A Visit To Cuba May 25 2015, 0 Comments

Cuba is both a country of architectural and natural beauty and a country in ruins. It is a country of the weary, and a country of warm engaging people. It is a place where the tastes and music heighten the senses while crumbling buildings and thin faces inspire great sadness.

Entry into Cuba is an event. The airport terminal is a small square building with one great room for departures and one for arrivals. There are no jet ways. One walks off the plane and down steps. The tarmac can accommodate two planes at a time. A third space in the terminal is used for customs agents and a forth serves as the baggage claim area. One would think with such a small terminal, one would move quickly through customs, gather luggage and be underway. But quite the contrary. It is not that they lack workers. It is the amount of goods being brought back from the US by the Cuban people who have been fortunate enough to be granted visas to visit family that cause such delays. Tires, sewing machines, crock pots, light fixtures, and televisions are loaded on to the baggage carousel. Suitcases stuffed to the breaking point are wrapped in heavy blue or white plastic until they look like giant snowballs. Old men and women deplane with shopping bags full of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, antacids and over the counter medications. The unloading from a single plane can take two hours and did on the day of my arrival. As the endless stream of giant boxes and plastic wrapped suitcases went round and round, I imagined my small black suite case lost. But no. It eventually appeared under a rather large box marked “fragile”.

The interpreter met our group of artists at the airport with a small bus. Unlike the old rusty public buses, this small bus is new, subsidized by the government. Traveling into Havana, I see the morning heat steaming from the sidewalks, a deep, humid, southern heat which I love but which suffocates in a city full of debris. People crowd into the streets or sit in every door way for as far as I can see. I learn that air conditioning is almost nonexistent in private homes. Fans are more likely to be found in the homes and buildings in which people reside. Laundry hangs from windows and on balconies.

The hotel looks unremarkable. That is, it looks like most hotels that I have stayed in, with a lovely lobby and decorative decor. I am reminded that the government is certain to subsidize and even run the hotels, restaurants and state buildings so that they attract tourists, vital to the Cuban economy. My room is small but clean. There is some air conditioning here, though the blowing air is not truly cold. The hot water is only luke warm. Wash cloths are not available. I thought to bring my own. The electricity darts on and off occasionally but generally only for a few seconds. The hallways are grand but it is clear that maintenance is minimal. When it rains buckets are placed all about because the roof leaks and not just in one or two places. The buckets keep the guests from slipping on the marble floors. As they fill with rain water, workers empty them and put them back in place.

The proper plazas are also maintained by the government. These are the places where the tourists visit Cathedrals, museums and sit for a coffee. Many of the tourists are from Europe. Cuba has significant trade with Spain so the Spaniards are frequent visitors. Cuban rum flows freely and everyone partakes. Within the plazas and immediate surroundings, Havana is like many other cities, with the exception of the 1950’s Chevrolets now converted into taxi cabs lined up in rows ready to take you anywhere you wish to go. Most tourists see these vehicles as quaint, a preserved memory from the past. The Cuban taxi drivers see these cars as being on life support, with no spare parts and in constant need of repair.

On my first morning I wake early and after my luke warm shower, I head out with our guide into one of the plazas. It is lovely and the sun is beating down on the square. St. Christopher’s Cathedral is open and I go in. The church is dark, lit by candles and the stain glass is illuminated by the streams of light blaring from the morning sun. Fans are running and it seems that no-one except tourists are inside. When I come out, I see members of my group having Mojitos at an outdoor cafe. I join in. By mid-day we have lunch in a restaurant that once hosted Earnest Hemingway. We order more Mojitos. It is a fine day but I am anxious to head out on my own. Tourist sites are interesting but the story of Cuba is not in the plazas or government run hotels and neighboring restaurants. No. The story of Cuba lies deep into the neighborhoods among the crumbling buildings, windowless homes and garbage filled streets.

I watch the others head back toward Park Central where our hotel is located and I walk in the opposite direction into the neighborhoods of Havana. I am surprised by the number of people sitting in doorways and in the streets. No work. This is how so many educated adults spend their days. A small boy about nine or ten walks up to me and pulls on his shirt. He is wearing cut offs and a brown shirt he has clearly out grown. His sneakers appear to fit, although he is not wearing any socks. He is covered with a thin layer of dirt. He asks me if I have some soap so that he can wash himself and his shirt. Knowing that very basic needs of the Cuban people often go unmet, I have bars of soap in my backpack. I take one out and give it to him. He smiles and hurries down the street. I stand there wondering what other nine or ten year old do I know that would be so happy with a bar of soap?

A block over I note how strange it is to peer up and see the stunning remnants of such intricate architecture. Even upon casual glance, what is left of these grand buildings is fragile, structurally unsound. A family is living on the first floor of what was a two story building. The top floor has apparently collapsed. Worry seems a luxury. The family just goes about their business.

Many live behind bars here. Windows and doors are secured by iron. Decorative as the iron may be, it is a metaphor for how they live, unable to leave Cuba. Even the fishermen must be licensed by the government to go out to sea.

I am not concerned about my wanderings although a woman approaches me and cautions me about having my camera out after dark. I wonder why? Cubans have no internet unless they work in tourism, no digital devices, most don’t even have a land line. Instead, public telephones along the streets are all in working order. But I thank her and continue on. An elderly lady, is sitting on her front steps. Even though it is nearly 100 degrees she is wearing a light sweater. She smiles at me when she sees my camera. She doesn’t speak to me but allows me to photograph her. It is almost five o’clock and the school children are all walking home. I continue to photograph the crumbling buildings and desperate poverty until the light begins to fade and I am forced to head back to the hotel through the dimly lit streets. After dinner, I go back to my room which is equipped with a telephone. I was told that all calls made are monitored by the government. This does not register with me. I call back the states to let my family know that all is well. Without thinking I say, “Pop, you can’t imagine what one nut job can do to a country!” Realizing what I have just said, I end the call quickly. I do not make that mistake again. I turn in early so that I can be on the street, camera in hand, at first light. When I do, I head out in the opposite direction from the day before. I am quickly on streets that are completely torn apart. Trenches have been dug and plumbing pipes are completely exposed. Impassable with a car, sheets of ply wood have been laid down so people can exit their homes.

It is barley light out but people have begun to fill the streets, heading for work and picking up their daily quota of fresh bread. Cubans receive a specific amount of Cuban Pesos per month based upon their work. A man I meet on the street says he receives $210 Pesos per month. He explains that he has a family and that it is not enough to buy even the essentials. He asks me to go into the grocery store across the street and buy him milk for his family. I open my backpack and give him toothbrushes and toothpaste. He seems pleased. A school teacher I meet explains that many basic supplies must be purchased with Convertible Pesos, the currency issued to tourists. Convertible Pesos are five times more valuable than Cuban Pesos. Tipping someone in Convertible Pesos is like giving a Christmas present. Faces light up. This two currency system was intentionally designed to keep the Cuban people living in poverty.

Many of the streets are used like a dump. Garbage and waste are piled high. A man dressed in blue jeans and a tee shirt rummages through the smelly garbage looking for food. He picks up scraps of bread and places them in a plastic bag. The locals don’t seem to notice the man. I can barely watch. After a few minutes he leaves. A stray dog, of which there are many, marks his territory on the same spot where the man was rummaging for food.

Some portions of the day are spent with our group of artists and guide visiting such places as the home of Ernest Hemingway. While I enjoy these side trips, I want to get back into the neighborhoods. On Saturday I head into yet another neighborhood with two other artists. One speaks Spanish well. It is a tremendous help. We wander down side streets photographing doors with great textures and colors, old cars and people gathered in conversation. A half dozen boys are playing on a basketball court with what appears to be a half deflated soccer ball. I walk in and toss them a baseball. Knowing how popular baseball is in Cuba, I brought several with me to give to the children. All the boys grab for it. One of the boys, the smallest one, does a back handspring. “You like Miss?” They instantly crowd around me. They want me to give them each a Convertible Peso. They are charming but a bit aggressive. My art friends look concerned. I give each a Convertible Peso coin as quickly as possible. I glance in my friends’ direction as they watch the unfolding scene. When each boy has a Peso, I say, “No more.” I quickly close my bag and we leave. I am amused by their high spiritedness. Even the children understand the value of a Convertible Peso.

We continue on our way and for a moment I think I am in an old Italian neighborhood in the 1950’s, New York’s Little Italy. Four men, perhaps in their 30’s are sitting around a small table playing Dominoes. They are laughing which makes me laugh. I see one of them motion me over to sit on an empty stool. I do sit and watch. We laugh because the same man keeps winning the game. The dark haired man next to me turns and offers me a small glass of liquid. I am somewhat cautious but all four are now looking at me. I sniff what is in the glass and realizing it is rum, shoot the entire shot back. They all applaud! I take a few more photos before I thank them and press on.

It is hot, humid. As we turn the corner there is meat hanging in a glassless window. It no doubt has been hanging there all day. More meat sits in trays, mostly chicken and pork. A young man tells the butcher what he wants. The meat is not wrapped. The butcher just places the meat in plastic grocery bag and hands it to the man. This is unimaginable to me. I, an American who has learned from childhood about keeping meat cold and cooking to proper temperatures. My diet while in Cuba consists of mainly rice, beans and eggs. And of course a desert of Flan! Everywhere, the desert is Flan.

During our stay, we spend two days in the country. Cuba has no money to develop the land. Except for farming and small villages, the land is as beautiful as the day it was made. We go to visit a farm, which consists of two pigs and some chickens. The farmer is in the fields. Sugar cane, one of Cuba’s major crops, is being cut. I can see corn. Banana trees are in abundance. Next door is what appears to be an abandoned house. It is brick and stucco with large archways. The stucco is chipping off and faded blue, gold and orange painted walls are gleaming in the sun. We get closer to take photos and after a few minutes, an older man comes out and opens the gate. He takes us inside where his 90 year old mother is sitting. He explains that the house was a plantation house but damaged during the revolution. He shows us bullet holes in the walls. The running water is outside the house. He shows us with pride an old motorcycle and side car, clearly an antique. He allows us to roam freely throughout his house. I greet his mother. She takes me into the kitchen. The kitchen has no stove, only a few pots, pans and a mop.

There are small outside markets in the countryside towns. Meat, fruit, beans, jeans and shoes can be purchased. A man selling small pillows explains that he does not have a license to sell them. He will be fined if caught but he wants to eat today so he is willing to take the risk. He says he has a daughter in America. He saw her when she was three. She is now twenty three with a daughter of her own that he has only seen through pictures. He is hopeful that she may be able to visit Cuba since he has been unable to get a visa to visit her.

Our guide thinks it is important to visit one of three cemeteries in Havana. It rivals any of the largest cemeteries I have ever seen in the states. The stones, the statues are ornate and elaborate. Clearly Cuba at one time had a great deal of wealth. I prefer not to look among the dead so I duck into the Cathedral that is being renovated, another government project. To the right of the alter, a door is open to a small room. I peek in. A woman greets me and I ask her how old the church is. “1875.” She asks me where I am from and tells me her sister and niece are in Miami and her aunt and three cousins are in Chicago. Tears well up in her eyes as she explains that she has recently been denied a visa by the Cuban government to visit them for the third time. “We wait” she says. “We pray. We wait.”  A man, who approached me in the middle of the street one afternoon before trying to get me to buy him a drink, put it much more bluntly, “Raul stupid. Fidel, loco!”

It is apparent everywhere that Cuba is a country in waiting. Waiting for basic needs to be met. Waiting to see loved ones not seen in years or even decades. Waiting for any sign that they will be free to make choices for themselves, waiting to dream. I marvel at the hope, the smiles, and the warmth of the people.

While one end of the airport is filled with anticipation as family members return or arrive for a visit bringing with them much needed supplies, the other end of the airport is a combination of woeful sadness and uncertainty. I watch a boy of about twelve sobbing as his grandmother kisses him goodbye. She looks to be about eighty. She wipes his tears but he is inconsolable. Others are crying as well, even the men. Only passengers are allowed into the airport. So, as visas expire and visits come to an end, families are torn apart as those departing walk into the airport through frosted glass doors that close behind them. Those outside are left to wonder if they will ever see their loved ones again and if so, when? They walk away in silence wiping away tears. As I watch, I think of my own family.

Two generations are now paying the price for the “Sins of the Father,” so many who were not even born during the Cuban missile crisis. Some believe that normalizing relations with Cuba helps Castro. They are mistaken. Castro has destroyed so much of his own country. He has what he needs and takes what he wants. That’s the thing about evil and it is not going to change no matter what we do or don’t do. Normalizing relations is about extending a hand to the Cuban people. No-one should be punished for events that happened before they were born. And no-one should be kept from their family.