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Aug. 22, 2019
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Eyes and ears in Cuba

Editor’s note: Lakeside’s Senior Writer Pam Keene recently returned from nearly two weeks in Cuba. She shares what she saw and learned as part of an educational and cultural visit through the Grand Circle Foundation and Overseas Adventure Travel. “Yes, there are vintage automobiles, throw-backs to the time before Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the country’s revolution in 1959, overthrowing Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista,” Pam said. “And, yes, the USSR became an influential ally of Fidel Castro and Cuba for a number of years, with Cuba providing sugar in exchange for fuel from the Russians. The Soviet Union did install missiles in Cuba that triggered the Bay of Pigs Invasion by the United States in 1962.”  Later events like the Mariel boatlift in the 1980s, and the controversial international custody battle surrounding Elian Gonzalez in 1999-2000 kept Cuba periodically in the news. In 2009, restrictions on family travel and family remittances (money sent by Cuban-Americans in the US to relatives in Cuba) were relaxed, but they have again been tightened, particularly regarding US trade and travel by Americans to the small island just 90 miles from Florida. “But if you think you know Cuba today, you’re probably at least a little bit wrong,” she said. “I had to set aside my preconceptions and see for myself.” Here is the story of Pam’s eye-opening journey.
 
When in Cuba, you won’t find a Cuban sandwich
 
By Pamela A. Keene
 
As a 6th-grader, I first learned about Cuba as “the enemy” because it was allied with the Soviet Union. We had regular drills to hide under our desks in North Florida to “protect” us from the threat of nuclear war. As teenagers, we learned that the communists ruled Cuba and that the people were oppressed.
Within the past couple of years, as US travel restrictions relaxed, I decided that going to Cuba was on my bucket list. I wanted to see the country before it “became modernized.” 
 
An overnight stay in Miami prefaced the visit so that our group could travel together on an American Airlines flight to Camaguey, Cuba. Our group of 17 met Yoly, pronounced “JOE lee,”  our Cuban trip leader, at the airport and boarded our 32-passenger bus for our hotel downtown. Along the way, we passed vintage cars, people riding horse carts, bicycles and scooters. 
 
What a surprise to find that the high-ceiling hotel offered large air-conditioned rooms and fine accommodations. It set the tone for our lodging throughout the trip, much more modern than I had expected. We found that many of the businesses in Cuba – from hotels and restaurants to clothing shops and schools – are state-owned.
 
Our travels across the country gave us a chance to meet Cubans one-on-one, from painters, sculptors and leather artists to high-school students at a music academy rehearsing for a national jazz competition coming up in Havana. We learned that several artists travel between Cuba and US, including Martha Jimenez, who had recently returned from a show in New York. Her whimsical work, from life-sized bronze figures to colorful paintings, gave us a glimpse of the hearts of the Cuban people.
 
We met entrepreneurs who operate privately owned restaurants and ranches. At a dairy farm near Camaguey, we learned that the government has purchase arrangements with farm and agricultural owners for a certain amount of production. The rest, they are allowed to keep for personal use. The family served us farm-fresh food for lunch, including roast pork, black beans and rice, fresh fruits, deep-friend plantain/banana pieces and another staple – yucca – a boiled or fried root vegetable that tastes like white potatoes.
 
Our 12-day visit put us in the midst of the Cuban people, from ranchers to school students, baseball players and physicians. We were encouraged to ask questions; responses were candid and sometimes not at all what we expected. For instance, while Cuba has embraced its diverse cultural past from Spain, Africa, France and other nations, some racism still exists. There is no typical “Cuban” appearance; it is indeed a melting pot of people.
 
The people 
What the Cubans lack in economic stability and financial security, they make up for in their outlook and perspective. Yes, the people of the country are poor and many of the buildings are ramshackle and tumbledown cinderblock, still in disrepair following repeated hurricanes and lack of resources. Almost everyone we met, whether on the streets, in schools or businesses, was kind, welcoming and open.
 
Almost everywhere we went there was music and dancing. The school children of Remedios gathered in the town square on a cool November night to practice their for the upcoming Las Parrandas, the annual Christmas Festival that includes 10 days of celebration, parades and fireworks. Three- and four-piece musical groups entertained at restaurants and impromptu musicians and street dancers shared their talents on the streets in every town we visited. 
 
Education is free until ninth grade, when students decide whether to pursue further education or a career, possibly in arts or music. If their choice requires additional education, that’s paid for as well, but each student must give two years of social service upon graduation before beginning their career. 
 
In a small town, a community doctor who is also assigned a trained nurse told us about the challenges caring for the people of her area, from newborns to the elderly with chronic health problems. They care for nearly 12,000 patients, seeing about 200 each week, some at the clinic and some in their homes. Hypertension is one of the most common illnesses in Cuba. Health care is provided by the government, but there are very few hospitals across the country, except in Havana. 
 
On our way to Matanzas we stopped by a little league baseball field where several teams of young boys were warming up for a game by hitting, pitching and fielding. They welcomed the chance to tell us about their love of the sport – translated by those in our group who spoke Spanish – and toss some baseballs with us. 
 
Baseball is huge in Cuba and our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Palmeras de Junco, the oldest continuously used baseball diamond in the Western Hemisphere. It’s the home of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and the site of a baseball academy.
 
Our trip gave us opportunities to see Cuban in a different way than tourists, especially those from the United States. 
 
Havana: The other Cuba
As the country’s capital, Havana seems to carry the flag for tourism on the island. Our hotel there – The Hotel Nacional de Cuba – has played host to hundreds of movie stars, world figures and politicians since it was built in 1930. It overlooks the ocean, the city’s sea wall and Havana Harbor. Out front, the hotel’s U-shaped driveway is dotted with classy old-car convertibles in party colors of aqua, pink, orange and green.
 
Many of the tourists are from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia, but Americans were there, too, taking in the culture of a Havana. The Tropicana, made famous by “I Love Lucy,” and Ricky Ricardo, still hosts evening shows. The Buena Vista Social Club, which has brought the pre-Revolution Afro-Cuban blend of music and entertainment to the world, presents performances at the Hotel Nacional and other locations in town.
 
The tourists come on commercial airlines, not just from other counties but on direct flights from the US. They arrive on cruise ships that dock near the port of Old Havana to tour the city’s fort, historic squares and Obispo Street, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts – Sloppy Joe’s and La Floridita.
 
Cuba, and Havana in particular, has embraced tourism and modernity. Every other year, the country’s government purchases brand-new tour buses sold to the Cuban government by the Chinese. As you travel the streets of Havana, signs of restoration, renovation and new construction are everywhere. The Havana Capitol, which looks like a replica of the US Capitol Building, is covered in scaffolding.
 
Yet, away from the popular areas, signs of aging mansions from the 1920s, tumbledown industrial sites and unoccupied high-rises also tell the story of a country still plagued by the US embargo, a struggling economy – and people who are proud to be Cubans.
 
Did you know:
  • Elian Gonzalez, (whose mother took the then-7-year-old boy and fled Cuba in 1999 and who was returned to his father in Cuba following an international custody battle in 2000,) is now at age 25 the youngest member of the Cuban National Assembly? When asked about Elian, our trip leader Yoly teared up with pride. He is also an engineer in Cuba. 
  • The Russians pulled their financial support of Cuba in 1989? We traveled on a two-lane road along the countryside as we headed to Havana that suddenly became a 6-lane highway. The country lost funding for this six-lane highway when the Russians left, so it was left unbuilt. Remaining funds were diverted to build the country’s Estadio Panamericano stadium to host the Pam-Am Games in 1991.
  • The Cuban people still receive food rations allowing 6 pounds of rice, 6 pounds of sugar (combination of refined and unrefined sugar), 1 liter of oil for cooking, and 20 ounces of black beans per month per person, among other rationed items. They can also purchase other items, such as chicken and household items from stores accepting the local currency, Cuban pesos, or – as restrictions relax – Cuban Convertible Pesos, the CUC that’s used by travelers and is becoming more accessible to the Cuban people.
  • In 2018 Cuba gained a new president – Miguel Diaz-Canel – and for the first time in nearly 60 years, the country’s leader does not have the surname Castro. The country is considered by some to be a socialist-republic; others a communist government. The Communist Party of Cuba is the ruling party. People in the municipalities vote for representatives within the country’s 15 provinces. Members of the provincial councils elect the representatives to the national assembly, who in turn elect the country’s executive leadership.
  • Cuba’s National Assembly is reportedly in the process of revising its constitution to include recognizing personal property, creating the position of prime minister, limiting the terms of president, acknowledging the right to same-sex marriage, and omitting the word communism in the language.

By the way, you can certainly enjoy a great cigar that’s affordable, drink excellent rum, immerse yourself in the Cuban culture and ride in old cars. But – believe it or not – you won’t find a Cuban sandwich except in a couple of tourist spots in Havana. 

Posted online 2/1/19
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