OUR VISIT TO CUBA! – December 2012 By Earl Maucker
When you think of Cuba, many images come immediately to mind; Cigars, fine rum, the constant beat of Latin music and vintage American cars motoring down the streets of Havana. For the more cynical among us, the vision may be of Communist Dictator Fidel Castro, beautiful Spanish architecture in near ruin, and a population desperate to seek a better life. If you actually get a chance to travel to the island nation you will see all of that – and so much more.
If a visit to Cuba is on your bucket list – pack your bags. You may have to wait a few months, but you can go legally and you can experience a cross section of life in Cuba guaranteed to top your expectations – and provide a better perspective of what life is actually like. You may be horrified by the conditions in some areas, but you will also be in awe of its beauty and the spirit of its people.
Although the politically powerful Cuban Americans have continued to voice opposition, there has been a gradual relaxation of trade and travel restriction between Cuba and the USA over the past several years. Restrictions for family members who want to visit relatives in Cuba have eased and even those without families in Cuba are being allowed to travel through a number of American tour companies which are offering U.S. government licensed “People to People” humanitarian and cultural tours to Havana and surrounding provinces. There are nine cities in the U.S. that may soon offer flights to Cuba. From Florida, there are frequent flights now available from Miami and Tampa.
Among the licensed groups offering tours is Friendly Planet Travel which operates out of Jenkintown, PA. They offer two options – a five day trip which focuses mostly on Havana and surrounding communities and a longer eight-day version that includes travel to outlying provinces. Both tours feature visits and interaction with school children and administrators, community centers, senior citizens groups, farming communities and other social centers where ideas, cultures, art, literature, medical knowledge and other areas of interest can be discussed and observed.
In early December my wife, Betsy and I, along with Lighthouse Point Mayor Fred Schorr and his wife Laraine; Steve and Nancy League; and Susan Motley and husband Ken Rubin, took advantage of such a tour offered by Friendly Planet called “Discover Havana: A People to People Program.”
All of us understood that in a communist country like Cuba any tour would be strictly regulated by the Cuban authorities. We would see primarily what they wanted us to see, and for the most part, go where they wanted us to go. From the U.S. side, the itinerary is closely monitored by the U.S. government. For Friendly Planet to maintain their license agreement, they must ensure visitors are participating in the cultural exchanges rather than venturing to Cuba simply for entertainment and recreation. While we were expected to participate in the pre-arranged tours and dinners, there was also a fair amount of free time to go off on our own.
We spent the majority of the first two days in Old Havana walking the ancient cobblestone streets. You can’t help but be captured by its beauty and sense of history. There were parks and plazas every few blocks and while many of the surrounding neighborhoods were in deplorable shape, we were all surprised at the amount of restoration going on throughout the old city. Around every corner were splendid examples of 1700s Spanish Colonial architecture – treasures beyond belief. On both sides of the Port of Havana there are buildings dating back to the 1500 and 1600s.
One of the delights of walking the streets is to see all the vintage American autos. As far as we know, there hasn’t been a new American car in Cuba since the revolution in 1959. As a result, there are many cars from the late 1940s to the late-1950s. These cars maintain their original appearance – although many of the autos have been repainted and customized by salvaged parts. Over the years, the Cubans have used any means possible to keep the vehicles running. It’s safe to say there are very few original parts under the hood. It’s interesting to note that as more American visitors come to Cuba, many are turning these antique cars into taxis as a lure to tourists. As we walked the streets, many of the drivers would try to appeal to us to take pictures – for a price – or take a ride – again, for a price.
While in downtown Havana, we visited restaurants, both government run and private. In a Communist nation like Cuba, most property and businesses are nationalized, or owned by the government. Private ventures are rare. Family owned restaurants – called paladars, are a fairly recent addition to the rare Cuban entrepreneurial scene. They were allowed in the 1990s but on a very limited basis. Some operated under the government radar. However, now, there are more than 300 privately owned restaurants in Havana. In the few we visited we found that the paladars were much more efficient and served better food than the government-run establishments. It was a basic lesson in capitalism. When there is motivation and opportunity, the product is superior. Another rare sight we saw – were apartments and homes for sale. This kind of transaction was prohibited until about a year ago. Housing is either inherited or assigned by the government.
Speaking of commerce, we learned that 53% of all food is imported into Cuba. And, you know which country is one of the largest importers? It’s the U.S. That’s right. In spite of the Helms-Burton bill that prohibits trade with Cuba there are exemptions. The largest trade partners with Cuba are Venezuela, China, Canada, Spain and then the U.S. We got this information during an evening lecture from Jorge Mario Sanchez, a professor at the University in Cuba. He also lectures at Harvard. Sanchez said that tourism in Cuba is “a poison gift.” He said the infrastructure to support intense tourism simply isn’t available and they want work strategically to protect the environment to prevent long-term damage. He said issues between the U.S. and Cuba are very complex. He believes talks will continue under the Obama administration but work to improve the relationship will be “work along the margins rather than a wholesale change in the law.” Clearly there are many economic opportunities for the U.S. – especially in Florida if the issues that separate the two countries can be resolved.
In the meantime, we enjoyed what we could while we were there. Our hotel was the famous Nacional Hotel. This historic beauty was worth the price of admission itself. Sitting on a bluff above the Havana harbor, the hotel was built in 1930 and designed by the architect who developed the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. One of its features is a bar area filled with old photos and historic references to the celebrities, athletes and political notables who visited over the years. Pictures of movie stars like Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney and Errol Flynn adorn the walls. And there are athletes like boxer Rocky Marciano, and baseball great Stan Musial to name just a couple. While the food wasn’t great at the hotel, the accommodations were adequate considering the hotel was built in the 30s and materials necessary for the upkeep are hard to come by. The rooms were comfortable but the furniture, fixtures and overall appearance, a bit worn.
On our second day, we visited an elementary school in an Old Havana historic neighborhood. We dropped off gifts to the school and visited with the school’s principal. Of particular interest were the colorful drawings and quotes celebrating 1959 Revolution. The school was clean and orderly, but desperately needed supplies. Then it was off to a senior citizens center. Again, it appeared to be very well maintained, but we wondered how much of it was for show for tourists. For instance, there were a number of treadmill machines set up in a row, but no plugs to accommodate electricity. There was a daycare center set up on the top floor of the center and it was nice to see the elderly interact with the preschoolers.
We visited a neighborhood where the residents celebrated the African Cuban religion of Santeria which is quite common in Cuban culture. We saw some street art and witnessed some vibrant music and dancing, which – to be honest – was a bit frightening for those of us unaccustomed to such intensity.
On our third day we had a real treat. It started with a visit to Finac Vigia – the Cuban home of Ernest Hemmingway followed by a trip to nearby Cojimar, the fishing village that was the background for his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Old Man and the Sea.” I had visited the home in a previous visit in the 1990s and the transformation to the home today was unbelievable. In my previous trip, the home, his boat, Pinar, and the grounds in general were quite rundown. During this visit, there were dozens of state workers restoring the site. The grounds were well maintained and there was even a souvenir shop nearby. The boat and boathouse had been rebuilt and the house cleaned, painted and organized. We learned that Castro himself oversaw the restoration of Hemmingway’s boat. All of this was another reminder of the importance of building tourism in Cuba.
We also stopped by a nearby a community known as Alamar where there are community gardens, called Organoponicos. Residents grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for their own use and they also sell the produce locally. Farmers have very limited access to pesticides and fertilizers which is why organic farming has become popular. They raise worms there to help fertilize the soil and plant a variety of flowers in each row of vegetables which we’re told help confuse insect pests.
That night, we headed back to Old Havana to one of the real highlights of the trip – listening to the famous Buena Vista Social Club featuring authentic old-style Cuban music. There was lots of rum, lots of music and lots of fun.
On our fourth day we traveled to Pinar del Rio Province where we observed another type of farming and land conservation. We visited Las Terrazas which was a former coffee plantation run by French settlers. This province is the home to much of Cuba’s tobacco farming. Las Terrazas was founded shortly after the Cuban Revolution as a kind of model community when a significant reforestation project began. The area is now part of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve. It is a very rural – but one of magnificent scenic beauty. Cubans cannot just move here if they want. They must have permission from the government and be assigned a house to live in. If someone wants to move out, they can, but their home is reassigned to some other family. The best meal of our trip was served outside on a patio overlooking the lush landscape and beautiful scenery.
On our way back from Las Terrazas we stopped at a home and neighborhood decorated by the self-proclaimed “Picasso of the Caribbean,” Jose Fuster. This artist turned his own home and ultimately many houses in his neighborhood into artistic projects mostly using colorful ceramic tile. One man’s art landscape is another’s nightmare. Unique would be the best way to describe it.
On our final night we went to the famous Ambos Mundos Hotel for dinner. This is the hotel where Hemingway lived in the 1930s and reportedly was the place he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Lots of rum – lots of music – you get the idea.
Not on our itinerary, but a must stop for anyone visiting Cuba is the Museum of the Revolution. We went off on our own on the last morning before our flight back to the U.S. As you would expect, the overthrow of U.S. backed president and military leader Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro is the source of great celebration. The museum is housed in a beautiful building which was once the presidential palace – a grand structure of enormous importance and spectacular architecture. Relics including arms, tanks, documents and photographs were on display. The vessel Granma, which Castro used to ferry himself and his band revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba was on display in a separate building adjacent to the palace.
All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. If Cuba is one of those destinations that really is on that bucket list, we highly recommend you give it a try. Once relations with Cuba are opened up, we suspect much of the charm of the Island will disappear as throngs of tourists descend on the nation pushing the infrastructure to the limit.