Visit to Cuba in April 2001
In 2001, Cuba has the allure of forbidden fruit for the US traveler because it is just 90 miles from the US and yet illegal for most Americans to visit. Cuban and US histories are intertwined with many serious attempts by the US government to acquire Cuba in the 19th century. As a member of the Travelers Century Club, a club for those who have visited over 100 countries and which has a special US State Department license, I was able to travel to Cuba legally. I took a charter flight on Falcon Air from Miami to Havana -- a brief 47 minute flight on a half empty 727, but you were required to be there 4 hours prior to the flight because of the paperwork. Luggage and hand luggage were carefully weighed. It cost me $12 to be 6 pounds over the 44 pound limit.
I joined 10 others plus our tour guide, Herbert Goebels (no relation to Hitlers Minster of Propaganda), who has visited 277 of the 313 countries of the world. Herbert is an excellent leader, a real professional. The 10 travelers averaged 175 countries -- an extremely well-traveled group. For example, all but one had visited Antarctica. While in Cuba we also had a local Cuban guide, Sergio Parea, and 2 drivers for our large comfortable Volvo tour bus. Sergio was adapt at explaining the Cuban point of view. Herbert and Sergio were with us the entire 11 day visit (April 26 to May 7) to Cuba. We stayed in the best available hotels and enjoyed live music at every lunch and dinner.
We spent two days in Havana seeing the sights including Old Havana, with its beautiful facades. Havana, founded in 1515, was the most fortified city of the New World and it was successfully invaded only once. In 1762, the British conquered Havana and held Cuba for 11 months before trading it back to Spain for Florida. Today, most of Havana, a city of 2.2 million, is in disrepair and crumbling, but restoration work is finally in progress on portions of the city. Be sure to see the June 1999 National Geographic magazine for information about Cuba and Havana. At the time Castro came to power on January 1, 1959, Cuba had the highest standard of living in Latin America. Now the minimum wage is $5 -- per month. Since Cuba is a socialist country, there is a maximum wage as well -- $25 a month. There has been nation-wide rationing since 1962 for food, soap, clothing, gasoline, etc. Each family gets a monthly ration book. To keep the system going after the collapse of the socialist countries in 1989, Castro allowed farmers markets to exist. He also made the US dollar legal tender in 1993 along with the Cuban peso. So for the whole 11 days I was in Cuba, I spent only US dollars. All Cubans are very eager to get US dollars. The average Cuban viewed me as if I was a Billionaire because I was spending each day for hotel and food the equivalent of their average annual wage. Cubans are not allowed to visit hotels.
In Havana, you see thousands of US cars from the 1950s, Russian cars from the 70s and 80s and a few modern cars. One-horse cabs are common as are egg motorcycles with an open air plastic bubble holding 2 passengers. Pedicabs are common in other cities. Horses are also used to haul cargo. Public transportation is in 300 person camels pulled by trucks or in trucks themselves.People are jammed in. Car traffic is light and there are no parking meters or parking regulations. Today Cuba is a poor country. This is surprising because of its mild climate, fantastic tourist attractions, arable land and historical development before Castro.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, Cuba was inhabited by the Taino Indians, their word for tobacco was tobacco! One highlight in Havana was a visit to the Pantagas Cigar factory. It is located just behind the Capitol building where it was founded in 1845. People were causally dressed in the factory, and typical, beautiful Cuban music was playing loudly. Women and men of various ages are the artisans who make the cigars. One old woman was constantly puffing on a huge specially made cigar. All cigars are still made by hand. Twenty different cigars including all of the world-famous brands are created in this factory. The cigars being packed into a box are sorted and resorted to achieve a perfect color gradient. Each cigar is individually turned to its best side. This factory is the embodiment of Demings (an American quality expert beloved in Japan) first principle of constancy of purpose. They make the worlds best cigars and always have. This factory is older than the Cuban flag (1850) and has survived 3 revolutions -- so far.
We visited the old U.S. Embassy building, near the monument to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine blown up in 1898. It now houses the US Special Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy. We received a briefing from the US Principal Officer, Ambassador Vicki Huddleston and one of her staff. Ambassador Huddleston, a career diplomat, was very well spoken and surprisingly frank.The current US government policies toward Cuba have failed and basically we are waiting for the biological solution to occur. Thus, this was my before Castro dies trip to Cuba. I supported our U.S. Marines, who guard the embassy, by buying a T-shirt they had designed. Everyone wants your dollars in Cuba!
During the Elian Gonzales affair, Castro built a football-field sized public place in front of the US embassy for crowds to demonstrate. Castro turned this incident into an enormous propaganda victory. He had a statue built of Jose Martí, the father of Cuban independence, holding Elian on his shoulder while pointing an accusing finger at the embassy. Vicki Huddleston said her retort was that what Jose Martí is really saying to Elian is: There is where you can get your visa to the United States.
Early the next morning, we boarded an old Russian cargo plane converted for passenger use (one window per 4 rows) to make a 150 minute flight to Baracoa, at the other (Eastern) end of Cuba. Here on October 27, 1492, Columbus made his second landing in the New World. There is an emotional impact to read a copy of his log (una montaña alta y cuadrada) while seeing the uniquely rectangular mountain above Baracoa. Since the Church was closed, we were unable to see the cross Columbus left. Today Baracoa, a town of about 50,000 with few tourists, is a perfect place to get an idea of the real state of Cuba. Many people asked me for my old clothing.
In Baracoa, Cubas first Capitol, we also saw the statue of Hatuey, the local Indian Chief who in 1512 refused to convert to Roman Catholism. He was told that if he did not convert he would be burned alive and never go to Heaven. He had only one question of his tormentors: Will there be Spanish in Heaven?. He was told Of course. Then light the fire because I do not want to go to any place where there are Spanish. They burned him alive - the first rebel in the New World.
The next morning we visited a local school and watched a first grade class, dressed in uniforms, recite poems, sing the national anthem and read out loud. The reading level was impressive and universal literacy is one of the real achievements of the revolution. In 1961, Castro closed the universities for 10 months and sent the students to the countryside to teach everyone to read.
Then we took our tour bus to Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba and visited the Moncada barracks, the site of Castro's abortive attack July 26, 1953. On the way, we passed by Guantanamo naval base where the US government has 14,000 people. The border is sealed preventing any visit, but we did go to an observation point, used by the Russians in the past, to look down on the base. We were not able to see McDonalds, the only one in Cuba.
In Santiago de Cuba, a city of 440,000, we attended the annual May Day parade. Over 100,000 people paraded by, but far fewer observed the parade. It was a festive and friendly atmosphere.It should be noted that although Russia contributed over $150 billion to Cuba over a 30 year period, there is very little evidence and no public credit for their contribution. We did see San Juan Hill famous for Teddy Roosevelt and the charge of Rough Riders in 1898 which lead to his becoming President 3 years later. By the way, to help pay for that war, Congress instituted a 3% temporary tax on telephone service which we still pay! As part of gaining its independence from Spain, Cuba did send the bones of Columbus back to Spain where they are enshrined in the Cathedral in Seville. After defeating the Spanish, the US Government administered Cuba until May 20,1902.
The next day, we took the tour bus to Camaguey, the third largest city. Camaguey is laid out in a confusing medieval street pattern. All the major cities of Cuba were founded in the early 16th century -- soon they will be 500 years old. The local spandex-clad prostitutes (called jinetera in Spanish or literally jockey) were very aggressive and would grab hold of foreign men as they walked on the streets. The highlight in Camaguey was a chance encounter with the local choir. Five of us discovered 13 women practicing with their leader. Although the sheets of music were old and tattered, the voices were heavenly. The leader stopped the practice, invited in the rest of the choir (13 men) and we received an impromptu presentation of 3 songs sung acappella. What a superb and beautiful blending of 26 voices! The first song, a religious cantata written by a Columbian woman with the first name of Isabel, was as magnificent a presentation as I have ever heard! This group was so poor they didnt even have a tape for sale. We left a nice contribution. While waiting for our late tour bus, 2 of us practiced our skills at a rifle range shooting air rifles which encouraged local Cubans to have a friendly contest with us. This was good friendly fun.
The next day, we went onward via tour bus to another UNESCO world heritage site: Trinidad, the best preserved Spanish colonial town in the New World. See the article in the October 1999 National Geographic magazine. There was a scuba dive center at the hotel, but I did not have my documentation with me. Ray Woods, another member of the group, also lacked proper documents, but had a plastic membership card to PADI. Our fast talking and the local desire for dollars solved the problem. We had a wonderful dive and saw a large moray eel among the beautiful corals. We also used a local taxi, a 1955 Chevy, which ran fairly well in spite of an occasional backfire.
After 2 days in Trinidad at a beach-front resort hotel packed with Europeans, we boarded our tour bus and headed to what the Cubans call Playa Giron and what we call Bay of Pigs. Today this area remains as it was in 1961, a remote, lightly-inhabited, swampy area on the south side of the island just 2 hours by car or tank to Havana. We visited the museum to the Cuban victory which contains photos of each of the 156 Cuban soldiers who were killed during the 3 day battle. This failed invasion by 1200 US government-supported soldiers had many long term impacts, but to appreciate them we need a quick history refresher or lesson.
After Castro came to power in 1959, he nationalized all US businesses and farm holdings in Cuba. In early 1961, he publicly declared he was a communist. The CIA had planned an invasion using Cuban freedom fighters. At the last moment, President Kennedy did not supply the promised US air cover, guaranteeing failure. Castro personally lead the defeat of the invasion. On the US side, 200 were killed, and the US government was forced to ransom about 1000 men. When Khrushchev saw how weak Kennedy was just 90 miles from his own border, he reasoned correctly that Kennedy would do nothing in Berlin, so 110 days later the Berlin wall went up. Kennedy responded by greatly increasing US military involvement in Viet Nam, moving from the role of military advisors to full combat participants. Another consequence of this invasion failure was the intense alignment of Cuban Americans, a million refugees from Cuba who settled in Florida, with the Republican party. Thus, in a bizarre twist, John Kennedys 1961 decision to deny air cover was to have the consequence of tipping Florida and the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
In Havana we attended the show at the Tropicana.Although today the chorus girls wear bras, it did give an idea of what the topless show must have been like in the 1950s. The Tropicana is an outdoor nightclub with seven stages and innumerable costume changes during the high-kicking review. There were probably no Cubans in the audience since it cost the equivalent of 4 months wages to attend.
The following morning we visited the ranch home on the eastern outskirts of Havana where Ernest Hemingway lived for 20 years. You are not allowed in his home, but can go around and look in the windows and doors. The house is loaded with books and bookcases. Two dozen stuffed heads of African game are the main wall decoration. Hemingway had a bad leg so he stood while typing putting his typewriter on a large dictionary on top of a bookcase. He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1954 and donated his medal to the Cuban people. Hemingway was a heavy drinker and enjoyed the national rum drink in Cuba, the mojito. In 1960, he met Castro at a fishing tournament which Castro won. It was their only meeting and a few months later Hemingway left Cuba for Spain after living in Cuba for 20 years. We also visited the town of Colimar where Hemingway kept his boat. There is a statue of him there and someone had left a floral wreath. Today Colimar is the favorite place for Cubans to escape on boats to the USA.
The return flight to Miami was an emotional experience. Every seat was filled. There were 8 or 9 people in wheelchairs. Most people were taking their first airplane flight. One woman of 75 was typical. Her 3 sons had fled Cuba for Florida in 1980 and she had not seen them since. The crowd in the arrival hall in Miami was huge. You could feel the high emotional level in the room. The Cubans were wearing their best clothes -- some 40 years old.
Overall impressions of Cuba are varied and compelling. The skyscapes and landscapes are stunning with wonderful trees. The cities are crumbling with some restoration work in progress and no graffiti. The whole country is in a kind of time warp, untouched by many of the changes of the last 40 years. There are a lot of people standing around and few of them are fat. The people are friendly and multiracial. Boys are playing baseball in the streets everywhere. Cuba is one of the few countries where baseball is a passion. The climate is very mild so it is common to see men go shirtless, but no pierced ears and few tattoos. The country loves music. Horses are used for transportation. The Chinese supply all the bicycles. Both the people and the government want to have US dollars. Tourists (2,000,000 this year) are the number one source of national income, ahead of sugar cane. Canada is first in tourism followed by Italy, France, England and Germany. Statues of Jose Martí and photos of Che Guevara are common, but not Castro. TV is his medium. There are power outages. There is a serious housing shortage, so young couples have to live with their parents. Every night they put the mattress down in the living room and may be interrupted during intimacy when some family member wanders in. . .
No one knows what will happen in Cuba after Castro dies. He is 75. Castro has been in power for over 40 years and is a dictator with 9 lives. Imagine, in a country that is nominally Roman Catholic, to eliminate Christmas as a holiday! Castro restored Christmas a couple of years ago. He has zigzagged as necessary to remain in power. He used the Russians to his own ends. He has outwitted every American President he has faced. Clearly he is a nationalist and a socialist. His burning nationalism is the fuel that has kept him in power. He is not a typical dictator who loots the country for his own gain. The secret of his staying power is that he is a patriotic dictator with a strong secret police force. So in spite of the clear economic disaster that his socialistic economics have brought to Cuba, he remains in power. In fact, 70% of Cubans have been born since he came to power. Since he is such a hard-core revolutionary devoting his whole life to changing history, my guess is that there is a high probability that he will die on a historic date. Some potential death dates for him which would have political significance because of their 50th anniversaries are: July 26, 2003, the attack on the Moncada barracks; early December 2006, the voyage of the ship Granma which re-launched the revolution and January 1, 2009, the success of the revolution.
So what should the U.S. Government do before Castro dies? President Bush should take advantage of the key date May 20, 2002. This is the one hundredth anniversary of the US leaving Cuba after the Spanish American war and granting Cuba its independence. Here is a chance to end the US embargo on Cuba and set the stage for US policy in a post-Castro Cuba.
Meanwhile, now is the time to take a before trip to Cuba if you can manage it. It will help prepare you to understand the future. Remember the 1980 boatlift when Castro told Cubans that they were free to leave and literally within minutes a fleet of private boats started from Florida and families brought 100,000 of their relatives out of Cuba in days. Castro cynically emptied the prisons and insane asylums into the refugee stream. Castros death will create an upheaval in Cuba with unknown consequences for the United States. Our histories remain intertwined.