Why go to Cuba? To visit a communist country I could just spend a day in Cambridge or sneak into North Korea. Both represent viable options.
The first part of the trip was a landing at the airport in Cienfuegos and a trip to our hotel for three days.The entry was smoothly run and in about an hour the group (21) were in Cuba to meet our Cuban guide and driver. Our accommodations were at Hotel Jagua - built in 1957 by Myer Lansky. Fortunately, we stayed in the section that was a bed and breakfast and avoided the main building with its will you get water and electricity issues. Our portion of the B & B was an old house or really a mansion that became a "gift" to the revolution and eventually was purchased by a Caribbean hotel chain and converted. This appeared to be the standard modus operandi as seized property has been sold off over the years primarily to foreign interests. Of course the land is still own by the state and rent is paid.
Being Yankee running dog imperialist we had no credit card or ATM use so cash was king. The exchange rate was one Cuban dollar (CUC) for each American dollar with the government getting a 13% cut or vigorish. So our plan was to judiciously use our cash in small increments with the idea of not having to convert back and another 13% cut.
The first few days consisted of various trips to Santa Clara, Trinadad and Cientfuegos for cultural exchanges. This was an educational trip since tourism for such blatant capitalist is verboten - at least for the next few months while relations normalize and the Cuban government sees a sudden surge in Yankee dollars.
I lost track of the number of museums I had to endure on this trip and each and every one had wooden windows. The botanical gardens were exceptional and our guide was 100% American slang versed. Trinidad is about 500 years old and looks it as it is a typical well worn smallish city with cobblestone streets, numerous squares and, of course, the mandatory old cathedral. This was a general rule throughout the trip and especially in Havana where even a visit to a community center, nursing home, school and sometimes a privately owned restaurant had a historical attachment that stretched from a "Wow" to a yawn. The main focus of the rest of this little tale will be primarily observational.
In Cientfuegos we visited a school where the focus was on art and music. Another American group also attended and several students ages 11-15 made exceptional presentations. The school was ready to fall down. I looked around and realized just how damn stupid it is with our tunnel vision American eyes to think that an answer to a school is a new building. That visit alone puts me in the "No" camp for a new high school. We visited the art area where the staff for art numbers eight and the students number 34. They run the entire spectrum of art, music, sculpture and dance.
The Cuban people appeared to be a rather pleasant lot with an underlying hope that their lot in life is about to improve considerably with an influx of Americans and the elimination of the embargo. Our guide, Yamani, a true child of the revolution, and I had many interesting discussions of both social and political note.
The economy is a controlled one which means wage control. Professionals are especially hampered by this restrictive structure as a doctor, architect, teacher or ditch digger will get about $230 a month. How strange it was to have a world class architect with several international awards give us a three hour tour of Old Havana to pick up some extra cash. Or having a chamber music recital presented by music professors so they could peddle their CD's for a few CUC's and a tip for entertainment. You could sense an undercurrent of dissatisfaction especially by those who have been to the United States.
In Cuba health care and education are free. School is mandatory to age 15 and entry to university is based on test scores. The literacy rate is 100% and many of the books I saw were what you would find that proliferated the Communist nations in the 1950s-1980s. Fidel and Che Guevara are national heroes as is Jose Marti. Che is everyone - painted on walls, money and the ever present tee shirts. No where is that more present than the Bay of Pigs Museum and in Revolution Square in Havana.
I Havana we saw the medical school complex that has students from all over the world and even 100 from the United States. The school is free, but Spanish is required.
The Bay of Pigs is the collective Gettysburg, Saratoga and Midway. This was a "Yankee Invasion" and that is the theme. This is the Cuban point of view and they somehow have interpreted it as not a botched and ill-planned CIA maneuver, but with the full weight of military might of the United States. JFK is evil incarnate in their scenario. Yamani was unaware that JFK had inherited this mess from IKE and that he also refused any air support. Simply put if JFK had released two air wings it would be a "No Mas" for the revolution and no Missile Crisis.
Many Cubans were quite interested in American politics since it has had a considerable influence on life-style. My response was usually rather simple in that Cuba needs us more than we need Cuba and the last 50+ years show it. There is also - and I believe this to be legitimate - concern that the Cubans who left will return and eventually assume power. I had an interesting debate with a former diplomat on this topic. What was of even more interest is the general feeling is this would not be a negative. There is a burgeoning private economy and people wish to have the opportunity to give it a whirl.
Havana is a dump. This city is in serious need of infrastructure especially public transportation, waste water upgrades, water delivery systems and toilet seats. Yep....we would actually find many toilets without seats. Oh....and you generally pay for use of a toilet.
Back to Havana. I have traveled extensively in the region from South America, through Central America and the various islands of the Caribbean. Run down cites are nothing new, but Havana has 2.5M people. Some areas are beautiful with stately mansions that now have other uses or are occasionally owned or rented by foreigners on business. A few are, no doubt, homes of the party elite. These areas where the homes of the wealthy and upper middle class that left with the revolution.
For Havana it was a visit to 1958. The old hotels still stand, but no longer under American control. We stayed at the Hotel National that was built by gangsters (no surprise) in 1930. The hotel was elegant and still is but needs serious upgrades. The National is still "The Place" for the glitterati, diplomats and businessmen of all sorts. What was wonderful is the elevators that were circa 1930 and the quickest lifts I have ever seen.
Every day we would have a buffet breakfast and everyday part of it would be runny eggs. Please learn to scramble eggs! Otherwise, it would be assorted fruits, breads, sweets, pork and a few other items. The food was probably a consistent three stars for breakfast, but the presentation was always excellent. The service would be exceptional and you could get Americano coffee at the National without asking.
For many lunches and dinners we ate at private restaurants that are now allowed by the government with one stipulation - they must be in your home and these budding capitalist are way ahead of the game. Some would easily seat 100 people, they had volume deals with tour companies, would advertise heavily and knew customer service. As far as the food I can remember only one meal that would have me never coming back and it was - no surprise - at a government owned and operated restaurant.
The food was either a choice of meal or family style. Chicken, pork, fish, rabbit once, lobster and plenty of rise and beans. Salads were a disappointment as they were consistently sub-standard to what we were use to. The one exception was a restaurant that had two acres of vegetables and you had a variety of greens and some great tomatoes. Fruit was standard and that means guava, pineapple, mango and numerous other tropical fruits. I found them rather bland and that is not unique to Cuba. I have noticed that is other Caribbean areas. My wife - The Lovely Cynthia - claims it is me.
The prices are amazing. At the Hotel National I could get a cocktail or mixed drink for $4. After a historical tour-lecture in Old Havana I paid $3 for a coke (via Mexico) and Cynthia got a mojito for $2.50. The same applies to the food. I could get a three course meal from room service for under $10. In America that gets you a muffin and coffee. The same low prices are everywhere you shopped. You can negotiate if you wish, but I was embarrassed by how low prices were. This was not crap, but well crafted items that you could get for $5 or 2 for $8 (LOL!). And rum will go for $3.50 a bottle to $17 a bottle. Cigars are priced depending on size.
At one spectacular tourist trap I spoke with a teacher who sold trinkets to tourists. His wallet was loaded when he made change and said he'd make more in three days then a month of teaching.
Another enterprising type said he can't wait for Americans since "They spend a lot and are great tippers. The French and Germans are cheap bastards who are s!!t tippers."
Baseball is passionate in Cuba and I know that. I wore by Red Sox Rusney Castillo jersey and my Minnie Minoso throwback and would get into more conversations than I could count. Somehow my 100 words of Spanish and their 100 words of English resulted in fluent baseball. Where others brought gifts of need for adults and children I brought baseball cards. Guess who was the big "hit?"
We had an interesting discussion with a former diplomat who was in their foreign service for 20 years. The key ingredient of his talks was opening relations. Most questions tossed his way were softballs so who else to provoke, but Bogo? "Why was Cuba placed on the terrorist list in 1982?" That led to a small song and dance. "The London Times recently reported a round-up of 1,000 political prisoners. Any comment?" He was "unaware." "Why is Cuba on Amnesty International's list for human rights violations?" "It was reported last year by Mossad that Cuban was still giving support to Hamas. Is that accurate?" It was fun just to watch him sweat. Afterwards we had a nice conversation and he asked if I had served in the foreign service. I told him by diplomatic intrigue and skills were honed in casino debates.
The old timers are not people but cars. Old American cars. I expected a smattering, but they are everywhere. Tens of thousands in all conditions. In Havana we took an hour ride in a 1957 Impala convertible for $30. The condition is "rough" as most are using machined parts and many have different engines. Some have interiors that give you a view of the road. They are national protected species and will not leave Cuba. Many are government owed and operated.
Our farewell dinner was quite an experience. Instead of our tour bus - state of the art and very, very comfortable - we had a line of eight old timers to take us to a five-star restaurant. This place was exceptional - even toilet seats. As with just about all meals was music. We had music with almost every meal and it could be Cuban or Jazz or some type of fusion.
With every meal in Cuba we would get at least two drunks. This time it was endless wine or just about anything else. The desert was not the usual, but a variety including a flambe. Service was - as usual - impeccable. The surprise was it was government owned. The real surprise it was privately managed.
The exit was quick from Havana. A delay due to a computer malfunction, but visa exit was quick as was security. Then onto to a Sun Country 737-800 and 50 minutes to Miami.