My wife Nancy and I visited Cuba March 23-29, 2017. Our trip was our 8th tour with Tauck, a company based in Connecticut. The tour began in Miami, where we got acquainted and learned the basic logistics. A Tauck staff member guided us through filling out forms we would need. Later, our tour director, Ronny, would walk us through entering Cuba and then returning to the US. It was basically the same as a trip to any other country.
The US does not allow its citizens to go to Cuba as tourists. It must be for cultural and/or educational purposes. This was a “people to people” experience. It truly was, though every Tauck tour we’ve taken anywhere has been an educational and cultural experience. To the Cuban government, we were tourists, though the element of people meeting people and our learning about Cuba was important. We did have to have a local guide, employed by Havana Tours, a government-owned company. This was a plus. She was great. She often works with Ronny, and they are good friends. The bus driver also was a government employee; also a great guy and a good friend of Ronny. The bus, made in China, was a very recent model.
We stayed in Havana and took day trips. Information we received before the tour listed a number of restrictions about photographs. When we got there, we learned that the only thing we could not photograph was the inside of the cigar factory we visited and that was for proprietary reasons, not government censorship.
Our hotel, the Melia Habana, is owned 51/49 by the Cuban government and the Melia corp of Spain. I think this is standard. It is a modern, luxury hotel. There were other similar ones, and more under construction.
Shortly after we checked in, we were walking around outside, and a local resident struck up a conversation. He asked that we not judge the Cuban people by their government. I promised I would and asked him to do the same for American people. Walking around, btw, is permitted and safe.
Our local guide went to college to be an English teacher. I suspect she makes more money as a guide. Tourism provides some of the best jobs. Most wages are low, but most people at least seem to get by. Health care and college are both free. She told us there has been more change in Cuba in the past 5-7 years than for 50 years before that.
In the past, everyone was employed by the government. One thing that has changed is that there now are more than 200 occupations in which individuals have the option of buying a license from the government to own their own business. Raul Castro has loosened restrictions on individual freedom since assuming the presidency from Fidel. (I always heard both referred to by their first names.) Previously, while individuals could own their homes, they could sell them only to the government. (People still circumvented this by “swapping,” which was allowed, and paying the difference under the table.) Now, people can sell their homes (openly) to each other. Raul also eased travel restrictions on Cuban citizens.
Most of Cuba’s food is imported. They don’t grow a lot of different vegetables, and you don’t see a lot of farm animals. We were told that if you order chicken in a restaurant, it might be Tyson or Perdue. There are programs under way to make more land available to those who would farm it. We did visit and eat at an organic farm on land provided by the government. They grow a large variety of vegetables, which they fed us along with a fresh roasted hog, plus several other meats.
We started learning about Cuba, as well as beginning our sight-seeing, on the trip from the airport. This included a stop at Revolution Square. There we saw tributes to Jose Marti, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It was also our first up-close-and-personal with vintage U.S. cars, mostly from the ’50s.
Havana is like a classic car museum. It’s a testament to the industriousness and ingenuity of the Cuban people. They find something and make it work. Not only parts from other cars (a lot of these cars have diesel engines from Japan and elsewhere), but other sources — washing machines, what-have-you. Ronny commented, “Cubans aren’t mechanics. They are magicians.”
Our tour director told us not to drink any water other than from sealed bottles, and even to use bottled water for brushing our teeth. The problem, he said, is not the water, but the plumbing. In the rural areas, the water is fine. He said Tauck and the hotel would keep us supplied with bottled water, which they did. He encouraged us to bring all empties to the bus. The driver gives them to someone who recycles them.
Our first meal in Cuba was pizza for lunch at the Italian-style restaurant in the hotel. That night, Nancy and I went to the Asian-style restaurant there. Nancy had pork fried rice, and I had sweet and sour pork. Much of the time, though, we did have Cuban food, often at a paladar, a privately-owned restaurant. They are called paladars, because that was the name of a restaurant in a popular soap opera some years ago. Cuban food is rich but not spicy.
Yes, Cubans do watch TV. Pretty much every family has a TV. Yes, the government controls content. But there is political satire and, for the past few years, U.S. baseball games. Yes, many love cheesy soap operas.
On our second day, the first full day, in Cuba, we got to visit with Habana Compass Dance. This is a professional troop, whose members majored in dance in college. They also run programs for kids. Their home is in a previously abandoned building they fixed up. They performed several numbers for us.
Next we visited the Museum of the Revolution, in what had been the Presidential Palace until Batista was overthrown. We learned that the first attempted coup was in 1957 when a small group of students stormed the palace. We saw many of the bullet holes left from that event. Batista escaped to the roof, and all the students were killed, either at the scene or a short time later.
After lunch, we had a walking tour of Old Havana, a UNESCO site, led by an architect. Then, back at the hotel, we heard a pithy talk by an economist. Some of what I retained is scattered throughout this document, and we heard a lot about the economy throughout the trip. The U.S. embargo definitely affects the Cuban economy, but there is a growing understanding that there are other factors as well. Another problem is that for years, the Soviet Union was a great benefactor. So when the Iron Curtain fell, that aid came to a sudden stop.
The speaker is published and has lectured in a number of countries, including the US. As an aside, he told us about being with some French colleagues when some news item about the Kardashians came up. He told them that these people in no way were representative of the American people.
We had another speaker the next morning, former baseball great Rolando Macias, a national hero. As he waited in the lobby with our guides before going to the conference room, hotel staff members came up to greet him. Through an interpreter, he told us of his life and career. In 1958, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a contract. He was young and didn’t want to leave his mother and grandmother. He was also illiterate at the time, yet intelligent enough to realize that he should avoid a contractual situation he might not understand.
A right-handed pitcher, he continued to rise in Cuba’s baseball system. Twice after the revolution, he was offered the chance to defect and play MLB in the US. But by then he was well-established in Cuba as a player and as a family man. While playing baseball, he not only moved beyond illiteracy, he earned his college degree. His wife and daughter are physical therapists. His granddaughter is a professional pianist.
Afterward, we went to a field where some 11- and 12-year-old boys were practicing baseball. We got to interact with them and learn about the baseball system, which is pretty much like ours. There also are sports leagues for girls. Elsewhere on this large field, there were pick-up games of both baseball and soccer. It is the site of a free concert given by the Rolling Stones a year ago.
Next we went to Arte Chef for a cooking demo. A cooking show for TV is produced there. Our instruction included how to make a mojito.
After lunch, we went to the San Jose Craft Market. The three-block long warehouse by the water was filled with a variety of vendors, including artists. Nancy and I bought a small original painting from a local artist, something we like to do when traveling.
The following day, we traveled 120 km from Havana to tobacco country. We saw the whole cigar process: A farm where tobacco is grown and cured, a facility where it is fermented, and a factory where cigars are rolled. Our lunch that day — nothing short of a feast — was at an organic farm.
Our last full day began with a visit to the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world and renowned for its elaborate memorial architecture. There is a Catholic Church on the grounds where masses are often held for those being buried. No requirement to be Catholic.
We learned that the church was never officially banned in Cuba, but for years after the revolution, many people were hesitant to attend. Also, one could not be a member of the Communist party if a church member. And young people were encouraged to join the party. These days, church attendance is up.
Then it was on to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home from 1939-1960. He bought it with some of the money he received for the movie rights to “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
To see the home, as it was when Hemingway lived and wrote there, one walks around the outside, looking in the windows. We saw his 9,000-volume library, the typewriter he used to write some of his greatest works and “Pilar” the boat on which he gathered intelligence about German boats in the area, while appearing merely to be fishing.
Hemingway left the house and furnishings to the Cuban government, which now runs it as a museum.
In the afternoon we visited La Casa del nino y nina, a before- and after-school program for children. The project, supported by UNICEF, focuses on children’s rights through love and nurturing. Each child introduced her- or himself, giving us name, age, career goal and a right that children deserve.
Education in Cuba begins with day care at age 1. It begins then because mothers get one year of maternity leave.
School is required through the 8th grade. At that point, the student may go on to “pre-university” or enter a trade school. At the end of pre-university, which goes through 12th grade, students take a test with three parts: history, math and Spanish language. There are 67 universities, each with its own focus. Students can list, in priority order, up to 10 personal preferences for university study. The higher they score on the test, the better their chance of getting a higher preference. They are required to study English from 3rd grade through university.
We were promised a “farewell surprise” on the last night. We’d heard there were two surprises, and that proved to be true. As the bus was pulling away from the hotel to take us to the promised surprise, the engine stopped. The driver got it going, but it stopped again in the road in front of the hotel. “We have a problem,” he said. Our Tauck tour director and local guide seemed worried and briefly discussed putting us all in the some of new taxis parked in front of the hotel.
The driver got the bus started and drove slowly into the parking lot across the street from the hotel. Then Ronny, our Tauck guy, smiled and said, these seven convertibles are here to take you to our next event. We hadn’t paid attention to the vintage cars parked nearby, because they are everywhere. But these were waiting for us. Then Ronny added: “We are good actors.” The whole bus problem had been a ruse.
The cars took us to the second surprise: A private concert in the Museum of Fine Arts, some miles away. The concert was given by a group of talented, university-trained singers and instrumentalists. Besides the salsa numbers you would expect, we heard other pieces from around the world, including one in French. From the US, they offered “Summer Time” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
We had wanted to go to Cuba a year earlier, but by the time we came to that decision, the tours were all full. We signed up for this one as soon as it became available. We wanted to go to see firsthand a place we’d only heard about, and we wanted to go before it became a tourist attraction.
That first night, in Miami, in the get-acquainted session, each participant was asked to share why he or she chose to go on this tour. The answers were all consistent with ours.