My husband and I recently spent a week in Cuba, a trip that has been on my bucket list for many years. My family lived there from mid-1958 to mid-1959. My dad was an executive with Esso (predecessor of Exxon), which operated a refinery in Cuba. I have pleasant memories of living in Tarara, a community on the beach east of Havana.
In the fall of 1958, my parents, school teacher, Cuban housekeeper and gardener did not hide the fact that Fidel Castro was in the mountains fighting then President Batista. My sisters and I did not feel threatened. Our parents thought Castro was a benign inconvenience, but our housekeeper venerated the man. She showed me her small shrine for Fidel in her modest house nearby. The most significant disruption I experienced was American newspapers cut to ribbons by Cuban censors.
In the early ‘90s Cuba stepped up international tourism to offset the sudden loss of Russian economic aid. By 2015 Cuba recorded over 3.5 million tourists, less than 200,000 of whom were Americans. Ordinary U.S. citizens have only been able to visit Cuba legally since 2011, when the administration OK’d travel for educational and cultural (i.e. “person-to-person”) activities; but we still can’t travel to Cuba just to relax on the beach and drink mojitos.
The State Department reviews all tourist itineraries and requires certification of compliance with restrictions. Effectively this channels most travel through licensed operators. We selected a tour organized by The Nation magazine, a progressive publication with a lengthy history of reporting on U.S.-Cuba relations. We liked the diverse itinerary and expected to argue the pros and cons of the US government’s strident condemnation and punishing embargo of Cuba.
Our 30-person group landed at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport on October 8. We stayed downtown at the Hotel Capri, a 17-story mid-50’s vintage structure, complete with roof swimming pool, bar and beautiful city views. The hotel/casino was (reputedly) built with mob money and opened with depression-era movie star George Raft as a greeter. The Capri was completely renovated in 2014.
Our program began with author and Nation correspondent Peter Kornbluh discussing the history of secret negotiations between Washington and Havana. Reuters reporter Marc Frank, who has lived in Cuba since 1980, covered the social and economic challenges created by Cuba’s dual currency economy. Tourists and Cubans working in tourism use Convertible Currency units or CUCs (1 “CUC”=$1); but most Cubans must use Cuban pesos, or CUPs (I CUC =27 CUPs). Seventy percent of Cubans earn an average of 800 CUPs/month in state jobs they train for in the free educational system. They receive ration cards covering food staples, clothes and household necessities. But quality is low and the rations are not enough to live on. Healthcare is free for all, but access to advanced treatments is limited. Particularly in Havana people struggle to obtain CUCs through remittances from family in the U.S., tourist services and private entrepreneurship.
Program highlights included: 1) Carlos Alzugaray Treto, former Cuban Ambassador to the EU, discussing prospects for repeal of the U.S. embargo and possible terms of rapprochement; 2) Marta Nunez, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Havana, describing feminism and LGBT issues in the machismo Cuban culture and racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans, in a country professing full equality; 3)Miguel Coyula, a senior urban planner responsible for Old Havana revitalization surveyed Havana’s history and future redevelopment challenges; 4) we visited Cuba’s Latin American Medical School which provides free medical education to 1,900 students/year from Africa, Latin America and, even 50 from the U.S.
From the arts scene we met with 1) Professor Alberto Faya who outlined Cuban music history and a performed with his jazz quartet. Faya’s English was great, as was his singing. The quartet was stunning! Many of us were moved to tears; 2) viewed a private performance by 50 dancers studying at the Lizt Alfonso Academy; 3) visited the small apartments of several Cuban artists and a rap group.
Another highlight was an overnight trip to Vinares, a small city three hours west of Havana. We visited a tobacco farm and had dinner at an organic farm/restaurant, a true field-to-table dining experience. Each of us stayed at small, state-licensed “Casitas.” Our single room at Casa Taty was modest, but spotless. The food was tasty and plentiful. A few rentals a month now creates prosperity Vinares families could not dream of 15 years ago.
Though we were unable to contact true dissidents, we talked freely about reported abuses. All of the people we met agreed that significant changes are needed to Cuban socialism. Based on his speeches and writings Raul Castro agrees. There is widespread criticism of the damaging U.S. embargo, which is supported only by two countries: the U.S. and Israel. Cubans know that lifting the embargo is not a panacea, but they look forward to the day when the U.S. finally understands it cannot dictate Cuba’s future.