a café in Plaza de la Catedral for music, aged rum, and fine Havana cigars. 

For the trip back to the hotel, we decided we must experience a ride in one of the lovingly maintained American classic cars.  We negotiated a ride with he owner of a very cherry 1957 Ford Crown Victoria.  This was apparently date night – his wife was spending the evening riding shotgun – and the mood was festive. 

He turned on the music, and when he realized his choice of old Beatles tunes was a good one, he cranked it up.  We sailed down the Malecón (esplanade along the sea wall), all singing at the top of our lungs.  We pulled up to the hotel’s porte-cochère to the final bars of She Loves You.  “Yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAH!”  It was a fine, fine moment.

We were so sorry to see the ride end.  We had negotiated a fare of $6 but gladly paid $10, the equivalent of half a month’s official salary.  What pleasure to share happy moments with some enterprising Cubans!

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