Was it to be "Cuba Si! Yankee No"? That was the question as we embarked from Miami on this odyssey. Well - it turned out to be "Cuba Si! Yankee Si!" which was a nice surprise. Visiting Cuba was on my Bucket List for many years since the Revolution took place back in the fifties.
We were a small group (15) on an Educational Exchange visit sponsored by the West Point Association of Graduates. It is still not legal to visit Cuba as a tourist from the United States unless you're a Cuban-American and then you can go to and from Cuba with no problems from the State Department - Some Americans do - I understand - by flying in from another country - but Big Brother is probably aware of the trip.
Anyway - we arrived on 4 October from Miami after our morning flight was delayed from 8:30 AM until 1:30 PM. The flight was only about 45 minutes in a World Atlantic jet. The arrival and processing at Jose Marti Airport was pretty grim. Four flights arrived and they were expecting only two and that - supposedly - caused an interminable wait in a crowded - non-air conditioned area to await baggage. There were quite a few stone-faced officials standing around in various uniforms. Some passengers were asked questions about their visit. All passengers debark on the ramp - BTW. We were met by our tour guide - Thea - who was from Greece. She took us right to an air conditioned bus for the 45 minute - give or take - ride into Havana. We immediately noted the many old American cars on the road from the fifties and even forties - ahhhhh - nostalgia. I grew up with many of those cars! On the way we passed the stadium area where so many of the executions took place after Fidel Castro took control. Happy thoughts! The Dictator - Fulgencio Batista - had already fled the country at that time with about $300 million from the treasury. We arrived at our hotel in the heart of Havana - The Parque Central - which was right across the street from the park of the same name. I would give the Hotel about 4 Stars. It was very nice - comfortable - well appointed - and with excellent dining. We were to stay there for three nights before venturing out of Havana and the immediate area.
The next morning - Saturday - we met our Cuban guide - Alejandro - who would narrate much of the trip for us. We drove to a small fishing village - Corlima - which was the setting for Ernest Hemingway's "The Old man and the Sea." Hemingway is revered in Cuba and he spent a lot of his life there. It was picturesque and there was a bust of Hemingway in a small gazebo by the sea and also a painting of the old man battling the huge swordfish (Spencer Tracy in the movie). We also visited Hemingway's mansion - which is run by the government to preserve his heritage. It was a bit "shopworn" but very interesting. We saw his many hunting trophies - the tower room where he did much of his writing - and even his old typewriter at his desk. From there we visited a couple of small apartments provided by the government to the people - some of whom had moved out of the city from old apartment buildings built by the Spaniards and in need of complete restoration. They were very cramped and austere - but at least livable shelters. The downside to this visit was the small crowd of children in wait who began to beg for anything that we would give them. Some of our group had brought pencils - and pens - which went fast. They were too aggressive for our liking and we were glad to leave. Better that this part of the exchange be conducted on a weekday when they are in school.
Sunday's activities included a visit to an Organic Farm not far from Havana. They were very proud of the work that they did there without chemical fertilizers and they grew a wide variety of vegetables - plantains - and such. We walked around in throw away booties to avoid the clingy red mud. The operators were very proud of the organic produce that they cultivated and we had a very nice organic lunch.
On Monday - we boarded our bus and headed away from Havana - destination Cienfuegos and Sancti Espiritus - Literally translated - Cienfuegos means One Hundred Fires. It also happens to be the name of one of the Big Three of the Revolution - Castro - Guevara - and Cienfuegos. We were on a divided and a pretty deserted highway most of the way and it was not a smooth ride - bouncing all the way for about 4 hours - which was hard on the backside. Later we moved farther back in the bus for a somewhat smoother ride. The road infrastructure is in disrepair as are the sidewalks and the old buildings - for the most part. We saw a lot of carts - both for cargo and people - drawn by small - Cuban horses and they seemed to be an integral part of the transportation system. There were quite a few railroad tracks in evidence - most were unused - and we never saw a train.
We had a nice lunch in an old converted home - which was now a hotel. There was a strong Moorish influence in the architecture of the place and it had elaborate tiling and arches throughout. Just about every place we went - they put a Mojito (light rum - lemon or lime juice - sugar - and fresh mint) in front of you and you were also allotted a second national drink. The Cuban beer - BTW - is excellent. Starting with the first night at the Parque Central Hotel - all meals were excellent. We moved on into the city and were treated to a program of songs by a very talented a cappella choir with very trained and melodious voices. It was quite hot in that hall - but the Cubans are used to it.
It was time to drive on to Sancti Espiritus where we would spend the next two nights in a converted Doctor's home from the 1800s. The Hotel was OK and it did have window air conditioners in each room that were a Godsend. We had dinner that night in a restaurant across the street. The rooms were comfortable enough but earplugs came in very handy to mask the traffic noise out side the windows. It was here that our guide - Alejandro - demonstrated the Cuban cigar lighting ritual and passed out cigars to those wanting to try - even some of the ladies were game.
We drove to Trinidad that had been one of seven villages established by the Spaniards in 1514 - that was a long time ago! Especially when you think about the establishment of Jamestown - VA in 1607 - 93 years later! On the way - we visited a nationally known potter - truly an artist - by the name of Santander who had been recognized by Raul Castro - the President.
Some of the contents of this "dispatch" are not necessarily in the order of our visits - but the recollections are fairly accurate. We visited Las Terrazas that was a Bio-Reserve with approximately 1000 inhabitants. The people living there were well dressed and the children received a good education. They had a Doctor in residence who could treat the people - but the nearest hospital was a long way away. Many endangered native plants and trees were being grown and protected there. Later we toured an abandoned coffee farm that the Spaniards had established and operated with slaves after they "used up" the native population. The ruins of the slave quarters were quite sobering.
We had a long travel day on Wednesday - October 9 - and one stop was at the mausoleum of Che Guevara. It was a revered memorial to Che and in the mausoleum itself - hats were off and people spoke in whispers. There was an adjoining museum that had many artifacts from the revolution - weapons - uniforms - and many photographs were included. I hadn't realized that Fidel was quite tall and stood a head above most of his fellow revolutionaries.
On this day we also visited a School for the Performing Arts. We were treated to a class of young women and men learning to dance and they were working very hard. Music was also emphasized at the school. There was an amusing program in pantomime put on for us in the auditorium by the students. And we were treated to some songs to include "Give Me That Old Time Religion." The place was somewhat rundown and dingy - but the enthusiasm of the students was very apparent.
We saw an artist's colony that was established in an old laundry building that the members completely renovated and invested a lot of sweat equity. We saw their works and appreciated what they had done when given the opportunity by the all-controlling government.
One interesting visit was to a "Senteria" church. This religion is getting popular among the black Cubans and is sort of a cross between Catholicism and Voodoo. The women dressed in bright dresses and danced for us - then had some of us dance with them. When you see women around the city dressed in white with a white cap - they practice that religion.
Another artist's colony visited was very picturesque. The entire neighborhood had been decorated with brightly colored tiles put there by an artist named Lester. In his "studio," the tile was very elaborate and represented animals - people - places - and just free form. The influence of Picasso was evident and the overall effects were quite beautiful although on the gaudy side.
On Thursday - October 10 - we walked through Old Havana. As we started - we passed La Floridita that was Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar. There is a brass statue of him there at the bar - his usual position. We saw the oldest building in Havana and the original Spanish fort - both established in 1514. There were a lot of small shops along the way and the dingy apartments of so many of the city's underclass. We had also seen much of that when we went to a night club in Havana one evening. I danced with one "Hotchie Mama" during the evening "as the band played on." I don't have the photo yet - but just as well - to protect the innocent - me!
We visited a very elaborate cemetery in Havana. Many notables are buried there including a man named Cespuedes who was responsible for freeing the slaves in 1858. There is an elaborate memorial that was built to honor 38 firefighters who lost their lives in a building that exploded while they were fighting a fire - it was unknown to them that the owner had stored explosives there. A very touching gravesite was that of woman named Amelia. She was carrying a baby and both she and the baby died from an allergic reaction. It was said that at the burial - the baby was placed at her feet - but when the grave was opened some years later - the baby was in her arms. Her devoted husband visited her grave every day for 40 years and always backed away from the site to show her respect. There is a knocker on the grave (knock three times) and pregnant women come to this day to talk to Amelia and pray for a healthy child. There are countless plaques sent by women all over who have thanked her for granting their prayer.
That afternoon - we had a few hours of "free" time (rare) and so Jock (a Classmate's brother) and I visited the Museum of the Revolution - which was not on the tour itinerary. There were three armed guards at the outside site kept on duty 24/7 because of the Eternal Flame dedicated to the heroes of the revolution. These were the only weapons (pistols) that I saw during the entire trip. The museum had floors of displays - photos - weapons - memorabilia - paintings - and such. The U.S. did take a beating there in the themes since all actions by the Cuban-Americans were attributed to us - not to mention the Bay of Pigs - Missile Crisis - and other events. Two aircraft and a couple of tanks were displayed - a Sea Fury and a modified "Duck" with fixed landing gear. They also had some wreckage from our U-2 that was shot down during the missile crisis in October,1962. The pilot - Major Rudolph Anderson (USAF) - was killed by the Russian anti-aircraft missile.
Others on our trip can probably fill in some blanks - but I have a few random "facts" and comments:
According to out guide - Alejandro - there were over 600 attempts or plots on Fidel Castro's life since the Revolution. The Revolution succeeded in 1959 and another date of importance is the 26th of July - 1953. It was on this day that Fidel and his band of revolutionaries attacked a military barracks - and they were defeated - Fidel and his men were imprisoned for some time until they were released by amnesty from Batista (a big mistake - obviously).
There are two sets of currency in Cuba - the Cuq (Kook) and the "Cup." The Cuq is used by visitors - tourists - hotels - restaurants - and - I believe - the better off residents. The "Cup" (pronounced Coop) is for the regular population and is worth about 1/26th of the Cup. So - prices for staples and much of the food away from the cities - are quite cheap. Rationing is still practiced for many staples except for eggs. The medium of exchange is the peso and it is pegged at being worth more than the dollar. $100 American got you 87 Cuban pesos
The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 codified sanctions and embargos against the Cuban government and required the compensation to companies and individuals that had property confiscated in 1959 among its many provisions. No one really sees Cuba as a threat to the United States these days and I predict that our government's attitude will be changing in the next five years or so.
Cuba gets about 3 million tourists a year these days - not from the United States but from Canada and many European countries. This industry has given the Cuban economy an economic boost that has been sorely needed. I see a large market there for U.S. products - automobiles - electronics - and household appliances to name a few. Other countries are filling these needs to some degree.
So - it was a short - but memorable trip and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that relatively small island only 90 miles from Florida - but so far way in terms of government - economy - and culture.