Sunday, June 28, 2009

More than curiosity: Cuba an intriguing country

More than curiosity: Cuba an intriguing country
By Damien Jaques
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted: 06/26/2009 12:00:00 PM PDT

Tell friends you have just been to Cuba, and depending on the circles in
which you travel, you may be rewarded with a lot of envy. Cuba is hot,
and we're not talking about the tropical weather.

Curiosity about a neighboring country that is the final American Cold
War adversary certainly sparks interest.

Forbidden fruit is another factor. Because of restrictions imposed by
the U.S. government, Americans are not free to travel to Cuba as they
are to nearly any other country in the world. You must fit into narrow
categories to legally qualify and receive a Cuba travel license from the
U.S. Treasury Department.

The only direct air service between the United States and Cuba involves
charter airline flights that whisk you from Miami to Havana in 45
minutes. That is how 26 other Americans and I, our Treasury Department
licenses tucked into our hand luggage, recently made the trip on a
humanitarian mission.

Not too outdated

We were quickly thrust into a country and society that confirmed some of
our preconceptions and exploded others.

The biggest false myth is that Cuba, the Caribbean's largest island, has
been frozen in time since the Castro brothers assumed control of the
government on New Year's Day 1959. It's in a time warp, with street life
looking like old movies from the 1950s and '60s, a surprising number of
writers and travel industry folks will tell you.

Wrong. Just as many of
those old cars have Russian diesel or Japanese replacement engines in
them, Cuba's quaint vintage look is not much more than skin-deep.

The interiors of two big hotels built in the '50s, the Habana Libre and
the Riviera, do appear to be forlornly stuck in time. The Libre opened
as the Havana Hilton in 1958, and when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled
the island later that year, the Castro-led revolutionaries moved in to
make it their headquarters.

Very little appears to have changed in the intervening 50 years. Photos
on the lobby walls show the olive green-clad fighters lounging on the
furniture, documenting the lack of a decorating update.

The Riviera, built by American mobster Meyer Lansky in '57, epitomized
the Mafia influence on the island, and its lobby and adjoining outdoor
swimming pool have a retro appearance and feel that is cooler than the
Habana Libre's. Lobby wall photos chronicle the old entertainers who
once performed at or stayed in the hotel.

Hot wheels

New cars, including vans and some sport utility vehicles, are on the
road, with Hyundai appearing to have captured the largest share of the
market. New articulated buses built in China cruise through Havana,
providing public transportation.

The old cars are easily divided into two categories. Probably half are
boxy and tinny Russian-made Ladas, a vestige of the Soviet Union's close
relationship with Cuba for more than 30 years. Ugly when they rolled off
the assembly line, they are now rolling and rusting eyesores.

But the flip side of the coin is the incredible array of pre-revolution
vehicles dating back to World War II. Most are American-made, with a
preference for flashy fins, but ancient European cars are also still in use.

A brand of taxis exclusively features well-restored old models, many of
them convertibles.

Traffic-watching on the curb of the Malecon, the busy thoroughfare
running along the Havana sea wall, provides some of the best
entertainment on the island.

Culture prevails

The U.S. may have a 47-year-old commercial and financial embargo against
Cuba, but in today's shrunken world, nobody can impose a cultural
embargo. Havana residents are current and fashionable in their
appearance, right down to having the right tattoos in the right places.
Move them and their wardrobes to any American city with a sizable Latin
population, and they would fit in perfectly.

They follow American politics, have detailed knowledge of President
Barack Obama and his background and are excited about the prospect of
him improving relations with Cuba. Obama campaign buttons and T-shirts
are prized possessions that can be openly worn.

Internet access is restricted by the government, but clandestine
connections and e-mail accounts are not unusual.

I traveled through the Soviet Union, including stops in some far-flung
places, in the '70s, and I was eager to see if parallels existed between
the two Communist countries that were close allies before the fall of
the Iron Curtain. Political sloganeering on huge public banners and
signs is common, as are giant portraits of Communist heroes.

Not all rosy

Shortages of essential items, the bane of so many communist and some
socialist countries, is a vexing problem in Cuba. Rice and beans are the
dietary staples, and meat is a treat. Everyone gets a monthly ration
book to parcel out things such as bread and sugar.

Farmers markets supplement the diets of people with the cash to buy
bunches of fat carrots, heavy watermelons and red meat hanging from hooks.

The Cuban health system, free to all citizens, has so many physicians
that the island exports them to other countries. But when your doctor
gives you a prescription, the state-owned pharmacy may not be able to
fill it.

Fidel Castro's high priority on eliminating illiteracy has yielded a
well-educated population, but a paradoxical economy does not always
reward high skills and abilities. A hotel bellman may be an engineer who
has found he can make more money carrying luggage.

Housing is in extremely short supply. Newly married couples must move in
with parents, usually the wife's. The divorce rate is alarmingly high.

As challenging as everyday life may be, the clenched-jaw grimness on
Russian faces during the Soviet era is nowhere to be seen in Cuba.

Warm smiles, laughter, kids playing stickball in the front yard and
music — so much music — fill the streets of Havana. These are not
desperate people.

A thirtysomething woman with a rambunctious 5-year-old son she called
"Denny the Menace" explained:

"We have hopes, we have dreams, but we know how to be happy with what we

More than curiosity: Cuba an intriguing country - Inside Bay Area (26
June 2009)

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