Old Chevrolet, old building early morning, Old Havana

Susanna and I visited Cuba the first part of April, 2017 as part of a Smithsonian People to People tour and I must say at the outset that I need to thank Lisa and Jody for getting us to go on this trip. I really don’t think I would have made this journey had they not brought it up. At the core, I think it was a learning experience, as all things should be, but more so here. In thinking about our travel, I am guilty of either looking within our country or looking across the oceans for places to see and visit. Yes, there is a large number who do look south, but I think these glances are further and not as close as the Caribbean. I know that this is changing with the recent opening of Cuba, but in terms of historical knowledge, I find it lacking.  I don’t recall a great deal of it attention given to the Caribbean, or for that matter to Central and South America in my history classes. There is a significant advantage from a tour like this that includes a professor that gives talks on the history and culture. So, it was a quite a revelation to learn about he rich heritage Cuba experienced and the importance Havana played in the development of North America. Its historical wealth, culture and prominence is prominently displayed in the buildings of Havana.

As you will notice from the map, up until the time of steam, Havana was situated in the center of the natural flow of trade from the Americas to Europe. Sailing ships left Spain moved down the African coast to pick up the trade winds and/or picked up cargo from Africa before sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas. On the return trip, they left Havana moved up the North American coast to pick up the Westerlies. During the period Cuba was under Spanish Control, Havana was the jewel of its empire.

My expectations of Cuba was that it would be something like Greece only with a lot more government control. I suppose my optimism was clouded by a lack of familiarity with any of the former Russian Federation states. However, the short answer is that Cuban’s infrastructure has seen little changed since the date of the Cuban revolution. There are many reasons for this but a contributing factor has been the US Embargo and their inability to obtain parts. In fact, as one reads up on contemporary Cuba, one continues to encounter the impact of the embargo on a wide swath of issues. Moving beyond this problem, one finds Cubans well educated (some of the best in the world), industries, creative, social, artistic, musical and entrepreneurial.

As an example, lets talk about one of the most iconic images of Cuba and Havana, the Cuban car. Virtually all of these vehicles are late 1940’s to 1950’s US vehicles. Again, because of the US Embargo after the revolution, Cuban’s were not able to import new vehicles into the Island, the Castro Government after the revolution would not allow Cubans to own vehicles nor were they able to acquire parts. Consequently, the Cuban’s figured out a way to keep them running by making their own replacement parts and/or by cannibalizing parts from other vehicles to the point where sometimes it is impossible to figure out a vehicles origin. Another factoid I learned after our visit is that many of the cars have had their engines covered to diesels because the cost of diesel fuel is so much less than regular. This also goes a long way of explaining why classic car shoppers will tend to be not interested in many of these vehicles. Since approximately 2011, Cuban’s have been able to own cars and use them as taxies. Individually owned vehicles are designated with a leading P on their license plate.

1952/53 Studebaker station wagon with Cubans going to work, Parque Central, Havana, Cuba

For the first time in my travel, we stayed, traveled, ate and enjoyed conditions that were beyond the average Cuban. I suppose this is a sign of no “adventure travel.”   For an example, we stayed at a very nice hotel in Havana with virtually all of the conveniences we experience in the US. However, we were informed early on that Cuba was in the middle of a 5 month drought and that water was rationed and that many only received 45 minutes of water every other day with which to fill up their water tanks. We, however, in our the hotel were able to take daily showers and flush the toilet. There were a lot of other specifics as well when it came to food. As I mentioned above, Cuba is significantly lacking in almost all types of infrastructures and in this discussion support for restaurants. Obtaining chicken is a good example, no chicken farms, little to no refrigerated trucks with which to deliver the product, so it is fresh from individual sources. Another major problem for Cubans is milk. The drought has severely restricted its availability. In all honesty, this was disconcerting to me and I fear this may produce issues as Cuba continues to be open to tourism.

So what do Cubans earn? First of all, as almost everyone will tell you, every Cuban received free healthcare and free education. Cuba’s education system is very good and it allows Cuba to enjoy a well educated society which exports a lot of their professionals. Under their Castro Socialist system, the average Cuban receives around the equivalent of $25.00 a month plus their libreta or ration which typically provides about 10kg (22lb) of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of brown sugar, 250 millilitres (1 cup) of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven years of age. Unfortunately these rations are not enough and many find other ways to earn money. (A good article on this can be found at The Guardian). In another good article on this topic, the Miami Herald reports that “The survey, which was conducted among 1,067 Cubans in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey, Pinar del Río, and Cienfuegos in May and June, found that about 27 percent of Cubans earn under $50 per month; 34 percent earn the equivalent of $50 to $100 per month; and 20 percent earn $101 to $200. Twelve percent reported earning $201 to $500 a month; and almost 4 percent said their monthly earnings topped $500, including 1.5 percent who said they earned more than $1,000.” In this article and elsewhere, they go on to add that a significant contributor to Cuban’s earnings are the family remittance payments from those living in the US and/or those who have traveled there, became green card holders and moved back to Cuba.

Libreta, rationing, store in Pepito Tey

What I found incredible about the Cuban people is their entrepreneurial quest. From the private taxi drivers to the newly created private restaurants as well as private Bed and Breakfasts. Every restaurant, save one lunch spot took place in a private restaurant or a paladar.. The one that was not, was government run. Essentially, Raul Castro determined that the government could not effectively operate a restaurant and about 6 years ago authorized the creation of these business. How they are able to source the food and ingredients I believe, is amazing (The Eater). Of course, Smithsonian would pick good restaurants for its tours, but some of these restaurant locations, service and food were pretty incredible. Another example of their entrepreneurial zest was on display in Trinidad and Playa Larga, where we stopped for lunch one day. In Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the lady who manages development complained to our group about the explosion in restaurant and hotel/BNB permit requests and who to manage them. In Playa, Larga, a resort area in the Bay of Pigs, almost every home in this little area was adding an additional room or more for their Air BNB business. (BTW, in interesting little factoid we learned. In the early days of the Europeans exploration of the new world, they were required to throw animals, pigs and goats which would swim ashore and act as provisions for later explorers. While I am not sure if this is accurate, but one possible source of its name may have come from all the pigs that swam ashore…. 🙂

Palm trees, sandy beach and Air BNB's at Playa Larga

I am also reluctant to admit that a People-to-People tour was a good thing for me to be on. Left to my usual ways, I would plan out the sites and images I want to capture and really have very little interaction with the locals of the places we visit. This tour forced us to be involved with meeting the citizens of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos and various settings. We had a particularly rich experience at the Havana School of music where we heard a young musician play an amazing violin. Still morning walks allowed me to sneak in some photography time.

So what did I think of Cuba? It is an amazing place that is still going through transition. It is not a time capsule.

  • There will be a lot uncertainty in the coming year, 2018, as Roul Castro steps down as President and for the first time a person without the last name of Castro will be incharge of the country or one that was not part of the Revolution. Cubans do not know what this change will bring.
  • Cuba has no international currency and this goes a long way of explaining why one cannot use a credit card in Cuba. It is primarily a cash based system. For their economy to be able to grow, at some point they will have to join the international monetary system and give up their various types of tenders within Cuba.
  • The socialist revolution, did not displace a ruling class, it just created a different one. The military is primarily in control of the country and owns most of the land, although now, Cuban’s can buy houses. For example, the hotels we stayed at are owned by the military and they contract with foreign Hotel Chains to build and/or manage them. I cannot imagine the Military giving up this control.
  • We were told an interesting story when we visited the Havana music school located at the sign of a former, exclusive golf course. After the revolution, Fidel and Che were playing golf there and Fidel asked Che what they should do with the place. it was Che who thought they should use it as a music school, i.e.,  Decisions are made top down in sort of a paternal fashion. Historically, people were told what to do but now some of this is changing. There still exists quite a socialistic structure within the country of party members, etc.
  • Cuba has tended to be a client state. This was particularly true with its association with the Soviet Union which ultimately lead to disaster. Cuba enjoyed a special relationship with the USSR which purchased their sugar far above the world prices and provided them with significant aid. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, Cuba lost 85% of its world trade and went into a dark period.  They slowly but then put their faith in Venezuela and now China.
  • Before the Revolution, Cuba enjoyed one of the best economies within all of Latin, Central and South America. Today it is near the bottom. What a contradiction. It is one of the best educated countries of all Latin America, yet one of the worst economies. It has a rich history, rich in culture, music, art, literature and science. At one point, before the revolution, Cuba enjoyed a history of technological development with regard to its sugar industry and more recently with  biotechnology as it is one of the leading suppliers to South America of generic drugs.

It’s complicated…….

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