Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thoughts on Cuba

 I have always wanted to visit Cuba.  For years, my cousin Selma and I would talk about it at the family reunion every July.  Last summer, she warned me not to launch off across the Gulf of Mexico without at least extending the invitation to her.  And out of the blue, I also learned that my younger son had a keen interest, as well.

     Back during the days of Cuban-American normalization of relations, I worried that once the restrictions were removed, Americans would rush in and ruin everything before I could visit.  In the current climate of abnormalization of, well, just about everything, that now seems a quaint concern.  Then last November, John Bolton started blathering about the "Troika of Tyranny,"  signaling a possible tightening of current restrictions against Cuba, including travel.  How could I not go?
     The three of us took advantage of a narrow window of opportunity between the New Year and the beginning of the Spring semester.  Travel to Cuba is inexpensive and easier than we are led to believe, as long as you are prepared to play the game of semantics with our officials, if needed.  So, after 5 days in Havana and 2 days in Trinidad on the south coast, here are, in no particular order other than the first, my thoughts on Cuba, as follows:

  • The Cuban people are some of the most open, welcoming and hospitable people that I have ever encountered in my travels.  In the past, that honor was always reserved for citizens of the Republic of Georgia.  To my Georgian friends, I will just say that now you have some stiff competition.
  • The world comes to Cuba, and more than a few Americans.  There are many direct flights from Canada, Mexico and Central and South America, as would be expected.  But there are also direct flights from all over Europe, and even Istanbul.  The fellow travelers one meets are from all over the world, and the pleasures of a Cuban vacation are no novelty to them.  Flights from the U.S. are centered in Florida--Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, with an additional flight out of Atlanta and Newark, I believe.  The Cubans seems particularly pleased that an increasing trickle of Americans are rediscovering their country, despite the rhetoric out of Washington (this of course does not address the flow of Cuban-Americans back and forth from South Florida, bringing in appliances and electronic gear as they come.)
  • The Cuban people seem disinclined to talk about politics, either to laud theirs or to discount ours (no doubt a wise habit of self-preservation that they have taken on in the last 70 years or so.)  Travellers one meets are curious about the predicament we find ourselves in now, and Latin Americans are particularly sympathetic, as many of them have had long experience with bullying tinhorn dictators such as ours.  
  • It would be just as wrong to suggest that everyone is fat and happy in this worker's paradise as it is for us to believe that all Cubans are yearning to break free of the Communist yoke.   I did not at all witness a sullen, downtrodden populace, under the heavy boot of a police state (as Bolton et al would have you believe).  People were going about their daily lives, as happy I suppose, as people elsewhere.  No doubt there are those who feel frustrated at the constraints inherent to their system (and the exodus of the upper and middle classes during the Revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand).  BUT, the Cuban people receive some of the best medical care in the world, all free.  Their college education is also free.  They pay no rent.  Free public transportation is readily available.  And food staples are heavily subsidized.  Would they give all this up for more "opportunity?"  I wonder.
  • Yes, there is still grinding poverty in Cuba.  This failure of the Revolution to live up to its ideals of equalizing conditions is perhaps the most powerful indictment against it.  But, there seems to be no hunger.  Cuba feeds itself.  And one finds, particularly in Havana, Cubans living is enviable locales, dressing smartly, and dining at the nice restaurants along with the tourists.  I do not understand, exactly, how all this happens--surely there has to be something more than just luck of the draw.  We were talking to one young couple--he had spent a few years in Montana, of all places--who lived in a choice terraced flat overlooking the plaza in front of the former Presidential Palace (now the Museo de la Revolucion).  After talking awhile, we learned that yes, his parents lived there with them, and before that it had been his grandfather's apartment.  So there is a continuity, in some respect, of residence, Revolution or not.  I suspect there is quite a lot of that.  Much of the old elite residential areas are given over to embassies and headquarters.  (One wonders why Venezuela, a country with real relations with Cuba is housed in a simple Arts and Crafts Mansion, while the U.S., which has few relations with Cuba is housed in an ugly high rise facing the Malecon.)
  • Cuban food is quite good and healthy--heavy on the fruits and fruit juices for breakfast and heavy on the rice for other meals.  They seem less bread-centric than we are (or at least, I am).  And the servings are more than generous.  For a Texan, I would have to say that it can be a bit bland at times, though this hardly registers as a complaint.
  • Our trade restrictions are just wrong-headed.  It only strengthens the government's position, as economic woes can be blamed on our embargo.  And restrictions on the importation of Cuban rum to the U.S. is a self-inflicted wound for us.
  • Cubans suffer from a bit of the same affliction as some Southerners.  To listen to some of my compatriots, you would think that the Civil War was the only thing that ever happened in the South.  In Cuba, someone would also be forgiven for concluding that the Revolution was the only thing that ever happened here of note.
  • We toured the Museo de la Revolucion, which we found to be fascinating.  I do think, however, that they overplay their hand a bit when it comes to the CIA.  Every bad thing that ever happened is blamed on the CIA, with no proof offered.  Mind you, I do not think that the CIA is innocent of this sort of thing at all.  I just believe it gives them far too much credit.  Just look at all the times they tried to assassinate Castro, who died at 90 in his own bed.
  • I would have to say that music in Cuba is, quite literally, "in the air."  One does not have to go far to hear the salsa beat somewhere, and the Cuban people are quick to break out in dance.  My travelling companions took full advantage of this.  
  • The vintage automobiles are a real thing--a tribute to Cuban ingenuity that so many of them are still on the road.  In Havana, they are primarily the domain of taxi drivers and/or companies, with the convertibles catering to open air tours for the visitors.  In the countryside, one suspects that the vintage cars are used by individuals.
  • Over here, one gets the idea that Havana is a crumbling city.  This is only partly true.  Make no mistake, architecturally, Havana is a grand city.  Beautiful old neo-classical,  beaux arts and art deco buildings predominate around the numerous parks, plazas and public spaces.  Sure, there is modern ugliness, but it rarely mars the traditional neighborhoods.  Many structures are undergoing restoration and fresh coats of paint.  It seems these will be relatively luxurious flats, and I am not exactly sure the clientele intended for them.  And yet, one also sees many grand old structures tumbling down--the Teatro Capitolio, for example, not a few yards from the Capitol grounds.  Often these buildings are blocked off, with some shoring-up in evidence, and with scafolding surround the building.  But, vines sometimes wind their way around to the very top of the scafolding, and trees sometimes peak out from the collapsed roofs of the buildings, indicated years of inactivity.  In short, the Cuban government realizes what they have, but with limited resources seem to be doing the best that they can.
  • The inefficiencies of a state-run system can stand out to utilitarian-minded Americans.  Credit cards are worthless in Cuba.  Every visitor must bring enough cash to convert to Cuban CUCs.  And this must be done at the airport, if for nothing more than to be able to pay for your taxi into the city.  So, with all the visitors pouring into the one international airport, one would think that more than one government employee in the currency exchange booth might be needed; or that there at least could be another employee in the ready to take over when that employee went on break. 

     I am sure I can think of other things to say, and when I do, I will update this list.  I am a little under the weather at present, so will draw this to a close.  The best recommendation I can give for Cuba is the fact that, given enough time, I plan to return.  And I have to say something about my two travelling companions.  When it comes to travel, someone has to put the plan together and arrange all the logistical matters.  That would be me.  And then there are those who make things happen once the plan is in play.  That would Selma and my younger son.  I would travel anywhere with either or both of them.