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My Visit to Havana

Author: Robert
Date of Trip: September 2006

Some trips are made because you want to make them; some because you have to make them. My early fall 2006 week-long trip to Havana was some of both. After so many years living in South Florida, I had to see Cuba for myself. I exercised my constitutional right to travel, bypassing the outrageous travel restrictions imposed by a failed Cuba policy of 46 years. Along with my grown daughter, I went through a third country. I emphasize that what’s presented here is simply our own observations during a one-week stay in the capital and two beach excursions.

We spent a week in a “casa particular” in old Havana. “Casa particulars” are accommodations in private homes — an apartment in our case. It’s legal and they are taxed. We were not interested in a hotel, a resort or tourist areas, but rather in absorbing the experience, speaking with as many people as possible, and getting a “feel” for life in Havana, circa 2006. Because our funds were limited, thanks to an unexpectedly difficult exchange rate for convertible pesos, and because it was impossible for us, as Americans, to access our own funds, we lived frugally, as so many Habaneros do. There was little money for tourist attractions, museums and excursions, and so we spent most of our time on the streets, along the Prado and the Malecon, in taverns and markets, in parks, and at two beaches — Santa Maria and Guanabo — meeting and talking with people. Unfortunately, I do not speak Spanish, but my daughter does. And, although most of the people we met spoke no English, many did.

Our location was incredible. We were in a building right where the Prado meets the Malecon. The Prado is a mile-long pedestrian promenade, wide and lined with concrete benches and seats, made of a multi-colored pavement, with no obstructions, and a street running on either side, with various establishments along those streets. The Malecon is a long sea-front area with a thick sea wall — people sit and even lie on it — mostly locals, and often young couples. Teenagers play on the rocks below and swim in the sea. At its end, where we were, it widens and goes out into the sea. People fish there, and the famous Morro Castle is close by, just across a stretch of water. Next to it is a working lighthouse — I can close my eyes and still see that beam going round and round. We quickly established our two hangouts — the Oasis bar a few blocks up the Prado, and “12 Prado,” a beer and food place just down the block.

We came in through a third country, as most Americans without “licenses” do. The Cuban officials know not to stamp U.S. passports. I prefer not to disclose details of the measure I took to avoid leaving a paper or electronic trail. I will say that most of those who get caught — reportedly between 10 and 15 percent — do so because they (1) get off the plane from Cuba in an airport from which they fly to the U.S. and which has a U.S. preclearance station. Staffers from those preclearance stations watch the arrivals from Cuba and nail them when they check in with them. (2) They post about their trip online — it takes the Feds about two minutes to find out who they really are from an online address. (3) They do things that are just plain stupid, like checking into a U.S. preclearance station at a Canadian airport in the middle of winter with a deep fresh tan, and telling the U.S. officials that they were just on a Canadian ski trip. Also, it’s a good idea to pay for your ticket(s) with cash or a money order, not a personal check or wire transfer.

Be smart — spend a few days in your “third country” so that you’ll be able to talk about it in case you’re asked about it when you re-enter the U.S. Remember, the time you spend in Cuba was supposedly spent in the third country.

We met working people, housewives, children, elderly people, cab drivers, fishermen, musicians, students, bartenders, and of course our host family and their relatives and friends. We saw young couples in love and one sweet 30-ish couple on the Prado, the husband lovingly patting his wife’s pregnant tummy and then turning to help bathe their baby. A bartender we became friends with joined two itinerant musicians along the waterfront, joyously singing traditional Cuban songs. Four couples practiced the tango along the Prado. A young Cuban with dreadlocks chatted with my daughter, and then he and his friends invited us to go to his place with him and smoke some pot. We politely declined, but did ask where their pot came from. He said it came from Jamaica. We met very few non-Cubans — two European students, another American who, like us, had “snuck in,” and several American students who, much to our surprise, were there “legally” through their college. We saw hundreds of children, going to and from school, playing along the Prado and the Malecon, and on the beaches. They all seemed very happy, full of “piss and vinegar” as the old phrase goes. We didn’t see any fat people, nor did we see any skinny or hungry-looking people. There were no fast-food outlets. Children’s treats on the street usually consisted of thin paper cones of salty trail mix, sold for a few local centavos. There were lots of cops, all smiles and helpfulness, happy to pose for us. We felt very secure. They mostly stood around on corners, keeping an eye on things but showing no interest in listening to people’s conversations or eyeballing anyone in particular. I watched as one approached a local who seemed to have passed out along the Prado. He gently nudged him, made sure he was OK and then left. There were a few beggars, but not nearly as many as you’ll see along downtown Miami’s Flagler Street. We saw perhaps two or three apparent prostitutes along the Prado and none elsewhere.

We noticed immediately that the proportion of black people was far greater in Havana than it is in South Florida’s Cuban/Cuban-American community.

Everyone wanted to know where we were from, and almost everyone seemed to have relatives in either Miami or Hialeah. The younger men flocked to my daughter, calling her “bella” and even jokingly — or half-jokingly — offering to marry her. It was all in fun — I was almost always with her, and they all knew I was her father.

Some people grumbled about the economy, which is bad, and about their salaries, which are absurdly low. But no one seemed interested in politics, and when we asked people about their feelings regarding Castro’s illness, they seemed indifferent either way, saying things like “yes, he is very sick” or “very old.” No one said they wanted to leave Cuba, but one young mother at Santa Maria beach, who spoke some English, told us that she knew that while the economy was “much better in Miami,” that “this is my country, and it’s a beautiful country” and she did not want to leave it.

We found the tented market along the waterfront, and bought souvenirs, which we mailed back from our third country. We found the square surrounded by sellers of old books and magazines, and I bought a copy of LIFE magazine with a picture of the late former senator Claude Pepper campaigning — in 1937. We watched fishermen in the part of the Malecon facing El Morro, and saw a smitten-looking bunch of boys following a scantily clad girl along the rocks below the sea wall. We took hundreds of pictures. I can still close my eyes and see the beam from the lighthouse there, going round and round. We stood there at midnight and I played Bob Neuwirth’s beautiful song “Havana Midnight” in my head. We let a talkative little boy named Juan Pablo take pictures of us with our camera. He insisted on sharing a few salty tidbits from his paper cone. We watched the daily late-afternoon funny-looking yellow low-flying plane spraying for mosquitoes, and ran away with everyone else when the spraying truck rumbled up our street. My daughter drank Cristal beer and danced in the taverns and clubs while I drank Bucanero.

We took a taxi to Santa Maria beach. It was much like a beach here, with concessions, a little band, rental loungers and umbrellas. My daughter met a young man there, and three days later we went with him on a regular public bus to Guanabo, where the beach was basic, goats roamed nearly, and a young couple made out on the sand. The young man, to my surprise, was an active member of a Masonic lodge. We didn’t ride the camelos — huge camel-shaped vehicles pulled by trucks — but noticed they were always crowded.

I found the people in Cuba to be among the warmest and friendliest I’ve ever met. The bitterness and hatred that seem to consume so many Cubans and Cuban-Americans here didn’t seem to exist there. I did meet one out of work musician from Guantanamo who claimed that people in Havana were less caring. But the saddest complaint — to me, anyway — was from another musician who had recently played a gig in Miami. He said he would never return there because the Cubans in Miami kept insulting him and calling him a Communist. When I returned home, I found myself outraged at the hardliners who wanted to keep limiting visits and who voted against an exemption allowing people here to send soap and toilet paper to their family members on the island. Why do Cuban-Americans who have “made it” here in South Florida want to keep punishing these warm, wonderful people down there — as if they don’t have enough to deal with. Yes — I now take our wretched Cuba policy personally.

We saw thousands of people, and talked with many of them. Most of the people have very little money, but they manage. There certainly was no trace of the pitiable starving glue-sniffing abandoned street children that the Miami Herald did a series on, who are found in so many of our free-market Latin American “allies” such as Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil. Or of the starving gamines that I saw so many of, years ago, on the streets of Bogota amidst wealth and modern buildings. People complain openly, but their complaints are about the economy and the low salaries. They’re not concerned with politics. They seem to neither like nor hate the regime. Yes, there are serious problems. Medical care is free, but, as we were told, needed drugs are often unavailable. Food, beyond the first week or two of the month, is expensive. No one drinks the water without boiling it first, and people who can afford it buy bottled water. On the other hand, rents are extremely cheap, as is local and area transportation. And, somehow, people seem to get by and live their lives. As far as we could see, the term “wretched” does not apply to the Habaneros.

As for security, I have never felt safer anywhere. There were a lot of police but they were all young, mild-mannered and smiled a lot. I never even took my money belt out of my suitcase. There is a dual monetary system. There are “national” pesos and there are “convertible” pesos, or CUCs. It takes about 25 national pesos to equal one CUC. Before you fly to Cuba, you need to change your U.S. money into euros or Canadian dollars. Otherwise, you’ll lose an extra 10 percent when you get to Cuba. When you arrive in Cuba, you will need to buy convertible pesos at the airport exchange counter. You’ll end up with 70 to 75 CUCs per your original $100 U.S. The CUC bills are clearly marked “convertible pesos” and you must be careful never to accept non-convertible pesos in exchange. The CUCs come in denominations of 3 (!), 5, 10, 20 and so on. Things such as beer and taxis seem very cheap to a visitor with CUCs, but when my daughter remarked on how cheap beer and taxi rides were to someone, he replied, not if you live here! Fidelismo is not much in evidence. We saw three or four places where “Fidel — 80 Mas!” had been spray painted on walls. Not likely! We saw some posters, mainly at the airport, and some billboards, almost all either around the Plaza of the Revolution or on the seaside road to the beaches, which goes on to Matanzas and Veradero. Almost all of them focused on the five “heroes,” the five Cubans convicted of spying in a Miami courtroom and sentenced to long prison terms. From what I’ve been able to see and hear, their “spying” involved anti-Castro groups, not the U.S. government and its security. The few images we saw of Che Guevara were at the Plaza and in a stadium on the seaside road.

The media runs lies about Cuba. The Miami Herald reported, only weeks after our trip, that the government there would not officially admit that there was a dengue fever epidemic. Yet we saw a government poster about it in a small restaurant/bar near where we stayed. The Herald also has stated that only foreigners can have cell phones in Cuba. In fact, just about anyone who can afford it — and not that many can — can open a cell phone account. They recently ran an A.P. dispatch about public transportation. It said that there were hitchhikers everywhere. We didn’t see a single one. But we did see many people walking on the roads. It said the buses were always breaking down, but we didn’t see any that were broken down or “out of service.” Compare that with our bus system! It said that the fare on the camelos, 20 centavos, equaled one U.S. cent. True. But it also said that the fare on other public buses equaled 15 U.S. cents. In fact, the fare on our bus to and from Guanabo was 40 centavos — 2 U.S. cents.

In Havana, there is a government tourist office on Obispo Street, the main downtown business street. The people there speak fluent English and will be glad to help. Also look for the Etesca phone and Internet government center. Internet access there is 6 CUCs per hour. You buy a card, and if you have time left over, you can use it again until the time runs out. If you are a U.S. citizen or resident, your credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba. (But if you’re from anywhere else, they will, and you don’t need to worry about the travel ban nonsense.) However, Havana does have a Western Union office.

Our nation’s policy on Cuba is a totally failed policy of 46 years standing that only provides the Cuban government with propaganda ammunition. Americans are free to travel to 19 of the 20 “world’s worst dictatorships” cited annually in Parade magazine — but not Cuba. The new and extra-harsh travel restrictions are a violation of our constitutional rights, and are gratuitously cruel to Cubans and Cuban-Americans both here and on the island.

I will close on a much lighter note. The one thing I had heard about Cuba that turned out to be absolutely true was the prevalence of 1950’s American cars. The country is a living auto museum — a movie set! I’d estimate about 40 percent of the vehicles I saw in Havana and on the road fell into this category. Most were well maintained, and many were beautifully kept up. Some are taxis — imagine a huge-finned 50’s Caddy as a cab!

Bring either a camera with lots and lots of film, or a digital camera with at least two or three sets of name brand (not drug store brand) batteries. We took over 300 pictures. The children are totally irresistible. If you bring a digital camera, buy an extra memory card. Bring a digital camera with a memory card with lots of pictures on it from before your trip. Take more in your “third country.” When you get to Cuba, switch memory cards.

When you leave, tuck the Cuba memory card away (my daughter stuck it in her bra) and put the other one back in. When you reach your third country, get all your Cuba stuff together — I mean ALL of it — and mail it back. Don’t mail it to yourself. Mail it to a friend or relative, and use the return name and address of another friend or relative. You don’t want to re-enter the U.S. with so much as a card, matchbook or store receipt from the island. Put any leftover coins and bills in with the rest of the stuff.

If a U.S. official ever gets suspicious and asks you if you were in Cuba, do not lie! That is a federal crime. Do not tell the truth either. That would be a BIG mistake. Simply refuse to discuss the matter at all. That’s your right under the U.S. Constitution.

I hope to return soon. The Cuban people were gentle, warm, friendly, gracious and enjoyable. I want to see as much of this “beautiful country” as I can.

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