Travel highlights

Cuba

WHERE: Havana, Cuba

WHEN: Oct. 23-26, 2014

HIGHLIGHTS/TIPS:

  • Observe the mobs awaiting arrivals at the airpot and the family passengers unloading their US wares.

  • Hit a cigar factory, where women separate leaves and men roll each one by hand 

  • Tropicana is a glittery visual experience that seems unchanged from 50 years ago

  • Most striking at Ernest Hemingway's house (where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea) is his scribbled obsessive tracking of his weight in the bathroom.

Accommodations: Hotel Saratoga. Very nice; central; great deck.

"For 11.1 million Cubans, the Communist bureaucracy dominates all aspects of life."

"While doctors make about $40 a month...

dancers at the glittering Tropicana can make $300."

"Our guides were puzzled with our questions about freedoms and different political parties."

Land lost in time

This column was published in The News-Press on 12/28/14

Our trip was Oct. 23-26, 2014; on Dec. 17, President Obama announced plans to normalize relationships.

A fascinating, sad time warp. 

 

That’s how my husband Randy and I experienced Cuba Oct. 23-26 under a U.S. licensed people-to-people program. We were among a group of 10 arranged by our friend Scott Andrews and his firm, Ascent Performance.

 

With Randy being a history buff and me being an adventurer, Cuba was an ideal destination, filled with mystery, politics and intrigue.

 

Our visit may soon be replicated by many other Americans as the Obama administration eases restrictions on travel to Cuba as part of normalizing relations.

 

As always with strong views, there is propaganda and misinformation on both sides. We learned a lot during our visit, and much more after we came home.

 

Cuba, just 93 miles south of Key West,  is a land lost in time, stuck in, and eroding since the Fidel Castro led revolution in 1959, with its citizens largely oblivious to the rest of the world. That’s the year I was born, so we’re talking 55 years of suppression and repression.

 

For 11.1 million Cubans, the Communist bureaucracy dominates all aspects of life, from running most businesses, to determining prices of consumer goods, to who gets hired for the scarce jobs.

 

Most of our time was in Havana, where we marveled at what have become iconic images of Cuba: 1950s Chevrolets, Fords and Chryslers ruling the streets. Some are gleaming and polished for tourists while others are one ride away from the junk yard. 

 

Likewise, the buildings and infrastructure of Havana are crumbling.

Mansions, stadiums, boulevards, high-rises and other structures that were once magnificent are falling apart.

 

The Capitol is under renovation but we saw few signs of progress; some buildings had vines that had overtaken the abandoned scaffolding over the years. Dirt and soot are prevalent, with buses caked in grime and smokestacks belching thick smoke from failing oil refineries once owned by U.S. companies.

 

There is a plan to renovate the heart of Havana, but with the limited supply of skilled manpower, money and materials, it will take decades, an architect and professor involved in the work told us.

 

Like all the Cubans we spoke to officially and unofficially, he was bright, sincere, good-hearted—and unwaveringly loyal to his country. While they espoused all the benefits they receive, the deeper we probed, the more they stumbled.

 

According to our guides, Cubans average $25 a month in wages. Rent, education and health care are free. It costs just $15 a month for food, thanks to subsidies, including milk for babies. There’s no need for rent because everyone “owns” their home.

 

But when pressed, we learned “homes” in Havana are typically in confiscated, deteriorating buildings partitioned repeatedly for multiple families who share baths and kitchens. The state owns and runs nearly everything—there apparently is a black market for mattresses, for example, as an alternative to the state mattresses.

 

Everyone can have a job of some sort, though we saw many people just standing around. Who makes the most? Those who get tips from dealing with tourists—remember, the U.S. is the only country not allowing easy access to Cuba’s famed beaches (which we never got to see). While doctors make about $40 a month, taxi drivers earn $60 or more, and the dancers at the glittering Tropicana can make $300 a month, we were told.

 

Cubans can do anything they want, our tour guides repeatedly proclaimed--as long as they can pay for it. It didn’t seem to bother them that few Cubans can afford much more than the bare necessities and certainty not the nice restaurants, bars or historic attractions.

 

Our guides said things were changing and will change even more. They were referring to the growth of “private” businesses: entrepreneurs who can pocket the difference between what they pay the state and what they earn—after abiding by Cuban regulations including who and how many to hire.

 

We found the capitalistic incentives made a huge difference in the quality of private vs. state-run restaurants and taxi services.

 

In Havana, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are George Washington and Abe Lincoln combined after 60 years of propaganda.  Their images are plastered all over the city.  Loud speakers are attached to many of the utility poles, mostly for carrying messages from the government. Information from the outside is limited to Communist-owned newspapers and broadcast coverage. Journalists and other political opponents have been imprisoned. The internet is slow, expensive and censored.

 

Our guides were puzzled with our questions about freedoms and different political parties. They insisted they had freedom and chose their leaders. Eventually they acknowledged that only Communists run the country.

What if during the all-important May Day parade you carried a sign protesting the Communist government, we asked.

 

 “Why would you want to?”

 

But if you did? Would you get in trouble with the government?

 

“No. The people would beat you up.”

 

Over the last three decades, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 72,771 Cubans en route to Florida, reports the Associated Press—that’s just those who survive the journey. If you can step foot on U.S. soil, immigration will allow you to stay. Cuban emigres in the U.S. send around $3 billion a year in cash and goods back home, estimates the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

 

We saw fellow airplane riders from Miami loaded with goods from dolls to diapers to electronics—to help with the load balance, the pilot asked first-class passengers to move to the back.

 

Our visit was truly educational. It was vividly clear to Randy and me that Communist Cuba could not continue to sustain itself without radical changes, specifically an infusion of capital.

 

While normalization is a noble aspiration, the reality will be limited. On Castro’s side, opening the doors would be the downfall of the Communist regime. On the U.S. side, investors are rightfully skeptical about Cuba’s track record and requirements.

 

Time will tell.

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© 2015 by Mei-Mei Chan Kirk