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Cuba: Island Of Contrasts

Santa Clara, Cuba, September 2014.

The tropical warmth enveloped us as we exited the aircraft. I resisted the temptation to emulate the papist act of kneeling down and kissing the tarmac. I had already established my eccentricity with our pleasant Costa Rican guide by asking her to translate the Spanish masthead of your beloved weekly newspaper. (It turned out to be a common slogan in the land where Che Guevara has been all but deified.) I have been an armchair supporter of the Cuban revolution since the ultraleftists of SDS went there to cut sugarcane (Venceremos Brigade, circa 1970). I declined the invitation, but sometimes wondered what I missed. The missus and I traveled to the beleaguered island on one of the special permits for educational/cultural tours which the US State Department has granted for the past few years.

After a brief wait, a friendly young customs agent asked what was the reason for my visit and what I did at home. People usually smile with mild interest when I tell them that I am a retired locomotive driver from Chicago. He was not an exception. With a grin he stamped my passport. As I left, I shared most of my Spanish with him: "La lucha continua." His smile broadened.

The terminal is a very modest structure with small restrooms that lacked both attendants and toilet paper. Welcome to the Third World. Outside a crowd of Cubans eagerly awaited their rich American relations while stray dogs lounged in the shade. A Chinese-made tour bus was parked a few hundred feet away. Our bus driver and a Cubanatour guide greeted us like old friends. After taking a seat in the front row I discovered my seatbelt to be defective, but the bus was clean and the air-conditioning worked most of the time. We were delayed while a missing suitcase was sought. It was later found in Miami and never made it to Cuba. The mistake was especially inconvenient as local stores are few and poorly stocked since Cubans have virtually no disposable income and the tourist industry is a work in progress.

As soon as the bus left the airport the poverty was obvious. Small, dusty tile-roofed homes and the occasional shabby concrete "micro-brigades" (four-story apartment blocks of Soviet design) lined the highway. A tattered Dora the Explorer blanket fluttered on a clothesline. Old American cars zipped past horse-drawn carts and makeshift wagons.

Once upon a time the Cubans were very dependent on the USSR. The Russians still maintain an imposing embassy on the western edge of Havana. It is a monolithic structure that locals liken to an angular vodka bottle.

Along the main highway are dozens of the most expensive sun shelters in the world. Some bureaucrat once imagined that overpasses would be needed for the cross traffic. In reality there is little traffic even on the main road. Very few of the bridges were ever connected to the secondary roads. They are a shaded respite for the many hitchhikers though. The shoulders of the roads are widely used to graze horses and the skinny government-owned cattle. The animals are usually tethered. The Soviets also began work on a nuclear power plant. (One of Fidel's sons studied to be a nuclear engineer.) This project also was never completed and the site has now been cannibalized for spare parts to run the diesel powered generators that are Cuba's main power source. They are experimenting with solar, wind and ocean-wave generated power, but these options are expensive.

Our first stop was a visit to a nearby retirement home, "Abuelos de Fiesta." I should have asked for memories of pre-revolutionary days. You must be in your eighth decade to have any recollection of that totally corrupt, mafia dominated era. Instead, we learned of old fan courting dance customs and a vaguely croquet like a ball game.

We were free to mix with the locals in the bustling town square, but the only person we spoke with turned out to be a Canadian tourist. Since the demise of the Soviet Union Cuba has turned to tourism in the quest for vital foreign exchange. Many Canadians and Europeans now enjoy Cuban vacations. Our guide somewhat reluctantly admitted that with tourism came petty crime, prostitution and drugs (albeit on a very limited scale).

Another destabilizing force is the recent influx of money and consumer goods from relatives in the United States. Our flight from Miami carried many Cuban Americans loaded down with presents for family members on the island. The average Cuban subsists on the equivalent of less than $15 a month. (Doctors recently got a raise to about $90.) Those working in the tourist industry (even legally) can earn much more. The egalitarian experiment is coming under increasing pressure. Raul Castro openly embraces Chinese style "socialism" — some get rich first.

The modern apartment building across from our hotel (Habana Quinta Avenida) catered to Chinese businesspeople. On the other side was a huge Catholic cathedral from the 50s mouldering in a state of disrepair.

We saw what the Cuban government wished to show us, but our Cubanatour guide did not parrot any party line. When I eventually asked if she was a party member, she vehemently denied it and added that she would never join. She did admit that it was usually necessary to be a member to have such a good job, but her case was an exception.

I also questioned her about the Cuban general (Ocha?) executed for drug smuggling upon his return from Angola 20+ years ago. She candidly told me that some feel his real crime was being a political threat to Fidel.

It is a very plausible explanation for the unfortunate epilogue to the heroic human military assistance in the fight against apartheid there.

Our first two nights were spent at an all inclusive resort (Playa Cayo Santa Maria) at the end of a 20 mile causeway from the town of Remedios. (The workers are bused back and forth each day.) As we exited the bus we filed through a gauntlet of Disney themed costumed staff greeting us with moist towels and glasses of bubbly. The nearby beach is beautifully pristine with miles of white sand. For someone who swims in Lake Michigan, the salty water was almost too warm. I suspect that the accommodations are similar to what is found in Cancun or Jamaica. One slight problem with our trip was that it was our first third-world vacation.

Playa Cayo Santa Maria
Playa Cayo Santa Maria

The people are poor by our standards. We visited a neighborhood ration book store: a tiny corner shop incredibly providing subsidized rice, beans, salt, sugar, etc. to 500 families. (Rum and tobacco are no longer included.) Nevertheless, Cuban statistics for life expectancy and infant mortality rival the United States (and education is free).

A poster at the nearby daycare center (run by the Catholic Church) cautions against the danger of alcohol and we were told that some Cubans do fall through the cracks of their meager welfare state. My wife, Janis, and several other women from our tour danced and played with the healthy, cheerful children of the preschool. We gave them several dozen boxes of crayons lugged from home. They were a suggested gift since crayons (like so many simple items) are not readily available in Cuba.

Of course, Cubans do accept dollars. We are supposed to use the special tourist currency (CUCs, pronounced "kooks") while locals use regular Cuban pesos (worth about one cent). When we visited Che Guevara's huge impressive mausoleum, I wondered if Raul's new economic program had caused the revered revolutionary to turn over in his grave. Among the many artifacts my anthrophilosophical wife noticed was a photograph of Che in a jungle camp reading Goethe! A companero of many interests.

One evening a young Cuban lawyer answered questions about life in Cuba. I pressed him on the effects of the United States embargo which I believe is illegal by our own international trade agreements. He patiently explained how the United States government sues European banks and companies that dare to trade with Cuba. Even docking a vessel in Cuba results in a six-month exclusion from US ports.

The Cubans seek the end of our vindictive policy — it will literally take an active Congress — but I wonder if the resulting deluge of goods and services won't be the death knell of Cuban socialismo. When the personable lawyer blithely dismissed the possibility of Cuban-Americans returning to reclaim their long confiscated property, I made a bit of an ass of myself by bringing up the Zionists' return to Palestine. The group was rightfully confused. All I could offer in my defense was that a bust of Yasir Arafat was prominently displayed on a nearby street corner (as well as other icons at different intersections around the city).

When we stopped at Revolutionary Plaza where Fidel once lectured the masses for hours on end every May Day, I could not resist asking our tour guide if she knew where May Day originated. She admitted that she didn't know. I pedantically provided the little-known answer: the Chicago anarchist movement of the 1880s.

I was given a very uplifting video last year: The Power of Community — How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took the Cuban economy with it. Gross domestic product dropped by nearly half, electricity was available only a few hours a day, parts for Soviet built tractors and other machinery were unavailable. The average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. It is known as the Special Period. Cuba survived by making a dramatic shift to local, organic agriculture powered by animal and human labor. Urban gardens sprouted everywhere. These gardens are of course still common in the countryside and the grassy area near our Havana hotel is used to graze forces. Eventually, with the help of Venezuela, oil again became available. We toured a small — about 20 acres — organic farm "Finca Agroecologica." The proprietor admitted that of the 50 or so members of his cooperative, his was the only farm that was still organic. Everyone else has reverted to conventional, fossil fuel-based farming. Most of the urban vegetable plots lie fallow. The lure of cheap oil may be irresistible but another way is possible when push comes to shove.


We also visited Benito's small family-run tobacco farm, "Finca Paraiso." He joked about marijuana smoking in the United States as he demonstrated his cigar rolling skill. Inside his modest home we were treated to cigars and an espresso with a rum option. In the yard he proudly opened the hood of his 1956 Buick Special to reveal the Toyota motor that now powers it. It is still illegal to bring back cigars or rum from Cuba, but we later purchased several boxes of cigars and a bottle of rum. In Miami US Customs inserted an inspection slip into our luggage but the contraband was undisturbed.

Also on our itinerary was the Hemingway Museum. His home and gardens have been carefully restored. Another stop was the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, an impressive Victorian collection of monuments from the days when some Cubans were quite wealthy.

We also toured an art school, two community artists cooperatives, a print shop with functioning presses from the 20s, and a crafts market on the waterfront. Public transport was crowded and even the beds of trucks were often filled with people. The schoolchildren are dressed in simple uniforms and no one has a cellphone. Advertising (aside from political themes) is nonexistent. There are very few police to be seen.

While on an architectural tour of old Havana I noticed a small blue and white placard affixed to a balcony railing. When I questioned our guide she said it was the location of the meetings of a Civil Defense committee. She seemed slightly uncomfortable with my question. Some claim that these local groups exist to snitch on their "counterrevolutionary" neighbors. I believe that paranoia is sometimes justified. In Chicago many windows have signs stating, "We called the police."

When we toured a neighborhood policlinic we learned that Cuba has an aging and shrinking population (so does affluent Japan). Even here there are no computers available for the medical staff. A poster in the spartan clinic shows a middle-aged Fidel, AK-47 raised high, extolling the benefits of the socialist revolution.

Another poster lets the patients know the cost (in pesos) of their free healthcare (to discourage waste). We were told that Cuba "rents out doctors" to foreign countries. When I quietly suggested that property is rented, and a better term might be "subcontracts," our tour guide patiently listened and later shared the more neutral translation with the group. Her English was very good, but I couldn't help telling her that we go on wild goose "chases" not "hunts."

She cautioned us about a Cuban idiom: do not say how much you enjoy eating papaya as the listener might think that you are referring to cunnilingus.

We missed the Buena Vista Social Club outing and our farewell dinner as we both succumbed to "Montezuma's revenge." Was this my just desserts for being a naive cheerleader for a flawed social experiment? We probably should not have brushed our teeth with the tap water. Thank the Goddess for Imodium (brought from home at the suggestion of Janis's hairstylist).


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