8 Days in Cuba
8 Days in Cuba
Visiting Cuba is an eye opening experience that I highly recommend to every American. Its unique culture, friendly people, old classic cars, additive free foods (delicious ice cream!), green countryside and its sad but beautiful decaying buildings that housed a once thriving hip vibrant city in the 1920's thru the 40's is truly a treat.
Going to Cuba is inspiring to even the most jaded tourist.
The island is huge, over 750 miles long. For my eight days, I was in the NW end-in Habana (Ha Ban ah and COO Bah) and 3 hours SW in Vinales.
Columbus discovered Cuba's native population of "Indios" and Cuba will celebrate its 500th birthday as a country next summer.
It’s so old that a church built in 1639 is still in use today.
40% of the population claim to be Catholics and 14% Protestants and some –always dressed in white-follow Sangria, a cult like voodoo religion brought over from Africa and merged with some Roman Catholicism, but I don’t know if the they are truly free to worship.
My two part blog cannot be a history lesson, but suffice it to say that the corruption of the 16th Cuban president Fulgencio Baptista (he was so evil that America started a blockade against him in 1958) gave way to a more equitable situation but with certainly much less freedom for its citizens. I can't say which was/is better. Neither?
We initiated another blockade in 1960 (two years after the revolution that put Fidel in power) that hurts both the Cuban people and American firms today. Despite that, we are the 6th largest trading partner with Cuba. Personally, I'd like to see the food and medical embargoes dropped, as it hurts everyday citizens, but the issue of course is WILL it get to the people or the government? Thus the reason for our current policy.
Tourism is a huge part of this economy though few speak another language besides Spanish. Cubans are a warm and friendly people, constantly greeting you and smiling. As tourists, we brought Canadian dollars or Euros as the US dollar is taxed 13% by the Cuban government. Currency is in pesos (about 1/15 of what tourists pay in a different money called Cucs (Cuuks)
The classic American cars of the 40's and 50's cost $25,000, a bit more than a nice 2 bedroom apartment.
These 1950’s cars are everywhere.
A Modern Hotel in downtown Havana was $600 a night and top line Cabano cigars go for $145 and Rum for $100 a bottle. There is no Target, fast food or Walmart’s here or any store that approximate that model, just small little specialty stores with little selection. T Shirts come in one size and pants the same thing per adult/sex.
The towels in the places we stayed would probably be rejected by Goodwill, and 3 of the 8 nights I was there, no hot water. The scratchy toilet paper is tossed in the garbage, it’s forbidden to flush anything other than waste down the toilet.
Its fine to leave garbage in the streets as it guarantees more people jobs with the government. Buildings in the old Havana area were typically built in the 1920's-1940's and are falling apart due to poor building skills and lack of maintenance.
Besides exploring Old Habana, we went to Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo, home of the 2008 Olympic Silver medalist Emilio Correa.
Cuba offers free education (no private schools-as the government can't control the content), free medical (though limited in scope and for botched medical procedures, well you're out of luck folks-no lawsuits here), and free basic food rations of rice, flour, beans, eggs, sugar and coffee-intermixed with ground black beans (due to cost) Of course we use food stamps where the user has control over their purchase. To give this to every citizen sounds good, but it makes the population compliant and it certainly is a bureaucratic nightmare.
One upside to their education system? Cuba educates many doctors sends these island trained docs to help in crisis situations that any other country and many currently work in India.
For those progressive socialists in our country, I would love them to see firsthand how socialism/communism is run in Cuba. The Cuban people are stuck. Like all communist regimes, be it China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, etc., only the top have it easy (and they don't flaunt in Cuba I was told by a local).
The population is repressed via sever enforcement of outward conformity containing all aspects of production and property. Inspectors and police are everywhere and so is inefficiency. Many folks milling about verses working, but some have 3 jobs in order to try to get ahead. Rather than the standard 2-3 airline employees unloading bags, I counted from 7-9 depending on what moment I checked.
The black market thrives here as does rampant and legal prostitution-the later starting at just $1, but most prostitutes charge $30-$50. Sounds cheap, but $30-$50 is the average salary for all workers. High end doctors make $100 a month. Many trained as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, etc. have quit their profession to drive a taxi because they can make more money (despite the $450 a month taxi government fee). Only government taxis can pick up foreigners from the airport, unless they are family. Government control is everywhere.
When I arrived at the Habana airport with my friend John Thomas (he and I both attend University Fellowship Church), I remarked-besides taking so long-why are over 1/2 the bags wrapped multiple times in plastic?
45 minutes to get my bag, I discovered upon getting to my room that they x-ray the bags and lift stuff they can black market, like my now missing Maui Jims that I buried and put in a nondescript case.
Leaving the airport we saw lots of hitchhikers, dozens and dozens.
Many see Raul Castro as a puppet of communist elites controlling the course of the country. Due to the education system and control of online/TV content, most young people have no idea true Cuba history (except the bad parts of other regimes) or how the rest of the world operates. Many think our sick die on the streets due to lack of health care. Propaganda begins at an early age, some millennial’s were absolutely distraught when Fidel died 2 years ago and Che- (click here to find out the real Che) who formed the brutal secret police and personally murdered hundreds of students himself-is idolized by the younger generation. Mind control works.
Those who lived prior to 1959 know better. The “special period” of 1995-1998, people were starving because Russia had pulled out. Eating cats, dogs, vultures, horses and anything they could get their hands on, it was a very difficult time. Once cattle thrived there, no they are rare. People were thrown into prison for fishing (and the informant got a loaf of bread).
Currently they import sugar from France and rice from Vietnam and they don’t effectively use their land (because it’s run by bureaucrats not people looking out to maximize their own self-interest).
Still today people are put in jail for small infractions, like not carrying their ID. Mr. X, age 25, who now works in a restaurant, was put in jail for a full year after trying to flee Cuba for freedom in a boat. There, three attempts were made on his life and showed us the scars and pieces of elbow missing to prove it. Now after three years’ probation, he is no longer watched by the secret police (yes, they ARE there), but will never be able to leave.
Things may change though. While 15 years ago, locals were prohibited to talk to tourists, they are now encouraged to be friendly (and can be tossed into jail if they harass tourists). After all, tourism helps the economy enormously. Internet is now getting established, though again-content is controlled by the authorities.
OK what about Guantanamo? It has been leased land since 1903 and the US reached an agreement with Castro when he first took power that he'd leave it alone. Today, there is contention on the validity of the long term lease.
How do people afford an apartment of $150 a month when they make $40? The black market. Hustling anything you can. The most popular is to buy and resell Cuban cigars and rum to tourists. Besides the black market and prostitution (A Dane told me of 77 year old Scot person he met who is widowed and disabled who had 8 prostitutes in the 2 weeks he was there-paying usually $30-$50.)
Thousands of old American 1940’s-1950’s cars are still in use all over the island. Most have different engines with diesel fuel (cheaper). For some convertibles, the top has been chopped off to modify it.
No seat belts required, but helmets are for motor bikes.
Next Week I’ll continue my blog: In the Cuban Countryside . . . .
8 Days in Cuba