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Cuba Journal, Part 2


    This city is different from the rest of the country. More than being larger, there is greater level of sophistication and certainly a faster pace, even though it is very, very hot and humid.  First, something about transportation:

   In the Eastern provinces, in the most rural parts of the country, many people -- if they're not walking -- are riding a horse or taking a horse cart. The carts, made of wood or metal, might also carry fruit or corn, or tires, or machinery, or more people. The cart might also be pulled by a tractor or the occasional donkey. There are also many bicycles, mostly Chinese-made, as the result of the government importing them for transportation during the Special Period when gasoline disappeared with the cessation of Soviet Bloc support. (I saw a number of Ladas, the Russian car, in the Eastern cities.)

   Cities rely upon buses of all stripes, but people are just as likely to ride, in large numbers, in the back of open trucks. Of particular note is the Yellow Man (or sometimes Blue Man) who is a traffic organizer. Government vehicles of all sorts are expected to stop for the numerous pedestrians seeking a ride, and even private vehicles may be stopped. The Yellow Man sorts this out. (This system does not extend to the cities, where buses are available.)  There are no stop signs in Cuba, and traffic lights are present only in the cities.

   In Havana, of course, are the well known cars of the 1940s and early 50s. These exist in smaller numbers -- and rougher shape -- in the rural areas, but they are everywhere in Havana, as taxis and parked in front of homes.  Around central areas, they are brightly painted and in good condition, ready to provide a leisurely ride around the city. Motorcycles are ubiquitous.  A final note on transportation: Cubans aren’t allowed to own a boat of any sort, and cannot even get in a boat, except the slow ferries that travel between the close small islands nearby.

   As we approached the city, I saw several large orange groves, part of a joint venture with Israel, and which provides much of the orange juice for the country.  Since we were staying in Old Havana, we sped through the outskirts to our hotel, Parque Central, which turned out to be the most elegant place we've stayed, by far. The lobby has wonderful light, an elegant staircase, and lively lounge and bar with music at night. Fresh flowers and marble everywhere are part of this restored grand hotel.


   Old Havana was built mostly during the 18th and 19th Centuries by wealthy Spaniards and reflects European architecture. (Modern Havana was built during the 1920s and expanded in the 1940s and 50s, and looks much different with a Moderne influence.) Close by is a newly restored and re-opened bar called Sloppy Joe's, a hangout of Ernest Hemingway when he lived in Havana.

   We delivered educational gifts (chalk, crayons, paper, toys, sports equipment, [my] paintbrushes, etc.) to a primary school in Old Havana and met the principal, Juana, who briefly described the school system.

    Classes are confined to 20 students at the primary and secondary levels. One teacher covers all subjects at primary level, and additional teachers are available for math, art and PE, at the secondary level. There was a computer lab with antiquated machines, but no tech teacher was available at this school.


   Education is compulsory only through Jr. High but is highly encouraged through high school, i.e., with available jobs. Many students continue to university, as it is free and may lead to an even better job.

   Walking through Old Havana, we saw a large stone Cathedral which, in addition to offering Catholic masses, is known as a center for Santeria, and we saw an altar with offerings to a female statue. Outside were several people dressed completely in white, which they must do for one year following their conversion.  

   This was followed by a visit to The Rum Museum where we learned the history of rum and how it is made. Visitors are offered a welcome drink -- with rum of course. This liquor is the natural outcome of growing sugar, and it is available everywhere - in drinks, one of the most popular being the mojito. (There is a problem in Cuba with alcoholism.  Rehab centers exist, but rum is integral to the culture and very inexpensive.)

   Next we went to the Palacio de Artesia for a demonstration of cigar rolling, followed by smoking the real thing. We saw the Cemetery of Christopher Columbus -- he's not buried there --with acres of marble, “populated” by the wealthy early inhabitants.

   On the way back to the hotel, we passed The Office of US Interests (no embassy, of course) and were curious about the large number of empty flag poles. Apparently, during the Bush Administration, the deteriorating policy towards Cuba led the government to install a series of black flags, which obscured what is a nice view from the building.


   When President Obama was elected, the flags came down but the poles remain. We also passed the Hotel Nationale, overlooking the famous seawall, Malecon, and built with financial and gambling interests of Meyer Lansky during the 1930s.  It is still stately but has slipped in quality. Dinner that night was at El Gijon, in a formerly exclusive men's club. This 1868 building is part of what once were "associations," for inviting back Spaniards who had left during the Civil War in Cuba.

   Before dinner, we had a lecture/question period conducted by Dr. Rosa Lopez, University of Havana Center for Hemispheric and U.S. Studies.  She summarized some economic and social factors:

   The politically correct term in Cuba for what is happening in Cuba is “transformation,” not “reform” which has some bad historical connotations.  Cuba has been state-centered but underdeveloped and needs an updating of its socio-economic model. 


   The guarantee of full employment has led to an inflated budget.  The objective is not to abandon socialism but to make it sustainable, while guaranteeing social justice and equality.  Now Cuba needs small entrepreneurs, but this means “self-employment,” not “privatization.” Concepts like credit, taxation, and wholesale transactions have been unknown but need to be slowly introduced into the economy.  


   Emphasis has been placed upon tourism and the use of natural resources, such as iron, nickel (Cuba has a very large deposit) and oil (with technical help form Venezuela) and agricultural products such as sugar, and hopefully rice.  (Cuba currently imports more than 60% of its rice, mostly from China.) Soviet-style collectives have not been productive, but now, after meeting any State quotas, farmers can sell directly to consumers.


   Previous to the Revolution, people owned about 30% of the land; now own close to 70%. Recently, laws have been changed to allow Cubans to buy and sell both property and cars, whereas before 2006, they had to sell both to the State only.  There has been some recovery from the global recession, but the last normal production year was 1989.  After that, the economy collapsed by 50%.  (This was after a small recovery following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.)


   In order to grow, Cuba must address issues of productivity and create more professionals.  Changes have come so fast, it is hard to keep up, but the U.S. media is not accurately reflecting the positive changes. 


   Dr. Lopez noted that Cubans don’t refer to a US “embargo,” but rather to a “blockade,” because we hamper trade with other countries and Cuba.  For example, we were told that vessels coming from Cuban port may not enter an American port for 6 months, a fact which discourages some trade.


   According to Dr. Lopez, this blockade hurts Cuba and the US, who could sell rice, wheat and pharmaceuticals and buy sugar.  Currently there is some economic interchange with the US, but it was a trickle following Hurricane Sandy and was strictly “cash and carry.” In his second term, President Obama may be able to overcome the Floridian Cuban-American and Republican insistence on the embargo, or at least, improve relations. 


   Signs of positive movement include a visit from a Congressional Delegation and the release of one of the Cuban 5.  Says Dr. Lopez, “We are neighbors and neither one can move.  We are natural trading partners.  We need normality.”  (NOTE: In spring 2014, relations between the two countries have deteriorated again.)

   Answering (or sometimes avoiding answering) questions from the group: The next generation of leaders will not have the legitimacy of the revolution.  She avoided saying whether there was a leadership succession plan though did discuss the fairly young First Vice President, Miguel Dias-Canel. 


    She twice ducked the question of discrimination against gays (saying only that “formerly,” gay men were sent to work in hard jobs to make them into “real” men)  though discussed at length the improvement of women’s economic and social situation. Infrastructure has been overwhelmed by rapid growth in the cities, but it is being replaced and also newly built, she said.

   The next day, our visit, to the Modern Arts Museum the next day was uncomfortable (the A/C was out) but, for me, a highlight. In a short time, we saw the unfolding of Cuban art, first influenced by international trends, but later characteristic only of Cuba -- expressive and colorful. The A/C problem is a huge one, with repair parts unavailable for a system that expels too many gasses. The building must be closed and the art stored before it begins to deteriorate in the humid heat.  Some of the pieces will go on tour -- but not likely in the US.

   In an "all art" day, we next went to the University of Arts, a free but selective institution for music, visual arts, drama, dance, and architecture.  Designed by an innovative architect, many of the buildings are falling apart because they were begun at the time of the revolution, and materials ran short. It is sad to see the building is such a sorry state, especially because of the unique design.

   For example, Visual Arts is in a completed building representing the female body, with Fallopian tubes as hallways and breast-like forms on the roof. (It was even more controversial then than it is now.) Music is housed in what used to be an exclusive (white only) country club, in which Bautista, then president, couldn't gain entrance.

   Next was a visual feast with a trip to the home of internationally-known artist, Jose Fuster. Coming into a neighborhood decorated by tile walls couldn't prepare us for Fuster’s house itself, with almost every square inch of building and roof and yard and fence covered by fantastic and colorful designs. It is an extravaganza of tile work, completed over 40 years -- and continuing.

   Lunch was at Tocororo, named for the national bird of Cuba. We returned late afternoon, in time for a stroll down Obispo St., known for shopping and galleries and The Floradita, another Hemingway hangout.

   Early next morning we headed to Las Terrazas, one of six UNESCO-recognized biospheres in the country. Buenavista, a former French coffee plantation which also exported hardwood in the 19th Century, had severely eroded over years of heavy rain. In 1968, the government began a reforestation project using a community model that provided free housing, education, and medical care.


   During the Special Period, the severe economic downturn stalled the program, but it was revitalized in 1990 with a base of tourism and is now successful with a population of around 1000 and has become self-sustaining.

   We saw where coffee was grown, dried and husked (using a giant stone wheel, turned originally by slaves and later by horses.) The owner's home was large and well-appointed for the time, and had a commanding view of the valley. The slave quarters were a disgrace - small, maybe 8 by 10 stone huts with no roof for protection of the 4 - 6 slaves crowded together.


   Later we walked back through a sunlight and shade-dappled forest with lots of birds and some fruit trees and Mariposa bushes (the national flower). Lunch was chicken grilled over charcoal, along with the ever-present of salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers and sliced tomatoes and also black beans and rice. The meal was served outside and was accompanied by music, something we've heard at every stop. Our guide quipped that a meal may be optional, but music is compulsory.  


   Returning to the city, we stopped at an artisans’ market displaying original art (an allowable export to the US) as well as small souvenirs.  Dinner at LaTaberna was very special. Food was just OK but the music was provided by a traditional Buena Vista Social Club type band with very good dancers.

   The next day included a trip to the Alamar District.  Alamar is a 1970s government housing project, built to relieve the overcrowding in Havana.  Thousands of people live here in Soviet-style apartment blocks with no infrastructure, since schools, and libraries, hospitals, food services and entertainment did not get built at the same time since it was assumed public transportation would take residents to the city. However,  public transportation was and is curtailed with the collapse of the economy, and people are isolated.

   The residents have initiated garden plots, and the best of these is the urban garden collective, UBC Organoponio Vivero Alamar.    

   Lunch here followed an extensive tour of this community garden. When people moved to the cities to find work, agriculture deteriorated, and this garden is an example of a community growing for local people, organic food at low prices, while providing new jobs.  The garden emphasizes biodiversity to achieve good production with no pesticides and no fertilizers except rabbit and chicken manure processed by worms. Profits are distributed as shares of the collective.

   Lunch was largely vegetables (and rabbit) grown in the garden, as part of the 400 tons produced annually.  Soup featured morenga, a vegetable powerful with calcium, vitamins, and potassium.

   An eggplant dish was especially good and the recipe follows:

   Chop some eggplant and add slightly less    

   than an equal amount of chopped pineapple.    

   Add garlic, onion and pepper and bake,

   covered, at 300 degrees for an hour.  Other

   veggies, such as carrots, spinach, kale, etc,

   may also be added.

   Earlier, we had been to Finca Vigia, the mansion/museum of Ernest Hemingway where he lived through 2 wives -- he divorced the one who restored the beautiful 19th Century home with a fabulous view of Havana -- from 1939 to 1960. Visitors are not allowed in the museum but can take pictures through the many windows of his 9000-book library and personal effects, including many animal head trophies, all left as they were when he lived there.

   Beyond the pool installed for Hemingway, his boat, Pilar, resides -- having been donated by his best friend in Cuba, who had received the boat in Hemingway's will. (We also saw the village of Cojimar, where the Pilar had been moored.) I was surprised by how much attention is paid to this American writer:  a museum, a statue at Cojimar, plaques and pictures in many bars, and an exhibit at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where he stayed in the same room off and on over a period of years and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.

   Our farewell dinner was at El Patio, overlooking the Havana Cathedral.  We could hear music from a Mass before dinner and then street musicians began to play.

   Concluding thoughts:

   This was a wonderful trip.  I learned a great deal about the Cuban culture, though I realize our group saw only the best of things. It was strenuous at times, as we covered (with zigzagging to various places) around 800 miles by bus, over sometimes difficult roads, absent some amenities.  Food was better than we had been led to believe, and certainly the Havana hotel was beautiful -- not so much Camaguey.

   What I learned about this island was mostly from our guide, from an hour lecture and from my observations, and certainly I would not presume to know Cuba in ten days.  The Cuban people we met were very friendly and open; they were also quite resourceful, fashioning useful items out of the little they have.  


   I speculate the next decade or so is critical for Cuba.  Post-revolutionary leadership faces integrating Cuba’s economy into a global one, putting recent history into perspective, improving infrastructure, preserving historic centers, expanding housing, making internet accessible, using resources expeditiously, and above all, improving the lives of ordinary Cubans. 

   It will be very difficult to accomplish this while retaining those characteristics that make Cuba so attractive to tourists: multitudes of Colonial buildings, charming historic towns, cobblestones and ironwork, traditional music, vibrant art, pristine forests and beaches. 

   I expect US-Cuban relations will be normalized in my lifetime, and travel there will be easier, but that brings its own set of problems – dramatically increased tourism.  I do hope to return to see how things are going.

Judy Rookstool, May 2013

Cuba trip postscript, February, 2019

   In the almost 6 years since my trip to Cuba, I have remained attuned to both the news there and the relations between Cuba and the United States.

   Politically, there were enormous changes in Cuba with the hand-off by Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul, during Fidel’s prolonged illness and subsequent death.  Raul loosened economic restrictions and allowed private ownership of property.  He also presided over the improvement of relations with the U.S.  Most recently, Miguel Diaz-Canel, 58, replaced Raul as the first president who did not participate in the Revolution. (Raul remains head of the Communist Part and retains a strong political voice.)

   The U.S., under the Obama administration, opened an embassy in Havana and removed prohibitions on some Cuban products.  Tourism increased with the easing of U.S. visa restrictions and overall relations between the two countries improved. 

   Since then, some of these improvements have been rescinded.  For example, the embassy staff has been reduced and U.S. tourism is again restricted.

The country continues to struggle economically but the currency system may be liberalized and the freeze on new businesses has been lifted and rules slightly loosened.

   I continue to hope for normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

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