By: Mark Rhoades 11/28/2007
(Publisher's note: Missouri Valley Times-News owner Mark Rhoades
traveled to Cuba recently as part of the press corps covering Nebraska
Governor Dave Heineman's agricultural trade mission there. The following
is an account of the trip and his observations of the country that has
been under United States economic sanctions for decades.)
Leaving Jose Marti International Airport, the first thing that greets
visitors is a huge billboard as vehicles enter the main highway on the
drive to Havana. Even without knowing how to read Spanish, the message
is clear. Photos of George Bush alongside pictures of Hitler and Stalin,
and the word "terroista."
Similar billboards with anti-Bush messages are scattered along the
30-mile trip to downtown Havana.
As the bus travels the crowded streets toward downtown Havana, one can't
help but notice the old cars - '56 Chevys, old Chryslers, Pontiacs and
even a DeSoto now and then, still running, and pouring out a blue, oily
smoke. People line the streets hoping to squeeze onto one of the
crowded, rundown, dirty city buses. Or, if they can't catch the bus,
many will stand on street corners, or in the middle of the road waiting
for someone to give them a lift.
The Russian influence is obvious in some of the buildings. Big, old,
ugly square buildings. They almost look like prisons, but are housing
for the locals. All in need of paint, and literally falling apart. One
old building, that looked like an old warehouse turned out to be a
hospital. Reportedly, the care inside is good, but judging by the cover,
one would want to avoid needing to go there.
It's obvious the U.S. embargo of Cuba is having a major impact on this
Caribbean island. Things are very scarce on the island, especially
anything new and nice. A visit to the apartment of a local finds an
original Frigidaire refrigerator and a tiny, two-burner gas stove. A
couple of chairs, a TV in the corner, and that's about it.
What is surprising is there seems to be no animosity toward Americans.
Across the board, from politicians to middle-class to the lower class,
it's the same. They want us to be good neighbors, they don't understand
why the embargo continues. One Cuban gentleman makes the point by
saying, "You lost 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam, you lost 54,000 soldiers
in Korea; China is a communist country. You have trade relations with
them. But yet, you continue to embargo Cuba."
Friends and family
The Cuban people in general are a friendly, family oriented group. They
give each other rides. Neighbors smile and wave at each other. Though
they don't have much, they seem to appreciate what they do have. A small
tip, even a peso (equivalent to one U.S. dollar) is received with a
smile and a "Thank you very much."
Reportedly, Havana is the "safest city in the Caribbean."
It's entirely possible because no guns are allowed. Even the State
Patrol officers assigned to Gov. Dave Heineman's security detail on a
recent trade mission there had to leave their weapons in Miami. There
are police officers on almost every street corner. They have no guns
either. Just a billy club and a radio.
Freedom of the press does not exist. There are newspapers and news
outlets, but they are strictly controlled by the government. There is no
advertising. No need -the government controls everything. Take it or
leave it. Just about everyone works for the government. Part of the pay
for working in cigar factories, is a box or two of cigars each month.
Most try to sell their surplus cigars to tourists and business people.
The government does allow some individuals to serve food out of their
homes, but the taxes and fees they are charged make it almost not worth
the effort. The government takes a special jab at the U.S. dollar. If
you want to convert your U.S. dollars to CUC peso, it'll cost you 20
percent off the top. And that 20 percent goes to Fidel Castro.
Otherwise, prices are very moderate. A beer will cost about a dollar, a
Cuban sandwich with rice, beans and a salad is $7, and a five-mile taxi
ride is $4.
A stroll through downtown Havana's narrow streets reveals a life of
poverty. Clothes drying on balcony railings, rundown, rusted buildings,
some with huge chunks of outside walls missing. Yet, people live there;
it's their only shelter. The streets are bustling with people, most
dressed well in casual clothes.
Further away from downtown Havana, the housing appears to be better, but
still the living conditions appear sparse. By comparison, a home in one
of the worst parts of Omaha would be spacious, comfortable, and
something to be envied.
There are upscale areas of Havana, also. There are shiny new, modern
hotels, and new business development parks. The hotels house tourists
and business people from around the world and would rival many in the
United States for quality and service. Any business project in Cuba is a
50-50 partnership with the Cuban government. Currently investment
projects are under way with Canada, China and Spain, to name a few.
There's even a brand new Disneyland-type of entertainment complex. The
tour guide did comment that, "I don't know when it's ever going to be
completed, but when it's done, it will be nice."
A drive down "embassy row" will give a feel of what life was before the
revolution. Huge homes, now the residences of ambassadors from around
the world, line the streets. These homes, once privately owned, were
abandoned when the revolution started. The owners fled to the United
States, believing that they would return in a few months. They never
returned, and their homes are now the property of the Cuban government.
Countries from around the world are currently attempting to fill Cuban
needs for food and supplies. Tourists come from around the world, with
more than 40 international airlines flying regular schedules to the
country. There are many beautiful beach areas around Cuba, but only one
area that is truly developed. There is a huge, modern marina filled with
luxury boats and yachts, which appears to be as modern and luxurious as
those in Miami.
A 50-year crawl
Cuba is a land where development has slowed to a crawl in the last 50
years. The cars, buildings and lifestyle for most haven't changed much
since the revolution. There is a sense that things are beginning to
change for others. Better cars, better jobs and a better life appear to
be on the horizon. There also seems to be a belief that trade relations
with the United States will get better with the next presidential
administration, and if the U.S. trade embargo is lifted, the economy of
Cuba will boom. It will become a huge tourist destination and Americans
will flock to their beaches and cities to see what's been hiding there
for over 50 years.