Vacation-style tourism is not yet an option for American visitors to Cuba. So, last month, when I escorted 15 of my fellow mediators to Cuba, the focus of our trip was on researching the conflicts that drive a mediator's work as well as the Cuban existence. Since our return, everyone wants to know "how was Cuba?" Clearly, my impressions are only a snap shot of a much bigger picture. There are obvious limitations on what can be learned about a culture -- especially one that is still wrapped in secrecy -- in just a few days. With that said, here is my take on Cuba in 2015.
- Havana smells. The city's sewer/septic system is a disaster waiting to happen. The stench of raw sewage, mixed with cigar smoke, mold and bug spray, permeates the air. In spite of this, Havana is one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited. Without a lot of industry, much of the government's work force is relegated to cleaning tasks, including sweeping the streets with brooms.
Like the U.S., Cuba is a divided country. Here we are divided along a political continuum with conservative and progressive poles. In Cuba, the divide is between those who are committed to and those that are fed-up with the current regime. Age, it appears, impacts this perspective. According to one young person, "our parents gave it all for the revolution. But, it's a failed experiment. We have to do something else. They keep telling us to wait but we are sick of waiting. We want to go to The Gap."
In preparation for our trip, my husband David and I took Spanish lessons. Our teacher told us that Spanish is spoken in a big loud voice with exaggerated annunciation. Not in Cuba. The restraint hit me as soon as I walked out of the airport terminal. Amongst the waiting crowd there was no chatter, no laughter. Overall, the Cuban people seem subdued and sad. Passing a crowded bus stop is surreal; the waiting passengers stand silently motionless. Individually, every Cuban we met was polite and friendly. But, collectively they feel frozen. My theory on the evolution of the Cuban personality is that those who could not be forced into submission have escaped, been killed or placed in prison.
Some Cubans believe that all of their ills are the result of the omnipresent Embargo that has overshadowed the lives of two generations. They want to believe that American visitors are joining with them and making declarations about rejecting the Embargo. IMHO, American visitors are more driven by the idea of adventure travel than by making political statements.
Stray dogs and cats are everywhere. Like the people, these animals are well behaved and missing their spunk. They lay all over the streets looking ragged and listless, albeit reasonably well fed.
There is no significant industry in Cuba. Sugar is their key crop. And, it's a tough sell. Cuba is competing in the global market with industrious and entrepreneurial countries like Brazil, India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico. These countries have access to a cheap labor pool, like Cuba, along with access to more efficient farming methods.
What about the cigars? Cuba's isolation has kept its world class cigars out of the U.S. As Cuba comes back into public view will they be able to brand cigar smoking as a hip activity? Or will the cigar join its pariah cousin, the cigarette? Who is going to end up addicted to the $5, $10, or $20 cigar?
Artists are becoming Cuba's upper class. With no significant industry, art is one thing that can still be produced and sold to the tourists. Of course, great art can never be mass produced; but, one artist can create a work of art that brings in mucho dinero.
Music is another great Cuban art form. And, there is impressive live music everywhere. However, most of the music, from the street musicians and those who play in the hotels and restaurants, is not the energizing Celia Cruz type of stuff I was expecting. It is much more subdued. One exception is the show at the Tropicana Night Club, a tourist hangout with the original (since 1939) Las Vegas review.
One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to the Cuban Art Museum where we saw how artists, before and since the revolution, have used art to make powerful political statements. If you go to Havana make sure you get a guide to take you through.
If the Cubans can get their act together, restoration and construction will become a major focus. Otherwise, their infrastructure will continue to crumble and their buildings, many of them magnificent examples of turn-of-the-century architecture, will continue to "die." Havana's deteriorating sidewalks make it difficult to walk in many places. This is not a good destination for people in wheelchairs.
Cuba's history includes a series of reprehensible conquerors and dictators. What will happen if/when the current regime falls is anyone's guess. Who will be the next greedy power to step in? How will these people, who have never exercised self-determination, know what to do or how to do it China is already moving in. As I see it, if the U.S. does not get involved in Cuba, China will eventually take over.
Our guide, a delightful young man, glazes over when we ask about Fidel's personal life. Clearly whatever he knows is not for public disclosure. The official word is that the average citizen knows very little about Fidel and Raul. I find this hard to believe. Maybe they are concerned that we tourists will feed info to the CIA? Or has Fidel truly laid low because of paranoia? (After all, the U.S. did attempt to assassinate him with the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion.) While Cuba is full of statues of Jose Marti and billboards with pictures of Che Guevara, the Castro brothers are out of sight and in an "undisclosed location."
Cuba's political parties don't function or serve the way their U.S. counterparts do. There is a communist party, which is made up of "exemplary citizens." But, it sounds more like a club than a political party. As far as governing is concerned, there is a system of municipal, provincial and national assemblies and courts.
Cubans are angry with Israel, the only country that votes with the U.S. and against them, in the U.N. in regard to the Embargo. For me, this was a source of sadness and frustration. The topography of Cuba reminds me of the Israel I knew in the 1970s and 1980s. I saw dozens of places where Cuba could benefit from Israeli science and technology know-how. The Israelis are agricultural geniuses who could teach Cubans how to turn their fertile farm land into more than enough food. And, what about Israeli solar water heaters? Every Cuban should have one.
Cuba has bread and pork, but not enough vegetables. The food we were served was never warm enough. Cuba is not a place for vegetarians, picky eaters, or the gluten free.
We drank bottled water but used ice during the trip. Only one, of our 16 travelers fell sick. We were not able to figure out what got him. All I know is he came away believing "there is not enough toilet paper in Cuba."
Cubans see themselves as sitting between the drug producers (South America) and the drug buyers (the U.S.). According to an official we met with, Cuba has worked with the D.E.A. and the U.S. Coast Guard to fight traffickers. I have no idea if this is true.
We felt safe during our time in Havana and freely strolled the streets, even at night. We were told that this is a city with no guns, no drugs and little crime. If that's true, it's a real paradox. Keep in mind however that there are reports that contradict Cuba's safe reputation.
There is some confusion, amongst Cubans, about the Embargo. From the Cuban perspective, the U.S. has had issues with Germany, Vietnam and China, but has not limited trade with these countries. So why Cuba? In fact, the Embargo was our response to Castro nationalizing American owned property in Cuba and pointing Russian missiles at Florida in 1962. The Embargo has continued because of the vocal anti-Castro community in Miami.
Rumors persist about those who are locked away for "crimes of thought." Images of the horrors from Mazorra Mental Institution are impossible to forget.
The Prosecutors office is central to the Cuban system of justice. But, the fox is also watching the hen house.... prosecutors handle prisoners' complaints. (Look at #125).
The communication and information channels in Cuba are narrow. Censorship is subtle. There is limited access to the internet and no broadband. All pornography is censored. The only advertisements we saw were for cigarettes.
If you go, bring your own thermal coffee mug. While the coffee is very good it's all served in small cups. Nothing in Cuba is Vente.
There is a shortage of paper. All paper. If you go, bring toilet paper, paper towels, napkins and tissues. Leave your excess paper behind with the locals.
When you exchange your money in the airport get some small bills and coins - ￂﾽ CUCs, ￂﾼ CUCs, or 1/10 CUCs. Have these ready for the beggars that are everywhere.
Prostitution is a way of life in Cuba, while procurement (pimping) is illegal. I guess that means the police protect the prostitutes? Oy.
No surprise; Cuba is not a very entrepreneurial place. At our hotel's spa the only service available is massage. At the airport, you cannot buy Cuban chocolate. So much missed opportunity. Cuba does not get hordes of American tourists but there are plenty of Canadians, Germans, South Americans and Brits. Aside from prostitutes, what are they selling these tourists?
Abortion is legal and free. There are campaigns that promote the use of birth control so that abortion is not misused.
There are frequent blackouts.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost billions in aid and entered into a miserable time they now call "the special period."
Many Cubans acknowledge that adopting the Russian model of communism was a mistake. They are a small country with limited natural resources. Following a Scandinavian model of socialism probably would have brought better results.
In every Caribbean country I have ever visited the locals drive like lunatics -- way too fast. This is not true. The subdued tempo carried out to the road. There was no heavy traffic. Just about everyone, including the taxis, those amazing old American cars which now have Kia engines, drives along the pot-holed streets at a slow pace.
Cuba exports doctors. Reportedly, Cuba provides more medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined. In addition, Cuba brings medical students and patients to Cuba. These doctors bolster Cuba's image as a donor nation. However, there is a cost to pay, in growing numbers these Cuban doctors are defecting to the U.S. and elsewhere.
After the revolution, Castro restricted religious practice. Non-atheists could not belong to the Communist Party. However, in 1992, article 42, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief, was added to the Cuban Constitution. Today, an estimated 70 percent of Cubans practice Santeria (more properly known as Regla de Ocha), a syncretistic faith, derived from traditional African religions and Catholicism. Throughout our trip we saw many Santeria initiates. (Easy to spot as they are required to wear all white clothing for a year.)
Desi Arnaz (a/k/a Ricky Ricardo), one of Cuba's most famous exports, introduced us to Babaloo, his signature song that pays homage to Babaloo Aiye, one of the key Santeria Orichas. (An Oricha is a deity, similar to a saint in Catholicism.) Babaloo Aiye is the Oricha that provides guidance and help with contagious and epidemic diseases.
Even before we left, I started to learn some big lessons about Cuba and conflict. Suffice it to say that not everyone thinks it's cool to go to Cuba. If you want to know more about the negative reactions I encountered before my Cuba trip, take a look at my blog post.
Ultimately, for me and my 15 fellow travelers, this was a once in a lifetime trip. We had a chance to see the before picture -- a country frozen in time before it begins the thaw-out process that seems to be right around the corner. Hasta pronto, Cuba!!