It’s difficult, so Laacute; Zaro, our Cuba guide, stated in response to a question from one of our group.
On June 1, I was on a busy street in Havana, Cuba, with fourteen travel companions (thirteen women and two men) from the Sisters Across the Straits tour organized and sponsored by the Florida state chapter of League of Women Voters. Our goal was not simply to visit tourist attractions; rather, it was to learn more about Cuba, the Cuban people, and the country’s history.
We were also fortunate to have Miami resident Ann Betancourt, Sisters Across the Straits founder and Board Director of the League, and league member for more than three decades, accompany us. We were the 26th group of tourists that Annie has brought to Cuba. She went on to explain that “it’s difficult” is the standard response Cubans use to describe any tough circumstance. It’s a phrase used to convey that there is no response to your inquiry or that there isn’t one yet. The password for our six-day trip to Cuba was “it’s complicated.”
Annie was born in Cuba and lived there with her parents until she was thirteen. When the revolution took place, Fidel Castro rose to power, and her father, an engineer, anticipated the events that would follow. He moved his family to Miami, like hundreds of other Cubans did at the time, expecting their stay in that city to be brief. The Castros remained in power after the revolution, and the family soon discovered that Miami was their new home.
The goal of Annie’s trips is to improve relations between the United States and Cuba after decades of isolation and animosity. The itineraries, as you’ll see, are meant to offer League members an opportunity to learn about Cuba’s history, culture, and society while also meeting academic experts and ordinary Cubans.
History of Cuba
The Jose Marti International Airport in Havana is located 90 miles from the United States, making this a quick flight. As soon as our group cleared customs, we boarded the bus and began our tour, which included a drive around central Havana and the Plaza de la Revolucion. We drove for a long time along dirt roads, passing through towns that were devastated by ethnic conflicts or natural disasters. Although we had been warned that we were heading to a third-world nation, it was nevertheless shocking to see so many structures that appeared as if they’d been bombed. The buildings were also flimsy as if they might collapse at any time. They appeared to be inhabited, with individuals going in and out of the entrances and others hanging laundry from balconies 10 or 15 stories tall. Clearly, the American embargo and a slowing economy had had a significant impact.
After lunch, we visited the Jose Fuster Studio, a ceramist’s home in which he has revolutionized the region where he lives. The entire block seemed to be a huge contemporary painting, with brilliant hues interspersed throughout each yard. However, as I drew closer, I noticed the colorful ceramics’ designs, which were unique from one another. The creator of this piece began by turning his own gate into a magnificent ceramic creation. Neighbors urged him to do the same to their homes when they saw the effect. He never asked for money, relying instead on donations and selling his own work to raise funds. Finally, he converted his entire courtyard into a ceramic masterpiece by transforming it into a mosaic. Because the American embargo has made ceramic tiles and other supplies extremely difficult to locate, he has been compelled to go long distances in order to acquire them.
We went for a stroll through the Plaza and Calle Obispo with Annie and most of our fellow tourists after checking into our temporary home, the Hotel Sevilla. At the hotel, where Annie had intended to have us dine at its roof-top restaurant, our stroll came to an end. The elevator, nevertheless, was out of order. A hotel employee invited us to use the service elevator, which was around the corner. The elevator turned out to be a tiny, dimly lit box that could accommodate five people, including the elevator operator. My group went up in shifts; I went up with my eyes closed and my fingers crossed, believing that each bump marked our approach to the ground. The tower, on the other hand, was magnificent. The view of the city from the top, though, made it all worthwhile. The cuisine, on the other hand, was rather disappointing.
After dinner, four of us went down six flights (thank goodness there was a banister) and hunted for a taxi through the plaza. Finally, we discovered six of them, all of which were in horrible shape and repairing to take us back to the hotel. After that, we were crammed into the back of one car and driven to our hotel in a noisy, windy, and petrol-infused automobile ride. As we were getting out, I noticed that much of the old upholstery was kept together with tape.
At breakfast, I learned about a number of problems with the rooms. One of our team’s fortunate breaks was that the window wouldn’t shut and the air conditioning didn’t work. Pat and I had been fortunate. Although the space was modest (we weren’t expecting anything more), everything functioned. That is until my husband pushed the button to turn it down and we discovered that the air conditioning was too cold and we couldn’t seem to lower it. We loved nearly every afternoon at the hotel’s beautiful swimming pool; with the exception of the final day, when it was closed down at 5:00 p.m. for mosquito spraying!
We visited the Cuban Embassy to meet women who were members of the Cuban chapter of the United Nations. The building had been home to one of Cuba’s wealthy dynasties before they fled during the Revolution, and it was still in excellent condition. Soaya E. Alvarez, Director of the ACNU Cuban Association of United Nations Nations, gave us an update on Cuba and the UN as well as the significance of lifting the embargo. The people of Cuba are miserable; salaries range from $15 to $20 a month. Lázarus (who has a master’s degree) left his government position to become a tour guide because he could make more money there. Gas and some food are restricted, and there isn’t much leftover for extras, yet health care is free. Cubans hope to come to the United States; in 2015_16, 153,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States. People are leaving Cuba because they are concerned that the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows for citizenship, will be revoked. As a result, the Cuban labor force has decreased and the population is aging.
The Federation of Cuban Women’s La Quitrin, a women’s clothing shop sponsored by the organization, was our next destination. We were advised to bring thread and needles as tokens of appreciation for the ladies employed there since they, like all other things, are in short supply. Most of the completed dresses and shirts in the shop were white cotton at the time of our visit. The clothes looked fantastic, but I couldn’t find much to buy (for a change).
Later in the day, we visited a traditional synagogue and spoke with a twenty-something-year-old about Cuba’s Jewish community. There are 1200 Jews in Cuba, and three synagogues; this is typical for Jewish people all around the world. They are, however, either conservative or orthodox in Cuba; there has been no development of the modern reform movement. I was pleased to learn that young girls were celebrating Bat Mitzvahs.
On that night, three of us took a taxi out for supper. The taxi was shiny new, with soft leather seats that purred as they went down the road. The bus was built in China and purchased by the Cuban government, according to our driver. He was leasing it from the government and sharing it with another driver; each had three days on and three days off. He was married with a one-year-old child. When we inquired about President Obama’s visit, he replied, with feeling, that Obama is our hero.
Annie had set up a trip to the newly opened U.S. Embassy for us. I was amazed at the amount of security there – our passports were thoroughly examined and our luggage was checked. We came in through a turnstile and were led to a room right adjacent to the entrance. An embassy director who had been dispatched to Cuba to prepare for President Obama’s visit gave us an introduction to the state of affairs in our nation, as well as answering all of our queries. It was comprehensive and instructive. She urged us to talk with Cubans in order to dispel any preconceptions they may have about Americans.
There is a football field with very tall black poles that resemble what had been planted at the end of the sidewalk in front of the American Embassy’s main entrance. The inscription “Farewell” was also written above the White House. When she said this, I had to take a short walk away from her and pretend I didn’t understand what she was talking about. The Cuban government erected the poles and covered them with the Cuban flag in order to block out the tape.
Our journey took us to Vigia, the home of Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway, who resided in Cuba from 1930 to 1960. It was exciting to look through the windows and doors, remembering where the film had been shot, as we strolled along cobblestone lanes. We’d seen the movie Papa Hemingway in Cuba only a few days previously, so it was nice to check out the sites that had been featured in it. The property includes a small museum to commemorate the entire restoration process, as well as exhibits related to his journey. His fishing boat Pilar has been reconstructed and is on display in the house.
We ate lunch in Cojimar, an idyllic fishing hamlet that served as the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea. I gazed out at the sea and could almost make out the ancient man in the boat. It was a privately owned establishment run by young local entrepreneurs, and I enjoyed my lunch. Many restaurants in Cuba are run and owned by the government, but more and more people are obtaining permission to do so, which is a good sign.
Breakfasts at the hotel were enormous, with five big tables loaded with fruit, meats, pancakes or eggs, and sweetbreads. I knew our lunches would be huge – at the very least four courses – so I stuck to cereal, fruit, and yogurt (at least I believe it was yogurt) for breakfasts. I also decided to not weigh myself for a week after I returned home.
We strolled about the city of Havana, seeing the plazas. There were dozens of book vendors on the streets, as well as street artists who displayed their work on boards and boxes all over the place. We encountered one young guy who was following our group, drawing quick sketches of a few females and then attempting to sell the sketch to the owner. He was really amazing and we discovered he was an art student after. One lady purchased a sketch and then found that it resembled another member of our group. Then we went to an artisans’ cooperative and I acquired a tiny painting for home (my first purchase). In the afternoon, we went to the Museum of Fine Arts – Cuban Collection, where I was completely overwhelmed by the artwork that I could not stay still even when my physical body advised me to return to the hotel and take a rest. Of course, the elevator was also available here, so we had to walk a lot.
Spend the day in the country! For over an hour, the bus drove us through rural Cuba, and Lá Zaro kept us awake with a historical lesson. Annie took the mike occasionally to tell us some additional information from an American perspective. We got to the lookout spot in Valle Vinales, Pinar del Rio Province, which is west of Havana. The strange hill formations (known as mogotes) are beautiful; they’re unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Then we visited a rum distillery and a tobacco farm. We saw someone create cigars, which almost tempted me to smoke one. Of course, I got him a few as well; he enjoys smoking once in a while but only when I’m not around.
Lunch was eaten on the porch of a lovely rural restaurant. One after another, they were all better than the last; there were many courses. The most delicious flan I’ve ever tasted was served at dessert. I thought I’d never eat again, but by 7:30 p.m., I was back at another restaurant trying the finest eggplant lasagna I’d ever had.
It was time to pack our bags for our trip back to Miami that night. But, while we were still in motion, things began to happen. We went to a local art and craft fair, where I looked for (and found) a humidor in which to store my five precious cigarettes. I also bought a lovely handmade white cotton dress for my granddaughter that I’m afraid won’t fit, but it was too beautiful to pass up. Our group then went to an art community project in Centro Habana’s inner city. Salvador Gonzales Escolono was the first to take graffiti art and transform it into a street of art dedicated to the African-Cuban experience. Salvador was at his gallery, and he advised us to enjoy our nation but not to try to comprehend it.
At noon, I went to an organic farm that also feeds the homeless and gives painting and environmental lessons as well as single-parenting and senior classes. It was once a marsh when the family that had developed all of this received it. They now cultivate 150 distinct types on it (in addition to an adorable little dog who kept getting in their way). The lunches help cover the cost of the free food and classes. The next stop will be the airport, where we’ll part ways with Cuba. But first, I and a number of other tourists went through all the duty-free shops, attempting to buy whatever remained of our Cuban funds. I chose two bottles of aged rum, which my husband says has a smooth bourbon taste.
A fellow traveler who had previously visited Cuba was shocked by the multitude of yellow cabs and even open-air double-decker buses, all manufactured in China. In addition, China has established a car plant on the island. There were a lot of visitors from Spain, France, and even Switzerland. I had a brief conversation with two German men and a group of English women who rode the hotel elevator with me. Additionally, there is a slew of new eateries. She said that Cuba is aiming to attract visitors.
The internet is still difficult to get in Cuba; it’s pricey and sluggish. Outside of several buildings, the government has begun to open up WiFi hotspots, where you’ll see lines of young people sitting, standing, and leaning against their laptops.
Change is taking place, but it’s at a glacial pace. I constantly heard Cubans describe Raul as more pragmatic than his brother, even though the nation is still under Castro’s domination. I’m guessing that he is more receptive to change and private ownership, as we witnessed during our recent visit. Personally, I believe that if the embargo was lifted and the Cuban Adjustment Act repealed, Cubans would be able to travel to America, learn from all of us, and then return home rather than apply for citizenship in this country. The availability of US products in Cuba would end rationing, allowing for greater access to goods and services. The line will be restarted on November 12, 2018, when the ship returns for its third voyage. The Cuban people will be lifted out of poverty and into the twenty-first century yet again as a result of this crossing. It’s time to end the Embargo!