What we found and what we missed in Cuba

We just got back from a few days in Cuba, and here’s what we found and what we missed.

What we found in Cuba:

· Music. Seductive, joyous, uplifting African/Caribbean rhythms as constant and enticing as the tradewinds. Depending on the time of day and the situation, cha-chas, balleros, and tan-tans can either be ambient music or can seize total control, making it completely impossible not to swing your hips and sway to the music. It is a total joy, genuinely rooted in Cuba, and that alone is worth the trip.

· The cars. Enormous American cars from the 1950’s, painted in bright tropical colors, cruising the streets. There is a total car culture in Cuba and a very well-defined hierarchy to go with it. Nearly every vehicle is available for hire, and the price is directly proportional to its size and state of repair. We quickly learned to look past the taxi lines for old, tiny Russian or Chinese cars to squeeze into for nearly half the price of the state-run yellow cabs (primarily MG’s, Renaults and Kias in excellent condition) or classic American cars.

But like everything in Cuba, these classic cars are fragile and come with a cost. The big old gas engines have been replaced with rough-running diesels (often Japanese). Everything about these classic treasures is one big bump away from disintegrating, so they are driven incredibly gingerly. From applying the absolute minimum amount of pressure to close the doors, to accelerating softly and shifting quickly to avoid strain on the engines, to slowing to a crawl not just for potholes but even for little dips in the road that an American driver wouldn’t notice, driving one of these beasts is real work. It turns every trip into a minor ordeal and doubles the amount of time it takes. Plus, wherever you drive, you do it amid an obvious haze of diesel fumes and unburned hydrocarbons. But having said all of that, they are damn cool. Damn cool.

· Unexpected heroes. Yes, there is a fondness for Fidel and an appreciation of Che, but the real hero of the Cuban people is José Martí, a Cuban poet and prolific political writer who lived for just 42 years in the last half of the 19th Century. His extensive writings captured and expressed the unique Cuban culture and became the intellectual inspiration for Cubans to reject foreign control (be it Spanish, American, or any other invader) and to strive to be a part of the Spanish-language Americas. While there are state-sponsored billboards honoring Fidel and Che, if a local citizen has a shrine in his or her yard (not an uncommon sight), it is a bust of José Martí.

Indeed, Cubans have a soft spot in their hearts for all sorts of revolutionaries from all corners of the globe. Oddly enough, they count Abraham Lincoln among them.

· Beautiful, healthy people. The first thing you notice (okay, the first thing I noticed) when you land at José Martí Airport are the remarkably beautiful young women in Army uniforms with skirts shorter than anything you can remember from the ‘70’s. In general, the skirts in Cuba are short and the clothing is tight. Really tight. And despite the obvious poverty, a goodly percentage of the population is a bit zoftig. They also have good minds. Virtually everyone is at least literate, and those who have the potential and drive can get as much education as they want, domestic or foreign, at no cost. They may have to share an apartment with their parents and grandparents for their entire lives, but they’re educated.

· Good rum.

· Great cigars.

· Baseball. We tried to catch a game, but it was the draft for the national team, so no one was playing.

What was missing in Cuba:

· Merchandise of any sort, along with the stores to sell it and advertising to promote it. The absence of stores is really striking. Even in the nicer neighborhoods, the few stores we saw were generally small bodegas stocked with a limited selection of not-very-attractive fruit and vegetables. Gas stations often don’t have gas, but they do have convenience stores with lots and lots of empty shelves. The only bakery we saw was a government store that distributes one roll of white bread for each member of the family each day in exchange for government vouchers. On the other hand, there seems to be lots of chicken, pork, seafood and beef in the tourist restaurants, but I have no idea where people manage to acquire it.

Just as striking as the absence of stores is the absence of any advertising. The very few billboards that are up are all political messages. When you’ve got nothing to sell, you don’t need to advertise your wares.

It’s telling that the guide we hired asked not to be paid in cash, but in merchandise. He sent his clothing size, and we filled a small suitcase with clothing and toiletries from Costco. He was delighted. I’m sure he’ll keep some for himself, share some with his family, and either barter or sell the rest.

· Infrastructure. Everything in Havana looks like it needs to be power washed, but very few of the buildings could withstand the force of a power washer without disintegrating. There are “highways” ringing and crossing the island with two lanes in each direction and relatively limited access. But there are horse carts and hawkers on the shoulders, and the cars are so fragile that traffic can’t travel at highway speeds. The one exception is trucks that carry shipping containers. Since virtually everything on the island comes there by ship, the trucks are new, powerful, and well-maintained. In our world, cars zip by and are slowed by trucks; in Cuba, the opposite is true.

There is electricity everywhere, but it’s not reliable anywhere. When we first arrived at the airport, we needed to exchange currency. We stood in a long line that didn’t move for 20 minutes at a time, because each time there was a blip in the power, the computers would crash and would have to be brought back online. It happened three times just while we were there, and again when we returned to the airport to leave the country.

· Good public transportation. One would expect this would be a priority for the Cuban government, and it probably is, but they just can’t deliver. There are long articulated buses that travel the main thoroughfares and that you can board for about a nickel, but they don’t come nearly often enough. There are huge lines for buses everywhere, and there is a whole industry of gypsy cabs -usually big old American cars in lousy repair and without the cool paint jobs and bodywork- that pick up and drop off people as they make their way up and down the avenues.

· Easy Internet/information access. Trying to get a decent connection to the internet -even in an upscale hotel- is cumbersome and highly unreliable. Our 30-something guide who is a college professor gets access to email at work. In an easing of restrictions, he is allowed to access a huge dump of articles from various Western magazines and newspapers once a week in PDF form. So he is able to read The New Yorker, for example, one article at a time.

People do have cell phones, which they use for text and voice. There are still lots of public pay phones around and they are generally in good repair. If they weren’t used, they’d be vandalized, so they must be serving an important purpose.

I’m less sure about radio and television. We had cable TV in our hotel rooms that included Spanish, English, French and Russian programming, including CNN International in English. But I doubt that many people have TV’s at all, no less cable or satellite.

There must be newspapers, but we didn’t see any, foreign or domestic. I can’t think of a single time I saw someone reading a newspaper. And considering how much time people spend in lines and waiting around, this is even more odd.

During the one day we traveled across the Cuban countryside to Viñales, we frequently saw horses, cows, bulls and goats tied up to graze along the roadside. I noticed that often, the animal stretches the rope as far as it will go, even if there is prime grazing closer to the peg that anchors the rope; but not so far that the peg comes loose. It struck me as a metaphor for the Cuban people who are looking forward to the retirement of Raoul this Spring with hope, stretching the rope but not quite breaking free. We wish them luck.

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