Cuba is a land stuck in the 1950’s. It is a land of semantics. It is a land filled with music and art. It is a land where the people continue to struggle against poverty. They hope for an end to the embargo but they are sure they will continue to survive without it
Since Columbus, they have been ruled by Spain and the United States. It has most recently been under self rule, Since 1902, with some intervention on the part of the US and Russia.
The US imposed an embargo in 1961 and that has dramatically influenced it’s survival as a nation. The embargo is not only against trade, it prevents banks around the world who want to trade with the US from lending money to Cuba. We have, over the years, sent humanitarian aid after hurricanes, allowed the families in the US with Cuban families to send money and eased the restrictions on travel.
We visited 4 cities, Camaquey, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana . In each city we met with groups of people. The laws governing legal visiting to Cuba by a US citizen are strict. The travel company must guarantee numerous people to people encounter and the travelers must sign a document stating that they will participate in those encounters. After the trip is over the visitor must carry for 4 year,with with their passport, a statement of legal traveling that lists the company and all the participants of the trip. One of the companies I traveled with in the past had it’s permit revoked temporarily because it was not adhering to the people to people rules.
There is very limited internet access, City squares known as internet squares are packed on weekends with Cubans using the limited internet. This access is an improvement from the past when computers and mobile phones were forbidden. In some of our hotels we were allowed to buy, for $5/hour, access, this did not allow access to some of our favorite sites like FACEBOOK.
Two of my favorite statements that were repeated over and over were “There are no social classes in Cuba. We have some rich people and some poor people but there are no classes” and “ After the Russians left, times were tough. Overnight we were so poor. That is when we learned to eat vegetables.”
The reason there are no poor people in the eyes of the speaker- the government gives everyone free housing, free education, free medical care and a ration card that provides food. After the revolution the government took over all the businesses and the profits. People were given 5 acres of land. Until recently property could not be sold, it could only be traded. Much of this property was owned by US businesses who lost their property and the property of all the workers who left.
From 1972 – 1991The Soviets helped with Cuba. Their support brought financial growth to Cuba. When the Berlin wall came down, the Soviet government collapsed and left Cuba. It left Cuba in dire straits. They had to reorganize and rethink many things. At this time state farms became semi autonomous cooperatives. Farmers began expanding crops, the country began to survive without soviet imports and according to the speaker learned to eat vegetables. The food is organic by our standards.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
Potters, Flamenco Dancers, Rodeo Riders, Modern Dancers, a Choral group, an American owned magazine, an overnight stay in a private home and Domino Players were part of our contacts. The best and most interesting was a Barber School.
When restrictions on private businesses were loosened a very smart Havana businessman asked for a permit to open a barbershop. He was allowed to put one chair in his private residence. Noticing all the young unemployed youth on the street he approached the government with the idea of expanding his business to a barber school. Following the success of that school he again approached the government with the idea of a school to train home caregivers for seniors and rehabilitation workers. In between he was able to open a restaurant. His original barbershop has grown, it it decorated with artwork from artists seeking a public gallery and antique barber equipment he has collected as he travels across the country to promote his training school model. His shop is still within his original house which has been expand, he is booked weeks in advance.
The majority of buildings are original, they reflect the Spanish influence. It is difficult to imagine the infrastructure within these building being upgraded to accommodate the predicated influx in travelers. In many places the toilets were flushed by a person waiting outside the stall to dump water in the toilet to flush it. ( this as well as selling toilet papered access for twenty-five cents outside the bathroom is a job.) Many historic buildings are being restored by the government as well as private citizens who are restoring buildings before opening businesses with in them.
Everyone in Cuba is issued ration card that allows them a measured about of items such as corn, rice, beans, coffee and bread each month. Milk is issued to families with children Extra food may be purchased at private markets.
The food we ate was blander than expected. Chicken,pork,fish and shaved beef were choices every night. Several days lobster and steak were also choices. Flan and other sweet desserts were served at many meals. The vegetables were always fresh. Rice was often on the plate but never the expected rice and beans. Of course were were fed better than the average citizen, we were stuffed at every meal. One member of the group compared this to a goose being stuffed to produce Pâté de foie gras. Every lunch and dinner was preceded by a welcome drink that contained rum.
CUBAN TRANSPORTATION AND YES, OLD CARS
Nothing says Cuba to America like Rum, Cigars and Old Cars. Our major mode of transportation was a bus that was chartered through the Havana Tourist Agency which also supplied us with a trained tourist guide. When we weren’t on the bus we walked like the majority of Cubans who appear slim, trim and fit. We also took pedicabs which are bicycles decorated with passenger covers and powered by a very strong person who pedaled us to our destination. It goes without saying that the passengers outweighed the operator and he was under a great deal of stress. The husband of on of the group member felt so bad he jumped out of the pedicab and helped by pushing the cab up the hill.
Old cars are everywhere. They serve as luxury taxis. They are colorful and lovingly rebuilt and maintained with locally tooled parts. We were treated one night to a ride through the city in a group of old cars honking, flashing lights making some of our group feel like member of the homecoming court on parade.
The Cubans love Hemingway. We visited his home, the fishing village where his boat was docked and maintained and the Flordita Bar, one of his hangouts where the Daiquiri was invented.
BAY OF PIGS AND PROPAGANDA SIGNS
The Bay of Pigs is the site of the famous invasion that was reportedly supported by the CIA and carried out by Cubans who left the country after the revolution. Many live in Florida. These people along with Cruz and Rubio seem to be the most vocal in their opposition to restoring relations and lifting the embargo.
There are no billboards advertising goods, they all have political statements.
PEOPLE ON THE STREET
The Cuban people are a mix of Spanish settlers, the African Slaves and other Europeans. For the most part the natives were eradicated by the settlers who came after Columbus. The streets are full of people who would love to have their picture taken for a Cuc, the currency of the Cuban visitor that is exchanged at about 87cents to the dollar.
THE FUTURE OF CUBA, IN MY OPINION
I think it is time to restore relations and lift the embargo, it didn’t take a trip to Cuba to convince me. I agree with Anthony Bourbain “ “What next for Cuba? Something is coming. It will come, from out there, but also from within Cuba. It’s already happening — but what is it? Everybody knows, everybody can feel it, it smells like freedom. But will it be victory?” (http://www.eater.com/2015/9/27/9399323/parts-unknown-recap-anthony-bourdain-cuba-season-six-premiere)
I hope the charm doesn’t go down the drain with change. If you want to beat Mc Donalds and Starbucks you had better hurry.