Cuba Series & Travel Journal
Cuba Journal May, 2013
Our travel guide got us from Santa Cruz to Miami for an overnight stay before our short flight to Cuba, although the line in the airport wasn't short. Many Cuban-Americans were traveling with goods for relatives, like TVs, bicycles, and huge plastic bags filled with everything from toys to towels.
Flying into Holguin I saw green and brown squares below that reminded me of agricultural areas everywhere. Clearing passport control was a bit disconcerting. No smiles and lots of questions, followed by another trip through security. We were hit with a blast of hot, wet air. Not so many cars in the lot but the first glimpse of classic US cars of tithe 40s and 50s. On the bus to Santiago as we were leaving the airport there was a huge billboard demanding the release of the Cuban 5, five men convicted of spying in the US, though the Cuban government says only infiltration of anti-Cuban Floridians.
Our first stop was Biran, birthplace of Fidel and Raul, though Fidel never lived in the reconstructed (after a fire) home we saw. Fidel's father was a wealthy man with extensive land holdings, later donated to the state, after the revolution. Fidel's sons are non-political professionals, and his daughter is an official in charge of sex education. It is rumored that his sister left for Miami early on, with a great deal the family's money.
Our local guide, Ari, began ASAP to describe Cuban society and answer questions, so a few facts follow:
Eighty percent of workers are employed by the government with a claim of close to universal employment, though with the numbers of people on the street and just hanging out, that is questionable. Workers are paid in local currency, worth much less (about 25 percent) than tourist CUCs, but most goods are sold for CUCS, thus reducing their purchasing power, for there is an exchange fee as well.
While education, medical care, housing, and day care are free, food, though subsidized, and goods are very expensive. Each family is entitled to a certain amount of food products per month, but if the items are not available or the family runs out, they lose that allotment for the month. Cultural events are low cost and encouraged. After graduating from University, young people must serve a period of social service, such as teaching, or for males, military.
Communism has smothered most religion, but Sanitaria, a traditional AfroCuban religion has survived and is practiced by maybe 30 percent of the people. Catholicism is also evident, especially in the Central and Eastern provinces and among older people who were alive before 1959, the year the revolution ended. Young people are not familiar with religion, but recently Christmas has become popular. Santeria survived because it was always an underground religion, with equivalents to Catholic saints which allowed practitioners to go to mass but secretly worship Santeria
There are pictures of Fidel, Che, Raul, and revolutionary slogans on billboards and walls everywhere.
Homes in the Eastern provinces are old and decaying but streets are clean and public art is pervasive, though not extravagant. There is a sort of pride of ownership, where at least maybe one wall is painted, or a makeshift gate, or at least a potted plant. There is very little graffiti, as the penalty for such is severe. After the revolution, almost all foreign enterprise and property was nationalized and the property of those who did not support Castro was confiscated and the owners fled. Tobacco farms are still private but must sell to the government.
Cuba has 11 million people, with 1 million in Santiago and Trinidad and 2 (and we also heard 3) million in Havana. The population is shrinking, though the government encourages more children. At the same time, birth control is low cost and abortion is legal. The island is long (about 700 miles) and narrow and mostly flat with 3 low mountain ranges. Eastern provinces are less prosperous, agricultural, with older infrastructure and poor roads. As we travel West, conditions seem to improve.
Cuba imports more than 65 percent of its agricultural products -- at great expense. Urban agriculture is encouraged. He Cubans are very short on basic necessities, like soap, toothpaste, flour, medicine, etc.
The so-called Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s, brought great deprivation. Cubans had grown sugar cane, almost exclusively, for trade with the Soviet Union, from whom they received, food, oil, machinery and most consumer goods. When that disappeared, people were without food and basic necessities. Transportation fell apart (and is still difficult -- more later) and city people, especially, nearly starved. Ari said people raised pigs and chickens in their apartments in Havana.
The dual economy hurts Cuba in many ways, including forcing many to leave and also to cause talented people who would be good teachers or other professionals to go into the tourist industry where they can make more money.
Recently home ownership is allowed, whereas before property could only be handed down or swapped. There are few records of how a house is built, but now any transactions trigger a valuation, carried out by an architect -- some say in preparation for a tax system. Many homes have improvised additions; most need major improvements, though many are painted with bright colors in diagonal designs.
Three indigenous tribes of Cuba, the Taino, Siboney and Guanatabey, were decimated by the Spanish colonists, and few descendants remain.
Endemic animals include tree rats, frogs, many varieties of birds, the Cuban crocodile, and only one type of (non-poisonous) snake. I saw coconuts, bananas, corn, lots of sugarcane, many small vegetable plots, and a few pineapple plants. Eastern provinces farm with horses and oxen and there are small herds of (skinny) cattle and occasional donkey, and lots of goats but very little dairy products
We stayed our first night in Santiago de Cuba, called the city of heroes, where early Colonial revolts began, and where Fidel planned to begin his in 1953. The first attack on Bautista was unsuccessful and Fidel was imprisoned and later exiled to Mexico (where he met Che), only to return in 1956 to overthrow Bautista
We visited what is believed to be one of the oldest homes in the Americas, built in the 1630s. We walked around Morro Castle, also originally from the 1630s but expanded several times. This brick fort is perfectly positioned to protect the narrow bay and has a commanding view.
Lunch was on a nearby island, Granma, so named for the boat which brought Fidel back from exile. It is difficult to overstate the pervasiveness of the presence of Fidel and Che, and to a lesser extent, Raul with signs, statues, and pictures
On the way to our next stop, we toured Bayamo, a lovely town with a farmer's market. We had lunch in Le Bodega and toured the town square, complete with a beautiful library. (Most cities have a free public library, though librarians do not have a desirable job, being too far from tourism.)
We arrived in Camaguey, another Colonial town with UNESCO designation and stayed in a government-owned hotel in the center of the city. (There is a big difference between those and joint-venture hotels. State hotels are bare bones, and OSHA would be very busy. There are also privately owned bed and breakfast homes.) We toured the historical center in bici taxis (like Pedi-cabs) in an enormous rainstorm. And the taxis were racing one another. To wait out the rain, we went to a nearby galley. Good dinner at La Campana, despite the lights going out briefly. The city is laid out to discourage pirates, with narrow streets and short corners, so we were glad to have our guide lead us back from dinner through rain-soaked streets.
In general, food has been wonderful, much better than we were led to believe. Oddly enough, we've had beef frequently, though it is supposed to be little available. Bathrooms are a bit of a problem, with most, outside of hotels, lacking toilet seats, and many lacking flushing mechanisms and paper (attendants provide) and without working faucets for hand washing. We have developed a 1-5 star rating system.
Our next stop was Spiritus Santu where, after lunch at Maison de la Plaza, we walked around the Plaza Major, with a large cathedral, dating from the 1880s, Mercado, and farmers market. There was a lovely library building. Librarians are not considered to have a good job, as they are far from tourists with no chance for tips (which can make up the bulk of income for those in the tourist industry). On the way to Trinidad, we stopped for a spectacular view of a sugarcane valley, recently declared a UNESCO site.
In Trinidad we stayed in an ocean resort, Las Brisas, with a series of bungalows. After a swim in the Caribbean Sea, we had a buffet dinner at the hotel. The next morning we visited Manaca Iznaga, a colonial hacienda in the Plaza Mayor in the city center of cobblestone streets, and we had lunch at Maison de la Plaza. We visited the Museum of Colonial Architecture, with a display of glassware and dishes from the 1880s and cooking implements. For dinner, we went to Solanda, an elegant private home, called a Paladar. The meal was lovely, on glass dishes with patterned silver and linen tablecloth. The wine cellar was notable, as it was in the downstairs bedroom -- and the bottles were organized on the bed. A small band placed lively music. Later we went to the town square, where locals gather on the steps to listen to great Latin jazz.
The next morning we set off for the long bus trip to Havana, stopping at Cienfuegos, a French colonial town, with an historic center with a wide Boulevard and an historic theater, Teatro Terry, built in the French style.
The square contains a sacred tree, the ceiba, from Africa, and an important part of Santeria. We then went to the memorial for Che Guevara in Santa Clara. This place is visited by many, many Cubans and there is an enormous square adjoining the memorial where large political rallies are held. Santa Clara is known for being the location of the last battle for an armed train, led by Che, before Bautista fled. Che's remains were found in Bolivia, where he had led an unsuccessful revolt and was later killed by the CIA.
We had a buffet lunch in a tourist hotel, Los Caneyes, and continued our bus ride to Havana, which will be Part 2.