In the past, once a year I deviate from my usual Community & Clubs column for the Thanksgiving Turkey of the Year column and with this column, I will deviate again.
A trip to Cuba
I was among a group of 65 who flew on a charter flight from Los Angeles International Airport direct to Havana, Cuba, for an eight-day People to People mission sponsored by the Palm Desert Area Chamber of Commerce for which my wife, Barbara, serves as the chief executive.
Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands and has a population of 11.4 million with a birth rate of 1.4 per family. The weather while we were there was in the 90s in the day time with 85% to 90% humidity daily. The temperature would drop after the daily rain and was usually in the 70s in the early morning. The splendor of mountain and coastal regions stood out along with the lush green landscapes and farmland and Spanish architecture in the cities we visited.
Cuba is untouched by commercialism. There are no McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Starbucks. The only billboards extol the virtues of socialism and celebrate the long past revolution and its heroes.
Cuba appears to be frozen in the 1950s with American cars like Chevies, Fords, Plymouths, Studebaker, Nash, etc. from 1959 or before dotting the roads. Most are in great shape and would be valuable collector items in the U.S., but are work vehicles for Cubans. Newer cars (1990s) are from Russia and in need of repair. If you don't have a car, the method of transportation would be oxen drawn carts, scooters, cargo vans, buses, truck buses or by foot. There are a lot of people waiting for a ride along all roads. Locals can make some money if they pick up a person or two who is willing to pay to get their destination.
We started and ended our trip in Havana, staying at former Hilton Hotel that was due to open in 1959, months before the revolution. Havana is a city stuck in 1959. Few building were built after the revolution, and few have been renovated. We spent two nights at an all-inclusive beach front resort built in the 1990s along a 10-mile stretch of a white sandy beach with newer resorts in both directions. Canadians and Europeans are regular visitors to the resorts beginning in November through April.
Among the many opportunities to learn about Cuba's history and culture, and to interact with her people, included visits to Old Havana, Presidential Palace, Bocoy Rum Factory, a fascinating cemetery, National Museum of Fine Arts, the Che Guevara Memorial and Museum, cigar factory and sugar plantation, a printing house, central plaza in Remedios, Cuban Literacy Museum, a tobacco farm and Ernest Hemingway's home. We enjoyed musical performance by a student orchestra (to which we presented school supplies) and salsa dancing at a seniors center.
Erick, our tour guide said the goal of the revolution was to get everyone equal. No more upper or middle class. The 1.1-million-strong middle and upper classes fled to Miami after the revolution when Fidel Castro nationalized all businesses and property. Cuba is left with one class, the poor.
Erick was a high school English teacher in Cuba for three years. His monthly salary was $30. He notes that Cubans do not live on their salary. They get subsidized housing, electricity, free medical and dental, and a monthly food rationing card that provides rice, beans, one cup of cooking oil and a quarter of a chicken every 15 days. If you want veggies or fruit you go to a farmers market and buy them. There are no fat dogs in Cuba!
Barbara and I visited a "department store" and found a 24-cubic-foot Frigidaire refrigerator for sale at $2,800 compared to a price in the U.S. of $1,200.
Unemployment is "officially" 3.6% but is actually about 30%. Lots of idle hands, but not a lot of crime. The Cubans we met seemed happy. While a Cuban might have a computer, they don't have Internet access. While they may have a TV, they only receive four channels, two of which celebrate the revolution and two are Cuban generated programs. There is no news for Cubans from the outside world, especially the U.S. and vise versa. For example, Cuba says they have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection that 20+ other countries are using to prevent the spread of AIDS. At the hotels, visitors to the country have access to the Internet and watch 30 plus channels including CNN, BBC, CBC and ESPN.
When Raul Castro became president of Cuba several years ago, he legalized 125 professions such as restaurateur, watch repairer, shoe repairer, etc. If you are in one of those professions, you pay 65% of your gross income to the Cuban government each month. Raul Castro is allowing people to buy and own property once again. The U.S. government is allowing Americans to visit Cuba on People to People, cultural and educational missions, but not as tourists.
The hope that many Cubans have is that things will change after the Castro brothers are gone. As Erick said, the United States and Cuba need each other for trade, medicine and tourism. There will be a new day coming in Cuba in just a few years from now.
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