"---the whole country was like one of its ancient cars, stalled, or hardly moving, a dinosaur jalopy running on empty, and being coaxed by patience and resourcefulness and sheer will power alone to bum and stumble along a street where all the lights were down."
Pico Iyer: Cuba and The Night
I wrote in my journal towards the end of our recent trip to this island country: Que es Cuba? What is Cuba? We've been back now for almost a week and I am still struggling to summarize the melange of impressions I have of the country and its people. Pico Iyer's quote says it well, but it is even more. Perhaps it's best if I share with you some of the many activities we engaged in on the trip and the Cuban people who went out of their way to make our time there educational, fascinating, and fun.
Warning: this is my longest post ever!
We arrived at the Mexico City airport early on the morning of October 14th, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs which almost pushed our country to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Check out the history if you need refresher course;we did. Tired after three great but busy days in Mexico City and arising early to get to the airport in time for our 8:45 am flight, we were not prepared for the huge crowd that greeted us at Cubana airlines counter. They were all talking Spanish, gesticulating in that special Latin way, and pulling enormous suitcases and boxes wrapped in visqueen. As we got in line a woman holding two large plastic bags, approached me and asked if I would take the bags to Cuba. It took me awhile to understand but I fianlly realized what she was hoping was that I would bring some goods to her relatives in Cuba. It is said that Cubana airlines doesn't make its profit from passengers but from the enormous amount of cargo it transports each day from Mexico city where many Cubanos now reside. Knowing that the US blockade has prevented their friends and relatives from getting even the daily necessities like soap, shampoo and household items, they seek to help. The woman seemed to understand when I refused to take her bags and said in Spanish: "Oh, don't worry---I understand." Welcome to Cuba! I thought as I paid the $700 pesos requested at the counter (350 pesos each for Gary and me, which amounts to about $30/each US) for our tourist visas.
After 2.5 hours flight, we bumped down at the Havana airport, disembarqued and walked through the long lines to the immigration counters. Fortunately, the travel agency which helped with the details of our trip sponsored by the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, had a gentleman in a red shirt holding up our name to greet us. Carlos proceeded to guide us through the process. We had to present our academic visas, which he gave us before we stepped into a private cubicle one at a time and were photographed (Why, we didn't find out---just procedural, I guess.) Carlos was waiting on the other side and led us to the CADESA, the counter where we could exchange our money. We learned ahead of time that travelers cannot use credit cards or travelers checks drawn on any US bank or even foreign banks with US ownership. Yes, it's that damn embargo...excuse the expression. Cuba has two currencies in circulation, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso or CUC. Almost everything one would need to spend money on there will be in CUCs. When you arrive you can exchange whatever currency you have into CUCs. The usd now exchanges 1:1 with the CUC. However, there is a 10% surcharge on the usd because the US Treasury Departmenet has made it difficult for Cuba to use US dollars in its international trade. The 10% is to cover their extra expenses in getting around that harrassment by the U.S.. We learned it was advisable to exhange our dollars into Canadian ones at home---that way, no surcharge. Just throwing this in as a little educational info in case you should go. By the way there are 25 Cuban pesos to a dollar and most people earn very few pesos a month. Of course, they have free health care and education. We were to learn later by talking to young people though that there is much malaise. They don't see the sence of working hard because they have no incentive. They cannot improve their salaries even with hard work. The government seems to be recognizing this problem and they are in a period of big changes. Now, they can open small businesses, like family owned restaurants and small tiendas (shops).
Carlos got us into a taxi, waved adios and off we went to the neighborhood known as Vedado where our Hotel Paseo Habana was located, and where we would meet our group of fellow travelers. Violeta, our leader, is a lovely Mexicana who lived for seventeen years in the US and has recently moved back to Chiapas, Mexico. She was an intelligent and vivacious leader. We were the first to arrive, so we had a good time getting to know her before the others came. We also had time to go off on our own and walk the streets of Vedado, an old Havana neighborhood showing the signs of wear and tear on its many old Neo-classical buildings and homes, some now converted to multiple family dwellings, cultural centers, a writers and artists union and sometimes paladors, family owned restaurants. We learned "Vedado" means "Forbidden." People who lived here and in the neighboring area called Miramar were trying to get away from the noise and congestion of "Viejo Havans," old Havana. There's even an old park in the neighborhood known as the John Lennon Park with a bronze likeness of John sitting on a park bench. Many of us took advantage of this photo op. The Yellow Submarine is across the street.
We walked ten blocks to the Malacon, the walkway along the Caribbean, where there are a few large hotels co owned by foreign countries such as Spain along with the Cuban government. They split the revenue 40/60%. The famous Hotel National was a few blocks away---known for its heyday when the US mafia built it and used it for the center of its nefarious activities. We learned that in those days back in the 30's, 40's and 50's, under the dictatorship of Bautista, the US owned 80% of Cuba's industry. Not unusual---remember United Fruit Company in Nicaragua?
First impressions during our walk were of a country frozen in another time: people driving old cars from the 50's, horse drawn carts, old motocycles with sidecars certainly contributed to this impression as well as the old buildings and pictures of Che Gueverra and Fidel in the early days of the Revolution.
When we got back to our hotel Violeta introduced us to our just arrived group of 5 woman fellow travelers, two from Boston, one from New York, another from New Mexico and one from Washington D.C. Gary was the only guy in the group but didn't seem to mind. We all kidded him about the amount of dancing he was going to have to do. After a fun reception where we met our hosts, the Society of Philosophy, responsible for planning all of the ten days activities, we enjoyed a drink on the front porch where we could relax in big old wooden rockers. For the next ten days this was our gathering place before taking off for the day's activities, some shared lunches and dinners. We were also given free time to walk or take taxis whereever we wanted, but were encouraged to honor our hosts by being on time for all planned activities. These included visits to cultural centers, a music school, the National Dance School for students 14-19. Many past graduates have become world renowned such as the famous ballerina, Alicia Alonzo. One of our group was a former dancer and ballet enthusiast. She, along with us, loved it when the students invited us to dance with them to some lively Cuban music. We also visited the University where our daily tour guide, Rosita, is working for her doctorate. Since education is free, many Cubans are highly educated. I particularly enjoyed our visit to a famous art school where the students and faculty proudly showed off their printmaking, sculpture and paintings. The high level of talent and skill is worthy of mention.
We visited the National Museum of the Revolution and remarked on a large bust of Abraham Lincoln much admired in Cuban society for "freeing the slaves"---of course there is a huge AfroCuban population and one of the goals of the Revolution was to end racism which, on the surface, they have done. We understand that some racial tensions are re-emerging but we didn't see any evidence of this. Only time will tell. We also saw the boat that was given to Fidel and Che during the Revoluton by an American Fisherman. He named the boat "Granma" after his grandmother and today the only Cuban daily newspaper is called "Granma." The original boat has been on display since 1974. An important annoucement came out on the front page of "Granma" on the third day of our visit: the government announced that now Cubans are free to travel anywhere in the world they wish without having to get an invitation as before, as long as they can get a Visa from that country. It's a very big change and we could see the Cuban's enthusiastic response.
We had presentions many days for two to three hours at the nearby Jose Marti Cultural Center from Professors of Political Science talking about Cuba's Electoral System, the history of Cuba's Liberation from the Spanish in the 1800's and later their Revolution in the 50's led by Fidel Castro, Che Gueverra and Camilo. We learned about the tremendous suffering of the people after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner after President Eisenhower refused to help the country following the Revolution of 1959, and the overthrow of Bautista. The US still maintains as you know, one of the military bases there, Guantanamo, which is Cuban property. They also have a large building right in Havana called the American Interest Section employing about 100 US citizens, where Cubans must go for Visas. So, in spite of the great economic anguish the US has caused Cuba they have no designs for revenge on us---Cubans are open and friendly. They do talk about the nine years following the fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union as being years of extreme poverty, hardship and pain. With increasing tourism, Cuba has been working its way back to stability, but there is evidence everywhere of the toll that the US embargo (known by them as the"blockade") has taken. Once beautiful old Neo-classical buildings of multiple stories are crumbling from lack of money to maintain them. They are often now inhabited by multiple families. Others, built in the style of the fifties, influenced by the Bauhaus movement and appearing more "modern" are also crumbling---no longer private homes but places for cultural centers, government offices, workers unions, etc.
One area in which Cuba is highly developed is medicine. One telling indicator of this is Cuba's low infant mortality rate. As of last year there were only 5.4 deaths per 1000 births, the lowest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere---lower than in the U.S. Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world---in all, some 130 thousand healthcare professionals and has been able to send its medical personnel to assist in many of the poorest regions of the world. To learm more about this see the film "Salud" a documentary film available from NetFlix. Through its Latin American School of Medicine, Cuba gives free medical education to hundreds of poor youth from elsewhere in Latin America, Africa and even from the U.S. with the sole stipulation that graduates return to those poor areas to practice medicine for the people.
A presentation by Dr. Olga Fernandez Rios, a Ph.D in Political Theory taught us much about the Cuban political and electoral system, which in many ways seemed more democratic than our system so bogged down with the electoral college. If anyone is interested I am transcribing my notes and would be happy to send them to you. It's too much to put in this blog. The main accomplishments, she said, of the Revolution were: one, the throwing off of the cloak of colonialism, and two, the opportunity to overcome social inequities. The Revolution consolidated political power which delivered security, dignity and a sense of participation in democracy. Social justice became a main premise for development. Agrarian Reform redistributed land to the peasants and laborers, and created food security for all. Housing reform meant that now 85% of Cubans own their own homes, albeit small and run-down from what we could tell. There is a universal and publicly managed system of social security and retirement for all and a National System of Education free of charge at all levels. Universal and free health care is also a result of the Revolution. Life expectancy is higher than in the U.S.: age 77 for men and 80 for women. These are just a few of the many things we learned.
A few more facts about the country: Cuba is a small archipeligo with 1,600 islets in the Caribbean Sea. It has a population of 11.300, 000 people, 15 provinces and 169 municipalities. The capitol of course, is Havana with a population of 2 million. One quarter of the island is low lying planes, carpeted with sugar, citrus, tobacco and vegetable crops. Though, admittedly, we sometimes wondered where the vegetables were in our daily restaurant meals. We found the food preparation and variety somewhat lacking. Often, even in our hotel, where our breakfasts were included, the staff would have to apologize because they were out of certain things. Ordering ice cream cones one day we discoved that paper was scarse when we asked for a napkin to soak up our dripping cones. "There are none" was the answer. Small things we take for granted like this woke us up to how much the "blockade" has hurt the country and its people. They seem amazingly resilient and resourceful, in spite of these conditons. We enjoyed watching guys repairing their old cars along the sidewalks, tools spread out right there where we were walking: an old chevy might have a recycled engine from a Ford, or visa versa.
Another highlight was the day we were driven out to the country in our luxurious tour bus (Cuba imported over 5000 of these recently from China, a plus for their tourist industry). We went to Venalis, a beautiful region southwest of Havana, known for its many limestone caves. The surrounding mountains, lush green land, trees, birds and flowers were rewarding to see. Hiking down into the caves was also a thrill.
We visited a small neighborhood in Havana and learned much about the Af-rican influenced religion practiced by many known as Santeria with its gods and goddesses going back to the roots of these African Cubans. The all-woman band accompanied dancers dressed in costumes representing the gods as they performed for us in a small off-street courtyard. Another day, some of us took a private taxi out to a small Havana neighborhood where Jose Fustor has created a maze of marvelous mosaic creations.
(You can google this.)
Our last day in Havana included a visit to a huge warehouse of individually owned craft stalls. Though much of what was for sale was mass produced and similar in style, probably even from China, there were exceptions in the number of original paintings by Cuban artists, wood carvings and jewelry. We ended the day back at the Jose Marti Cultural Center for a lovely party organized by our hosts and featuring a nationally known AfroAmerican(their name) group of musicians, singers, dancers and a poet. Snacks were served and the music and dancing was wonderful. The sensous movements of the dancers, in time with the AfroCuban music, was thrilling.
"Que es cuba?": Cuba is an island, a country, a people of many colors, an idea, a revolutionary experiment born from the ideals of its national hero, Jose Marti, poet and dreamer, and from its leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Gueverra. Cuba is a beautiful land of flowers, birds and green mountains, and Cubanos are coffee and cream, moving to the rhythms of salsa and rumba, proud of their culture but dreaming of a better life---una vida mejore---sometime in the near future.