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Friday, March 10, 2017

Cuba: Close, But a World Away

After recently spending eight days in Cuba, I came away somewhat confused about this island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

I didn't have a lot of expectations going into the trip, but I had high hopes of getting some great photographs. And of course I was looking forward to seeing the old (late 1940s and 1950s) American cars that have been lovingly restored by Cubans. Little did I know just how
many of these beauties there are in Havana and elsewhere on the island.

I expected to see lots of images of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. I saw very few. But there were many images of Che Guevara, Castro's fellow revolutionary leader. I expected poverty, but rather than poverty, what I saw was a simple way of life. The people live in humble homes and eat simple foods. Rural areas, as is often the case, are more likely to live in poverty. We visited just one rural family home. It was recently built, and the family was very proud of their new, dirt-floor, one-room house.

I expected to see people oppressed by their government, but what I found were happy people despite their lack of material goods. Cuban people love to laugh, dance and drink. They are willing to share whatever they have with family and neighbors. If they are unhappy, they hide it well.

I saw magnificent old homes. Some have been converted into offices or embassies, while others are derelict. I saw a multi-grave burial site with marble headstones that remains unused because the owners fled to the United States when the 1959 revolution occurred and never returned. 

I saw no separation of the races in Cuba, with the descendants of Spanish conquerors mingling effortlessly with the descendants of African slaves

Cuba is changing little by little, but the pace of change is slow. Cell phones are not commonplace, and there are only four government-run television stations. The Internet is illegal in private homes, although Cubans do have Internet access in government-owned Internet cafes. Cubans cannot read books, magazines or newspapers not published by or approved by the government. So the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government, as is nearly everything else.

Cuba is an interesting blend of communism/socialism and capitalism. Families are now allowed to operate paladares, or state-sanctioned restaurants, in their private homes. We ate at several paladares. Menu choices were usually limited to three or four entrees, such as fish or lobster, chicken, pork or lamb. Similarly, families can operate state-sanctioned boarding houses, or casa particulares, by renting a room or two in their homes. I stayed in a casa run by a woman and her adult daughter. There were two rooms available, a double just off the living room and a single off the courtyard. My room was small and simple, but it had everything I needed, including a wall-mounted air conditioner. And the hostesses couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating. Best of all, I got to spend time with their 3-month old Pekinese puppy, Carly.

We stayed four nights in Havana and three nights in Trinidad. Havana is a typical, bustling capital city. Trinidad is smaller and has a more tropical feel. Streets are mostly cobblestone, and sidewalks are quite narrow. I watched my feet often as I walked along to avoid tripping on cobblestones or stepping into potholes.

Although Cuba isn't a free society, Castro's legacy includes things not available to the populace before the 1959 revolution: free education, including college, for everyone, as well as free healthcare and food subsidies. Each Cuban receives a monthly booklet listing a variety of food items available; the amount depends on the size of the household. These items are obtained from a market, with each quantity carefully recorded in the booklet. Each food ration is designed to last three weeks. For the fourth week, citizens either purchase food with their own money, or they rely on the generosity of family, friends and neighbors. As a result, it is very rare to see fat Cubans. 

Cubans pay personal income taxes if they engage in economic activities outside government employment. I expected that crime in Cuba would be a problem, given the low wages of its people. But Cuba is, in fact, a very safe place to live and visit. I was told by our Cuban guide -- a true child of the revolution -- that the biggest crime is people stealing from the government. Corruption is a moderate problem since few citizens are reluctant to steal from the government, which controls most resources. Bribery also reportedly is widespread, even in medical care. Musicians are reported to regularly pay bribes to perform in tourist areas, where they can earn convertible currency. A bicycle taxi license is reported to cost $150 in bribes. But such crimes aren't apparent to visitors to the island.There are no official crime statistics released by the government, so the crime rate is unknown.

I got up early and went exploring several mornings in both Havana and in Trinidad and I was impressed by how many people wished me a "Buenos dias." I was asked for money (usually 1 peso, or about a dollar) a few times, but it was nothing like what I experienced in Zimbabwe, where the hounding for money was so bad I retreated to my hotel. A couple of people asked for bath or laundry soap, and a couple claimed to need "One peso for baby." My group took a large variety of personal care items and school supplies that were given to deserving families and schools, so I was not inclined to give anything to street beggars.

Transportation is available by a variety of means: Taxi (classic cars), modern taxis, three-wheeled taxis, pedi-cabs, horse-drawn wagons, public buses, horseback, and tractor-drawn
wagons. It is a legal requirement for buses to pick up and transport anybody needing a ride, at no charge. So the bus that dropped my group off at the airport in Cienfuegos was required to transport anybody needing a lift to Havana.

There appears to be no animosity toward Americans, as there was no animosity toward Cubans from the Americans in my group. I enjoyed the required 'people to people' component of the trip, which saw us engaging with professional dancers, women in an embroidery shop, a local artist and employees of a family-owned pottery business. I was happy to share digital photos of my daughter and my dogs with the hostess of the casa where I stayed. Because Cuba is cut off from the outside world's television, Internet, books and magazines, it seems relatively easy to control the flow of information and ideas that might make the Cuban people yearn for more freedom and for more consumer goods. Whether that remains the case is to be determined. 

I really enjoyed my time in Cuba. The weather was wonderful, the people friendly and helpful, and the photographic opportunities different from any experienced in other countries I have visited. I will return to Cuba if the opportunity presents itself. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about our colorful, energetic neighbor so close yet a world away.