By Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman
We recently spent eight days, our honeymoon in fact, in a country that has no advertising. It also has no traffic jams, no air pollution, civilians are not allowed to own guns, no chain stores, almost no inequality, no drug addicts because anybody who uses drugs is thrown into jail for a year, and almost no crime. We felt safe walking at night in the most poverty-stricken areas of its four major cities.
Culture is flourishing in this country, largely because artists are paid five times more than doctors and professors. Almost every square in the capital is decked with modern sculpture. We bought quality workmanship goods (<not> made in China) at places as varied as a bus stop and a beach. The number one contributor to the struggling economy is the export of professional services. Emerging countries all over the world have its doctors and nurses manning their medical systems.
This country is Cuba. We flew there among a group of 24 on a tour in mid-January. Half our time was in Havana and the other half visiting Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Trinidad – a mix we found just right.
Ironically, one reason Cuba has so many admirable qualities is that this country is so poor. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 he nationalized all companies and prohibited all private enterprise, and the U.S. responded with an embargo. This threw Cuba into an economic sleep, which became an economic coma when the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew subsidies in 1991. One of our speakers remembers the taste of banana peels in his mouth, and his father foraging in the woods for roots and sending him to collect a jar of fireflies to light the house.
The other reason is that Castro — despite his flaws — was fiercely committed to Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens. Cubans hold this belief to this day. One professor at Havana University told us he wanted to “keep Cuba for the Cubans”. He would tolerate a few Starbucks, he said, but no Walmarts, which might throw smaller stores out of business. Cubans want to restore and preserve buildings in Havana, not replace them, and they have made a good start. The challenge for Cuba will be to hang on to its core values as it wakes up and begins to join the world.
When Fidel’s brother Raul took over in 2008, he began to loosen restrictions on private activity. He started by allowing Cubans to have a few guests to eat and sleep in their private houses for a fee. Result: new restaurants (<paladars>) and B&Bs are sprouting like mushrooms all over Cuba. Our exceptionally smart and articulate guide told us that since 2005 the historic city of Trinidad has gone from 250 restaurants to over 2,000.
Cuba guarantees a state job to each citizen, but the jobs do not pay a living wage. Result: highly educated Cubans are flooding into the private sector. Food cost is another area that differs from ours. Our group leader split us into six groups of 4, gave each group 50 Cuban pesos (roughly $2.25) and let us loose in a local market. Our group bought 3 pounds of rice, 2 pounds of taro root, 3 pounds of bananas, 2 pigs’ feet, one tomato, and 2 heads of lettuce.
The bellhop in our hotel was a professor of Engineering at Havana University earning $20 a month — until he left to make real money. Taxi drivers have doctorates. We were privileged to have Professor Azukary as a speaker. He is also a H. U. professor, and a prominent diplomat (he was Cuba’s ambassador to the E. U.) and journalist (he is the founder and editor of the major dissident publication). He happily spent three hours giving our 24-member group a graduate-level seminar in Cuban-U.S. relations.
We ate only in paladars until our last night. The menu never varied. At lunch and dinner, we had squash or vegetable soup, beans and rice, a choice of what our guide termed the “Three Musketeers”, i.e. chicken, fish, or pork, and flan for dessert. We were warned Cuban food was insipid and tasteless, but the food actually was more than acceptable. And having live music, of excellent quality, at almost every meal, enlivened the experience.
We felt a bit nervous when we drove south and saw rice spread out to dry on half of the little-travelled road, but our guide assured us that the “asphalt rice” was not served to tourists. In many areas, there were more horse carts on the road than cars. Many horses are picketed to graze by the side of the road.
The brightly painted 1950s American cars make the eyes of every visitor to Cuba pop. Enterprising Cubans have refurbished them with a variety of new engines. Our guide referred to them as “Frankenstein cars” held together with “string and spit”. Boy, can they fly.
The crumbling infrastructure is a second eye-popper. We had never seen so much peeling paint or cracked plaster. One member of our group tripped on one of the universally treacherous sidewalks, injured her knees, and spent a day experiencing the packed conditions of free health care at a local clinic. One of the reasons families are so close is that many generations live crammed into packed apartments.
Aside from the ones in “five-star” (read: “three at best”) hotels, public bathrooms do not have toilet paper, toilet seats, soap, or paper towels. Private enterprise has resulted in enterprising ladies who sit outside the bathrooms near tourist areas. For one CUC (one dollar) they will hand out toilet paper, and flush by pouring a bucket of water in the bowl afterwards.
We will never forget the lovely Cubans we met. An 85-year-old fisherman who once ran errands for Ernest Hemingway. A woman who, for 31 years, has rolled famed Cuban cigars. The spunky young dancers of the Havana Queens, an independent dance troupe inspired by street dancers. The children who were plucked from abusive homes and are training to become circus acrobats. The Jewish man who acts as rabbi, moil, and kosher butcher for the main Havana synagogue. The naturalist at Zapata National Park who is trying to preserve the endemic Cuban crocodile.
Few countries in the world welcome U.S. citizens as warmly as this small, poor, harmless country. Cuba is changing so fast that every guidebook will be out of date after a year. We hope Cuba will develop in a way that keeps its Cuban values intact.
- A modern sculpture of a nude woman astride a rooster, symbol of male machismo, sits prominently in an historic square in Havana.
- The home of a former sugar baron in Cienfugos
5. Tour group in fleet of 1950s cars
6. The honeymooning authors, Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman