Unlike Canadians and Europeans who come to Cuba mostly for the beaches and some bus tours of the city sights, Americans cannot just go plop on the beach. We are there actually to meet people, to have genuine exchanges, and to take in the culture and history. (We were told time and again, by the way, that the Cubans love how US people are getting to know them through these tours. Several Cubans seemed very cynical of especially their other North American neighbors, the Canadians, who are landing in huge cruise ships for one-day visits or are arriving on planes and making a straight-line dash to beach hotels and resorts.)
Before arriving in Cuba, Ed and I read two excellent books about Cuban history, particularly in relation to the United States: "The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course & Legacy" (Marifeli Perez-Stable) and "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution " (T.J. English). We learned a number of things that helped us understand their and our history in ways we did not know:
The US continued to hold this Platt Amendment threat over the Cubans until the Roosevelt administration repealed most of its provisions in 1934 (but hanging onto another 100 years hold on Guantanamo Bay naval base). Our influence was deep the first half of the century in terms of Cuban economy. Due to pressures from our government, Cuba was and remained largely a one-export country (sugar), and that sugar was sold primarily to the US under world-market prices. That relationship did help Cuba somewhat during the Great Depression but hampered severely Cuba's diversifying its economy. When its leaders recognized the need to do so and attempted to do so (e.g., to begin exporting rice), the US would move it and thwart those efforts (so not to impede, e.g., on the growing Californian rice production) with threats of cutting back our import of the all-important sugar.
Only in the late 1940s and especially during the 1950s did a new industry burst on the economic scene of Cuba: tourism, based largely on huge casinos, hotels, and nightclubs (and sex!). This explosion was financed and run by American organized crime in full cahoots with the Cuban government (especially dictator Fulgencio Batista). While most of Cuba suffered in high rates of illiteracy, poor health care, and poverty, the elite of Cuba and the mob rulers of the casinos were racking in the millions each week. The dream was to create a Monte Carlo island that the mob would own and run with the Cuban leaders getting their full share on the side.
With all that in mind, we arrived in Cuba on Saturday morning, February 14, on an American Eagle direct flight from Miami to Havana (one of at least a dozen per day). Before I go through some of our daily highlights, let me first list some of the "ah-ha's" we observed and learned in the next few days (not an exhaustive list, just an illustrative one):
There are not guards, soldiers, police, or undercover agents on every corner. The entire time we were in Cuba, I think I saw a couple of soldiers and many less police than I ever see in any US city. And, I never heard a police siren. There are also NO big banners, statues or paintings of Castro. Nowhere did we see his image except on book covers at sidewalk stands. There are images/statues of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara as well as the Spanish liberation hero Jose Marti in many public squares and buildings, much like we would find in the US of our historic heroes. Absent too were the Communist-type slogan billboards we expected to see (that were once in USSR, in China, e.g.). Matter of fact, there are hardly any billboards anywhere in the country of any kind.
Buses are everywhere -- large, modern buses full of tourists that are all Chinese-made. The buses Cubans ride are smaller, older, crowded, and dumpy.
Cubans are often taxied in bike taxis in Havana and in those as well as horse-drawn carts and wagons in outlying cities.
Tourists are everywhere in Havana and the other coastal towns we visited. Cruise ships arrived daily while we were in Havana. Those ships of course have NO Americans on them.
Cubans, from street cleaners to doctors/scientists/teachers, are all paid by the state in Cuban Pesos (CUP). One Cuban Peso is currently worth about .04 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). The average Cuban worker's monthly salary, according to 2014 data, is about 471 Cuban Pesos (about 19-20 CUCs, or $19-20 USD). Recently, doctors, who until recently only made slightly more, have seen their salaries rise to as much as $67-equivalent/month -- if they have at least two specialties. Nurses got a raise to $25-equivalent/month.
All Cubans do get a monthly ration card that does afford them some basis things like rice for free. At government-run stores (bodegas) where prices are often only a few pesos for the additional, basic items available, lines develop; and people naturally get in them, reminiscent of scenes from the old USSR. Cubans do get all medical services and education for free; basic utilities are highly subsidized (about $2/month for landline phone, electricity & water); most own their own homes/apartments; there are no property or goods/services taxes.
But, more and more products in Cuba are now being priced in CUCs, especially those coming from other countries. For example, I saw a good-sized, new, Chinese refrigerator that was priced about 738 CUCs, or 19,444 Cuban Pesos. Making 240 or less CUCs a year, one sees how impossible it can be for Cubans to afford many things that most of the world now considers essential.
So how do they make it on? Consider this: The Number One revenue source in current Cuban economy is "Dollars sent by relatives abroad -- mostly US, of course." (#2 is medical resources and services (56K medical personnel working currently in 66 countries); #3, tourism; #s 4-6 agriculturally based [sugar, rum, tobacco]). So, those dollars coming in are converted (for a price, of course) to CUCs by Cubans and used to buy the things they need and desire that are not sold (or are in very limited supply) in the official government stores, which only accept Cuban Pesos.
It appears, from what we saw and heard, that EVERYONE operates in the illegal, but pervasive underground market. Interestingly enough, there does not yet appear to be a 'sharing' economy. Most services and goods are exchanged among Cubans for currency at this point, not for trade. But everyone is renting rooms, providing car rides, doing extra nighttime jobs, etc. on the sly. It appears that the officials largely turn to look the other way most of the time.
There are increasingly ways people can apply legally to work for themselves (and not get a government salary). More and more private restaurants are opening (called paladars), but they mostly only service tourists since their prices are out of ordinary Cubans' reaches. Owners must still pay a hefty amount to the government in taxes (we were told about 65%), but they do have ways of unofficially adding to the income (like renting rooms above the restaurant). Artists currently have some of the greatest freedoms to earn and keep their own money. Galleries, large and small, are springing up everywhere, with tourists flocking to buy the often wonderful, and still mostly very reasonably-priced art. (We came home with six pieces). Some artists are now represented in other countries (but still not directly in the US) by legitimate galleries, and those artists are commanding larger and larger fees.
The tragedy of the 50+year American embargo is seen and felt everywhere in Cuba. Not only can no American company or individual deal directly with Cuba, but any foreign company that chooses to trade with Cuba is then banned from doing business in the USA. Thus, while hotels are being built, e.g., most are a Spanish hotel chain that made a choice to go to Cuba, knowing it cannot then also expand to the US. The real tragedy occurs in fields like medicine. AIDS patients, e.g., cannot get the latest drugs available in the US. Any they are able to get come via other countries (or smuggled in small amounts by US tourists, which is happening), thus increasing the price.
There are US products seen in Cuba (e.g., iPhones among many of the young). But all those come either as gifts from US relatives or through countries like Mexico, again meaning having to pay a middle source the jacked-up price for the product. (Few Cubans seem to have email; and if they do, they rarely check it. Internet connections are rare. Broadband, where it does exist, is too expensive for most Cubans and is only accessed for minutes at a time.)
Bottomline, every Cuban we met was excited, delighted, and over-joyed that we were there. Cubans we met seem to love the American people. They now also love Obama. December 17, 2014 is fast becoming a day to be celebrated on their future calendars. But that is because they have HIGH hopes for the changes that are coming. They probably are much more optimistic than yet warranted. We felt wary of their optimism and just tried to smile and say, "Yes, we hope so, too."
So now (FINALLY), I will recount what our particular people-to-people tour included. We were a group of 48 GLBT folks (44 gay men, 4 lesbians). We stayed and traveled on a large, Greek-owned yacht (the Panorama), We had two extraordinary guides: Vilim Bugarin from the Panorama staff and Christopher Egas, our official guide from the Cuban government's tourist organization. Both were amazing in their knowledge of Cuban economy, history, culture, government, etc. Both, including Christopher, seemed totally open with us, answered any question we asked, and were not afraid to give personal opinions -- even when those were obviously counter to current, Cuban policy or message
--> Saturday, Feb. 14:
- Arrived at Miami Airport at 3:45 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight. (Lots of time required to check passports, visas, luggage, etc.)
- Arrived in Havana around 8 a.m. after about a 45-minute flight (following the Florida Keys to the end and then across the water to Havana). Walked into the small, special terminal built JUST for American flights. Took another couple of hours for more checks of passports/visas, changing dollars into CUCs, etc. Got our first look at the 1950s cars lined up outside to take tourists into Havana. Saw our first big billboard of Che.
- Noticed other arriving Americans (from other flights) claiming their luggage that included dozens of big screen TVs, boxes of computer equipment, etc. -- all 'gifts' being brought to relatives, some of which invariably was heading to the underground economy. (Americans with relatives in Cuba can now travel on their own for visits.)
- Took a bus tour of Havana, with a couple of stops in public squares to begin taking lots of pictures and to hear history from our guides.
- Had a wonderful lunch at the beautiful "La California" Paladar, a celebrated, private, gay-owned restaurant in Havana. Had our first people-to-people exchanges with the owner and with a woman jewelry artist. (Found out that most of our lunches would include 2-3 rum drinks and/or excellent Cuban beers ... or local, fresh juices or Cuban sodas.)
- Visited a street, cultural project down one long side street (Callejón de Hamel) that reminded us of the murals along 24th Street in San Francisco. Were entertained about a half hour by some incredible Cuban musicians and dancers.
- Visited the National Museum of Fine Arts, with a guided tour by Christopher who used the all-Cuban art (from the 16th Century to modern times) to walk us through both Cuban art and national history (as illustrated through the art).
- Went to the Buena Vista Club (a Las-Vegas-sized restaurant and night club), where we had more rum drinks, a multi-course dinner, a people-to-people exchange with a Cuban musician, and then a night-club-type show of two, hot male singers, a full band, and lots of lights and pizzazz.
- For a few of us, there was a trip to a gay nightclub. For most of us (including me and Ed) who had traveled all day Friday, had gotten up at 2:30 a.m. that morning, and had done all the above activities (along with rum drinks all along the way), the much-desired gay bar hopping had to be postponed until Sunday night.
--> Sunday, Feb. 15:
- Went to the community-based, cultural project Quisicuba to meet with employees and volunteers who are working with LGBT people, especially those with AIDS and those young, LGBT people who have been shunned by their families (a major problem in Cuba). We heard that the oppression LGBT people face in Cuba is not from the government, whose national protection laws of LGBT people are sometimes much better than those of the US (e.g., a recent, non-discrimination workplace law). Rather, the current LGBT oppression stems from the cultural mores and the machismo family biases that often make it very difficult for young and old LGBT folks alike, leading to family alienation and rejection. (Interestingly enough, Cuba has not seen as of yet the spate of suicides occurring here in the US among LGBT young people.) We heard a very moving presentation by a group of men and women of all ages and enjoyed a long Q and A between them and us. (This is also where we heard how much the US embargo is hurting their efforts to get the needed, new medications to AIDS victims as well as the newer preventative measures (like Truvada) to prevent HIV/AIDS.)
- Arrived at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Havana Bay (at Cathedral Square) for another amazing lunch (and of course, welcoming rum drinks). Had a people-to-people exchange with a renowned, gay film documentarian.
- After a lovely happy hour and meal on the boat, headed out with other guys to Cabaret Las Vegas, a state-run gay bar and home to Divino, one of Cuba's most accomplished drag acts. Problem was, drag (and then strip) show did not begin until 1 a.m. Again, the long day of touring caught up to me and Ed, and we headed back to the boat in an 'illegal,' local taxi.
--> Monday, Feb. 16
- Began the day at the studios of the incredible women's dance group, "Habana Compás Dance," which presently also has four male dancers, drummers, singers. This professional troupe creates its own wide array of drums and its beautifully decorated wooden chairs. The latter are used like drums and props in wildly entertaining dance sets where the women beat the chairs and floor with drum sticks while others in the background play all types of historically authentic bongo-like drums. The troupe also offers dance lessons to girls of all ages and trains over many years their future replacements. We also had a chance to interact with them and to ask lots of questions.
- Then visited the CENESEX | Cuban National Center for Sexual Education, which serves as both an educational outreach organization for the entire country as well as an advocacy group on behalf of LGBT rights in Cuba. Founded by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro. Heard presentations. Asked questions. Saw an incredible photograph exhibit on Cuba transsexuals.
- Prior to lunch, attended on the upper bridge deck of the "Pandora" a Bon Voyage Cocktail party as we sailed out of Havana Bay, past the historic fort (Parque Historica Morro-Cabana) and lighthouse and on the beginning of an 11-hour trip to the western most part of the island.
- Lounged on the sun-drenched deck reading all afternoon. Enjoyed happy hour and dinner on board. Watched the Oscar-nominated animated film "Viva Cuba."
--> Tuesday, Feb. 17
- Traveled to the tiny, rural community of La Bajada (a community within Guanahacabibes National Park, a UNESCO biosphere region). Visited a small, 2-room school and its ten or so students. Watched a couple of short skits. Interacted with the kids and their professor with lots of two-way questions & answers (and lots of photo-taking on our part of the incredibly cute kids). Left a large mound of school supplies that everyone brought to donate.
- Visited the Meteorological Center within the Park (a small concrete building with a couple of old computers in it), one of eight on the island that tracks (in conjunction with the US and others) tropical storms. (The concrete building also serves as a hurricane shelter for local residents.)
- Visited the Park's headquarters for a brief presentation and discussion with Park staff.
- Had a delicious BBQ lunch and lots of local beverages on the beach. Hung out under the coconut palms for the afternoon (with some of us going swimming) before returning by small, local tenders to our boat.
- Set sail after dinner.
--> Wednesday, Feb. 18
- Arrived at Cayo Largo del Sur, anchoring about 3 miles from the island's shore and taking two local tendors (more like small fishing vessels) to the resort, beach area through very shallow, clear waters. The island had long, white, and fine sand beaches. Its resort of several, rather-spartan buildings serves only foreign visitors. (Travel to this national park is out of reach financially but also due to the fact it it open to foreign, visiting yachts -- not something the governments would want to expose Cubans to who might want to leave the island.)
- Visited a local medical clinic to find out what it is like to offer medical services in such a remote part of Cuba and to an area that serves only tourists and the Cuban staff who work there 20 days at a time (and then travel home for 10 days).
- Visited and heard about the Sea Turtle Breeding Center located on the island.
- Met with a warm, friendly, elderly Mr. Pire, who at a young age once served for a time as the official interpreter for Fidel himself and who is now a major naturalist and conservation specialist for this island.
- Had lunch and drinks at the outdoor plaza of the Hotel Cayo Largo. Entertained by a couple of the local staff with games and comedy.
- As lunch progressed, clouds began to darken the sky. A planned afternoon of snorkeling at the beautiful Caya Rico coral reef area had to be cancelled as we got on the small tenders to make our way back toward our boat. Visibility dropped; and rain developed as folks huddled, shivering, in what little protection there was from the rain on the small boats. The boats struggled in the increasing waves to make the journey back, and on more than one face there were signs of some concern. Transfer in the tossing waters from the tenders to our boat was very tricky and a little scary for some; but we all made it onboard chilled and wet but also safe.
- A planned Greek BBQ dinner on the outdoor deck was moved to dinner inside due the worsening weather conditions. Dinner was held a bit earlier than intended, with the captain waiting until we ate before pulling up the anchor to head out into the sea and the storm.
- As the night progressed, winds picked up considerably and waves/rain crashed onto the boat. The constant rocking back and forth intensified considerably around 2 a.m. Struggling to remain in our beds, we soon began to hear crashes from above. As it turned out, dining room furniture was over-turning; dishes and silverware were crashing to the floor with much breakages of glass. In some staterooms, small refrigerators in the rooms were popping out of their holdings. Things were falling all around us in many of our rooms. The boat rocked, went up and down, and twisted at times with a frightful force. This continued until around 5 a.m. Needless to say, no one got much sleep that night. Fortunately we had been warned, and most had taken plenty of seasick-avoiding pills to make it through the night.
--> Thursday, Feb. 19
- Began our tour at the small Architecture Museum where a topical rendering of the city and its houses, people, and animals is laid out in a large room and where we received an orientation and history by a member of the Office of the City Historian.
- Guided through the city with various stops for historical explanations, we visited next the Romantic Museum, a palace built in 1812 by the Borrell family, and now furnished with many of the original furniture, dishes, art, and silver of this Spanish aristocracy household.
- Had free time before and after lunch just to wander the twisting, cobbled streets of this amazing and quaint town. Wandered through many street fairs. Bought beautifully embroidered tablecloth and napkins as well as three pieces of art from various small galleries along the way. Climbed the bell tower of the old San Francisco Convent now the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos (with also a large plaza on its roof) for fantastic views of the red-tiled roofs and many roof and back yard gardens.
- Ate lunch at a very popular, government-owned buffet spot, the Plaza Major. It featured lots of interesting salads and local bounty of all sorts. Both tourists and Cubans were in the large restaurant.
- Returned in late afternoon to the boat, where we remained docked for the evening due to the high winds still raising havoc on the open seas.
--> Friday, Feb. 20
- Recently also awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, this 19th-Century, seaside town is full of charm and beauty, with many former mansions of the rich still intact and in good shape. The town's main square, Parque José Martí, is surrounded by beautifully restored, brightly colored buildings of Spanish, 19th Century charm. Branching from one corner is a pedestrian-only avenue where both for-tourist and for-local-resident stores reside.
- Visited the Cienfuegos Farmers' Market where colors and fragrances of every sort mingled for a magical effect.
- Attended a performance of the professional, mixed Chorus of Cienfuegos (one of three full-time, professional choruses in Cuba). Heard a program of classical, gospel, and Cuban music, all sung a cappella and often with movement and featured soloists. Spent time in discussion and exchange afterwards with the director of the group.
- Roamed the town and its outdoor/indoor galleries and markets.
- Returned to the boat for final happy hour and dinner.
--> Saturday, Feb. 21
- After departing the boat, had a couple more hours to roam around Cienfuegos. Ed and I spent a half hour in one gallery in an exchange with the artist and his wife and having our own private 'tour' on line of his massive, interactive art displays that he has done in the past in Havana. Bought a small piece from him (a self portrait of himself as a Cuban baseball player with a palm tree as his bat). Also bought a couple more pieces of local art; several Cuban swimsuits and shirts; Cuban baseballs for all the kids; a Cuban cookbook (in English); and a small, Cuban drum.
- Headed to the small, international Cienfuegos airport for our trip back to Miami and then the next day, to SF. (The next morning, we had the luck of getting to see our dear friend and artist, Zammy Migdal, for breakfast in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami at a Cuban restaurant before heading home to SF!)
Bottom-line, we LOVED Cuba and Cuban people. We definitely plan to go back. We want to spend much more time in Havana, visit Santiago, hike/bike the countryside, etc. We encourage all our friends to go NOW before the inevitable, big development and huge cruise ships arrive. And encourage your legislators to END THE EMBARGO.