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Cuba: Some of Our Favorite Memories

Havana is the living, breathing heart of Cuba, and one of the most diverse, engaging, and friendly cities we've ever been to. Perhaps more than anywhere else we visited on the island, Havana produced the feelings of uniqueness, independence, and distance that I mentioned in my last post.

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Salsa Dancers at Rosalia Castro

Cuba's capital is a patchwork of hundreds of small neighborhoods and communities, most of which tourists never set foot in. We spent five nights there, and easily could have spent a month without feeling the need to walk the same street twice.

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Street Scenes

Although the city is rife with package tourists and the museums, monuments, and historic buildings they're shuttled between, our most lasting memories may be from sitting in restaurants, bars, and parks, or walking down crowded streets, and being approached by friendly, outgoing strangers wanting nothing more than to be helpful ambassadors for their city (well, okay, some of them wanted to sell us something or pick up a commission, but even they were friendly and took no for an answer with a welcoming smile).

Here are some of my favorite conversations and exchanges we had in our wanderings:

  • A poet and journalist in his mid-seventies, short, with a long, white ponytail, white beard and nicotine-yellowed mustache. He quoted Walt Whitman, then went on to tell us of when he was reporting in Rwanda and nobody would believe he was Cuban because of his light skin. When I wished him good luck with the next seventy years, he replied "I don't think in time".
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Street Scenes

  • A New York Times and AP photojournalist who had been living in and covering Cuba and the Castro family for 30 years, and his Roman film director friend, with whom we shared a table at a trendy restaurant. They chided us for not getting further off the tourist track in our short ten day trip, before admitting that they were headed to a fancy beach resort to discuss plans for a movie they would work on together. They shared their guarded optimism for the coming changes to the tourism sector.
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Music at the Casa

  • Countless people who approached us just to practice their English, make sure we weren't lost, or help us find what we were looking for.
  • The right-wing dissident who said he was discriminated against because of the writing he has done for an American-funded "radical" newspaper. We had an interesting conversation in which I found myself in the uncomfortable position of arguing for the side more in line with the goals and beliefs of the Revolution, while he countered with his pro-Capitalist beliefs of economic self-determination and that greed is a natural part of the human character. "If I have two of something and you have none, why should I give you one of mine?" "Why should a manager and a janitor be paid the same?"
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This Guy Brought It! Outdoor Music at Casa de la Musica

  • After wandering around a local Havana neighborhood that's not totally used to tourists, we had a bit of trouble figuring out where to pick up a shared or private taxi back to our neighborhood. After standing on a few promising but ultimately unsuccessful street corners, we were befriended by an incredibly friendly gentleman in his sixties who spent about ten minutes with us, talking with us about the US and his son who lives in Miami. He walked us to the right intersection, advised us on how to take the bus, and even gave us bus fare because we didn't have exact change; we kept chatting long enough that a cab drove by, and he carefully negotiated a price with the driver to help us avoid the gringo markup. He was so set on not accepting anything for his help, that he almost refused to accept the bus fare in return!
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Mandy + Nick at Bar Polinesio

  • Lazaro, a teacher in a sleepy Bay of Pigs beach village. He shared his thoughts on community leadership and communal responsibility, and his thoughts on the evolving Cuban-American relationship: "It used to be 'Cuba sí and los Yanquis no.' Now it's 'Cuba sí and los Yanquis tambien'" and "Everyone worries the Americans will ruin Cuba. We can ruin it ourselves!"
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Street Dominoes

  • The wife of our host in touristy Trinidad, short with dark hair, a round stomach, and a perpetual smile, who said that although many people were poor and struggling, there was much to be proud of in her country: "Like anywhere there are good people and bad people. We don't have guns or drugs. If your neighbor is hungry, you'll share some of what you have." Her husband Osmel serenaded us every night on his guitar, invited us to see him and his friends in concert, and whipped up the best meals we had in Cuba. Their company was a highlight of our trip.

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Osmel Singing "Besame"


You'll hear again and again that one of the main reasons to visit Cuba is its people, and that turned out to be true in our experience. With an open mind and a little bit of Spanish, the best experience you can have in Cuba is not salsa dancing, scuba diving, or driving in a classic Chevy around Old Havana, but striking up a conversation with a Cubano you meet on the sidewalk.

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Che - Revolucion Mural

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More Questions than Answers in Cuba

In our last post, Nick commented that Cuba didn't feel homogeneous like the US can feel, where almost everywhere you go, you'll find the same stores, fast-food restaurants, hotels chains, etc. At the same time, one could argue that Cuba, while refreshingly void of Starbucks and McDonald's, is even more homogeneous than the US in that the government owns and controls everything, all the 'official' government stores have the same products at the same prices, and all its citizens are granted the same rationed and subsidized set of food and household products. If there's one thing we could safely conclude about Cuba after our short time there, it's that contradictions abound.

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Horse + Cart

Cuba was edgy, romantic, and incredibly confusing to us as first time visitors. However, upon reflection, the things we foreigners find nostalgic, photogenic, and beautiful about Cuba--crumbling buildings in faded and chipping Easter egg hues and 1950s Chevrolets in bright reds, blues, and pinks--are dwellings that are unsafe for living and vehicles that need constant upkeep for Cubans. Not to say they aren't proud of their immaculate magenta '55 Bel Airs, but when it comes down to it, there isn't much of a choice in the matter. The intermittent black outs may provide a romantic star-gazing break in the evening for a visitor, but these things are all part of the tough reality that Cubans have to make the best of.  The government provides everything, but yet in some respects nothing, at least not enough to do much more than barely scrape by. We were amazed by how many buildings, forms of transportation, appliances, shoes, etc. had clearly been rehabilitated more than a few times. Cubans have to be some of the handiest people, with all the things they've had to repair and keep running over the years.

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Taxi Photo Opp

We were dying to know how they felt about their system, one that for the vast majority, is the only way of life they know (it felt like almost every person we met had a cousin in Miami, though few had visited). It's a sensitive topic, and one that we didn't usually feel comfortable bringing up in a country where everyone is potentially being watched and listened to (rumors of a Stasi-style secret police abound), and where neighborhood organizations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) record what is essentially a report card on your dedication to the cause. However, we still found Cubans who were willing to share with us their honest thoughts about the system. One outspoken student told us he thought that the entire education system was full of lies and propaganda, and admitted that he can't get hired by most employers because of what he's written in an American-funded right-wing magazine. He decried a system where high-level managers would be paid the same as janitors, and where those that struggle to amass more resources than their lazy neighbor would be forced to share. (It was an odd experience to talk to a Cuban more conservative than us.)

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Anti-Embargo Billboard

Another gentleman we met explained to us enthusiastically the system the government uses to provide each person with a set amount of food, household and personal care products per month at subsidized prices. He even gave us an old ration book so we could see how the system works. But when we asked whether it was enough to live, his enthusiasm turned into a more somber reply: "Yes... Well, mostly. We have to buy the rest on the black market." We heard from others that the rations are perhaps enough for about 10 days of the month. The rest is gathered from here and there; some food and gas you can buy on the black market; perhaps other items you trade for; sometimes, you rely on a relative or neighbor.

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Ration Book

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Ration Book

And what you can get your hands on, you will wait for. Cubans are famous for being very patient while waiting in line. They have a whole system that makes it somewhat more bearable (and somewhat maddening for us...), whereby they go up, ask who is last in line, and establish themselves as behind that person. Then they can walk away, hang out across the street in the nearest shade, or go talk to a friend around the corner, which must make the long wait less painful. However, it also means that when you go up to a bank, or a store, or a bus line, you don't really know how many people are actually in front of you, since half of them are physically somewhere else. We found that out the hard way, when we waited to exchange money for  over an hour outside a bank that looked like it only had 5-10 people in line, but others kept coming out of the woodwork to claim their rightful spot each time the security guard opened the door!

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Vieja Street Scene

There are so many aspects of this system that we didn't discover and couldn't understand in our short time there. Take money, for example. Cubans are paid in pesos, but items are sold in government stores for Convertible Pesos (CUCs), which is the currency for which foreigners exchange their money. One CUC = 1 USD (but if you're exchanging USD for CUCs, you'll really only get .87 CUC because of the 13% in fees they levy). Restaurants sometimes list prices in both currencies, and sometimes they are the same value, other times the tourist price is 20-30 times higher. For example, one of our must-visit sites was Coppelia, which I can't describe as anything other than a Soviet-style ice cream park (don't get me wrong, the place is amazing). If you have pesos, a scoop of ice cream costs 1 Peso (which is about $.04). But if you buy the same scoop of ice cream in the CUC-paying section, you'll pay 1 CUC, which is about $1. There is nothing stopping a foreigner from buying his ice cream with Pesos and enjoying the company of the locals while he's at it.

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Coppelia - It's an Ice Cream Park!

Made famous by the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), Coppelia is a social and cultural center of Habanero society. Every day, locals flock to the ice cream parlor which takes up an entire city block and is divided into about four sections. The popularity of the various sections shifts over the course of the day as the sections and their associated areas of waiting in line (of course, see above) pass in and out of shade. Once inside, the customers belly up a spot at the curved bars, or gather their family around their favorite table under one of the slender, curved arms of the spider-like concrete structure. We even watched one man order a two-gallon tub presumably to bring back to his family, but while he was waiting he couldn't pass up the opportunity to throw back about five scoops. Cubans are passionate about their ice cream, so it's no wonder the menu seemed complicated and inscrutable, about ten items long even though your only choices appeared to be how many scoops you want of which of the two flavors on offer. We felt a slightly-less-than-warm welcome in the local currency section, so we didn't feel comfortable asking for a full explanation. Since we left the visit for our last day in Habana and were essentially having it for breakfast, I opted for just one scoop (to the consternation of our waiter), and Nick went with three. All dishes appear to come with cookie crumbs, chocolate disks, and a delicious honey-caramel sauce.

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Coppelia - It's an Ice Cream Park!

Like many visitors before us, we were left with more questions about Cuba than answers. In a society where crimes can be severely punished, how is everyone illegally buying and selling stuff all the time, and no one seems to be getting in trouble for it? If everyone is supposedly provided for, why are so many scraping together odds and ends and breaking laws just to feed themselves? How can everyone be equal when the government doesn't pay its citizens a living wage or provide enough food, reliable electricity, or housing, and foreign money from tourism is the only real way to live a comfortable life? Oh, the irony of wanting to keep American values and businesses out, but creating a system in which US Dollars and Euros actually run the economy.

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Car and Graffiti

It might be tempting, as Americans, to point to the tragedies of the "special period" in the wake of the collapse of the USSR as evidence that the Revolución is a failure. And it might be tempting to see the recent thawing of relations as a path for the US to help to enrich the Cuban people and improve some of the shortcomings of the Castro regime. But it's precisely this kind of neo-Colonialist attitude that the Revolución was so stridently against. Furthermore, Cuba's social systems are actually stronger than the common American conception may allow for: the country ranks fifth out of 20 Latin American countries on the UN's Human Development Index statistic (and second in the previous year's report).

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Jose Marti Bust at Parque Cespedes in Trinidad

This tension is why it's going to be so interesting to watch the changes in Cuba over the next 5-10 years and further: I forsee a continued conflict between the proud and principled goals of the Revolución (which billboards on all roads proclaim is still alive and progressing) and the corrupting and economically divisive realities of global Capitalism. Of course, Cuba is no stranger to Capitalism; it's been steadily loosening controls on the free market to make ends meet after the collapse of the USSR, and flocks of Canadian and European tourists pack the streets of Habana Vieja and line the beaches outside government-owned resorts.

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Ice Cream Truck Success!

But with the recent and rapid movements toward direct flights from the US, the tourist demographic is about to shift dramatically, and the scale of the entire tourism industry is about to explode. All of which is to wholeheartedly suggest you visit this fascinating country, but consider the effects of your actions, your dollars, and your presence there. The types of decisions you make about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do have a tremendous bearing on the future of the country, so we can only humbly suggest that you consider your effect when traveling (the same suggestion applies everywhere, of course, but doubly so for Cuba in this time of tremendous changes).

Introduction to Cuba

Cuba: the country that has attracted, vexed, and frustrated generations of Americans, from Hemingway to Ted Cruz. It's been on our shortlist of destination goals for a while, so close to home and yet so far ideologically, politically, and culturally. With the US regulations limiting travel there opening up slightly in 2015, and an invitation to a wedding in Cancun (just an hour's flight from Havana) this January, we saw the stars aligning and an opportunity we couldn't pass up, so we set to planning.

Che + Cars

Che + Cars

One of the strongest and most frequent reactions I had after nearly two weeks in Cuba was surprise that such a place can (still) exist. It was a pleasant sense of surprise, but surprise all the same that this singular island could maintain so much of its unique culture, pride, and individualism, when the rest of the Caribbean (if not the rest of the world) feels so homogeneous, bland, and Americanized. It seems like such a strange accident of history that has led to where Cuba is today. For those that need it, here's a quick history lesson on how this island came to be what it is: a fiercely independent, strong-willed, and proud society less than 100 miles off American shores.

Street Scenes

Street Scenes (Havana Vieja)

Cuba's first known inhabitants were an agricultural society known as the Taino, of which not much remains: they were a peaceful people who put up little to no resistance when the Spanish came to conquer the New World in the 1500s. The next few centuries saw the fortunes of the largest island in the Caribbean rise as a major trading post for gold, silver, slaves, and the other spoils of colonialism, before falling amidst rampant piracy, proxy wars between Spain and other European nations, and general disregard and exploitation from the colonial power. As the wave of self-determination led by Simon Bolivar swept Latin America in the 19th century, Cuba (as well as Puerto Rico) was left out until their own war of independence late in that century, led by the poet, leader-in-exile, and eventual martyr José Martí.

Estudio - Trabajo - Fusil

Estudio - Trabajo - Fusil (Study - Work- Rifle)

The 1898 sinking of the USS Maine provided the US a reason (some might say pretext) for entering into the conflict and beginning the Spanish-American war. The American side won, and the war ended with a treaty granting Washington significant powers over the island, including control of the infamous Guantánamo Bay naval base. What followed was a period of Cuban "independence" which in reality was controlled socially, politically, and economically by Washington. During this period, while the US invested heavily in the country's infrastructure and social system, its industry and trade were making close ties to the new colonial ruler to the north. Money, resources, and ownership of land continued to leave the country, now to American organizations (both legitimate and not, as fans of The Godfather II can attest), leading to the populist revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos.

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An Afternoon Seat (Trinidad)

In 1959, the revolution succeeded in exiling and wresting control from Jose Batista, the last in what was seen as a line of American-controlled presidents, and the current government was founded with Castro at the helm. Over the next few years he would enact laws and edicts forming the current Socialist system. Because these actions were (at least publicly) aimed at empowering the populace and providing self-determination and land ownership to the working class, they necessarily alienated the upper classes, foreign expatriates, and social minorities, and tens of thousands of doctors, teachers, intellectuals, land owners, businesspeople, and gays and lesbians fled.

Poster Exhibit

Poster Exhibit

The Cold War saw Cuba as a Soviet-allied craw in the side of the US, leading to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Cuban missile crisis, after which things were fairly stable and prosperous (into the 1980s, Cuba had some of the best education and medical systems, and they completely eliminated hunger). The fall of the Soviet Union, however, kicked off Cuba's "special period", during which, lacking fuel and food imports from the Eastern Bloc, thousands died from starvation, disease, and suicide.

Old and New

Old and New (Havana Vieja)

This crisis sowed the seeds of the changes that continue to this day, a tension between the values of the Revolution (still very important to the Cuban people), the desire of the government for absolute and authoritarian control of the people, and the allure and perhaps necessity of the financial support provided by tourism and private industry.

March for Jose Marti's Birthday

March for Jose Marti's Birthday (Vedado, Havana)

A few final recent events, to underscore how much and how rapidly the country is changing:

On the Cuba side:

  • Farmers were allowed to sell surplus produce for the first time in October 1994
  • Mobile phones were legalized in 2008
  • In 2011 a suite of reforms were put into place allowing Cubans to have a variety of non-State jobs (including taxi driver, construction worker, shopkeeper, mule driver, palm tree trimmer, well-digger, and "dandy", a dapper gentleman who wears fashionable suits and hats), as well as the right to run restaurants and other shops, and own homes and cars.
  • A Revolution-era requirement that Cubans get an expensive and difficult-to-obtain government permit to travel abroad was lifted in January 2013, though the passport fees still leave travel out of reach for most Cubans.
Street Music

Street Music (Havana Vieja)

And on the US side:

  • In October 2000, Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.
  • In April 2009, Barack Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba for the first time in a generation, and in January 2011, he expanded the allowed reasons to include educational, religious, and several other purposes.
  • In 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to re-establish relations with Cuba. In January 2015, the Administration lightened restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. Travelers are still required to have one of the valid reasons for travel, but the determination of compliance shifted to the traveler.
  • In July 2015, the US Embassy in Havana re-opened, after having been closed since 1961 (there was a small "Interests Section" that had been open since 1977).
  • In December 2015, the US and Cuba agreed to reinstate direct flights between the countries. Flights may start this year.
  • As of March 2016, it's still impossible to use a US debit or credit card, and there's a 10% fee levied on converting US Dollars.
  • President Obama has been working throughout his presidency to close the Guantánamo Bay naval base and release the captives held there. As of March 2016, less than 100 inmates remain.
Viva Cuba Libre

Viva Cuba Libre (Vedado, Havana)

 

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Havana

Trinidad

Playa Larga (Bay of Pigs)