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Reflexions on Cuba

By Robert Ross

“A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.”            

 — Fidel Castro

Cuba is ‘struggling.’ It is struggling with a worn-out and unworkable revolutionary vision. Struggling economically, partly due to a U.S.-imposed trade embargo and travel ban, and struggling with their own political identity in a world that has shrugged off the Communist ideology of the 1950’s. As a result, visiting Cuba is like no other experience in the world.

In 1956 Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and a handful of revolutionaries land on a remote beach of Cuba. For three years, they fight the army of the brutal dictator Juan Batista. On January 1, 1959, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro enter Havana greeted by cheering mobs.

Initially, Fidel nationalizes some companies and land reform is put in place, giving title to two hundred thousand peasants. But, when Fidel reveals his true revolutionary vision, trying and executing as many as 500 former Batista officials within three months of taking power, and nationalizing the bulk of private companies, America reacts. The door closes on relations. Simultaneously, the former Soviet Union, under Nikita Khrushchev, opens the door to Cuba, establishing trade relations and other forms of assistance, including military aid. Cubans exit the small island country in droves. The stage is set for a half-century drama that, at one point, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. There are two ways for Americans to travel to Cuba; illegally, by going to Mexico, Canada or any country that has normal relations with Cuba, then taking a direct flight to Havana. Or, legally, by traveling via a U.S.-sanctioned “people-to-people” program. We chose Friendly Planet’s Colors of Cuba for our tour.

In nine days, our ‘people-to-people’ experience gave us a snapshot of Cuba today. We visited a medical clinic, organic farm, school, senior citizen home, national park, Che Guevara’s memorial, and the cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. We also explored Ernest Hemingway’s home, a synagogue and . . . had some unexpected surprises along the way.

Entering old Havana felt like a dream. This can’t be real. We were greeted by mildew-covered old colonial-style buildings everywhere, that hadn’t been touched, cleaned or repaired in a half a century. Balconies with rusted wrought iron rails, cracks in virtually every structure, rotted wood-en shutters, and clothes hanging to dry from windows and doorways were pervasive. It felt like a scene from an old Mad Max movie, in which the civilized world had come to an end, leaving pockets of people to scramble, to make do with what they had.

And ‘make do’ is exactly what the Cubans have been doing, starting with old American cars left behind when relations between the U.S. and Cuba came to a screeching halt. Plymouths, Studebakers, Desotos, Packards, Chevy Bel Airs from the 1950’s are everywhere. Some are used as taxis, others for personal transportation.

Our Cuban tour guide, Norberto, met us at Havana’s International airport. The airport was, as all things are in Cuba, a throwback to the 1950’s. Its sparsely-decorated interior and low-voltage fluorescent lighting said, in so many words, “Bienvenidos a Cuba” the land that time forgot.  

In his early forties, with short black hair, and wearing an over-washed, over-worn, reddish orange polo shirt, a shirt that would be his trademark for the next nine days, Norberto ushered us toward our bus for an initial tour of Havana. Nor, as we called him, spoke perfect English, had a couple college degrees and most importantly possessed a sense of humor, which would come in handy as we negotiated our way through Cuban culture in the following days.

In Havana, we dropped by an elementary school, an artist’s production studio, centuries-old fortresses and ate at government-run restaurants for lunch and dinner. Cuban food in the U.S. has developed a reputation as a flavorful fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisines. So it was a bit of shock to find out that Cuban food in Cuba is anything but flavorful. It’s on the bland side. A typical meal might be chicken and rice with a green vegetable. Norberto explained that the hotels and restaurants were owned by the government which helped to explain the lack of imaginative dishes available. We would though, in the coming days, be treated to some Paladars, privately-owned restaurants, which serve a variety of flavorful dishes.  

Havana, with a population of two-and-a-half-million people is actually two cities — the old city or ‘old Havana,’ with its original colonial architecture, and the suburbs where newer structures are located. In spite of the deteriorating physical state of old Havana, UNESCO deemed it as a World Heritage site in 1982 because of its colonial architecture and historic fortifications. In the suburbs we saw the influence of the former Soviet Union, with ugly concrete-grey public housing buildings everywhere; stark, without balconies, blackened with mildew stains and of course, the laundry hanging from windows and doorways. Welcome to Cuba.

When Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba he wrote “this land is the most beautiful that the human eye has ever seen.” The ride from Havana to the cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, five hours south, introduced us to Columbus’ view of Cuba -— with a patchwork of lush green valleys, rising up in the distance to form small mountains. Good roads, little traffic, it was all so peaceful and serene on the way to Trinidad; hard to imagine an area so picturesque was, not so long ago, caught up in an insurrection that would determine Cuba’s fate for the next half century.

Trinidad, a town in the province of Sancti Spíritus, is located on the coast in the central part of Cuba. It is a well-preserved community boasting a population of 100,000. Our four-star hotel -— a joint venture between Spain and Cuba — sat in the town center, on the plaza; great for people watching when time allowed.

Trinidad’s main industry is tobacco processing, but originally, sugar cane gave the town its reason for being. Today, tourism is bringing in a much-needed economic infusion, with pristine white sand beaches and inviting turquoise water only a few minutes from town.

The politics of Cuba give new meaning to the word contradiction. On one hand, everyone has food, with the help of their ration card, and everyone has a free education and free health care. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for doctors who are paid less then $200 a month to drive taxi cabs to supplement their income. In fact, most Cubans supplement their incomes in order to survive, according to Nor. On one hand the world cheered — including the U.S. — as the romantic charismatic Fidel toppled the tyrant Juan Bastista. On the other hand, millions of Cubans have fled due to the brutal repression of the Castro regime. Fidel who has frustrated, but outlived nine American presidents, has put his political mark on this island country of 11 million.

On our government-approved tour, the Cubans we saw seemed to be O.K. with their lot in life, enjoying music and sports, and they apparently have live bands wherever they go. On a trip to a national park, we pulled up at 10:00 a.m., were treated to Mojitos and a live salsa band. After twenty minutes or so, another tourist bus pulled up, free Mojitos and free band. No Cubans in old Desotos pulled up for their free breakfast cocktail. Workers’ paradise? Or, an attempt by the Cuban government to project an unrealistic view of Cuban life?

Back in Havana for the remaining days of our Cuban adventure, we went to a “pairing” event. In the U.S., pairing is normally associated a certain food paired with a certain wine. But in this case it was a pairing of Cuban coffee, Cuban rum and a Cuban cigar. And of course, there was a salsa band. The event turned out to be great fun, even though I’m sure that most of our group, if not all, were not cigar smokers. They all gave it a few puffs, took photos and laughed a lot.

That evening, it was off to salsa dance lessons and a farewell dinner party. The restaurant was a Paladar, so the food was plentiful and tasty.

As we boarded the bus for our trip to the airport, Nor answered a few remaining questions that people may have had. Everyone in our group had a sense that Cuba is changing. Nor confirmed our suspicions, stating “you’re lucky to see Cuba now, at the beginning of this great change.” He went on to explain how the trade embargo was hindering Cuba’s development, but Cuba would move forward in spite of these restrictions.

With a nation dependent on food rationing, free education and free medical services, this change will have to be well managed, because Cuba is worn thin, teetering between the promises of revolutionary rhetoric and the somber need for a higher standard of living.

Heading through security, I turned around for one last glimpse at this fascinating country, and there was Nor, big smile, waving — wearing that same over-washed, over-worn, reddish orange shirt.

(Writer’s note: For more details of the Colors of Cuba trip, visit: www.friendlyplanet.com  Their tour was reasonably priced, provided good accommodations, and our guide was excellent.)

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com

Copyright 2014 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved