The recent furor over Elian Gonzalez, the six year old Cuban boy who was the latest pawn in the continuing saga of US-Cuba relations, highlights just how polarized US public opinion is on this subject -- and how ignorant most US citizens are about what it's really like in Castro's Cuba today.
For several years my wife and I had been talking about wanting to visit Cuba before the end of Castro's regime. She was particularly interested in experiencing Socialist Cuba now -- before the inevitable changes that will follow Castro's demise (he's 73 and won't last forever).
However, I was somewhat leery of the idea. Not so much because of the State Department's ban on travel to Cuba and the embargo which make it technically illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba or to spend money there, (a prohibition which many believe to be unconstitutional) but because, after reading a couple of guidebooks, it sounded like the only part of the country that would be interesting was Havana. Also, it seemed that it would be a constant hassle to deal with the dual economy with its three different currencies, the restrictions on where we could eat and which kinds of shops we could and could not patronize. As it turned out, I ended up falling in love with Cuba, and wishing we had had much more than two weeks there!
Making arrangements to stay in Cuba was very easy for us, since a good friend of ours grew up there and still has family in Havana. In fact, her folks rent out rooms in their house. We gladly accepted their invitation to stay with them during our visit.
We got in touch with a travel agent in Mexico City, who arranged to get us visas to enter Cuba and booked the Mexicana flight from Mexico City to Havana for us. He even met us at the airport when we arrived in Mexico and we took care of all the final arrangements right there.
(Editor's note: Many people enter Cuba via Mexico, either Mexico City, Merida or Cancun.)
We spent that night in a hotel right across the street from Alameda Park and early the next morning caught the 2 hour flight to Havana.
When entering Cuba, we would suggest that even if you are planning to stay in a private home, that you put the name of a hotel on your visa, because, even though licensed homes are legal places to stay, Cuban authorities prefer that tourists stay in their fancy hotels and spend more money!
Havana served as the gateway between Spain and her colonies for about 400 years and grew extremely rich as a result. It's clear that although it has lost its sheen a bit, it is still an incredibly beautiful city -- full of gorgeously ornate buildings from the last century and Spanish fortresses dating back to the 16th century. There is new construction going on in some neighborhoods (mostly office buildings and new tourist hotels), but there are no buildings newer than about the 1930's in the old city. With all the 1940s and '50s American cars driving around, Havana definitely has the air of a living museum. We covered a large fraction of the city -- mostly on foot, in taxis, and in pedi-cabs. We were just beginning to feel we had really gotten to know the place at the end of our two week visit.
Cuba has experienced very hard times economically -- especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union -- due, at least in part, to the 40 year old embargo imposed by the United States. The 'special period' which occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall was especially difficult and the country was on the verge of starvation. At that time the government began to allow a certain amount of capitalist activity to creep into the economy -- farmers were allowed to raise more than their required amount and sell the surplus for dollars. This resulted in a significant increase in the amount of food available (not surprisingly, personal reward proved to be a more effective motivator than dedication to the common cause).
At the same time, people in the cities began setting up informal restaurants in their houses (paladares) to raise extra money . The government eventually decided to allow this activity with some minor restrictions; in fact, that's where we ate most of our meals.
A typical day might include lunch in a very spare third-floor walk-up apartment downtown and dinner by the swimming pool of an elaborate old estate. The food (usually very good and quite inexpensive) is cooked and served by members of the Cuban family living in that house or apartment. Whenever we ate at one of these 'paladares' we found both the people who operated them as well as the other people eating there to be extremely friendly and we usually slipped into friendly conversations about economics or politics or just small talk.
During the post Berlin Wall period, the Cuban government also began to encourage foreign tourism. Today, there are lots of Canadians, Brits, Germans, Spaniards, and Mexicans vacationing in Cuba. There are also three currencies in circulation -- normal pesos which are used by the Cubans to buy necessities and conduct commerce in the state-run stores (open only to Cubans), convertible pesos which can be exchanged for US dollars one-for-one, and US dollars, which are sought after since most luxuries can only be bought in stores that accept only dollars. The paladares and other such establishments also require dollars.
This situation has led to a re-emergence of class distinctions in the society and a rise in street crime and prostitution, since those who have access to dollars (especially those who have family in the US) are able to afford to live much better than those who don't. As a result, jobs in the tourist trade where people can get tips in dollars or other activities dealing with foreigners or foreign companies are highly prized. For the tourist, life is easy, since one can get anything with dollars.
In preparation for the trip we had read up on the fascinating and rather shameful history of US-Cuba relations. We had expected to find some evidence of resentment towards Americans when we got there, but to our great surprise we found none. Although Americans are woefully ignorant about Cuba and its history, Cubans are very much aware of the United States. They understand that our policy towards Cuba in the last 40 years has been shaped largely by the influence of the expatriate Cubans in Miami. They understand that the policy of the US government doesn't necessarily reflect the feelings of the American people as a whole -- especially not those who make the effort to visit Cuba in spite of the embargo.
We found the Cubans to be the incredibly warm and friendly. In fact, to our surprise, and in spite of all the talk in the US about the 'repressive society' in Cuba, we were constantly engaged in lively discussions about the Cuban economic and political situation. We found that everyone had opinions they wanted to share and were dying find out what we thought. There was never the slightest hint of hostility or fear in any of these discussions. On one occasion, the fellow we were talking to insisted that we come to his house for coffee, (generously sharing his very small ration!), so we could continue our discussion which had already been going on for almost an hour.
The only pattern we noticed in these discussions was that the older folks who had lived through the bloody, repressive Batista regime felt that, although the current situation is very difficult, it is still much better than before the Revolution. These people seemed to feel that it is necessary to open up the economy to more capitalism, but gradually, and that it's important to retain the social benefits that the Revolution has brought -- the highest literacy rate in Latin America (about the same as the US), guaranteed free education through the university level for all, the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America (also comparable to that in the US), free health care for all citizens, and government supplied housing for all.
In contrast, the younger people who had no personal recollection of the time before the Revolution seemed to feel that this is the worst it's ever been in Cuba. They seemed anxious to see a more rapid shift towards a more capitalistic economy.
Though times are still very tough, the Cubans are amazingly resilient and creative, and have found ways to survive and even thrive under the most adverse conditions,. Their 'Revolutionary spirit' is still strong. My wife and I both found it totally fascinating to be in a country where most of the fundamental premises of our way of life, at least the economic ones, don't apply. We saw numerous examples of incredible inefficiency and things that seemed totally illogical to us (and to many of the Cubans we talked to). We chuckled at graffiti that expresses their bemusement at the general situation, especially the effect of living under an inherently authoritarian system: "En Cuba lo que no est· prohibido es obligatorio." ( In Cuba, whatever isn't prohibited is obligatory).
Everywhere I looked I couldn't help but think of all the entrepreneurial opportunities just waiting to be exploited (I guess I really am a 'dyed-in-the-wool' capitalist). I kept reminding myself, however, of the tremendous social advances that the Revolution brought to what had been a society of great extremes -- with a small, wealthy elite (including a large contingent of the US Mafia), rampant political corruption, and wide-spread poverty throughout the country. Cuba today, even with the shortages and other severe problems, in many ways looks much more like a 'first world' country than many other 'third world' countries in Latin America, For example, we saw no evidence of homelessness or serious hunger in Cuba.
In addition to our time in Havana we also took a couple of day trips to surrounding areas. We went with a friend of the family we were staying with, a young man who makes a living driving tourists in his private car (without the required official permit which is extremely expensive). He wound up in jail very briefly the day before our second outing for not having a permit, but managed to talk his way out of a fine. So in order to lessen the chance of getting caught again, he made it look like a family outing, by bringing his wife and three year old son on our day trip to a national park west of Havana. It made for a delightful day in the country. At one point we stopped to get some ice cream and our driver ran into a friend of his who also earns dollars one day a week by driving tourists around in his car. It turns out that this fellow is a highly placed professional.
Towards the end of our stay in Cuba, we took an overnight bus tour to the city of Trinidad, one of the first cities established by the Spanish in the early 1500's and one that hasn't changed a lot since then. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and incredibly picturesque. Along the way we also got to see (from a distance) Cuba's nearly complete nuclear power plant. It is the same design as Chernobyl. Though currently mothballed, Castro is determined to complete it once the economy begins to improve. Wouldn't it be nice if the US were to normalize relations with Cuba so we could help them build one that might be less likely to contaminate the entire Gulf of Mexico?
Trinidad is in an area of beautiful rolling hills and lush valleys where they grow sugar cane. In about 1900, Cuba was the world's largest producer of sugar and the third largest trading partner of the US. Today, at the turn of the new century, the US has no trade with Cuba and both countries are the poorer for it.
Our return home by way of Mexico City was really a shock. Two weeks without seeing a single commercial or advertisement and hardly any shops, and then to arrive in Mexico City -- the epitome of commercialism! Our hotel was on a major boulevard among a row of large office buildings, each with fancy shops at the street level, and street vendors' displays and news-stands out front taking up most of the sidewalk where roving entrepreneurs are constantly accosting you to buy their wares. A return to Cuba seemed very inviting.
And then when we returned home, we found that we had just missed the last two weeks of 90 days straight with rain every day! (Did I mention that the weather in Cuba was fantastic -- mid 70s to low 80s every day, low humidity, and sun every day except for a couple of days of light rain?)
I believe we paid $300 each for airfare two years ago, but it's lots cheaper from Cancun than Mexico City. We went to Mexico City because we love it, the hotels are cheaper, and we had frequent flyer miles to get us that far free! I think you can airline ticket information from Mexicana's website. We suggest going Mexicana and not Cubana de Aviacion.
Moon Handbooks: Cuba by Christopher P. Baker