12/19/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

My Trip to Cuba

I remember visiting Cuba a few years ago and feeling like I had landed on another planet. But, contrary to what we read, Cuba did not appear to be an Orwellian nightmare. I saw no thought police, just about no murals with Fidel's image, and I did not see one person who looked defeated. In fact, the people generally looked happier and had more spirit than the typical New Yorker. That's not to say Cuba is a utopian dream. The photos you've seen of the 57' Chevys, the war torn houses, and the hospitals that look like garbage dumps are real.

Other images I expected to see were missing. I saw very few policemen. And I did not see one tank patrolling the streets. The only soldiers I did see were guarding the Museum Of The Revolution, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were just part of the display.

I did see a lot of spirit and national pride displayed, especially when it came to the Cuban national team, which was playing in The World Baseball Classic at the time. I even saw religious services. Even though Cuba is officially an atheist state, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Christians are allowed to practice their faith. I heard there was virtually no major crime, though I had seen prostitution, and evidently the black market runs rampant. Just about everyone I met tried to sell me something or asked me to send something from America that they could sell.

Now here's something I never expected: strong criticism of the government! The openness was surprising. I had not met one person who didn't criticize the government, and that included members of the government. Young people generally called Fidel and Raul dictators who have ministers that are "old men," out of touch with reality. But, interestingly, many people I met said the Castros only exert authority when they have strong disagreements with Cuba's elected assembly. Others said the assembly only approves dictums that come down from Raul. Who knows?

It is obvious to Cubans, especially younger ones, that if socialism is supposed to improve the quality of life, Castro has failed big time. Cubans see their country as just another 3rd world country with a failed economy. To be fair, the government does guarantee Cubans a certain percentage of caloric in-take to stay healthy. And Cubans did look very healthy when I was there. In fact, at that time their life expectancy was exactly the same as ours. Cubans are also guaranteed health care and an education, and illiteracy has virtually been eliminated. That's the good news about education. The bad news is that a good percentage of people with Master's Degrees are forced to wait tables. One of my tour guides learned six languages as an undergraduate and graduated law school. I gotta tell you, he was pissed." Why," he asked, "provide such a great education without being able to make use of it?"

I found something even more surprising than open criticism of the government. The younger generation, the angriest group of Cubans I met, do not want to lose the gains made by the revolution. While they do want to get rid of the Castros' repressive government, they also want to keep the socialist economic system.

Criticism was also on display in the National Museum of Fine Arts, where there are many works of art that make critical statements about the government. One, for example, is a "birdcage" in the shape of Cuba that clearly expresses the anger Cuban people feel about being caged in by a repressive government. I hadn't seen too many pieces praising the revolution. I did see many wonderful paintings with Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero and advocate of freedom of expression, as the main subject. Next door to the art museum is the Museum of The Revolution, where praise for the revolution and its leaders, Fidel and Che, are on display. But also on display is the museum itself, showcasing the failures of the revolution. I've never seen a museum in such disrepair, just like many of the other government buildings.

This museum is really the only place I saw something praising the revolution. I barely saw billboards with Fidel's image. It's almost sad; Fidel and Che images were most visible in gift shops for tourists! These iconic figures were not pushed as heroes of the revolution, but peddled as pop hero merchandise. Talking about merchandise being peddled: There are malls in Cuba with stores that sell the same name brands we're familiar with!

What I did not see were ads in newspapers advertising our name brands. The daily newspaper is just what you'd expect. It's a mouthpiece of the government. The paper had just one editorial writer at the time, who was Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly, all rolled into one. Fidel Castro!! He was writing a daily column. And evidently Fidel's got something in common with Rush. Both fulminate about Barrack Obama scheming to destroy their way of life. I know this. If the paper accepted letters to the editor, I'm sure we'd see a lot of angry response to Fidel's Obama columns. Most Cubans I met cheered the election of Obama. They believed he'd improve relations and end the American economic embargo. And he has!!!

In the main, the Cubans I spoke to believed the American embargo had just the opposite effect intended. It had provided Castro with the propaganda tool he needed to maintain control, and it had contributed to the repression and starvation the Cuban people experience. Cubans I met felt the end of the blockade would bring the American businessmen with capital and American tourists with money that would force the Cuban government to provide the freedoms needed to create a new beginning for Cuba. And they were right. Today, December 19, 2014, there are already hundreds of Cubans of all ages gathered in Havana waiting to be told where to get an American tourist visa to visit family members in America. I wonder what they're going to say about their visit to America.