Category Archives: Cuba

¡Me Encanta Bailar!

This is the third in a series of posts about Cuba which starts here.

We checked into our hotel, the Habana Libre, a mid-century modern. It must have been splendid in its heyday. It wasn’t run down so much as dead. Deathly quiet, no people except the guy at the desk. The lights were dim. We made our ways to the elevator and when I got off at my floor it was so dark I had to grope my way along until my eyes adjusted to the dark. The room was spacious and clean if Spartan. It was as if slowly, over the years, the art, the phone, the clock alarm, the drinking glasses, every little comfort you expect in a hotel had been stripped away.

In the bathroom I had my introduction to some of the disconcerting results of the U.S. embargo. In particular, crude oil, with which plastic is made, was banned, and so the shower curtain was about as thick as a Walmart bag, and the toilet seat was like a large white Frisbee with a hole in the middle—so thin it couldn’t be well secured to the toilet so it slipped around underneath me. The toilet paper? Well let’s just say that if you toilet papered someone’s house with it, the first light rain would wash it away, it was so insubstantial. There was no soap or shampoo or washcloth but there was a towel—one—also so thin and threadbare you could hold it up to the light and even that dim light showed through it. I was the only one who got off at my floor; it seemed like they had distributed our group one or two people per floor.

There was a mini refrigerator with nothing in it and a black and white TV. I flipped it on and there seemed to be two channels: one with old American TV shows like Bonanza, the other featuring nonstop speeches by various politicians. This was when I discovered that all the hard work I had invested into studying Spanish would really pay off. Not! Cuban Spanish is so different, and so fast, that a lot of Spanish speakers from Mexico or Spain have a hard time understanding it.

Suddenly, there was a hard knock at the door. I jumped and yelled, “Who is it?” then, “Quien es?” The knocking continued so I went right up to the door to see if I could see anything through the peephole but whoever it was must have been standing to the side. I repeated, “¿Quién es?” then “Que quieres?” The knocking stopped, then a woman’s voice shouted something that sounded like “Pocky robbabab ocalaca macanaca!” She said it with great gusto. Was she being attacked? Should I open the door and let her in? There was no phone from which to call the desk, and even if I had had a cell phone twelve years ago there would have been no reception in Cuba. The pounding resumed, along with more incomprehensible Spanish and shouting. Eventually she must have given up and gone away.

The next day our group had a walking tour around the city. I had been to Mexico, Jamaica, and to El Salvador, so I wasn’t a complete newbie to the developing world or Latin America. I had also lived in some pretty poor neighborhoods in St. Paul. I was struck by how there were no homeless people here, no beggars, no children selling Chiclets. There was no graffiti or litter. Was that because people couldn’t buy anything, so they had nothing to throw on the ground? Or would they be thrown in prison if they did? Or was it all a front for tourists?

I returned to my room without incident and found this sitting on my bedside table.

Cuban Dancer

Who had left her—was she a peace offering? Anyway, she’s come with me on my travels ever since. When I get to wherever I am staying in Nairobi or Dubai or Dublin, I set her on my bedside table. Her head got lost somewhere along the way, which maybe symbolizes even more the carefree traveling spirit I endeavor to be.

All for None, None for All

This is the second post in a series about Cuba that begins here.

I searched for my photos from Cuba and since I was well organized back in the day when we printed photos and put them in albums, I was able to find them quickly. I realized it’s been 12 years since I went to Cuba. That adds weight to my disclaimer that things have changed from what I’m going to describe. Mainly, everything has gone downhill.

I met my fellow travelers in the Miami airport. There were two dozen of them and I must have brought the average age down to about 60 when I showed up. They were pretty much as I expected; all the men had grey beards and ponytails and the women wore long tie-dyed skirts with Birkenstocks. They were a nice bunch of people, mostly couples but as usual on tours there were a few divorcees who put the tank in cantankerous. Ed was our leader. He had been to Cuba many, many times and he would be indispensable in interpreting what our guides said. Not because they spoke Spanish—because they had to speak Propaganda. Of course Ed had his own agenda, so much remained a mystery.

All the other people waiting for the flight to Havana were Cuban Americans, and they also fit a stereotype. Picture Desi Arnaz, then picture him about 30 pounds overweight, wearing an untucked-in Guayabera shirt, the flashiest designer sun glasses you’ve ever seen, dripping with gold chains, bracelets, rings, and a watch as big as Big Ben.

Ed explained to me in a low voice, “That’s how they get funds into the country for their relatives. They can’t smuggle dollars in, but their family can sell that jewelry on the black market.”

What struck me almost immediately upon arrival was that there was no advertising. There was propaganda galore—on wall murals, billboards, and ubiquitous images of Che and Fidel and other revolutionaries. But there were no billboards for products like laundry detergent or for stores or restaurants—because there were no stores or restaurants. There was almost nothing to buy, anywhere.


But who needs stores when everything is provided by the state? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is the saying popularized by Karl Marx. Every Cuban got a house, medical care, electricity, food, an education—and cigars! The house might be about to collapse, the electricity might be out for hours a day, and the food might be basic (rice, chicken, and beans), but they could all depend on their monthly rations.

Everyone had a job, too. I had doubts about whether “ability” was factored in. I used a restaurant bathroom and was dismayed to find the toilet was broken. An elderly woman appeared with a bucket of water and dumped it in. Was that the best job they could come up for her based on her ability? No, Ed explained. Aside from professions like physicians, everyone was just assigned a job that needed doing. Or a job that didn’t need doing. These “make-work” jobs were in evidence everywhere. We were told to get in a van so we could be driven 25 feet from Point A to Point B at the airport. There were people sweeping clean sidewalks and guards guarding empty buildings. All of them—doctor, driver, toilet flusher—earned about the same per month.

There was one government-sanctioned store called a dollar store. American dollars are the currency in Cuba, and I mean cash. There were no ATMs, no credit cards or checks accepted anywhere, even at the hotel.

What was for sale in the dollar store? Nothing touristy, and nothing for a dollar. Everything was expensive. The store was tiny but packed in everything from clothing to washing machines. It reminded me of an old timey Woolworths, with no American goods, of course. There was an appliance brand called Vince which I assumed was Spanish or Italian. Trade with Cuba was in defiance of the U.S. Government, Ed said later. Spain was also financing renovation of the historic waterfront, the Malecon, on and off—the pauses due to bullying threats from the U.S.


¡Cuba, si!

There’s a lot of interest in travel to Cuba now. That is, travel by Americans, because most everyone else in the world has been going all along.

If you were to tell me, “I can only afford one trip this year. Where should I go?” my answer would be, “¡Cuba, si!”

Why? Because it’s the most different place you can go and not worry (too much) about being thrown in prison for 10 years.

I don’t know for sure, but I think most Americans imagine Cuba is a poorer version of Mexico, with better music and more baseball. Cuba is a lot poorer than Mexico, and there is great music and an obsession with baseball, but it’s more like Russia or China than the rest of Latin America.

Think about it: It’s a socialist country. If you harbor romantic ideas about communism or socialism, go to Cuba.

I went to Cuba about 10 years ago. I had been writing papers about the Cuban Missile Crisis for my master’s program, and my friend Bette was married to a Cuban guy named Lumino. Lumino was only allowed to visit Cuba, where his children and grandchildren lived, every two years. “Each time we go,” Bette told me, “It’s more desperate than the last visit.” She gave me a book titled Cuba: Neither Heaven nor Hell. I was intrigued.

So one cold Minnesota day when I had nothing better to do I Googled “tours to Cuba” and up popped the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas. Within a couple hours I was signed up to go on a legal trip to Cuba.

I love it when trips come together like this, spontaneously and easily.

The Taskforce is basically a bunch of old hippies who live in the richest county in America (I don’t know how that works). They’ve been agitating against U.S. meddling in Latin America for decades. One of their strategies is organizing mission trips—not in the religious sense but to learn about situations on the ground first hand, to show solidarity, and to introduce new people to the cause.

There’s also the little fact that, in order for Americans to visit Cuba back then, they had to be on some sort of official mission. We were supposedly humanitarians on a medical mission to deliver medical supplies. While Cuba has one of the best public health systems in the world, they were so financially strapped due to the U.S.’s strangulating policies that they lacked basic things like soap and bandages. I write in the past tense because this is changing. But it will take a while to make up for decades of deprivation.

I want to note here that the Taskforce has a trip to Cuba coming up in April. The theme is “Environmental Justice in Cuba: A Study of Cuba’s Environmental and Social Policies and Practice.”

Anyone can join them; as their flyer says, “All are welcome to join this delegation! Professors, Students, Researchers, Activists!” They’ll tour Havana and the western provinces over 10 days and the cost is about $2,700, which includes everything except maybe your flight to Miami from wherever you live.

If you think that sounds expensive, I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is that the Taskforce secures your travel visa for you and works with a tour company that knows the ins and outs of making arrangements in a country where everything is a mystery to outsiders. Plus, you would be covered by Cuban health insurance while you’re there! Ideally you don’t want to get sick or injured at all, but how cool would it be to experience the Cuban health system first hand, especially since I delivered a case of bandages to them 10 year ago? You’d have dinner party invitations for years based on that story alone.

I used student loan money to pay for my Cuba trip. I know, I know that’s a big no-no. You’re only supposed to use student loan money for tuition and education-related expenses. I would argue that actually going there was a much better education than reading books and articles and writing papers about Cuba. I’ll write about it in my next few posts.