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Snapshots of Cuba

From October 13th through 20th, I visited Cuba on a wonderful deluxe tour that I’ll never forget. After my first few days in Habana, I wasn’t so sure about lifting the travel ban and embargo.

by Rosalie Riegle

From October 13th through 20th, 2010, I visited Cuba on a wonderful deluxe tour that I’ll never forget.

To get to Cuba legally, we were given a license as a “Humanitarian Mission” and every tour member brought 15 pounds or so of over-the counter medications and non–perishable food, which we delivered to grateful nuns in a working-class neighborhood. These sisters practice “door ministry” as many Catholic Workers do, trying to address the specific needs of anyone who comes to the door; as we left we saw an older sister was listening intently to a nervous young woman.

Because so many people ask about the trip, I’ve written a brief historical introduction and then a kind of travelogue. Then there's that embargo.

I. Before and After

Cubans remember. They remember the “before” period, when Habana glittered with sugar money, cruise ship tourists, and elegant Baroque, classical, and Moderne architecture. Even the many who weren’t alive then know that the swank of the pre-revolution period masked the American gangsters, the government corruption, and the near-slavery conditions of the peasants and the workers in American-owned enterprises such as the United Fruit and Hershey plantations.

They remember 1959, when our government withdrew its support of dictator Fulgencia Batista and he fled, deserting both rich and poor Cubans. They remember ad infinitum Fidel Castro’s triumphant march across the island and entry into Habana, closing casinos, outlawing prostitution, and eventually turning to Russia when the US spurned the new government. They remember what we call the Bay of Pigs, although not as vociferously as we do.

They remember some fairly good years when the economy seemed to be working, supported by the USSR. Their education and health reforms were the model for much of the world and the leveling of social classes helped everyone, even though old Habana crumbled and housing was tight. Today they mostly remember the “Special Period,” when the USSR collapsed and the decades-long US blockade almost strangled the island.

I heard a lot about the Special Period during my week in Cuba; in fact, most Cubans seem to feel it’s not really over. The economy still hasn’t returned to anything comparable to the 1980s when Russian investments and imports were at their peak. Although ugly, Russian-built buildings exist, they're in the outer reaches of Habana. We didn’t see many of them, touring as we did in Old Habana, the Vedado, and Miramar with its elegant mansions.

II. Snapshots of Havana, Cienfugos, Trinidad, and Las Terrazas

Cuba seemed much more like Spain to me than like other Caribbean islands, but then I didn’t see any of its beautiful nature preserves or fancy new beach hotels frequented by Europeans and Canadians.

The government gets much of its income from tourists and is rapidly building a good infrastructure, with fine and not-so-fine hotels and resorts and restaurants. This is the Cuba I saw, a tourist Cuba packaged and presented by the government-owned tour company but planned and guided by wonderful people who really care about their country. We had two wonderful Cuban American tour operators who chose and arranged everything. They were assisted by Esperanza, our personable and knowledgeable daily guide; and by Juan Carlos, our bus driver, who would sometimes dance with us after dinner. Not with me, alas.

If I’d been younger and fluent in Spanish and thus able to sneak in through Belize or Canada, or if I’d been on a non-profit delegation, or eligible for a special-interest tour, then I would have seen a different Cuba than the deluxe tour that we had, and I would have been able to talk to more Cubans. We were kept very busy and didn’t have much free time, but during a free afternoon in Trinidad, my roommate and I met a young man named Raul on the street. He had just graduated from Cienfugos University with a major in English, and was obligated to teach for two years before choosing more lucrative work in tourism or with a joint venture company. After some initial diffidence on his part, we had a surprising conversation.

Raul said if anyone questioned why he was spending so much time talking to us, he would tell them he was merely practicing his English. He told us he was “prematurely married,” with a young son, and related harrowing stories of health care gone awry since so many doctors are being outsourced to Venezuela and other South American countries. The local clinics now integrate acupuncture and other Chinese remedies into their Western medicine, which is heavy on prevention. Raul’s two sisters live in the United States. One escaped by boat with her husband after they were caught with a trunkload of stolen meat, for which they were facing twenty years in prison. He seemed cheerful and confident but as we were saying goodbye, he confessed, “I don’t want to live in Cuba.”

In contrast, Alberto, an interpreter that I hired for my one free afternoon in Havana, loves his life even though he doesn’t have steady work. His B.A. thesis in theology--a history of the Baptists in Cuba--will be published soon, and he travels frequently as the translator for Rev. Suarez, founder of the Martin Luther King Center in a working-class section of Havana. If I return, I would like to come with something like the Pastors of Peace Program, and stay at the MLK Center, to see a less varnished Cuba than the one available to our tour. Alberto also arranged an appointment with the Chair of the English Department at the University of Havana. We had a wonderful chat and I told him about Dorothy Day’s 1961 visit to Cuba and presented him with her writings on Cuba and also a copy of my book on Dorothy.

We heard lectures almost every day: by an American woman my age who has lived in Cuba since the revolution, a political scientist from the university, a historian of contemporary art, and a retired architectural professor who still used a slide projector although the other lecturers presented with skillful PowerPoint.

China is making inroads as a joint venture partner with the Cuban government, and the architect who spoke to our group fears the “Shanghai effect,” meaning he’s worried that high tech innovation will trump Cuba’s history and environmental concerns. And many fear the “tsunami” which might come crashing in if the blockade is lifted in favor of U.S. instead of Cuban concerns.

Before the trip, I read extensively to get some background. I particularly recommend Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Stole Havana, which also gives a good history of Fidel’s seemingly improbable success, Tom Miller’s 2008 Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba,Havana: History and Architecture of a Romantic City by Maria Montalvo, and the 2009 novel by Rachel Kushner Telex from Cuba. You should also see two great films by Juan Carlos Tabio, Strawberry and Chocolate and The Waiting List. Both give compelling pictures of present-day Cuba, with both its flair and despair.

Our group stayed at the Habana Park Central, which was smack in the middle of things: just steps from Obispo, a pedestrian street in Old Havana. It fronts the Prado, which takes one to the Malecon and the open sea. It's two blocks from the stunning contemporary art museum and the Museum of the Revolution, formerly Batista’s presidential palace. I originally ran around taking pictures of the old GM cars but stopped when I found a whole book of better photographs than I could ever take.

A more realistic way of traveling in Cuba than our tour would be to stay at private bed and breakfast inns called Casa Particulares, where you rent a room from a family and can often dine with them. The paladores, or small privately owned restaurants, provide tasty Cuban food, more exciting than the hotel buffets, and the several we visited served delicious meals.

In the city, we stayed a block away from the Baroque pile of the Garcia Lorca Theater, which we couldn’t visit as it was being restored for an upcoming Ballet Festival. Instead we were taken to Central Habana and the Art Moderne-style Teatro Mella, where the Laura Alonso ballet presented Dracula, the most dramatic ballet performance I’ve ever seen. Laura is the daughter of Alicia Alonso, who gave Cuban ballerinas world-wide recognition.

In this presentation, it was the ballerinos who stole the show. At first I thought we were seated too near the stage, but the seats turned out to be just right, as the rather ho-hum choreography which opened the drama morphed into frantic movement and intense acting where the dancer’s faces were of crucial importance. The finale featured a Martha Graham-esque black shroud floating in over the audience and settling on the dancers who writhed beneath it. I’m getting goose bumps again, just writing about it.

Afterwards, we had the best meal of our tour, at La Casa, a wonderful paladar where I had rabbit in white wine sauce, the obligatory welcome mojito, and lots of wine by the glass, all pre-paid in the inclusive tour price. In fact, a cocktail and wine or beer was included with every meal and all meals but one were included in the tour, perhaps to keep us corralled. Breakfast was always a huge Spanish-style buffet with fresh eggs available to order. Dinner in Trinidad was buffet as well, but with wonderful grilled-to-order chicken, veal, lamb, or beef. There were always lots of vegetables on the buffet, vegetables mostly unavailable to the population.

Our hotels were luxurious. The Habana Park Central was built on the site of the original hotel of that name from the 30s, but was all new except for a few of the classical columns. The Ibero Star in Trinidad was a beautifully restored mansion with sweeping marble staircases. When I come back, I’d like to get into more of the restored buildings, but most of them are used as schools or ministry offices and unavailable to the public. If they’re not restored, they’re divided into apartments with several generations of a family living in space suitable for one. Housing is one of the biggest unmet needs in Habana and many of the crumbling mansions have been divided so that two floors take the place of the original high-ceilinged one. I never got used to seeing these dilapidated buildings with laundry strung out the windows, often abutting a building of the same vintage but beautifully restored. Our guide says many buildings now have automatic washers but no dryers, which makes sense in a warm and energy-impoverished country.

Besides lunch and dinner and after-hours music every day, we heard a concert-hall ready a capella choir in Cienfugos. While there we also saw there the difference between peso stores, where little was available, and CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency) stores, with slightly more variety and a lot of imported canned goods, some from the U.S. As I explained in “Flip-flopping,” Cubans are paid in pesos and many consumer goods are only available in CUC stores. We toured museums, both in the capital and in the provinces and climbed the hill in Trinidad for a striking Afro-Cuban dance performance, all mixed up with Santeria, the amalgam of Catholic saints and Yoruba religion that is arguably the most widely practiced religion on the island.

One frequently sees Santería initiates on the street, dressed completely in white, with white shoes and white head scarves. I even saw a white-suited man shading himself with a white umbrella. Alvin Ailey’s ground-breaking 1960 dance “Revelations” was directly inspired by the dancing we saw on the Trinidad hill, except that when I saw “Revelations” last spring in Chicago, I was a half-mile from the stage and in Trinidad I was four feet away from the dancers, with all their dramatic swoops and frenzy.

The day after this dance spectacular, we traveled through the sugar cane fields to an old plantation, riding in an ancient steam-engine train. Sue, my gutsy roommate, climbed up into the engine and had an even more spectacular view than we timid ones who stayed in the back, in open cars with wooden seats, listening to a fine guitarist. The scenery all over the Cuba we saw is beautiful–lush and rolling, but with much of it lying fallow.

Regarding the Cuban people, I wish I had been able to speak Spanish and thus meet more of them, but our guide was excellent and very forthright in answering our many questions. Cuban’s sardonic humor is often on display. Remember Elián González, the boy whose mother was killed in a 1999 shipwreck while trying to escape Cuba with her boyfriend? Maternal grandparents in Miami claimed custody and so, understandably, did his father in Cuba. The case went almost to the Supreme Court before Elian was returned to his father. There’s a statue in front of a building housing the Office of U.S. Interests Office, our substitute embassy. Jose Marti is holding the child in his arms an appears to be showing him something. The Cuban joke is that he’s pointing and whispering to him, “Elian, that’s where you get the visa.”

On our second-to-last day, we traveled to Las Terrazas, a model village and biosphere in Pinar del Rio province. We stopped at an elementary school and listened to darling little kids recite poems and sing songs and then we gave them some school supplies. Esperanza, our lively guide, even tried to get up on wooden stilts the children were playing with, explaining that her father had made some for her as she was growing up in the countryside. Then we ate at a farmhouse paladora, with a rare picture of Fidel and the owners hanging proudly on the wall. A local guide told us of the reforesting and ecological projects and how they’ve reclaimed the land once denuded for coffee plantations. While there are other new communities in Cuba, Los Terrazas was certainly one worth showcasing for tourists. I left wishing the whole world could live like the town’s citizens, in houses surrounded by swards of green, with good crafts, a coffee shop on a veranda, and most importantly, full employment.

One sees Che Guevara memorabilia everywhere, but the tradition is not to glorify living persons, so you know the Fidel books and refrigerator magnets are waiting in the wings. As you know, Fidel Castro has recently emerged from retirement and is making infrequent public appearances, with a somewhat softened persona. While he was ill, he wrote an 800-page memoir, which is currently being printed serially in Granma, the boring newspaper which used to print Castro's hours-long speeches. I purchased a copy in English and now know more than I need to know about a week in the revolution, while Castro and his band were still in the mountains. Most Cubans I talked to said Raul is more hard-nosed than his older brother, and they’re not looking forward to any real changes in the system until both of them are gone.

People ask if I felt safe. Yes, but when I walked alone one morning on the Malecon, I didn’t take a purse, just as I don’t when I do my version of power-walking in Evanston, Illinois. People asked if I was followed or spied upon and the answer is a resounding “no.” The government may spy on its own people and try to prevent them from emigrating, but they like tourists and want us to have fun. And fun we had, with music for almost every meal and afterwards. No, I did not go to the Tropicana. I was a tourist but not that much of a tourist.

The brochure we received before our tour cautioned us to expect ambiguity. Truly spoken. Laughing and complaining, remembering good wine but drinking so-so beer, manipulating to get the most basic necessities, Cubans have remarkable resiliency. They remember the known past more than they think of the unknown future, remembering–and living--the heritage of their Spanish, French, and African ancestors, their pre-revolutionary combination of debauchery and elegance, the stark Soviet years when everything was turned upside down, the Special Period when no one had enough to eat and wine was only a memory. But through it all, they laugh and love and love their country, even as many of them are longing to leave. I’d return in a heartbeat.

III. Flip-flopping on the Embargo and Travel Ban

Relax the travel ban? Lift the embargo? Before I went to Cuba I would have given an unqualified yes to both questions. The world as a whole thinks the U.S. is plain mean-spirited. On October 27, 2010 the UN General Assembly voted 186 to 2 for the Us to lift the embargo, with only Israel joining us in the negative. There are Cuba aid groups that support lifting the travel ban. In fact, I’d found out about my tour, perfectly legal from Miami and also completely hassle free, by signing a petition to ease restrictions.

After my first few days in Old Habana, I wasn’t so sure. Yes, Cuba could be a tourist paradise. It’s all there and about what I expected: beautiful if crumbling Baroque architecture, sunny skies and balmy Caribbean breezes, great music everywhere, domino players on the streets, friendly people, wonderful ballet and Afro-Cuban dance, copious buffets (for the tourists, not the campesinos or Habanos), and the cars I remembered from my teenage years in Flint, Michigan. But many Cubans fear the “tsunami”--their word, not mine--that could happen when US citizens are finally free to travel to this fabled place.

I think about what’s happened to other Caribbean islands, particularly the changes I saw in Antigua between my first visit in 1965 and my second in the early 1990s, when high-rise resorts and day-trippers from cruise ships had inundated the island. In 1965, fisherman sold their fish directly both to the chef at our small hotel and to the local housewives. Most people lived in the country and farmed small plots of land. In 1992, a fetid slum surrounded St. John’s, and the mall on the wharf sold the same “made in China” souvenirs I saw at the next island our ship visited.

Since 1994, tourism has been Cuba’s main industry, coupled with the export of their well trained doctors to South America and Africa. Many Canadians and Europeans vacation at beach resorts, only occasionally venturing into the historic Cuba I saw. All hotels and most restaurants are owned by the state and it’s safe to say that at least some of the pastries and eggs and meat earmarked for tourist tables finds its way into an underground economy that seems necessary in a country with so many unmet consumer needs.

China is a prime trading partner and recently supplied wonderful count-down crossing signs at major Habana intersections as well as our spanking new tour bus. Will the hi-tech Shanghai model prevail, as feared by an architect who spoke to our tour group? Given our country’s history as commercial colonizers, my nightmares show me a Starbucks on every Habana corner and high-rise resorts mucking up fragile ocean fronts.

And yet... Cubans need so many things we take for granted, like soap and clothes and chicken and vegetables. One of the problems is the double currency. Tourists are legally able to use only CUCs, Cuban Convertible Currency. Cubans, however, are paid in pesos, with one CUC worth 24 pesos. Many products are only available in CUC stores, if they’ve available at all.1 With an average monthly wage of around 300 pesos, there’s precious little available for the average Cuban to spend in a CUC store.

One of our several lecturers who talked to our tour group told us that working in the tourist industry is one of the few avenues to a modicum of economic well-being. Musicians sell their CDs to tourists for ten CUCs, a fortune at 2400 pesos. Artists sell their canvasses and photographs and a few crafts at the flea market, and people with second languages can get tips in CUCs. So can beggars and I was surprised not to see more of them. Folks without this access to CUCs necessarily depend on barter, illegal entrepreneurship, the black market, and remittances from relatives. One of my favorite stories is about a woman lawyer who makes ends meet by using stolen oil and bartered meat to make tiny empañadas, which her busy neighbors eat for lunch, as Patrick Symmes noted in "Thirty days as a Cuban: Pinching pesos and dropping pounds in Havana" in the October, 2010 Harper’s magazine.

Working wives--and it’s still a macho society--pay a “messenger” to wait in line for them for rice and beans and milk (if they have children under seven) at the ration store, for bread at the bakery, for chicken or vegetables that are sometimes available in supermarkets. It’s just plain HARD to live in Cuba, complicated and confining, with constant making do and finagling to get what one needs to live.

Bluntly speaking, there just isn’t enough food. So my usual First World guilt when I ate tomatoes and potatoes and green beans while most Cubans can’t afford vegetables made me even more angry because it doesn’t have to be this way. Cuba already trades with the US, under special licenses which specify cash and not credit, but food purchases from the US have fallen from $710 million in 2008 to $220 million during the first half of 2010. Our country has the farming know-how, as well as the machinery and the tools, to help small Cuban farmers, many of whom still rely on oxen. We could help them reclaim the 50% of the land which lies fallow after the government phased out sugar monoculture and thus help Cubans to be less dependent on food imports–80% of the total. We can even help them with green technology, something China might not do.

Before I left for Cuba, I watched a movie showing the country moving away from reliance on fertilizer and collective farms called The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Sadly, the dream purveyed in that film, with its bright tales of urban gardening, vermiculture and organic family farms, is a long, long way from sustainable realization. Our tour guide, herself a government employee of course, admitted that the agricultural ministry has been plagued with inefficiency, which the article referenced below discusses in detail.

My savvy roommate on the trip recently sent me a link to People’s World where W. T. Whitney Jr. outlines the Cuban agricultural situation. His analysis, with its up-to-the-minute statistics, helps us understand why Cubans can’t raise the food they need, but it doesn’t tell us how to solve the problem.

At the conclusion of a PowerPoint lecture on contemporary art, a Cuban artist showed our tour group a few of the useful objects made from discards during the “Special Period” in the 1990s when Cuba lost its Soviet allies and darn near starved to death. One was a wine glass, constructed from what may have been a tin can, sliced and soldered. The artist gave it a title: “Even when we didn’t have wine, it was important to remember that wine existed.”

Cubans remember. They remember the known past more than they think of the unknown future, remembering–and living--the heritage of their Spanish, French, and African ancestors, the pre-revolutionary combination of debauchery and elegance, the stark Soviet years when everything was turned upside down, the Special Period when no one had enough to eat and wine was only a memory. Today the tourists and the Cubans who can get CUCs have at least enough to eat, but the whole country needs more, needs the help of a wealthy nation whose politics have been controlled for far too long by a small group of Cuban expatriates and their descendants.

So I have flip-flopped–returned to my original belief that lifting the travel ban and easing the embargo will help Cuba, a country I grew to love in one short week. I spent the last afternoon with Alberto, an intelligent, affable, and able Cuban referred to me by Marilyn McKenna of CLRN. He told me he thought Cuba had learned its lesson from putting all its eggs in the Soviet basket and that it would resist U.S. hegemony. “If the embargo is lifted, it will only be with Cuba in control of how it’s done.”

I pray Alberto is right.

Rosalie Riegle, of Evanston, Illinois, is a retired professor of English, a writer, and a grandmother of seven.

Copyright © Rosalie Riegle. All rights reserved.