NOTE: My friends, this post is ridiculously long. I should break it into two or three but just don’t have the motivation or the time, and as a result it’s kind of all over the place, divided into chapters, with a historical timeline in italics that is broken up by trip notes and photos relevant to specific historic moments. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.
Also, I generally try to confirm significant facts by using various on-line resources. In Cuba, with no Internet access, I wasn’t able to do that, so what’s written here comes directly from people I spoke to or from the one book I had with me, without corroboration. So please, take things at face value.
Since the beginning of this trip I had hoped to find a way to get to Cuba. In December I was introduced to a company from Portland, Oregon called Ya’lla Tours, and a couple of months ago we worked out an opportunity for me to make a legal 13-day visit. The itinerary started with four days in Havana and then a drive across country to Santiago de Cuba in the east, and a flight back for one final night in Havana. I had no idea what to expect; I was entering legally with all the proper approvals and visas, but I suspected it wouldn’t be without some interesting dynamics.
It didn’t take long to have that confirmed. Disembarking a flight from Mexico City I was approached in the immigration area by a casually dressed young man with a badge hanging around his neck. His name was Abner and he was very polite, identifying himself as an immigration officer and indicating he would like to ask me some questions. He made notes on a form as I answered questions about why I was there, where I was going, with whom, where I was staying, how much cash I had, where I had been on my trip and what had I done there, what I was bringing with me, whether I had an iPhone or a laptop. He looked through my passport and all my papers, including my Cuban itinerary.
Finally he thanked me and let me go. I got through immigration, picked up my bag and was approached by a young policeman, who asked if he could interview me. And the interrogation began again, very respectfully, with all the same questions. After ten minutes he asked me to wait, took my passport and walked over to consult with … Abner! They huddled for a minute and finally I was free to go.
Over the next couple of days I talked about this to Armando, a guy I met in Havana. “He probably wasn’t an immigration officer,” he said, “he was Homeland Security. You attracted his attention because you’re an American, because you’re traveling alone, and because you came in through terminal three. Most Americans come from Miami, through terminal two. They’re concerned you might be a terrorist.”
It hasn’t happened in a long time but, according to Armando, Cubans believe that CIA-employed Cuban nationals in the U.S. have been responsible for bombings and fires that have killed or injured thousands of Cubans, all part of a strategy to force a regime change. It sounds outrageous, but that is the belief. Officials are evidently also on the lookout for Americans who support dissidents and political bloggers, which seems like the more likely explanation. Maybe Abner decided he needed a second opinion and signaled the cop, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the last time I felt that level of scrutiny.
(Thirteen days later – this morning, Saturday – I was at immigration at the Havana airport on the way out of Cuba and a guy in an Immigration officer’s uniform approached me and said: don’t I know you? It was Abner. We had a great conversation and exchanged phone numbers. Damn, it sure is a funny ol’ world.)
Outside the airport I met my companions for the next 13 days: Jorge Frank Alpizar, my young guide, who goes by his middle name (his father was a Sinatra fan) and Deivy Hernandez, who would be driving us. The itinerary, as I was to find out, was approved in advance by the Cuban government and could not be altered. It was heavy on history, which was great, but I would have liked the opportunity to meet more of the people. That kind of activity is apparently well monitored. So we started in …
Havana is a city of about 2.5 million people, and, as I’d been told, the first thing you notice is the cars. After the revolution of 1959 Cuban citizens were not allowed to purchase new automobiles, so a majority of vehicles in Havana are old American cars from the 50s, and a few from the 40s. Chevys, Plymouths, Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Caddys, some looking rough and some looking royal, but all looking cool. Parts are hard to come by so you often see bumpers or taillights from one year on the chassis of another. In 2010 the government relaxed the policy and Cuban citizens who have the money can now buy and sell both cars and real estate. The cost of getting a car into the country, though, is half again as much as the cost of the car, so there aren’t many.
The cars are great but in truth there really aren’t that many of them, there is very little traffic in Cuba. But at all times of day the streets are full for people. In the evenings I walked from my hotel toward the Atlantic Ocean and the malecon, or the seawall (photo at the very top). It extends for miles along the shoreline and is a gathering spot for thousands of residents, and it’s the ideal place to get a sense of the people and the culture. No one has a cell phone, no one’s nose is buried in an electronic device, which is so refreshing. People are actually talking to each other, there are many guitars, but most of all there is a whole lot of romance going on. Cuba is exceptionally voluptuous … the music, the attitude, the women. The outfits are tight and revealing, the heels are high, the seductiveness is palpable, the people uninhibited.
Although it’s changing little by little as more private business licenses are granted, basically the government owns everything: the tour and transportation companies I used, the hotels I stayed in, the restaurants where we ate, the gas stations where we fueled up. People get education, health care, some food and clothes from the government, but it’s still tough to live on the very meager salaries they are paid, so they do what they have to do,
which is often steal from their place of employment: from the government. There is a vibrant black market, and we saw evidence of people’s ability to sell hot items while avoiding the many government cameras.
We spent a lot of time in the narrow streets of Old Havana, which was far more vibrant and updated than I expected. There is street construction and building refurbishment going on everywhere, and the blend of colors and cultures in the architecture almost give it a modern, European feel. There are many spacious plazas. Most buildings are only two stories, allowing for a lot of sunlight and a festive environment. There is music and energy everywhere; if was fun to imagine how it must have been in the golden days of the 40s and 50s.
If you’re in Cuba at some point you are obligated to enjoy some rum and cigar, I just didn’t expect the first time to be at 10:30 in the morning as I was serenaded by a five-piece, all-woman band. The rum was sweet and wonderful, and the Romeo y Juliet tasted deliciously illegal, which of course made it the best cigar I’ve ever had.
We visited the Museum of Fine Arts, and much of the best work had a political bent; this stuff was only recently allowed to be displayed. An artist named Antonia Eiriz had a painting called La Muerta en Pelota, holding Castro accountable for the decline of baseball in Cuba. Another large painting glorifying many Cuban heroes was once hanging in an official building until someone pointed out that it also featured Ringo Starr and Freddy Mercury. A dissident and blogger named Tania Bruguera made a Cuban flag from locks of hair from other dissidents.
Frank and I also spent a lot of time visiting places associated with a guy named …
Hemingway first came to Cuba in 1932 when his fishing boat broke down and he pulled in for repairs. He ended up living in Cuba for a time, introducing it to friends, writing many of his most famous novels here and finding inspiration for others. In the process he became a revered figure in Cuba. During my visit we saw:
- The Ambos Mundos hotel, where Hemingway lived between 1932 and 1939, when he was in Cuba before buying a home. The lobby has many photos of him, including one with Fidel.
- La Bodeguita del Medio (The Little Place in the Middle), another Hemingway hangout where we stopped for lunch. It’s not in a great location but the original owner let people write on walls, served good drinks and great shaved beef, and it became popular. They claim to have invented the Mojito; Jorge said that wasn’t the case, but there is no denying Hemingway had a few at this place. There was a good little band entertaining us featuring a guy playing a tres, a unique Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings.
- Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paola, which he bought in 1940 for $17,000. It’s a small, beautiful home on seven acres, atop a hill with a nice view of the city. On display behind the house is his boat, the 45-foot wooden fishing vessel the Pilar, out of Key West.
- The fishing town of Cojimar, where Hemingway found the inspiration for the Old Man and the Sea. There is a Hemingway memorial by a fort where we met an old guitar player named Marcelino Martinez Garcia, who used to be a musician of note in a band that often played for Hemingway. Now he serenades tourists, maybe makes a few pesos in tips. He let me play his guitar, and he was visibly unimpressed.
- Finally we went to the Floridita restaurant and bar: (The Cuna del Daiquiri, it says behind the bar … The Cradle of the Daiquiri). A bronze statue of Hemingway leaning on the bar attracts tourists for photos. There was live music (there is live music everywhere, all day long) and the place was packed with drinkers at 11 in the morning.
To understand where Cuba is now and where it might go in the future, it’s critical to know something about its …
Two indigenous tribes inhabited Cuba when it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Don Diego Velazquez, a wealthy and powerful Spaniard who dreamed of conquering the New World, established the first settlement at Baracoa in 1511.
Baracoa is a lovely and peaceful place, and very hard to get to: it was 500 miles round trip from Santiago de Cuba, much of it on tough mountain roads. According to Frank: “Cubans are born hoping that one day they will see Baracoa.” The residents in this rather isolated place are an exotic blend of native Indian, Spanish, African and Asian.
On the way to Baracoa we drove through the province of Guantanamo, and close to the U.S. Base at Guantanamo Bay, which is American soil. There was a checkpoint where we spent 15 minutes waiting for my passport to be reviewed. Frank pointed out a large field that has been planted with land mines by both the U.S. and Cuban governments, America wanting to protect the base and Cuba wanting to prevent defections. According to Armando there is a blind man – a “coyote” – who knows the field and leads defectors through it.
On the return trip we passed the border at Guantanamo and I pointed a camera out the back window as we were going 45 miles an hour; there was no picture to take, so I didn’t. Two nights later Frank received a call at home from Homeland Security, asking if I had taken that picture and chastising him for not having more control over the person he was guiding. On security cameras the military had seen me point my camera, they knew the car, they knew who was in it and they were going to make certain that no photo of their building and their gate left their country. “It’s the only border we have,” said Frank, “and it’s a border with the country that’s considered our enemy. Things like this are very important to the military.”
In 1515 Velazquez built the village that 70 years later would become Havana. Understanding the city’s strategic importance, the Spanish fortified it well.
We visited several of the city’s forts including Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabana, the largest fort in the Americas, built by the Spanish between 1763 and 1774 because of British pirates. It’s currently run by the Cuban army, which uses it for training, and it features the 12 apostles, huge cannons guarding the south.
Spain massacred or enslaved the natives and eventually brought slaves from Africa and Asia. A revered figure in Cuban history is Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who in 1868 declared war on Spain by freeing his slaves: 37 other slave owners followed, starting a civil war that lasted ten years. That war for independence failed, but slavery was abolished in 1886.
We visited the town of Bayamo, historically significant as the home of Carlos Manuel de Caspedes, who led the first fight for independence and took the town from the Spanish in 1868, the first city to fall. He was named the first president of the republic but was ousted in 1873, and that same year he was assassinated by Spanish soldiers while teaching school in the countryside. Bayamo was also where Cuba’s first newspaper – Il Cubano Libra … was published, and where the Cuban National Anthem was written and first performed.
There was a second war for independence that failed in 1879-1881, but in 1898 Cuba finally won its freedom from Spain after a three-year war known as The Necessary War. Jose Marti was the inspiration, the thinker and the fundraiser behind the war, and despite the fact he died in its first battle he is a huge hero in Cuba, with a statue in almost every town we visited; the airport in Havana bears his name. He also created the Cuban Revolutionary Party … in Key West!
We visited a synagogue in Havana that featured a small but impactful Holocaust Museum and a memorable quote from Marti: “Mankind is composed of two kinds of men – those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy.”
Also in 1898 the USS Maine, anchored in Havana harbor, mysteriously exploded and sank, and America blamed Spain, starting the Spanish-American War and turning Cuba into a U.S. republic. In 1902 the U.S. turned control over to an elected government, marking Cuba’s independence.
Between 1902 and 1934 U.S. companies controlled most of Cuba’s sugar plantations, banking and other industries. America controlled many economies in Latin America, resulting in a number of revolutions, and the U.S. feared a revolution in Cuba might result in a Communist regime.
In the 1930s there was a three-person leadership team in Cuba that included the American ambassador and, as head of the army, General Fulgencio Batista. Fearing that a young lawyer named Fidel Castro might win an election scheduled in 1952, Batista took control of Cuba in a coup. He was a ruthless assassin with close ties to U.S. organized crime, which ran gambling and prostitution in Cuba. His police force was brutal, and resisters were beaten or killed, but he was good for American business and thus supported by the U.S. government.
In July ’53 Castro and small group of supporters attacked the Moncada barracks housing Batista’s soldiers in Santiago de Cuba. He was caught and sentenced to 15 years in jail, but the effort helped turn him into a romantic figure with the Cuban people.
Because of urging from America and a desire to appear benevolent, Batista released Castro after two years and exiled him to Mexico. There, he and his brother Raul met Che Guevara, and they started planning the revolution. In 1956 the three of them and some 80 others boarded a boat called Granma for an alleged fishing trip, and after eight days – and the loss of one man overboard – they arrived in Santiago de Cuba, and headed for the Sierra Maestra Mountains. In May 1958 they began the revolution with a series of attacks, which encouraged many of Batista’s followers to desert. At the end of the year Batista fled to the Bahamas and then the Dominican Republic, and in January ‘59 Castro entered Havana triumphant.
There is likely no more compelling figure in Cuban history than an Argentinian doctor named Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In Cuba his image is everywhere: on t-shirts and billboards, buildings and hillsides. In the Mexico City airport, before boarding my flight to Havana, I saw a little kid, less than two years old, sucking on a pacifier and wearing a t-shirt with Che’s likeness and his iconic statement: Hasta la Victoria Siempre … Forward to Victory Always.
A successful and wealthy doctor from Buenos Aires, Che’s Marxist tendencies developed from the suffering he saw throughout South America, which he blamed on capitalism. In 1953 Che and his friend Alberto Granados drove motorcycles north through South and Central America to Mexico, where he met Raul and Fidel Castro. He immediately joined their revolutionary effort and snuck back into Cuba with them in 1956. For two years they hid out at their rebel headquarters in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, recruiting, training and planning the revolution. Che became Fidel’s second-in-command and at the age of 31 he led the final victory of the revolution, capturing the city of Santa Clara on December 31, 1958. The following week Fidel Castro entered Havana as the triumphant leader of the revolution.
Che is honored in Santa Clara, where the mausoleum containing his remains and a museum dominate a large plaza. We made the drive over the mountains from Trinidad to see it and since you can’t take photos inside, I left the camera in the car. Prior to entering Frank was asked where I was from, and he told them.
The museum contains many photos and artifacts, including Che’s trademark beret with the gold star, his medical school graduation diploma, even a picture of him with a golf club. I started making some notes on my iPhone, and 20 seconds later a guard came up to me and politely asked me to put the phone away. I explained I was not taking pictures, just notes. Frank translated her response. “She says it doesn’t matter, security people told her to stop you,” he said. I looked at the ceiling, and it was covered with the small camera bubbles that you see in casinos.
After the revolution Che stayed in Cuba and trained the forces that defeated the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, and he eventually became president of Cuba’s National Bank. But in 1965 he left to look for revolutions elsewhere, and two years later he was killed in Bolivia by army forces with support from the CIA. I haven’t verified this but Frank told me that the CIA guy whose group killed Che and his small band in Bolivia went public with it 30 years after it happened, identifying the location of the bodies. Cuba then got permission to excavate the site and test the remains, and they are all now buried in the mausoleum in Santa Clara, identified by ceramic likenesses and their nicknames … Willie, Coco, Che. The mausoleum is an oddly moving place, dark and a bit ominous with the vigilant guards, casually but beautifully presented.
Following the revolution, Cuba adopted the Soviet model: equality without materialism. Castro immediately starting making good on his many promises, generating trust with the people. He had promised, for example, to eliminate illiteracy, so he marshaled a volunteer force of 100,000 students to go out into the country and teach. Today Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8%.
Suddenly the poorest, most rural people had food, clothes and education. This coincided with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a super power, putting Cuba in a position of strength and making for a lot of discomfort in Washington D.C. So the CIA began recruiting Cuban exiles and developing a plan to invade Cuba, hoping to spark a rebellion. The paramilitary group Brigade 2506 from Mexico left from Guatemala to an area on the southern coast of Cuba called La Bahia de Cochinos, which was selected because the people were poor and supposedly susceptible to recruitment, and it was also close to both the mountains where Batista supporters lived and to Havana. The Bay of Pigs invasion began on April 15, 1961, and it was over in three days, Castro’s strength and reputation having grown exponentially.
On the way to the Bay of Pigs we went through a town called Australia, where Castro had his headquarters for the 72-hour battle in a sugar factory. After the Bay of Pigs the local towns were named for heroes of the battle or for countries that supported the revolution. Monuments by the side of the road honored those who died in the battle. As we got closer a billboard read: “The mercenaries got only to this point.” There were two points of battle: Playa Larga (Long Beach), which is now a prosperous beach and tourist town, and Playa Giron.
In October 1962, the attention of the world was focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the possibility of a conflict with the Soviet Union terrifying to contemplate. Once that was over the U.S. focused on completing the embargo of Cuba, what Cubans call the “bloque”, the blockade; it has been going on for 51 years and Cubans believe it is the cause of all their economic woes.
“All most Cubans want to see right now is a dialogue,” Armando told me, “but they don’t believe it will happen because of politics. The American government pays millions of dollars to Cuban-Americans to undermine the Cuban government and try to force regime change. Maybe they smuggle in a few laptops to dissidents but mostly it goes into their pocket. They don’t want to lose that revenue stream.” Cubans are extremely suspicious of the Marco Rubios of the world, whose angry rhetoric toward the Cuban government is confusing to the average citizen.
When the Soviet Union was strong everything worked passably; the people of Cuba were relatively happy because they had enough to live on and didn’t know any better. But in the early 1990s the fall of the Soviet Union eliminated Cuba’s lifeline and created such economic turmoil that Cuba had to open itself up to non-American tourism. Cubans begin to learn what they were missing. And very, very slowly, things began to loosen up.
Today, Raul Castro has taken the reins because of Fidel’s declining health, and he’s announced that in 2018 he will step down, and that no successor will be able to stay in office longer than ten years. . No one seems sure of what exactly what will happen when there is no Castro in charge for the first time in 59 years, but everyone hopes for greater freedom and economic opportunity.
The Cuban people acknowledge that, for the most part, they don’t work very hard and are unmotivated. Before the revolution, under capitalism, it was different, and that’s what Communism does; it sucks the energy and creative spirit out of people who would otherwise be expressing themselves in the arts, in business, whatever. What’s the good of having a literacy rate of 99.8% when the people can’t use their intelligence and education to build something, to better their lives?
Raul Castro has made some subtle changes, most significantly by expanding the private sector, allowing more than half a million people with licenses to start small businesses and offering bank loans to entrepreneurs. He was quoted as saying that “we have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working.” And he stated he would step down in 2018.
“So, what happens then?” I asked Armando. “He’ll just be replaced by some guy he hand picks. I already saw the guy named somewhere.”
“Miguel Diaz-Canell. I wouldn’t vote for that guy, ever,” Armando said.
“Vote? You think there will be a vote?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t want that guy. You talk to anyone who is interested in politics, they wouldn’t want him.”
“So who would be your choice?” I asked him.
“The city historian in Havana. He’s smart, humble; he walks among the people. Diaz has four bodyguards! Why? Who is he to need bodyguards? Also, there is a guy in Santiago de Cuba, like a mayor; he’s a good man, I would prefer him.”
“Do you hear what you are saying?” I asked. “You’re saying that you want a choice. You want a democratic process.” He didn’t disagree.
Observations From the Road
Frank, Deivy and I drove east from Havana for a week with stops in many towns of historic importance. From one end of Cuba to the other I saw very little poverty, at least compared to so many other places I have been. Even the humblest of rural homes is clean, with enough manicured landscaping to affirm the pride of the people who live there.
“The money is distributed, so everyone has something,” said Frank. “The richest people in Cuba only have four or five million dollars, and most of them are artists. Cuban art is in demand by outside collectors. I saw one artist sell two paintings and a sculpture for $80,000 to an American collector, right in front of my nose! Can you believe that? That is more than a surgeon here makes in a lifetime.”
Frank is an intelligent and knowledgeable young man of 29 who speaks four languages (Italian and Portuguese along with English and Spanish), but he has never been outside of Cuba. I asked he would like to go to the States. “It will never happen. I’m not married, I own no property in Cuba, I am just the kind of person the U.S. government would fear would visit America and never leave. Many have done that, and some haven’t been the best people.”
He told me there are three ways for a Cuban to get to the U.S. One, you can pay $10,000 in Cuba and have a relative or friend pay another 10K in America to get a fast boat to the Florida keys. Two, you can sign a work contract in Mexico and then pay the “coyotes” to take you across the border. Also about 20K, but riskier. Three, you can become a Spanish citizen. In 2005 Spain started cracking down on immigration but if you can prove you are no more than three generations removed from your Spanish heritage you can become Spanish citizen and then go to U.S., and then become American citizen in one year. According to Frank the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act said that if you arrived form Cuba with “dry feet” the U.S helps you get a job, a car, an apartment to rent.
You see fewer and fewer cars in the interior, and I was surprised that throughout Cuba there are so few motorcycles; you would think the inexpensive Chinese motorbikes that are so prevalent in Africa and Asia would be a big hit here, but that’s not the case. People travel in rickety old Chinese buses, or they stand by the side of the road holding out a fistful of pesos, hoping a truck driver will pick them up and take them to the next town. Attractive women, of course, get priority treatment.
The roads are spotty, but not as bad as I was led to believe. Early in the cross-country trip we were cruising along a great six-lane highway when our side of the median abruptly ended and we crossed to the other side, where there was now two-way traffic in the outer lanes and the middle lane was reserved for whomever dared to pass. A large sign on the side of the road urged caution by trumpeting the number of deaths on that road so far this year.
“Let me guess,” I said to Frank. “This highway was under construction when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the money ran out.”
“Exactly,” he said.
It’s a little hairy on the two-lane roads. Trucks, buses and a few cars are zipping along at 60 miles per hour, sharing the road with bicycles and many horse-drawn carriages; passing is definitely a creative art.
There are hundreds of billboards throughout Cuba, but none of them advertise a product or a service; they all, in one way or another, promote the ideology. The first one I saw coming in from the Havana airport said: Thank you Che, for your example. There are five Cubans in U.S. jails for alleged espionage in America and many billboards demand their release. Che’s famous quote from his final letter to Fidel Castro – Hasta la Victoria Siempre – is a favorite, as is something Castro said during the Bay of Pigs: Patria o Muerta. Homeland or Death. I asked Frank the purpose of all this propaganda. “Truthfully,” he said, “I have no idea.” At first the billboards were an interesting curiosity, but they became tiresome.
One afternoon we visited a resort area called Varadero, a peninsula of land with the ocean is on both sides with prime real estate in the middle. It gets 2.5 million visitors a year and sports 58 hotels (more than the rest of Cuba combined), four marinas and even one golf course. The beaches are wide and beautiful, the water topaz blue; easily drivable from Havana, it’s a prime area for big-time development.
I needed to get a piece of travel information from Gmail, so in the town of Camaguey Frank and I stopped at a rare establishment offering Internet access. I didn’t have my passport with me and was not allowed to use a computer; they needed to enter me into a database and track my usage. Cubans were not allowed to use the place at all, just foreigners. Frank also told me that at home he had tried to access my blog, but it was unavailable. “Certain words, even words like ‘travel’, will trigger the block,” he said. Ruffinontheroad, banned in Cuba. Cool.
Our final stop was Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city and one with a great deal of history. Sadly, there was evidence everywhere of the devastation caused by hurricane Sandy last year before it hit the northeast United States. Homes along the water were being rebuilt, roofs everywhere in need of repair, marble statues in the local cemetery in pieces. “After the storm it looked like Godzilla came through here,” Frank told me. We saw four or five key historic sites in town, most memorably the Moncada Barracks, where they have preserved the bullet holes on the façade from July 26, 1953, when Fidel Castro and a small band attacked several thousand of Batista’s soldiers, with predictable results.
* * * * * * *
And now I’m back for one final night in Havana, drinking a glass of twenty-two year old rum, smoking a Monte Cristo cigar, banging out these final words and trying to channel Papa Hemingway in his house on the hill. And tomorrow morning the sun will also rise and I will fly to Panama, with the bittersweet knowledge that I am just two weeks away from home.