Travel Right

    Impressions of Cuba

    by Patricia Edmisten (Peru, 1962–64)

I FIRST WENT TO CUBA IN 1986 with the Center for Cuban Studies, which helps “U.S. citizens see Cuba for themselves within the limits set by U.S. government regulations.” The Center has its own licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and, since its founding in 1972, has sponsored many study tours in the areas of health, education, ecology, and the performing arts, to name a few. My own tour included a packed schedule of visits to educational centers ranging from infant day care through university.
     Although I was impressed with the literacy level of the people, their basic, universal medical coverage, and their affection for U.S. citizens, despite our policies, I was disturbed by the absence of a free press, reported human rights abuses against dissenters, and the subtle threats against those who practiced their religions.

A second trip brings a threat
In 1994, after returning from my second trip to Cuba, where I had signed a memorandum of agreement establishing a faculty and student exchange program between the University of West Florida and the University of Havana, I received an intimidating letter from Alpha 66, an organization dedicated to the fall of the Castro regime. Alpha 66, whose motto is “Death before Slavery,” declared that its members were at the “final confrontation, about to achieve . . . the definitive victory that will bring about the longed-for liberty and democracy to suffering Cuba . . . ”
     The letter continued: “Conscious that we are the valorous and tenacious flag-bearers, we proclaim today that all those persons who visit Cuba, dialogue, or directly or indirectly support the ungovernment [sic] that oppresses our people, regardless of nationality, will be declared a military objective and will suffer the consequences, within or outside of Cuba. Our commandos are ready to complete the glorious missions that our country demands . . . . We will not stop until we achieve victory . . . .  Those who dare ignore our call will tremble in fear before the violence of our actions. We will not make useless and unjustified distinctions.” Apparently, members of Alpha 66 saw no similarities between the totalitarian philosophy and actions they espoused in the United States and what they purported to condemn in Cuba.

The Cuban Health Network
Wanting to chart the changes since my first visit in 1986, and my second in 1994, I welcomed the opportunity to return in January, 2002. My husband and I were members of a small group affiliated with the Cuban Health Network (CHN), begun by Joe Thomas, a business entrepreneur from Mobile, Alabama. CHN provides desperately needed medical equipment and supplies to Cuban clinics and hospitals. It is also a legal catalyst that brings U.S. citizens and Cubans together. Joe had made several trips to Cuba with Society La Habana, Mobile’s Sister City program. During his visits, he noted the dire need for updated medical equipment, supplies, and pharmaceuticals that had not expired.
     Joe procured the first major donation of medical supplies through the generosity of the San Francisco-based Vida Foundation, but how could he ship it to Cuba? Later, on his way to Cuba while personally carrying a small aneurysm detection machine purchased out of his own pocket, Joe met a representative from World Reach. After describing his mission to this new acquaintance, Joe learned that World Reach had a U.S. Treasury license to ship goods to Cuba and a long history of humanitarian assistance there. As a result of this meeting, World Reach paid for CHN’s first shipment from North Carolina to Montreal, where it was picked up by a Cuban ship and taken, free of charge, to Havana. Participants in CHN groups are also licensed through World Reach.

Crossing the Florida Straits by boat
Although we were insecure about going to Cuba by boat, on January 16 my ecologist husband and I drove from Pensacola to Marathon, in the Florida Keys. At the Tiki Bar we met our traveling companions: Joe Thomas, president of CHN; a Mobile writer and historian who began Mobile’s Sister City Program with Havana; a competent business woman, who speaks little Spanish but manages to skillfully communicate across any breach; a couple who own a little farm, raise horses, and publish an apartment rental guide, and a graceful southern couple who opened themselves to the wonders of Cuba, despite the flexibility that travel in Cuba requires.
     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.
     The contradictions pile up, leading — if one is not cautious — to a collage of fantastic conclusions about Cuban reality. In this socialist country, for example, average Cubans may not enter the Hotel Nacional, especially dark-skinned Cuban women, who are suspected of being prostitutes. Polite doormen turn them away. With insistence, we were able to get permission to invite our Cuban friends to our rooms for 30 minutes.
     Perhaps the greatest contradictions involving Cuba persist in the United States. The worst violators of the boycott, for example, are the Cuban-Americans who, although aggressively defending the boycott, ship hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to their own family members. They oppose a weakening or cessation of the blockade because, they say, goods and money entering Cuba will sustain Castro’s regime. They have convinced themselves that their money doesn’t count, even though they help to re-divide Cubans into have and have-not classes.
     What is really scary is that professionals like doctors, nurses, and teachers are leaving their ranks to take jobs in the tourism sector, promoting a lop-sided economy, ready to pander to tourists, but less equipped to serve its own people. So while education is now universal and free, and medical care is guaranteed to all, if the trend continues, there will be fewer and fewer teachers, doctors, and nurses.

Back to day one
After our visit to the psychiatric hospital, we drove to a restaurant called “Las Ruinas,” constructed around the ruins of a seventeenth century, slave-operated sugar mill. The architecture and accouterments were sumptuous in their elegance and design. High cantilevered ceilings protected decks from rain but did not interfere with views of exuberantly flowering trees, where cane had once grown. Thick, verdant ferns sprouted from the ancient mill walls that rose here and there in the restaurant, like ancient stalagmites. There was a banquet on the second floor, so we ate on the first level. We enjoyed drinking mojitos (Hemingway’s favorite cocktail, made with white rum, lime juice, and a generous sprig of mint that makes the glass look like a small aquarium) before eating Cuban sandwiches on bread so hard it scratched the roofs of our mouths. After lunch, the Cubans from the banquet invited us to dance to salsa music on the veranda.
     We next visited the Latin American School of Medicine, which prepares doctors to serve in the poorest countries of Africa and Latin America. To our surprise, after his introductory speech, the director trotted out twenty-one students from economically depressed areas of the United States. Each was there on a full scholarship, learning Spanish while studying medicine. Because the students were “fully hosted,” they were not violating U.S. law. Without personal resources, however, they were confined to Cuba during semester breaks, when other students went home to visit their families. These students promise, upon the completion of their studies, to practice in poor, under-served areas in the United States. In a private conversation with me, two students voiced insecurity about the U.S. state boards they ultimately face because the school’s medical library has limited holdings, putting them at a disadvantage.

The following morning, after our tour of old Havana (an inviting enclave of restored churches, museums, hotels, and inns), and after drinking mojitos on the garden terrace of Hemingway’s old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos (where his room is kept as a shrine), five of us hired a driver and headed down the Autopista Nacional toward Trinidad, deemed a World Heritage Site in 1988 by UNESCO. The highway was in excellent repair. There were none of the hallmark indicators of dire poverty in the small villages we traversed — no squalid shacks, putrid odors, trenches with foul water, beggars, litter. Likewise, there were few amenities and nothing to indicate comfort and choice. The flat land on this part of the island was planted primarily in citrus and sugar cane.

Six hours later, which included an omelet-lunch at the large El Rancho restaurant, the only restaurant we encountered during our trip, we entered the colonial treasure of Trinidad. I negotiated our housing because, apart from our driver, I was the only one who spoke Spanish. Our driver had said there would be no problem. He knew a lady who could put us all up. The lady he knew, however, had a license to lease only one double room, but she had neighbors who also leased rooms. (A room in these private houses usually costs about $20.00 plus $3.00 for breakfast.) Fortunately, the houses were on the same street and close to one another, and after having seen three rooms in three different houses, we decided who would stay where and accepted all three. My husband and I shared a small room with a double bed, a bedside table with an energy-efficient compact florescent bulb (prevalent throughout Cuba), a small table that held our bottle of rum and bananas, and a small, clean bathroom with shower. A tree, heavy with oranges, brushed the narrow balcony that ran the length of our room and led to the dining room.
     In Trinidad’s historical section, there are more horses and mules than cars, and they fare better than pedestrians, who could easily turn an ankle on the cobbled streets. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses with red tile roofs surround the plaza mayor, a picturesque square, embellished with statues of lean racing dogs and glazed ceramic urns, utterly European. In the center is a statue of a Grecian lady with flowing toga. We had dinner at the nearby Rincón Restaurant that serves up a good mojito and excellent grilled chicken. A trio of handsome young men played music from the forties and sold compact discs of their music.
     Life in the barriadas of Peru came back to me our first night in Trinidad, when, trying to sleep, we were awakened by howling neighborhood dogs. The howls worsened as revelers returned from a big dance in honor of La Semana de Cultura — Culture Week. The echoes from their shoes on the cobbled streets sounded like a roaring river, about to breach its banks. I went out to the balcony and sat in a rocking chair until the noise subsided. It was surprisingly chilly, and the stars above me were brilliantly benign, not enemy stars.
     After three hours sleep, our landlady woke us for breakfast. Her shy daughter, who had been studying physics before dropping out to help her mother with her guest business, served us fried eggs, fresh rolls, just-squeezed orange juice, and fragrant Cuban coffee with steaming milk.
     We went to Mass on Sunday morning at the church of the Most Blessed Trinity. It was nearly full. Before Mass, a woman with Down’s Syndrome walked to our pew to greet us with the traditional abrazo. The Spanish priest also stopped to chat with us. During the homily, he spoke of the need for unity — unity with Protestants; unity against terrorism; unity against the war in Afghanistan, and unity with Cubans in The United States. He asked that we pray for those who had been lost crossing the Florida Straits. A stylishly dressed young woman led the choir of youths, their faith reflected on their faces. We held hands during the “Our Father,” and it occurred to me that the evil of the boycott is not only economic. We are withholding basic recognition of the humanity of the Cuban people. Not knowing their beauty and vibrancy is more our loss than theirs.
     After Mass, we visited El Museo De La Lucha Contra Los Bandidos. In the Museum of the Struggle against the Bandits (Batista and his followers), proud, elderly guides traced the struggle that culminated with the final victory over the dictator. After the museum, we convened at El Rincón again, ready for deliciously crisp, cold Crystal beers. Local musician Israel Macedo played the guitar and sang hauntingly romantic trova music.
     Our landlady, having earlier and discretely solicited our interest and agreement, prepared a Sunday dinner of lobster, salad, and moros y cristianos (black beans and rice, known as Moors and Christians). For this feast, each of us paid $10.00. Apart from breakfast, our landlady had no license to serve meals, unlike the owners of some private homes, known as paladares, that have special licenses to set up a few tables and serve meals. She would face a fine or loss of her license if she were caught serving lunch to us. But the game throughout this island-nation is to get dollars any way you can.
     While preparing to visit Playa Ancón, the Caribbean beach a few kilometers from Trinidad, our landlady’s neighbor asked if we were interested in buying cigars. I had legally bought five Cojibas Esplendidos for $48.00 at the Hotel Nacional, but now he was offering a beautifully sealed box of 25 of the same brand for $45.00. (Since returning to the U.S. I have learned that the same cigar would cost at least $25.00 ($500.00 per box) if acquired outside of Cuba. The neighbor, confirming my suspicions that the cigars had been stolen, told us, “In Cuba, the State robs from the people, and the people rob from the State.” (Just be aware that, if you have a U.S. license to enter Cuba, and you buy a box of cigars, U.S. customs will, upon your return, value each cigar at $4.00, and you will have used up your $100.00 limit. It’s not a matter of paying duty on extra purchases; you’ll have to forfeit what is in excess of $100.00.)
     Playa Ancón was pretty, but not nearly as lovely as Pensacola Beach back home. The unattractive hotels had few tourists, unlike the same European-financed hotels that line Varadero, the stunning beach east of Havana. The only distinctive attraction was the nubile, astonishingly sunburned, topless girl who sought relief under a palm tree.
     We learned about the Valle de los Ingenios in the Lonely Planet Cuba guide. Although the ruins of eighteenth and nineteenth century sugar mills may be found in the valley, we contented ourselves with the view from the Mirador De La Loma Del Puerto, 6 km. east of Trinidad. From the lookout, a valley of cane and bananas unfolds like a painting of Eden, as if no African slave ever suffered or died here.
     Before returning to Havana, I agreed to translate for a friend who wanted to buy handcrafted linens at a tiny house-front shop. She chose several lacy table coverings. When it came time to pay, the owner apologized for the high price of her merchandise. After all, each piece had taken days to make. Would $48.00 be too much? My friend asked me to translate her response: “Would you be offended if I offered you $70.00, instead of $48.00?” The proprietor smiled broadly and swept my friend up in a tight embrace.
     It took us a while to make our good-byes because we now had friends in three different households in Trinidad. Our landlady confided that she was grateful to have a Spanish-speaking guest, someone to whom she could comfortably speak, and I was again thankful for the boon of a second language, acquired as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

A hasty departure
Back in Havana, we found , Joe Thomas anxiously awaiting our return. He informed us that, despite our plans to spend two more days in Havana, our captain had called for an immediate departure. There was a narrow window of decent weather, and we had to take it if we wanted to safely return to the Keys.
     Although the trip to Havana had taken over fifteen hours, the trip home took only twelve, with eight to ten feet swells to propel us. Some of us who had not taken medication for motion sickness were beset by nausea and vomiting. How could we not acknowledge the courage of Cubans who flee on rickety crafts?

Reflections on the boycott
Now that we are home yet eager to return — this time by air, we have time to ponder the boycott against Cuba. All of us agree that it is morally bankrupt and politically ineffective. If the goal is to unseat Castro, it has royally failed. The boycott has helped keep Castro in power by giving him the scapegoat he has needed. Instead of reforming social, political, and economic policies, he can blame the hardships Cubans suffer on the United States. Fortunately, Cubans’ consternation at the boycott is not directed at U.S. citizens but at our myopic government that cleaves to a double standard which grants favorable trade agreements to China, where human rights violations are rampant, and begins to normalize relations with Vietnam, with whom we fought a brutal war, while squeezing Cubans for all they’re worth. And, although President Bush has not included Cuba among the terrorist countries we might attack, such as Iraq and North Korea, he still proclaims Cuba an enemy and a terrorist nation, and we can’t give aid to our enemy.
     Were the boycott lifted tomorrow, however, I would fear a commercial take-over by U.S. interests that would further funnel Cuban talent into the tourism industry or give U.S. citizens too much control over Cuba’s future, while diluting its culture. With our economic idols of privatization and competition, I would worry about the erosion of free public education, including university access, and the disappearance of free medical care. Cubans are basically decent, creative people. They have the right to solve their own problems, no matter how painful. The boycott, which has lasted more than forty years, continues to punish Cubans, but it has spurred European, Latin American, and Canadian investment. Ironically, the democratic openings we experienced and observed, like the freedom to travel we enjoyed, the freedom of Cubans to rent rooms and sell meals, the return to churches, and the exposure to the “foreign” ideas of all the other tourists, including the thousands of Americans who enter Cuba from the Bahamas or Mexico, have been realized in spite of our boycott. It’s as if our government, with its steadfast refusal to view Cuba with fresh eyes, is too proud to admit its failed policies, too fearful of a vocal cadre of Cuban-Americans, and too fearful of the intelligence and industriousness of Cuba’s eleven million inhabitants.

Patricia Taylor Edmisten is the author of The Mourning of Angels, a novel set in Peru. She also wrote Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy, and wrote the introduction to, and translation of, The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist.