AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: A TRIP TO CUBA
Have you ever dreamed of visiting Cuba? This place is so close, yet so far away, and for so long unattainable for us in the U.S. We had heard all about the legal hassles on both sides, the need to go through Toronto or Cancun, the high cost and other complications. Most of this turned out to be wrong, and we spent a week in December learning about the culture, education, food and agriculture in Cuba.
Yes, there are forms to fill out … but just follow the instructions and it works fine. The day we arrived in Havana there were 6 charters from Miami and one from Tampa, or you can take the Canada or Mexico option. Tours are expensive, perhaps 50% more than a week in Central America, and the round trip charter flight from Tampa was $519/person plus document fees – perhaps the highest cost 200-mile round trip in the world. So it can be done … just check out the available tours and choose one that meets your interests. You will join over a million Canadians; 300,000 from the U.S.; and thousands from Europe who venture south for an eye-opening experience each year.
President Obama’s recent relaxation of restrictions on travel to Cuba brought dozens of expatriate families to the airport in Tampa for the American Airlines charter flight. Most of them had huge piles of baggage, clothing, electronics, dry goods, gifts, huge plastic-wrapped bundles, eight on a cart. Our first impression was that they were taking goods to sell on some regular trip, but as we stood in line from 9:20 am for the 1:20 pm flight, going first through document checks and then baggage check-in and payment (checked and carry-on baggage is charged), we talked to families who were returning for the first time in seven years, in fifteen years. Much emotion in the group!
It was a beautiful sunny day, with clear views as we left Florida and flew across the water where so many still attempt to flee Cuba in small boats. Flying in to Havana we were impressed with the intensive vegetable production and greenhouses, plus many acres of underutilized pastures near the city. Culturally the travel was fascinating, with our Tampa charter filled with Cuban-Americans taking back items difficult to obtain by their family and friends in Cuba. This adds to the some $6 billion in remittances sent by U.S relatives each year to people on the island. As we touched down in the airport spontaneous applause and shouts of Bravo Cuba! filled our ears and brought tears to our eyes, as well as to many others. What a wonderful event for us to share in some small way. So began our immersion in another country and a chance to challenge our stereotypes about this unique culture.
AND HERE WE ARE…
After our 3pm arrival at Jose Martí airport, we proceeded through immigration, starting with an interview by a gregarious young Cuban named Tom Cruise (well, according to his shirt, and he didn’t deny it!). He was especially interested in things we had brought as gifts (AA batteries, computer memory sticks, both recommended by the Tour Company as much appreciated items; and Nebraska-made candy.) The latter really caught his attention, though why we don’t know. He wrote copious notes in a tiny notebook as we stood in line. How much cash was also of interest. Any cameras, iPods, mobile phones? — no, just one iPad, which was not of interest. Then we passed separately through immigration, removing glasses for photos. Chuck’s passport was confiscated briefly so he would return to get our one checked bag passed through the screening machine. The Health Division checked our vaccination cards, asking how we were feeling. Someone quickly identified us as tourists — can you believe it? — and waited patiently to guide us through a maze of people, finally exiting to where huge crowds waited anxiously for family and friends from which they may have been separated for some time. We wished we could have stopped there to watch people reuniting.
Our taxi driver, in one of the official taxis, was heavy on the gas pedal and the horn, but full of information to start our stay. He pointed out the Che Guevara and Jose Marti artwork on buildings and the huge memorial to Marti. The two men’s likenesses are found on many billboards, and they are revered by the Castro regime as revolutionary heroes. Marti, poet and philosopher, gave great inspiration for the fight for independence from Spain and the later revolution. He was killed immediately when he entered battle in 1895, which is believed by some to be the kind of martyr’s death he desired. Interestingly, the ultraconservatives in Miami also see him as their hero. Fidel apparently disdains displays of his personal image. Our tour guide also explained that the Soviet model, which they follow, only displays such images after a person dies.
As we approached the hotel, our driver took us close to the Malecon, the three mile long hotel and apartment-lined drive along the water. A cement sidewalk with a low seawall is usually thronged with walkers, joggers, couples and families, dogs on leashes, small music groups and hopefuls of all ages holding fishing hooks in the water. We saw no one that afternoon and then we knew why. Suddenly geysers seemed to erupt above the seawall, but they were really waves, many meters high, caused by the heavy winds and the high tide. What a sight! Later walks and jogs along theMalecon made evident the terrible condition of the walkway, with broken concrete forming an obstacle course.
Habana, Cuba, our first night, sitting in the quiet lobby of the Hotel Presidente, just a few meters in front of a wonderful musical foursome. Two men on guitar and percussion and two women on bass and guitar were singing in beautiful harmony a variety of music from jazz to Buena Vista Social Club to the Cuban spin on an amazing array of familiar international tunes. The quartet performs here four nights a week. We will come as often as possible. A large group of mostly young French tourists arrives at 9 pm. There are at least two small groups like ours, US tourists on “education tours”, a designation required by the US government. At 9:45 arrives a tired group of six families with young kids from the Netherlands. The place is definitely filling up on this Saturday night before Christmas. The weather, as in south Florida the previous two days, is cool and windy. Leaving Tampa, we were dressed in our winter coats and are happy to them on all evening here in Habana.
Changes in policies about US citizens traveling to Cuba now make it possible for us and many others to travel there. The US government requires that all travelers are part of an Educational/Cultural tour, and each person must have a “license” issued in one of 12 categories, including Freelance Journalist, Family in Cuba, Researcher, Educator, University Student, and Religious Trip. Chuck is an “Educator”, defined as full time University professor, and Barb is a “Researcher”, defined as doing full-time research in Cuba. We received identical full itineraries in the beginning of our preparations, with visits to various educational and cultural locations, along with three meals a day, time to refresh at the hotel, evening events, and free time. Barb’s itinerary suddenly changed, with the same educational and cultural visits, but no meals or refresh time included and every evening filled with “write research report”. But Barb has managed to eat all meals, nap when needed, enjoy evening activities and the Cuban quartet visits in the hotel lobby, and still continue daily work on the “research report” (this letter).
A UNIQUE SCHEDULE AND EXPOSURE TO CUBA …
Undoubtedly, our tour schedule is arranged to reflect the Cuban government programs and culture in the best possible light. The revolutionary rag tag army of 1958, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, a Chilean medical doctor whom Fidel met in exile in Mexico, brought many changes to Cuba, not least of which was the removal of the vicious dictator Batista. An Agrarian Reform Act limited private land ownership. The government confiscated foreign owned industries, many owned by North Americans. Racial discrimination was outlawed, free health care and education made available to all, and low-income housing programs introduced. Middle and upper income residents, stripped of property and wealth, fled Cuba in large numbers. Between 1960 and 1962, 14,000 middle-class children were sent by their anti-Revolution parents to Miami after rumors that Castro would send such children to military camps and Soviet labor camps. The USSR stepped in to support the communist leaders, providing goods, services and money, Conditions between US and Cuba deteriorated, and in early 1961 the US severed ties and began an economic embargo. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which ended the tremendous support that had been provided, along with the continuing US embargo, have caused incredible hardships in Cuba. The government services are definitely limited, although many will argue they were never good from the beginning. (A 2003 biography by Carlos Eire, one of the children airlifted in 1962 at the age of 11, relates his childhood in Havana, interspersed with his views at various stages of the situation in Cuba. Barb found Waiting for Snow in Havana fascinating.)
Information is contradictory, at times, so it is hard to actually know what is going on. All government jobs, which may be 90% of the working population, pay a very modest salary, about $20 per month, according to statistical reports. The Cuban saying is We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us. A street sweeper and a brain surgeon may be paid very similar salaries. The tour guide reported that his dad, who has taught English for 39 years at Havana University, receives the equivalent of $40 per month. This is part of the equal treatment of people. But the money doesn’t go far, and people of all educational levels may live in very humble settings, even without water and power. We spoke to one psychiatrist who continues to treat patients at his government job because of his desire to help the mentally ill, but he and his son have a simple art studio in a tourist area where they can earn “tourist money”, which allows for other purchases. For the same reason, professional people from teachers to doctors, may work extra jobs in the tourist industry, driving taxis or working in hotels, or even take jobs in the tourist sector as their primary work. The tour guide indicated that many people hold three jobs.
Interestingly, the highest paid Cubans are athletes and artists, including musicians but not writers. We visited the studio of Jose Fuster, known by some as the Picasso of theCaribbean, who has decorated his own unique house/studio and about 80 houses in his humble neighborhood with his artwork. Oils and mosaics and ceramics are combined in a kaleidoscope of color and design. Check him out on the web. The Fuster studio is a popular tourist destination serving creative lunches using common ingredients. It was the best meal we had!
Breakfast buffets at the hotel included a large variety of tropical dishes, rice and beans, hot veggie combos, sausages, fruits including fabulous papaya, even a small Scandinavian smorgasbord when the Norwegians were in residence. Lunches and dinners almost always began with small lettuce, tomato and cucumber salads. Rice and beans, flavored with the blended garlic/onion/tomato/green pepper combo know assofrito, accompanied fish or shrimp, beef, chicken, or pork. Cubans would mostly be unable to afford or obtain those protein sources. Root crops including sweet potatoes and tropical tubers were served. Desserts were flans or rice puddings, so we got our quota of rice! Skinny chilled glasses of mojitos were a regular offering.
Small private restaurants have existed for decades, illegally until the need for diversifying sources of income developed after the Soviet withdrawal. Paladares are now a popular tourist destination, often located in private homes or apartments, and now recommended by hotel staff and other people in the neighborhood. Close to our hotel was the Paladar 14th Floor, reached by elevator in a seemingly uninhabited apartment house. A lovely apartment, decorated by the owner with many of his own paintings, served about 20 in the dining room and two balconies. The menu changed often, with just a few choices, but the food and service were great. We were welcomed into the tiny kitchen with a small gas stove, where dishes were washed by hand. Paladares are numerous and offer Cubans another important source of tourist income.
We have read that many people live in the abandoned and run-down apartment houses and hotels and that derrumbes/collapses can be heard in downtown Havana when such buildings implode, often killing and injuring residents. Although a historical preservation program has done much to restore the downtown area, there is never enough money. Along the Malecon, that long road along the bay where the waves towered the first day of our visit, buildings which have been restored by individuals stand next to others in total neglect, but still inhabited.
Our small tour group (max 18 including guide and driver) was met by bands on the streets (playing Feliz Navidad and Silent Night), and we were always seated in restaurants next to the “band”. So the music was loud, often interfering with hearing the menu or conversing. And we were always expected to put a tip into the passed basket. The best bands played Cuban music or good variations of older, popular tunes, from the Beatles to Andrew Lloyd Weber. Cuba of course has a tremendous musical history and culture which continues into the present. Cuban musicians have toured the world for decades, and we heard of an elderly singer, Omara, famous as a member of the Cuban Supremos at the time of the MoTown Supremes, who toured last year in Europe and the US. She is back in Cuba now but not performing publicly. She may also have been a member of the earlier Buena Vista Social Club. Our personal favorite band was the Quarteto Son Cubano at the hotel Presidente. Son, bolero and salsa are all traditional music styles.Quarteto with two men on percussion and guitar and two women on guitar and bass had a wonderful, easy to listen to style, with beautiful harmonics. Many in our tour group attempted to see musicians perform in the famous hotels and cafes in Havana, but most were disappointed that advertised bands had not even started to set up by midnight.
We visited the Abdala music and recording studio and saw the many poster collages of artists who had made recordings there. The electronic equipment was impressive, 15 years old in one case but very well maintained. A Steinway and Baby Steinway in two different studios seemed to be kept in pristine condition. A well-known Cuban jazz pianist who had a recent release from the studio, played a jazz selection for us. We all wondered how the Steinways, of which there are 15 in various studios at Abdala, arrived in Cuba and when.
The musicians in the bands around town all train in conservatories, which is impressive. The bands are usually not paid by the venues where they appear and rely on tips and sales of their CDs which are mostly made outside the professional studios, and vary in quality. So we can understand the need for people to collect tips, although their aggressiveness and rudeness offends many travelers.
Likewise the beggars, who are everywhere, can be very aggressive. Our tour leader claims that no one should be begging, as anyone who wants to work can find a job. He is especially angry at parents who make their children beg. I would suppose some of the older and disabled might also be put out on the streets by their families to beg. The amount of begging belies the idea that everyone in Cuba is taken care of. As do other conditions we observe.
Dra. Marta Nuñez Sarmiento teaches racial and gender equality in the Dept of Sociology at the University of Havana. Her well-to-do family was plunged into poverty in 1959. At the time of the Revolution, and subsequent Bay of Pigs operation and US embargo, the literacy level of the Cuban people was incredibly low. Castro immediately ordered a literacy program begun, for all ages. Night school classes allowed working adults to study, resulting especially in increased education levels for women. Today women are 65% of the educated and professional workers, but they work two shifts. 1. job and 2. home. Cuba is a very patriarchal and homophobic society, which means that most men and boys don’t help with “women’s work”. Thus boys are saved from becoming “sissies/homosexuals”. The tour guide has a more optimistic view from his own experience of living in a 4 year relationship in which he and his girlfriend divided up responsibilities; he cooked because her food was inedible! Many of his peers are in similar arrangements. Sarmiento continued: since 1964 contraception and abortion, the latter if done in medical facilities, are legal. Serial monogamy is the norm. Domestic violence exists, but at a reduced level, in part because the strong Afro-Cuban heritage equates beating one’s wife with beating one’s mother. No mention of the non Afro-Cuban population.
Racism, although banned early by Fidel, is “subtle”, as described by Sarmiento. When large landholdings were taken and divided and foreign companies were nationalized, the land went to those doing “agricultural work”, who were white. Blacks were doing hard labor on sugar plantations, which was not “agricultural work”, and thus were not eligible to become landowners. Blacks are 60% of the population but Parliament is 100% white. Expatriates in Miami, those who could afford to leave at the time of the Revolution, are 95% white so any money or goods coming from them goes to whites. I’m not sure what “subtle” means in these situations. Professor Sarmiento was an interesting speaker, seemingly quite open in her comments and answers to questions. Another tour group heard her husband speak and reported he was much more “party line”.
Health care seems to be uneven, in spite of so-called “free coverage” for everyone. Common ailments are easily treated. When care from a specialist is required, those in the waiting room with a “gift” are allowed to see the doctor first. The tour guide preferred not to use the term “bribe”. Many drugs, including those needed for cancer treatments including chemo and radiology, must be purchased from outside sources for high prices, making them out of reach for most people.
Phew! This place is complex, with many contradictions and inconsistencies! Our expectations and reality, information from the tour guide and the professor, the guide book photos and on-site viewing, the Communist party line and the real situation. We expected much less freedom to wander and were surprised by the seemingly complete lack of restrictions on where any of our group were allowed to go. With our Spanish, we were able to talk to anyone we wanted, and we didn’t feel anyone was hesitant about talking to us. But of course, people who do go over the limits, which were never spelled out but apparently include photographing military or police personnel, can be arrested and imprisoned. Cuban dissidents here are arrested, though often for only a few hours, mostly as harassment or to keep them from demonstrating during events such as Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit or International Human Rights Day in December. Such detentions have increased from 2000 to 4000 to 6000 from 2010-2012, as more people protest the strangling of the economy and human rights during the past half century.
And so, on our last night, sitting in the quiet lobby of the Hotel Presidente, just a few meters in front of our favorite Cuban band as they finish their last hour of the evening. New friends from our tour join us, then several families stream in, smiling as they pass the band. Soon another chain of tired travelers drag their suitcases across the threshold, some pausing briefly as they hear the lovely harmony. Bidding farewell to our favorite Cuban band, we leave a bag of Bakers Dark Chocolate Orange meltaways, made in Nebraska, and carry the memory of their music away with us.
REFLECTIONS ON AGRICULTURE AND FOOD … [stop reading if tired]
Cuba currently spends an extraordinary amount of scarce foreign exchange on imported food, more than $1 billion/year with beef from Venezuela and Central America, and nearly $500 million from the U.S. including grains from Nebraska. In addition to their large fields of sugar cane and many small farmers growing tobacco for export of cigars, there is a unique urban focus on vegetable production. The highest quality meats and seafood are reserved for tourists. The critically difficult times for nutrition that followed the soviet retreat after U.S.S.R collapsed in 1990 have ended, but even staple foods such as rice and beans are not always available in the quantities needed.
These are some of the factoids we uncovered during our one-week educational and cultural tour of areas near Havana in December. Although most of our time was spent in the capital, we visited an “organoponic” 25-acre farm just to the east and also traveled two hours west to the Viñales Valley. We also enjoyed plenty of local foods and stopped by a neighborhood market where we saw people in line with coupon books waiting for scarce government-subsidized staple foods, and a small open-air farmers’ market stocked with local tomatoes, squash, potatoes, and root crops. Other stories told of starkly decreasing amounts of food available with the ration card. Again there was conflicting info and only a superficial impression of the current agriculture and food system in Cuba.
Historically Cuban agriculture focused on sugar for export, with a small number of large farms and refineries controlled by those with money as well as strong foreign interests including United Fruit Company. Both refined sugars and rum were major exports. This industry was supported by slaves from west Africa and some from Haiti, and endured up until the revolution in 1959. There was also a strong focus on tobacco and production of high-quality cigars – both rum and cigars from Cuba are known world-wide. But the benefits of this type of colonial agriculture went to a few, and all this ended with Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
The evolving cooperation with U.S.S.R. resulted in large exchange of sugar for petroleum and agricultural technology and a dependency that only became clear when the Soviets pulled out. A degree of equality was the result … everyone was poor and calories per person were reduced by about 40% as agricultural production plunged. This has gradually improved through appropriate technology in farming systems, although the amazing soils and tropic climate are not well exploited even today. Now there is another major force causing inequalities, the influx of tourists and dollar incentives to provide visitors with the best food.
There is an impressive increase in urban farming, with perhaps 90% of vegetables produced within the cities of Havana, Santiago, and others. We visited a 25-acre organic farm in Alamar just east of Havana where 160 cooperative members produce carrots, potatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage, eggplant, cilantro, tomatoes, and dozens of other species including fruits and tropical specialties not known to us. Most of these are seeded in a greenhouse and transplanted at 30 days into the field, allowing 3-6 crops per year in each of their raised beds. Most produce is sold from the farm, along with decorative plants and small trees, to nearby residents in high-rise soviet-style apartment buildings. They are also available to the families, although much of the quality product is directed toward gaining income in dollars from the growing tourist industry.
Back to production – this is all chemical-free, with large piles of compost, carefully tended beds of worms (vermiculture), legumes in rotation, and designed strategies to maintain soil fertility. Likewise, there is on-site production of insects and fungi for biological control of pests, careful rotations and sanitation to reduce problems, and repellent plants along the edges of raised beds including marigold and basil. The plots are frequently watered by hand or by drip tape or small emitters that provide efficient use of water. This supplements the natural rainfall that sustains most of the crops. These methods of appropriate technology have substituted for the petroleum-based inputs that came from outside before the U.S. blockade cut off much importation of ag inputs. GoogleAlamar Organoponico for more details.
The farm in Alamar was not unique, as we encountered four more in Central Havana that also used raised beds and intensive organic methods, plus cooperative membership and work on the plots and in marketing. That said, it was obvious that there is much more potential for similar production within the city. There are many abandoned lots and open space with available water that are accessible to bus routes and close to consumers. We visited a small market with ample supply of vegetables that were available for local peso currency. But we also learned that the traditional local diet of rice and beans, plus bread and potatoes and supplemented at times with meat when it is available, does not include many vegetables or fruits. This is changing slowly, with vegetables considered a delicacy reserved for fiestas and other special meals, as awareness of good nutrition grows in the educated population.
Now why is so much food imported? Some would quickly blame the embargo on fertilizers, pesticides and farm equipment, but that seems too simple. We observed efficient resource use and organic methods that appear to be appropriate in the small city plots. As we traveled west to Viñales we observed extensive pastures with light stocking rates of mostly beef cattle of mixed breed and strong Brahma influence – these animals are especially resistant to tropical insects and pathogens. There was not one example of intensive rotational grazing, a well-known practice that can increase productivity by up to 50% with some input of labor to move fencing and provide water. We also saw no improved pastures, with planting of improved grasses and legumes and control of perennial weeds. It appeared to us that great improvement of beef production could be realized on marginal lands, with relatively little investment. This could replace much of the large amount of animal protein imported each year and save foreign exchange.
In summary, we saw some impressive intensive production of vegetables, and a large potential to expand this activity. Cuban agronomists and farmers have developed very good methods of organic production that can be done on a small scale, even within the cities. This could be expanded to satisfy all the national need including what is consumed by tourists. The potential for larger scale fruit and vegetable production is also large, as well as opportunity for beef, swine, and poultry production if these were done in an extensive way rather than based on imported grains and rations. Fish has always been important in the diet, as this 800-mile long island is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The complication today is that quality fish goes first to tourists. And thus it is prohibited for Cubans to eat lobster, since it is highly valued by visitors, but they get around this issue by calling it pollo del mar or chicken from the sea. As in many parts of Latin America, todo es negociable.
REFLECTION AND AFTERWORD …
After a few weeks (months) to reflect and digest this unique experience, we have continued to read and now avidly look at any news about the Cuban economy and culture. There is plenty of information on the web, despite some local difficulties and costs for Cubans to access the internet. This is a confusing yet dynamic place that is likely to undergo large changes in the near future. We urge you to visit Cuba if any of this seems of interest.
Barb and Chuck
Thank you Richard and Mary George, interviewers, hosts and travelers, for sharing!