The essay below was written by my college friend Patrick. He is just back from 12 days in Cuba. Their are lots of Photos from Patrick’s trip at the bottom of the story.
By: Patrick Biederman
The People. Cuba is a wealthy country in the sense that they have immense resources. They have oil, fish stocks, vast farm lands, beautiful beaches and coral reefs. But the best asset they have are their people. The Cuban people are highly educated, innovative and an industrious people. They are also beautiful inside and out, I can’t say enough about their incredible kindness and their tremendous loyalty to family. When you walk into a family member’s home you must greet them by kissing them or hugging them or both. If you leave five minutes later you must again kiss them all before you go and again when you return. I came into the house from the outside and I made the mistake of not greeting Ray’s very vibrant and very intelligent 93-year-old grandmother with a hug and kiss, she noticed and let’s just say she has no filter. But at 93 can say whatever she wants, and she does… What I learned is that they all love their country, even the ones that want to leave. They are all nostalgic for Cuba, some are nostalgic for the Revolution and others are nostalgic for the pre-revolution Cuba. Politics divides many families, but political statements critical of the government are always whispered. I also can’t say enough about their generosity, the people outside of Havana really have nothing, the average monthly income is $20.00 per month, that is US Dollars. They have ration cards that allows them to purchase 5lbs of rice per month, 4 oz of beans and a few ounces of chicken per month. When Ray’s mother cooked me black beans (the best I have ever had) they were only for me. I didn’t realize until later what an honor that was, my beans were her entire month’s rations. It was a sobering realization that people of Cuba have nothing, but will give you everything.
Driving in Cuba. When arriving in Santa Clara, Ray rented a car for the length of the stay. The rental car “agent” wasn’t at his post so when he was called we were told he was away and would be back in 40 minutes, two hours later he arrived, this is common customer service in Cuba for the Cubans. The car requested three months prior was an Automatic, the car that was available was a standard shift. There are no other cars available. There is a severe shortage of rental cars. Ray doesn’t know how to drive standard shift so I had quickly become the driver and instructor. Driving in Cuba is the most dangerous activity known to man. The roads average anywhere from very poor to outright dangerous. Pot holes are everywhere as the roads haven’t been maintained for 50 years (with the exception of tourist areas like Varadero and Revolutionary Squares). Luckily driving on the highway means not having any traffic, there were many times we had no other cars within sight even with 6 lanes to travel on. There are however a lot of horse carts, bicycles and people and dogs just walking in the streets. While driving at night and dodging pot holes, you can quickly come upon a horse cart with no reflectors or lights, I found this to be the worst “shit your pants” experience. Most cars in Cuba are relics from the 1950’s, Soviet era Moscovich or Lada’s. Cars are almost always put together “frankensteins” because they often have diesel engines and are pieced together from whatever they can find. On my first trip on the highway to Havana I was shocked by the lack of transportation for the people. It is nothing to see hundreds of people on the highway standing on the side of the road in the hot sun, some with children begging for rides to whatever town they need to get to. Getting 30 miles away from home can be an all-day experience for them. Taxis are common but out of reach of the average Cuban. The Cuban busses are usually nothing more than old trucks with welded together chassis made into a “bus” of sorts. Sometimes it just an old dump truck with people loaded in the back. The second to last night we were coming back from Havana and trying to navigate home, it was dark and we were told twice to be careful on a certain road because it was very dangerous. Needless to say, “RAY” hit a pot hole and blew out two tirea. I changed the back tire and then drove the car flat for about 3 KM until we got to the highway where we “VERY LUCKILY” found a few men who fixed one of the flats. We got home a few hours later. I have driven through Atlanta at rush hour and I drove my mother to Canada in an RV, those were VERY stressful experiences, but nothing and I mean nothing compares to driving in Cuba.
Food in Cuba. There is plenty to eat in Cuba. While some foods are scarce and often unavailable to the average Cubans the island is plentiful in food. There are many great restaurants to choose from, if you are in Havana many of the finer establishments with the best decor are state owned. But Cuba instituted a policy to allow ordinary Cubans to open their own restaurants called Paladars. Paladar is from a Soap Opera where the main character opened a restaurant and now any private restaurant is called a Paladar. They are usually part of people’s homes and the food is grown locally. You won’t often find a menu with a price on it. They have selections for the day, they might have fish, pork, chicken or something exotic like goat and hutia (a rodent creature, I ate one). Once you order what you want to eat they will bring you dishes of rice and beans, whatever vegetables are available usually cucumber, tomatoes and yuca. The food is prepared in make shift kitchens and the meat is often butchered in a shed behind the house. They often only serve one type of beer, mojitos or some sort of juices. Always only drink bottled water. The usual cost of a meal is around $5.00 CUC which is around $6.00 us. There are no supermarkets in Cuba to speak of. While in the mountains we went into the town at the bottom of the mountain and looked for additional vegetables. The open air government market was bare so we drove around the city looking for where people were gathered around small carts buying whatever was offered. We didn’t find anything so we went to a local small farm where they literally pulled the vegetables out of the ground for us. It is a daily struggle for Cubans to find sources of food, especially in the towns and cities. On our last night in Cuba we drove to the north side of the country to a small town directly across from Miami which reminded me of the Keys. We went to a small restaurant which had seating for about 20 people on their dock on the water. We ate local fresh snapper, lobster tails so large they couldn’t be eaten, the local custom is to cook them in a sauce however you can have them grilled, but I recommend the sauce. The stone crab was especially surprising because of the size of the claws. They were bigger than my fist. Feeding five people this way including drinks, 3 appetizers, lobster, crab and fish, dessert and coffee our bill was $52.00. The name of the little town is Isabela De Sagua and the Paladar to visit is Cayo Esquivel. Take a taxi there because you likely won’t find it, you can hire a taxi and they will wait for you and take you back when you are finished. If the world ever finds out about this hidden gem of a little town I have no doubt it will be flooded with American Tourists. Some things to watch out for in Havana especially, some restaurants will add gratuity. Others will call it a Tax of 10%, which is just a scam to get an extra tip. Tip generously but don’t be taken advantage of. I honestly never had a bad meal in Cuba, and by far my favorite were my black beans made by Ray’s mother Candida.
The Struggle. Everything for Cubans is a struggle and I mean everything. From finding food to transportation and everything in between. Everyone struggles in life one way or another and I don’t minimize anyone’s hard road but the Cubans have to struggle in their daily lives in ways we know nothing about. Finding food can be as easy as coming out the door when the bicycle riding bread salesman rides by yelling “Pan”. Or it can be as tough as traveling from street to street looking in empty markets for vegetables to make a simple dish. Traveling anywhere requires planning, long waits, crowded transportation, generosity of other and sheer luck. Everything is controlled in the island; the government hand is everywhere. While in the mountains I was invited to see a Hutia (small “very cute” rodent eaten in Cuba), I walked into the small distressed house of the woman and her children and she showed me the many cages of Hutia she was raising to eat. She said told me she is required to report the number of animals she has to the government, she can raise them for family for their own consumption but is forbidden to sell them to anyone else. Coffee is forbidden to be sold on the open market, all coffee must be sold to the government. The same is true for tomatoes and beef. Beef is sold for export. Liquid milk is almost nonexistent, most people drink powdered milk. Finding internet access is now possible in Cuba but it requires sitting in a park where wifi is available. You must purchase a wifi card for one hour of access. The cards aren’t sold at any vending machine or at the counter of the snack bar, you have to ask someone who has the cards if you are lucky to find the card salesman. The internet access is poor at best and overwhelmed by the sheer number of users. In addition, certain websites are blocked that are considered problematic for the government. Some American news websites are blocked. The scarcity of everything leads to incredible ingenuity, I saw a family that made a business out of making pizzas by creating two very make shift ovens with scraps of metal and an old metal door. The ingenuity of the Cuban people is remarkable.
Communists, Capitalists, and Revolutionaries oh my. I had misconceptions about the Cuban people before I went to Cuba. I thought it unfathomable that there would still be supporters of communism in Cuba. Ray would tell me there was still a lot of support for the regime, well, he was right and I was wrong. His grandmother is the last remaining communist in his family but the true communists can be found everywhere. The people in countryside seems to give the most support for the regime. I met several diehard communists in the mountains, who honestly mourned the recent death of Fidel. At a restaurant i was shown a glowing tribute video of Fidel by the owner who became emotional. I kept quiet and nodded through the video.
Propaganda is everywhere. The poorer the town the more propaganda there is. On the road into the town it’s not unlikely to see ten billboards extolling the glories of the revolution. The billboards are adorned with fiery rhetoric and pictures of some revolutionary victory calling the people to action are everywhere. Inside the town, you will find hand painted walls and murals proclaiming victory over capitalism and imperialism. The real irony is that these murals were on or next to buildings that have been left to rot for over 50 years. The decay and rot of the Cuban infrastructure lives in stark contrast to the proclaimed glories of socialism.
I also met capitalists, a new breed of island Cubans who seek a better life. There was the Air BNB entrepreneur Marrisolle who bought an apartment renovated it into modern standards and rents the two rooms for $100.00 per night (including breakfast), she plans on buying more apartments. I spoke with family friends about starting a business and what American’s expect and desire when traveling. They listened intently. The future of Cuba belongs to the capitalists of today, they the small entrepreneur who is constantly being hampered, harassed and limited by the state. They are scraping out a living standard better than their neighbors, one day soon the others will notice the disparity. Will they want the same or will the state step in to equalize them into poverty again? That remains the question.
I also saw the revolutionary Che, he is everywhere, his image is imprinted on anything that is printable and sellable. I misunderstood him. My view was always that he was a brutal communist who was responsible for the death of thousands of people and the suffering of millions. I still believe that to be true, but he was also a true revolutionary. He was a man who gave up a life as a doctor because he saw the suffering of the poor in Latin America. He was a devout communist and believed in the idea of global revolution. He lived, fought and died for his ideals and no matter what you think of his politics you must have respect for him, he lived and died by his convictions. The memorial for him in Santa Clara is beautiful, solemn and respectful. If you get a chance to go to Santa Clara it is in my opinion a must see.
Final Thoughts. Other than Canada, Cuba is the only communist country I have ever visited. In these posts the past few days I have had many people reach out privately with questions and appreciation. I am surprised at how many Americans are planning travel to Cuba. For Americans Cuba, has always been the forbidden fruit, now, that fruit is within reach. If there was one thing about Cuba that struck me it would be this, as hard as their lives are, as hard as the daily struggles wear them down, as decay and rot of their infrastructure crumble around them, they are a happy people. It’s hard to find a restaurant or bar where music isn’t playing. When you walk on the streets you hear it everywhere. When the family gets together and a salsa song comes on they begin to dance. They lack all inhibitions of expressing joy. In short, the Cuban people are alive without the inhibition of expressing joy.
They are also incredibly kind, generous and curious. They constantly wanted to know what I thought of Cuba and what is America like. When a visitor comes, the first thing they offer them is a Cafe. With what little they have it is their natural instinct is to give.
A few recommendations for my friends that will be making the trip soon. Be kind, be generous but don’t be taken advantage of. Bring mosquito repellant, sun screen, wet naps, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, medicines especially pepto bismol or imodium and tylenol. Bring cash, enough for your trip and some to spare, using an ATM for an American is impossbile. And most importantly bring your ideas. Everywhere in Cuba there are propaganda billboards extolling the virtue of ideas. Now they have competition. With our hard currency, they have to allow us to influence them. I was asked constantly what I thought of Cuba and I had many discussions with business owners about what American tourists expect and want.
My political thoughts. I admit that I always had an unwitting sense of American arrogance regarding Cuba. That somehow, we can and should affect change for the betterment of the people there possibly through force. I realize now that it is not our place. Cuba is for the Cubans, they will make of it what they will. I can’t remember if I ever agreed with anything Barack Obama did with regards to foreign policy, but I agree with his policy on Cuba. Ray was right, he had to open completely without conditions. Some regard it as a capitulation because we received nothing in return. No dissidents were freed. Our Cuban American citizens are not able to travel to Cuba as Americans they have to travel under a Cuban passport which is exceedingly expensive and absurd. But I also understand that Cuba needed the US as an enemy to prop up the regime and hide their failures. Now as millions of us will travel there, the people will have exposure to our ideas and values and that is the price they will pay for our hard currency.
And as we flood their island we will bring pressure for improvements in their infrastructure which will require more freedom to meet that demand. The government will have a very hard time limiting that very fundamental human desire for more. I hope for change for Cuba, today rather than tomorrow but it is for them to decide their future. Whatever may come tomorrow, go to Cuba today and experience its incredible wonderful life.