It’s easy to be taken with Cuba. The vintage American cars. Cuban jazz on every street corner. Art fashioned from repurposed detritus—hubcaps, scrap metal, broken glass. Beautiful colonial, art deco, and baroque architecture graces the cities, along cobblestone streets, tiled floors, walls painted in pastel shades of green and pink and baby blue. Elegant ceiba trees and stately royal palms. Aquamarine water and white sand. Visitors sip coffee at sidewalk cafés. We stayed in lovely renovated hotels. Every meal came with a mojito or Cuba libre “welcome” drink.
Cuba is a country of near one hundred percent literacy. Free health care and education. The ubiquitous image of Che Guevara on t-shirts and hats and murals as if every one of us has a revolution bubbling up inside.
Against all odds—including a fifty year US embargo—Cuba is the little engine that could.
It’s easy to be captivated by the spirit of a people who have suffered extreme poverty, tyranny, fear, the wrenching apart of families. One million Cubans—nearly a tenth of the population—fled the country in the years immediately following the revolution in 1959. Everyone has an anti-Castro relative living in Miami. But every Cuban has a roof over their head. We saw almost no begging on the streets. No homeless men sleeping on park benches. The streets of Havana are clean but for the rubble of renovations and repair.
Cubans are master mechanics, cobbling together a stove or a washing machine from recycled or welded parts. We saw a TV jerry-rigged using a Russian CRT computer monitor; it took five minutes to warm up, but the picture was clear enough to watch Cuba’s national sport—baseball.
While the government sets salaries, those Cubans able to capitalize on the tourist trade are faring much better. A fisherman we met makes more than his daughter who’s a doctor. Engineers drive taxis after hours. Women working in a state-run cooperative weave baskets eight hours a day. At night, they go home and continue their work, weaving for the tourist trade.
Every Cuban is provided with a ration booklet to buy their allotted five eggs a month, four ounces of coffee, sugar, oil, rice. When the food runs out, maybe they have a chicken in the yard or a small garden. And yet, the paladares—privately owned restaurants for the tourists—serve overflowing plates of shrimp and lobster and steak on delicately flowered china, with hand-woven tablecloths and napkins, and crystal stemware. The privilege of being a tourist is striking.
Back in my comfortable home in the US, I’m inspired by the Cubans—a proud people determined to overcome adversity. This is Cuba on the verge of success and I wish them well. But I’m troubled by the inequities and the tyranny of a not-so-distant past. There’s a tendency to overlook the years of torture, a reign of terror presided over by Fidel Castro. The same Castro who promised days after the revolution, “Cuban mothers let me assure you that I will solve all Cuba’s problems without spilling a drop of blood.”
A tyrant is keenly aware of what the people want to hear, and he’ll offer it to them, no matter the truth–something we should take to heart back home.
Ruth Starr says
Good story and pictures Elie.
Judy Jones says
Elie, I am so happy you went to Cuba and expressed the same impressions that I had when I visited in 2012.
Cuba has always needed assistance from some country as they are not self sufficient. Spain, Russia, China
US. I hope that we do not destroy the country with our McDonalds etc. My parents went to Havana in 1937 for their honeymoon and I am blessed to have spent time there and visited a country that is proud of
their heritage.I found that the music and people lingered with me after I returned home. They love Obama
and it will be interesting to see the reception he gets this month when he visits.
Thanks Judy! While we were there, Obama announced his visit. Everyone we talked to was thrilled. It must have been something for your parents to visit in 1937. It was a different country then!
Susan Dressler says
Your impressions of Cuba and mine are exactly the same. As usual, your blog is amazing and captures the moment so beautifully.
Shirley mednick says
What a great story. It is refreshing to hear first hand from an American visitor with your
knowledge and intelligence. There is so much in the news and newspapers about what
is going on in Cuba and around the world and we have to weed out the truth.
Thanks again and please keep us posted of your many ideas and travel.
Thanks so much Shirley! It was an interesting experience and eye-opening.
You always know more about a place and its people after you see it and them in person. In your case, you also tell it in words that capture the meaning as well as the scene. It’s almost as if I had been there. Thanks.
Thank you Marvin!
Joan Scherer says
Well said. Summed up my impressions to a T. Glad to have shared the trip with you.
Thanks Joan. I wasn’t sure how others were experiencing our trip. Good to get some validation.
Joan Bauman says
That was a lovely, well written article. We were there in January and I mirror your thoughts. I loved the Cuban people, but found it difficult to ignore the ill effects of communism. I wrote about Cuba in my President’s message in the CBD Bulletin. Take a look when it comes out.
Thanks Joan. I’ll be sure to read your column.
Caroline Halford says
I loved your comments. You captured the essence of the Cuban culture in words and pictures. You recreated vivid memories of our trip to Cuba.
Thanks Caroline. Be sure to look us up when you’re in town!
Bonnie Young says
Loved the beauty of description as you related your trip to Cuba, but I became nauseated thinking of them getting only 5 eggs a month, and a few other items, while the food overflowed in the tourist restaurants. Oh!!!!
Lenora Ucko says
Once again I well understand what you are writing about – this time about Cuba. Things seem to have changed little since my visit there in 1980! You might find it interesting to compare with the chapter, Cuban Diary, in my book, Enjoy the World: a woman remembers traveling alone.
Looking forward to more writing!
I have your book, Enjoy the World! and look forward to reading your thoughts. You went to a few places we missed–Camaguay, Santiago del Cuba–that I wished I’d seen. I’m sure Cuba is very different now.
Nancy Unger says
Beautifully said. You summed up my impressions. We can learn so much from the people there.
Good to hear from you Nancy! Glad you enjoyed the blog.
Edie Juck says
I loved your personable article, Elie. Your observations and comments indicate a curious mind and an open worldview of our neighbors, the Cuban people.
Good to hear from you Edie! Glad you enjoyed the post.
Arlene & Larry Smith says
Thank you Elie for your wonderful reflective impressions/summary of our trip. I have printed it out to include in our Cuba scrapbook! Enjoyed sharing the trip to Cuba with you.
Glad you enjoyed reading my post! Good meeting you too. Happy travels!
Kay Sidle says
Cuba is also on my list. Your pics & info have wet my appetite. Only in USA trips this year, My son is getting married & my daughter is having grandchild #2. Have a great day & continue to enjoy life!