Impressions of Cuba (page 2)
Impressions of Cuba
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Ingredients for a #Cuba Libre:
A true revolution
A people that defends itself
Only one party
One historic leader.

(The characterization of Uncle Sam says: "I abstain.")

     We parked our car in the front yard of Captain Greg Absten’s house. His classic, wooden, fifty-foot motor vessel, “Creative Touch,” built in 1970, was docked in his backyard. It sleeps eight. We were eleven, counting Greg and his first mate, also a writer.
     From the outset, we had been warned that our departure date and time would be uncertain. Everything depended upon the seas. The weather cooperated, and we were underway at midnight. Several of us stood on the upper bridge as we pulled out, Cuba libres in hand, watching eerie mangrove swamps slip by. Trying to avoid seasickness, I remained on the back deck as long as I could before succumbing to the sedating effect of the waves and joined my husband in one of the bunks.
     At first light, I understood how vast were the Florida Straits. I had imagined a short crossing. Everyone is fond of saying Cuba is only ninety miles from Key West. But we might have been in the middle of the Atlantic, given the swells and the flying fish that accompanied us. The trip from Marathon (one and one-half hours north of Key West by car) to Marina Hemingway [near Havana] took fifteen and one-half hours.

It took us three hours to get through customs at the marina. Several inspectors, each with a different role, milled near our boat, curious, but friendly. A medical doctor boarded first. After inspecting the boat and our general health, he gave the captain the go-ahead to lift the yellow quarantine flag that had been raised as we entered Cuban waters. The second official inspected our passports. The third agent entered with a gun-sniffing dog, the fourth with a drug-sniffing dog. The fifth and sixth inspected our suitcases.
     All the while Captain Greg was gracious, offering food and drink to those who boarded. Finally, a cheerful woman, “María, la más bonita en la marina” (Maria, the prettiest in the marina), as she referred to herself, gave us final clearance, telling us that she preferred Americans to any other group of tourists.
     We took cabs to the Hotel Nacional. Ever the Peace Corps Volunteer, I had pangs of guilt, staying in this luxurious, historic hotel with wealthy tourists from all over Europe, Canada, and Latin America. Joe Thomas had wrangled a special rate of $110.00 a night for a double. The breakfast buffet the next morning was sinfully abundant, and I knew from my previous trips that the variety and quantity of food was for tourists only, and that the vast majority of Cubans have limited food choices.

The legalities of going
 I should back up here and note that all of us were fully licensed by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Although U.S. law permits travel to Cuba, the catch is that no U.S. citizen is allowed to spend money there unless licensed. You can also go to Cuba if you are fully hosted by a Cuban organization, but the documentation that you spent nothing is ominously thorough. Even licensed, you must maintain receipts for any goods you purchase, and you must not exceed a total of $100.00.

Day one
On our first full day in Havana, after checking in with the Office of International Relations, we picked up Luis, a bright young linguist who would be our translator for the official parts of our visit. Then we headed for the Psychiatric Hospital where we met Dr. Ricardo González, chief psychiatrist.
     Sitting on elaborately carved wood chairs that looked like they crossed the Atlantic in a Spanish galleon, we heard how the U.S. boycott deprived patients of medications that would make a more normal life accessible.
     Nevertheless, Dr. González was visibly proud of the hospital, relating that, during regimes prior to Castro’s, the hospital had been used to warehouse the mentally ill, and mistreatment was rampant.
     In the hospital’s central courtyard, a men’s orchestra was practicing American show tunes. Women worked with crafts and most looked bored to death with the monotony of weaving cute little woven rugs and doilies — still, an improvement over the blatant abuse suffered by those that came before them. According to Dr. González, many patients receive job training and work days in Havana, returning in the evening to the hospital.
     Before we left, we enjoyed a “cabaret” in the hospital’s auditorium. Three male patients sang the English lyrics to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” followed by selections from “The Student Prince.” Their voices rivaled those of the well-known tenors, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, but the men sang without emotion. In a rowdy salsa number, a wizened woman smiled lewdly, lifted her skirt to reveal a still-girlish leg, and seductively shimmied her shoulders. A tall woman, dressed in a white, midriff-revealing blouse and a mini-skirt that flaunted a generous belly, looked tauntingly at the men in our group. The patients had done this gig many times. It was the hospital’s chance to show off the progressive nature of post-revolutionary psychiatric care. At first, I was struck by the real talent, but gradually I saw the pathos, the rote, mechanical gestures, and the vacant facial expressions. Some of the staff looked embarrassed and sad, realizing, perhaps, that the patients were being used to impress foreign visitors.

Critical thinking
One must think critically to avoid impressions that have been planned and canned by the government. Visitors interested in getting to know how things really are in Cuba should make every effort to converse with Cubans of every stripe. Their reactions will correlate highly with their ages (the elderly being more loyal to Castro), their work histories (apparently, medical coverage is better for individuals with strong State work records), and income level (which is dependent on access to U.S. dollars, because even Cubans must now purchase most goods with dollars rather than with pesos).
     If you have dollars, you can live pretty well in Cuba. If you don’t, you’ll try to survive on a ridiculously low State salary, issued in pesos, and you’ll have access to only a few basic products, like rice, beans, plantains, and tuberous plants. But if you want a bar of soap, you’ll have to cough up 60 cents, U.S. You’ll also need dollars for Cuban-produced goods like Tropi-Cola and deep-fried pig skin snacks. To get dollars, you either need relatives in the States, or a job in tourism, in which case you’ll still get a low state salary, but it will be enhanced by tourists who tip dollars.

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