To Cuba! So inviting, so forbidding! So near in miles, so distant in history and political destiny!
The adventure began when our hosts from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana met us at the José Martí International Airport. They were in an antiquated yellow school bus emblazoned with colorful drawings and signs proclaiming Pastors for Peace and U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment, other organizations the King Center is associated with.
We were traveling with Witness for Peace, a U.S.-based organization that works for peace and understanding through people-to-people educational tours. Our visit to Cuba focused on arts and culture and enabled us to meet and interact with many ordinary Cubans and learn about their lives in a partnership with the King Center.
When our luggage and we were settled on the picturesque bus, driver Hermes pressed the starter. Nothing happened.
“Everybody out to lighten the bus,” ordered Diego Benitez, the American Witness for Peace representative in Cuba. All the men lined up to push the bus, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it jump-started.
Our first stop was the Hotel Tulipan, a beautiful modern hotel built around an open courtyard with an outdoor bar and lush tropical plants. But the next day a torrential rainstorm flooded the lobby and walkways through the open areas. Hotel staff members were frantically sweeping the water out. Luckily, that was the only real rainfall we had in Cuba.
We were able to take part in the 25th-anniversary celebration of the King Center, where we stayed for most of our visit. A partnership is required for a U.S.-granted license to travel in Cuba, and staff members from there worked with our leaders on trip activities.
The accommodations were anything but luxurious – bunk beds, cold showers and simple family-style meals of chicken or tuna, rice, soup, a salad plate and fresh tropical fruits, with eggs and cereal for breakfast as a rule.
In central Havana, a giant lighted display honored Che Guevara and José Martí, heroes of the 1959 revolution, at the site where Pope Benedict had appeared just days before. There were also many government-sponsored billboards with various messages in Spanish: “Blockade – The Longest Genocide in History,” “Preserve and Improve Our Socialism,” “Viva La Revolución!” and “Freedom for the Five Cuban Heroes.”
In addition to political messages, we also saw an explosion in the arts in Cuba. We went to museums featuring artists seldom or never seen in the U.S. and met two incredible artists in their home studios. We also attended a magnificent ballet performance by students from the national ballet school in the Grand Theater next to the capitol.
We were able to observe firsthand some of the changes taking place as the state moves away from rigid control of the economy. With few resources, the Cuban government is focusing on tourism. Luxurious new hotels cater to a growing tourist industry, and fancy government-owned Transtur buses carry mostly non-U.S. tourists as they traverse the small Caribbean nation.
In keeping with this trend, individuals are being encouraged to start small businesses and hire employees; at least part of the reason is that the government can no longer afford to provide jobs for everyone. We had gourmet meals at several outstanding privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, including La Figura, an outdoor cafe at the home of a famous Cuban sports star, and Cabildo, which offers a “street opera” performance after dinner.
Among those featured in the musical program was the pretty daughter of our Cuban guide Carmen Pérez Díaz. And Carmen’s husband, Eibar, mixed mojitos, a rum-lime drink, for all of us, using the leftover funds from a birthday party we had held for one of our members, Ray Jordan of New York.
Cuban people can now own homes and buy and sell cars. A lot of the autos on the road date to the 1950s and are in varying states of decay or restoration. Stalled cars are a common sight. At one point our bus stopped so the men could get out and push a car that was blocking the road. But there’s also a mix of new small cars, and I noticed a Peugeot dealership in Havana.
We didn’t see discontent among the ordinary Cubans we met and observed going about their lives. People insisted they could speak freely, though public criticisms of the government seem to get them in trouble. The things most people seem concerned about are the embargo maintained by the U.S. and Cuba’s restrictions on its citizens’ travel for anyone other than celebrities.
A taxi driver who was learning English said he had two brothers living in the United States and would like to visit them but can’t. However, he wouldn’t want to live there, he said. “I love my country.”
Many of the magnificent old buildings in Havana appear to be nearing collapse or are undergoing repairs. Cuba’s majestic capitol in the heart of the city was closed for restoration. A vocational school we visited in Old Havana is teaching students masonry, carpentry, glass work, painting and other skills.
The Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Vocational School, like other higher education institutions in Cuba, is free, and the young men and women who complete the course are either assured of state jobs in restoration or become teachers themselves.
A striking thing about the appearance of Cuba is that there are no advertising billboards, no big-box stores, little visible industry and no fast-food restaurants. In fact, there is almost nowhere to spend money except for the tourist-oriented shops, bars and restaurants in Old Havana.
But we could find little to buy there either. As U.S. citizens we could only bring back educational materials, which could include art, posters, music CDs, books and similar items. Crafts were excluded, although there’s a fine line where some things are acceptable and others aren’t. Cuban cigars are a definite no-no!
Several members of our group went to Cuba intending to buy art, which they did in our visits to the studios of Saúlo Serrano Serrano and José Fuster. The home of the latter was a work of ceramic art in itself, from the gates and walls to whimsical and highly imaginative decorative objects everywhere.
At least two people paid $400 or more for several large paintings that may be worth considerably more once Cuba opens up to the rest of the world. The paintings were removed from their frames and rolled up for transport. A capitalist enterprise at work in Cuba! At Saúlo’s studio, members of our group probably spent from 3,000 to 4,000 pesos (equivalent to dollars).
We spent our first two days at the Tulipan because the King Center had a scheduling conflict. The next day we went to Cuba’s major beach resort, Varadero, in Matanzas province, and stayed dormitory-style at a Presbyterian center across the street from the beach. (This trip was euphemistically called a “coastal tour” since all our activities were supposed to be educational.)
For six months of the year, the center offers free services to children with acute or chronic diseases and needy senior citizens; it pays for these services by renting to groups like ours the other six months. Several of our group were sent to nearby homes because there wasn’t room enough for all of us. Aside from sleeping four or five to a room and sharing a bath, we had a warm welcome and delicious home-cooked meals there.
Our next move was to the King Center in a working-class area of Havana, where we found roommates and were assigned to small but clean rooms for the rest of our stay. There were four bunks to a room for the children or young people who are often there, but we were two to a room and could use the lower bunks.
The director, the Rev. Raúl Suarez, said the center was formed in 1987 to meet the needs of the community. A retired Presbyterian minister, he said that beginning that year it was possible for the church to have a place in Cuban society. The center receives no support but has no interference from the government, he said. The founders chose to honor King because of his tradition of non-violence and because he “taught us that faith can fight force.”
The center, which adjoins the Ebenezer Baptist Church, offers one especially valuable service to the community, with the aid of a church in Minnesota. Local people can bring jugs to get pure water in the center’s courtyard. Tap water is not potable in Cuba.
While in Matanzas we visited one of Cuba’s “polyclinics,” the second level of the Cuban health system. This clinic was the hub for 26 of the local community clinics in its vicinity. The local clinics have at least one doctor and nurse and are responsible for primary health care in the immediate area. Any serious problem is referred to the polyclinic, and from there the patient may be sent to a hospital if necessary.
All health care for Cubans is free. So is education for doctors, who don’t make high salaries; some even work second jobs. A woman doctor at the local clinic said the doctors focus on preventive care and go into homes to assess conditions. New mothers and babies are watched closely in the months after birth, she said, and each person in the community is evaluated once a year.
Chet Gardiner, a member of our group, learned about the health system first hand when he developed the usual traveler’s ailment related to bad food or water. (All of us had paid $30 along with the price of our Havana flight for temporary health insurance in Cuba.)
Diego took Chet to the local clinic, where he saw a doctor within five minutes, was given some medication immediately and was placed on an IV for a couple of hours because of dehydration. He also received an EKG because he had had a heart attack in February. He left with medicine to be taken in the next three days.
“They were focused on my needs, on taking care of me,” he said. “No one asked how I could pay.” As it turned out, everything was covered except $30 for the EKG, which he said would have cost him several hundred dollars at home.
We quickly found out how Cubans felt about the embargo imposed by the U. S. after the 1959 revolution and the starvation it caused after the Soviet Union pulled out in the early 1980s and left them on their own: angry. But the people we met were warm and welcoming toward us as individual Americans.
The first activity held to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center anniversary focused on “the five Cuban heroes” and was packed with people from the neighborhood and the staff. A Cuban woman read letters and poems from the Cuban men imprisoned in the U. S. and Edelso Moret, our translator and a professor at the University of Havana, translated as she spoke.
One piece disturbed him so much that he broke down and left the room momentarily. That piece was repeated when he returned, and we heard the last part of the prisoner’s letter to his wife: “There are two things it is impossible to live without: the sun and your smile.”
There are two drastically opposed views of the “Cuban heroes.” To Cubans, they are intelligence agents who went to Miami in the 1990s to infiltrate exile groups and learn whether they were plotting against Cuba. When they reported what they had learned, they were arrested as terrorists, tried unfairly in Miami and given lengthy prison terms.
To the Americans, they were terrorists whose actions caused two small planes flying from Florida into Cuban air space to be shot down by Cuban forces, and they remain too dangerous to be released. The story is much more complicated than that, but I don’t know the answer to it — maybe an exchange for Alan Gross, an American businessman who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for taking electronic technology into Cuba.
The U.S. embargo that began after Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959 and still continues brought near-starvation to the Cuban people and continues to pose problems. For example, members of the staff at both health clinics we visited said they had trouble getting needed medicines, especially for cancer treatment of children.
The food shortages after Cuba’s loss of support from the Soviet Union were so critical that people planted vegetable gardens in their yards and started raising chickens and livestock in the cities. The early-morning crowing of cocks is a familiar sound in Havana!
We visited the Alamar cooperative farm, a community-operated organic garden on about 11 acres in Havana – organic at first from necessity because chemicals and machinery were not available. The farm, which emphasizes sustainability, produces some 270 kinds of vegetables and medicinal plants and sells its products to the local community and some Havana hotels.
Fifty percent of the profits go to the 154 workers. The farm pays a tax of 3 percent for the use of the land, and the rest is used for development, the farm manager said. The farm is a national training center for the Ministry of Agriculture and universities and gets many visitors from the United States and other countries.
The biodiversity and non-mechanized methods prevent damage to the soil, and the organic principles “allow us to live with the land and not from the land,” the manager said. The development of sustainable agriculture was actually an unexpected benefit that came from the embargo, he said.
The United States does not have relations with Cuba and has no embassy there. Instead, there is a U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Near the end of our visit, our group met with Nancy Szalwinski of the press office there. The section occupies a modern highrise on Malecón, the boulevard that runs along the Caribbean coast in downtown Havana.
In response to our questions about the continued embargo, Szalwinski said that “a small group of people” in the U.S. feel “at a visceral emotional level” that it should not be eased. Continuation of the embargo is “entirely political,” and any change would have to be made at the legislative level, she said. (The unspoken reference was to Cuban exiles in Florida.)
At one point the Bush administration installed a huge electric sign with pro-democracy messages on the side of the U.S. Interests building. Castro retaliated by installing around 100 flagpoles with Cuban flags flying to prevent anyone from seeing the sign. The message and flags are gone, but the poles are still there.
A few highlights from the trip:
> The 180-year-old San Alejandro art school (also free) was preparing for a major international exhibit a few days after our visit. Paintings in process were on the ground and along the walls, and students and teachers were debating the placement of works to be shown. The artist Saúlo (the way he signs his works) is a professor there and later showed our group around the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.
> At the National Center for Sex Education, attorney Manuel Vásquez Sejido gave a graphic description of the free sex-change surgery in Cuba and said the nation is moving toward approval of same-sex marriage. The aim of the center is to achieve equality and non-discrimination, he said. The center is headed by President Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela, said to be a possible successor to her father.
> Four Santería priests in satin robes and bejeweled caps welcomed us to a religious ceremony in their house-temple in the Mariana district of Havana. Santería is an African religion sometimes associated with voodoo and animal sacrifice that has blended with the Catholic religion in Cuba.
In the ritual, costumed women representing various spirits performed frenzied dances to the rhythm of drums. Santería is fully recognized in Cuba, a spokesman said, and any member who is hospitalized can ask to see a Santería priest.
> A huge anniversary celebration for the King Center drew 400 to 500 people at a Havana theater. Director Raúl Suárez urged the celebrants to continue to advance in dramatic terms: “Fly if you can. If
The center’s programs include publications, workshops, participation in social and ecumenical activities, community solidarity and organization, and sustainability development.
>The ferry ride: After going through a thorough inspection of purses and backpacks and a patdown at the gate, we took a cramped ferry across the bay from Havana to the small town of Regla. The precautions were to prevent hijacking by anyone eager to divert the standing-room-only ferry to Miami.
In Regla we saw several small businesses – an ice cream store, a shoe repair shop – begun after economic rules were changed in the past year or so to allow private enterprises. A weekend throng of families and children filled a small park at the center of town, where another entrepreneur was selling soft drinks and eggs.
On the morning of our departure, we stopped for several hours at a huge artisans’ mall on the waterfront – an opportunity to spend our last pesos on mostly reproduction art or crafts like dolls, T-shirts, masks and toys that appeared to be locally made.
On a wall outside was a hand-lettered sign: “Our five heroes will return.”
To learn more about Witness for Peace, go to http://www.witnessforpeace.org. For those who would prefer more luxurious accommodations, other places licensed to offer Cuba trips include National Geographic, Road Scholar, Insight Cuba, Cuba Travel USA and Friendly Planet. Visas and health insurance are usually included in flight costs.
Ruby Layson is a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer who has traveled extensively in South America.