Thawing Relations with Cuba Makes Sense

The embargo succeeded at impoverishing people and letting infrastructure deteriorate, but not at regime change

Havana’s Plaza Vieja

The buildings in Havana’s Plaza Vieja were beautifully restored … except for those that weren’t. Old Havana’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site meant that restoration of the other buildings in the square was underway or coming soon. Less than a block from the historic square, though, façades were crumbling or worse. We could see people and possessions inside through missing walls.

We never planned to go to Cuba, but when the chance arose to travel as part of a “religious mission” with my husband’s synagogue choir, we knew it was an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up. Preparation for our January 2014 trip included lots of instructions. Money: US credit cards don’t work, so bring enough cash to exchange for CUCs (pronounced somewhere between “cook” and “kook,” one CUC is worth about a dollar), Cuba’s currency for tourists. Digestive safety: don’t drink the water, don’t even brush your teeth with it. US rules for Americans going to Cuba: one-quarter of your luggage by weight must be humanitarian aid to leave behind; no souvenirs except “folk art”; every day must include at least one activity related to our “mission.” We were told to expect the food to be mediocre, at best, and to bring snacks, any medications we could possibly need, and toilet paper or wet wipes.

Despite all that, we didn’t know what to expect. But by the time we left Havana, we were convinced that normalization with the US wouldn’t be too far in the future, perhaps five years out, maybe 10 at the most. We’re stunned at how quickly change has come; I thought Fidel Castro (and maybe Raul) would have to die before things thawed. But we are certain that President Obama is on the right path. Fifty-five years of embargo haven’t overthrown the Cuban government, but they have left the Cuban people painfully poor and the country’s infrastructure destroyed.

“I’ll be watching you”

Looking out the airplane window at Havana’s José Martí International Airport piqued one of our fears. Armed soldiers lined the tarmac. The entry process did nothing to alleviate those fears as each traveler proceeded alone into an enclosed cubicle. A uniformed agent asked my name, but said nothing more. He spent a long time reviewing my passport. Eventually, he signaled me to stand against the wall and my picture was taken. He signaled me to exit. As I walked out, I was surprised to find myself headed into a security checkpoint, with a metal detector for me and a scanner for my carry-on.

That was just about our last encounter with the security state until we returned to the airport to go home. We saw a few uniformed military in and around Havana, but most were guards at government sites.

We didn’t know whether we’d be followed everywhere or whether we’d be allowed to go off on our own without our guide. If we were followed, we never had any hint of it. Our guide, Gretell, seemed truly puzzled when we asked if we were free to wander. “Of course,” she said. And when we and several others didn’t want to visit the Camera Obscura at one corner of the Plaza Vieja, she simply told us to return in 45 minutes.

Waves break along the Malecón

So we walked and walked and walked throughout our stay. We walked along the Malecón, Havana’s waterfront esplanade. We spent our free afternoon wandering in Old Havana. When we could, we walked to dinner or back to the hotel rather than ride the bus. Walking let us see more of the city and its people, who seemed to welcome us with open arms.

Contradictions everywhere

The difference between the Plaza Vieja and the surrounding buildings wasn’t unusual. We were convinced that a significant proportion of the housing in Old Havana and other neighborhoods would be condemned in the US. Here and there, we’d encounter an elegant colonial-style home showing recent restoration. In other areas, the proportion of decent housing to ruins was much better, but every neighborhood had houses that looked like they’d fall down in a strong breeze.

Pharmacy in one of Havana’s synagogues, stocked by donations from abroad

We heard about the strong Cuban health care system; in fact, both of Gretell’s parents were doctors, so she was able to give us a detailed description of medical training and practice. But each of Havana’s three synagogues maintains a pharmacy stocked with donations brought by visitors from around the world. We heard that once a drug has been prescribed, it can take weeks or months to get it from a government pharmacy. So the synagogues (and, we presume, churches) run their own.

Every Cuban works for the government and in 2014, earned the equivalent of $20 a month, from doctors and accountants and tour guides to the old men using machetes to cut grass by the side of the highway to the women at tourist destinations in elaborate costumes clenching cigars between their brightly-painted lips who kiss male tourists and get tipped to have their picture taken.

But in practice, tour guides and cabbies and those women make a lot more money than accountants and lawyers, because they’re tipped by the tourists. We estimated that Gretell earned about 500 CUCs in tips for her week with our group.

Tipped workers aren’t the only ones with an alternate income source. Gretell told us repeatedly about Cuba’s “chief export,” professionals. Doctors and engineers are sent to the developing world, where they earn money for themselves and the country. My husband spoke with a cardiologist who had recently returned from two years in Dubai. She earned thousands of dollars a month for Cuba and got to keep a significant percentage. To ensure that these professionals return, their families are not allowed to travel with them.

Perhaps my favorite contradiction of all. We visited the Museum of the Revolution (housed in the former Presidential Palace) where Gretell walked us through a multi-room exhibit detailing what she consistently referred to as “the Triumph of the Revolution,” the campaign that led to the overthrow of the Batista government and installed the present government. As we exited that exhibit, we entered — what else — a gift shop, looking like any other museum gift shop, except for the focus of the tchotchkes for sale. Che Guevara t-shirt, anyone?

A crumbling city

The Hotel Nacional

We stayed at the Hotel Nacional, a grand building modeled after The Breakers in Miami. We’d been told it was a five-star hotel, the best in Havana. I have no doubt that in the 1930’s it earned those five stars. But today, though the lobby remains a work of art, the hotel would have trouble netting three stars in the US.

Our room was damp and musty and the curtains were mildewed. Eventually, on the advice of others in our group, we turned off the air conditioning and found the dampness and the musty smell dissipated, but that did nothing for the curtains. The furniture and carpet were filled with dust.

The elevators had a mind of their own. Sometimes, they worked flawlessly and sometimes they did what they chose. Several members of our group were late to the bus one morning because the elevator would go down one floor, then back up, then down two floors, then back up, and so on.

On our first day, I hung my wet swimsuit over the shower rod; the rod fell. It was the pressure type and we tried to put it back up, but the rubber in the ends was so old, it was petrified and crumbling. The shower rod was emblematic of how things work in Cuba. We quickly learned that old things don’t get replaced and, more often than not, broken things don’t get fixed.

We’d been warned in advance not to use public bathrooms, or more accurately, to go into a restaurant or hotel if we needed one. Even in most of those, toilet paper wasn’t waiting in the stall; a tip to the attendant earned us what he or she considered a sufficient quantity. Many of the toilets had no seats; apparently, they get stolen. In almost every bathroom, there was a little trash can for the used toilet paper; the plumbing system isn’t up to having it flushed.

Making it work

We saw and heard about all kinds of ways that Cubans are working within (and, occasionally, outside) the system to make their lives work.

Entrepreneurship is slowly working its way into Cuban consciousness. While the government owns most restaurants, Cuba also allows some private restaurants (called “paladares”). When these were first legalized, they could be located only in private homes, were limited to 12 seats and the only employees were members of the family. In addition, they were prohibited from serving beef, lobster and shrimp. Since Raul Castro became president, those restrictions have been loosened. Most of our best meals in Cuba were in paladares. (Several were truly excellent — “mediocre at best” was quite wrong.)

Gretell also told us about women running small day care centers in their homes to supplement the government kindergartens. In addition, the government issues some private licenses to operate cabs. (Incidentally, those beautifully restored 1950s era US cars common in pictures from Cuba are almost all taxis. There are plenty of newer, non-American, cars on the roads, though few truly new cars.)

One of the most fascinating workarounds involves real estate. Cubans own their homes, but they’re not allowed to sell them. (That would be capitalism.) Thus, a marketplace has emerged for trading homes, complete with agents who help match “buyers” and “sellers.” At least in Havana, the marketplace is physical. People come to one end of Havana’s Paseo de Prado pedestrian park to get matched with someone who has the home they want and someone who wants the home they have. And yes, cash is exchanged to equalize disparities in size and value.

It’s Time

Cuba has been closed to Americans and to American products for more than 55 years. The embargo, introduced in 1960, was intended to convince Cubans that deposing Fidel Castro was a good idea. In the light of the Cold War, fear about a communist country 90 miles from Florida was understandable. But the Cold War ended 25 years ago. In fact, the fall of the Soviet Union led to a huge economic downturn for Cuba, including major food shortages. The average daily consumption in calories per person fell by a third or more.

There’s no question that the Cuban government is still repressive. I believe the Cuban people would be better served by a freely elected government. But the United States’ experience with Vietnam and China has taught us that we can accomplish more with engagement than embargo (and we didn’t lose thousands of lives in Cuba as we did in Vietnam). It’s hard to influence people and governments when you don’t interact with them. The old saying is “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” For Cuba, sugar may be a more fitting choice than honey, but it’s time to try one or the other, to befriend the Cubans and demonstrate the merits of democracy and a free market.