Cuba opens up to U.S., revealing its paradoxes
Cuba opens up to U.S., revealing its paradoxes
Much has changed during half-century embargo
BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
HAVANA — This city is a short 45 minutes from Miami, but until the
relaxation of travel between Cuba and the United States, it could have
been at the end of the world. Many travelers assume the flight to Havana
will be like time travel to a land frozen in the 1950s.
A ride on a burro for 5 pesos in Trinidad.
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That’s true, but only up to a point. Havana is an endearing combination
of the old and the new. To an undiscerning eye it is the old that
captures attention — run-down buildings and vintage American cars from
the 1950s plying the streets as taxis. But a closer look reveals an
enchanting and vibrant city where, despite an autocratic government,
human spirit is alive and well in the form of music, arts, and sports.
Travel to Cuba from the United States is possible at this time only by
charter flights for about $500 round trip from several cities. Regular
commercial flights will commence in the fall. Recently, some cruise
lines have added Cuba to their destinations.
Contradictions abound when landing in Havana.
There are vintage American cars running on Japanese and Korean diesel
engines. They run side by side with new Japanese, German, and Korean
imports. There are buildings restored to old glory next to crumbling
People on the street appear healthy and well fed, and obesity is rare.
The expected images of unhappy, grim-faced, half-starved people living
under the yoke of a Communist police state just do not materialize.
So to judge Cuba from the looks of run-down buildings and old Chevys is
to ignore the fact that this country of a little more than 11 million
people has, for more than 50 years, not only survived a crushing embargo
by the United States but has made significant progress in certain
sectors of the society, including health care for all its citizens and
medical achievements rivaling first-world nations.
Most Western visitors to the island, particularly from the United
States, unconsciously compare Cuba with other Caribbean destinations.
But it’s not fair to judge the well-being of a society or complexity of
a culture by the coarseness of available toilet paper.
In Cuba the government owns everything. In 2008, aging Cuban President
Fidel Castro transferred power to his younger brother Raul Castro, who
in due course relaxed state control on the island’s small-scale economy.
That has led to a proliferation of small restaurants and other
businesses in the country.
The relaxation of economic regulations makes it possible for people to
rent rooms in their homes to tourists. There are not enough quality
hotel rooms in Havana to accommodate an increasing number of visitors.
But the prices of food, lodging, and other necessities for tourists have
slowly crept up.
A dinner for five people at an upscale restaurant in Havana cost $180.
That is more than four times the monthly salary a Cuban is paid by the
Cuba has two currencies: ordinary pesos and convertible pesos called
CUCs. The latter is pegged to and usually at par with the U.S. dollar.
Most tourist transactions occur in CUCs, whereas government salaries are
paid in ordinary pesos. Most street transactions by Cubans are conducted
in pesos. Twenty-four pesos equal $1, or one CUC.
The salaries paid to government employees are fixed. A janitor draws the
same monthly salary of just under 1,000 pesos (or 40 CUCs/$40) as a bus
driver, an accountant, or a surgeon.
Even though this salary is grossly insufficient for comfortable living,
the government subsidizes basic food items such as beans, rice, and
sugar. Gasoline is also sold at reduced rates.
For most Cubans trying to live on $40 a month, there must be a lot of
month left at the end of the money. However, looking at the well-fed and
healthy-looking and adequately dressed populace, there has to be some
other source of money.
That other source is the remittance of dollars by the Cuban émigré
community in the United States. According to some estimates, 80 percent
of Cubans receive money from relatives in America.
Havana Times, an electronic daily news website published from Havana,
reported that Cubans received $2.1 billion in cash from relatives in the
United States in 2012. Add to that in-kind remittance in the form of
medicines, electronics, and food items, and the total swells to $5.1
billion. This amount doesn’t include money carried illegally onto the
Havana is a city of about 2 million people. It is a relatively clean
city, and even in poor neighborhoods the potholed streets are clean and
not strewn with garbage and refuse. Average life expectancy in Cuba is
78 years, placing it 38th on a list of 192 countries. By contrast,
average life expectancy in the United States is 79 years.
There is very little evidence of police or the military on the streets
of Havana. And when there were occasional interactions between the
police and a citizen, it always appeared civil and respectful. One
seldom sees speeding or reckless driving on the streets of Havana or in
the countryside. Traffic rules are enforced rather firmly.
Cuba is a police state where the government keeps close tabs on dissent
and protests. In everyday conversation Cubans exercise restraint in
discussing poverty or democracy. Public protest is tolerated, but only
up to a point.
Most Cubans I talked to would not openly criticize the government, and
neither would they embrace the restrictive government policies with
enthusiasm. They were very pleased with restoration of diplomatic
relations with the United States and hoped that lifting of economic
sanctions would bring prosperity to their country. Everyone I talked to
approved and appreciated the visit of President Obama to their country.
Havana is also a city of statues and green spaces. No area illustrates
this better than G Street, which is called Avenue of the Presidents. A
wide boulevard with an ample landscaped median that has statues of
various presidents from a number of Latin American countries that had
stood for a united Latin America. There are the busts or statues of
Salvador Allende of Chile, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Benito Bolivar
of Venezuela, among many others.
Surprisingly, there are no statues of Fidel Castro or his brother Raul
in public spaces. There is no visible evidence of a cult of personality
of the Communist revolutionary leaders. The only exception is Che
Guevara, who has a large monument and mausoleum dedicated to him in the
city of Santa Clara.
But the biggest monument in Havana is dedicated to Jose Marti, a
revolutionary Cuban poet from the 19th century. He was exiled to Spain
by the colonial Spanish government in 1871 at age 17, and returned to
Cuba 24 years later having lived in Spain, Mexico, New York, and
Guatemala. Within a year of his return to Cuba in 1895, he was killed
during an uprising against the Spanish colonial rule.
Americans may be familiar with a song based on Mr. Marti’s celebrated
poems, “Guantanamera.” It has been sung by Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett,
Bobby Darin, Jose Feliciano, and many others.
A grand monument to him stands in the northern part of Havana. President
Obama visited it on his trip to Cuba in March. Mr. Marti’s likeness in
stone and marble is present all over the country.
To get a flavor for Cuba, the real Cuba, leave the capital and take to
the wide-open spaces to meet people on their own turf. During my travel
to the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara, I was afforded
Travel in Cuba is comfortable on well-maintained roads. Most of them
have an outside lane for horse-drawn vehicles. Yes, horse-drawn buggies,
small flatbeds, and carriages are an integral part of the Cuban landscape.
The resurgence of horses as a means of transporting people and cargo in
Cuba was the result of the American embargo and the scarcity of
gasoline. On main highways there are signs of carriage crossings, not
unlike the signs we see in Amish areas of the United States.
The Cuban countryside is lush, green, and fertile. Along the roads are
wide swaths of agricultural land where most of the crops are grown in
collective farms. The crops include sugar cane, tobacco, potatoes, rice,
beans, fruits, and coffee. One third of the land in Cuba is under
cultivation, and the agriculture sector employs one in five working Cubans.
Villagers bring their products and sell them to passing motorists on the
side of the expressway — small slabs of homemade cheese, bunches of
bananas and plantains, and large garlands of onions and garlic.
Along the southern coast of Cuba, 160 miles from Havana, is the small
town of Cienfuegos. An important battle was fought here between the U.S.
Marines and Spanish forces in the late 19th century during the
Spanish-American War. In 1957, during the fighting between Batista
regime and the communists, the town was bombarded by Cuban air force and
badly damaged. Now there are hardly any visible scars of those battles.
At the outskirts of Cienfuegos, visitors are greeted by a large
billboard depicting Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela commemorating the visit of former president Chavez in 2007 to
attend a petroleum summit.
Mr. Chavez stayed at Palacio Azul, a small seven-room hotel where we had
booked our stay. Mr. Chavez left a handwritten note, displayed outside
the room, in which he expressed his “endless” love for Cuba.
From Cienfuegos, a one-hour drive to the east is the small town of
Trinidad nestled in the foothills of Escambray Mountains. The town is
known for its cobblestone streets, small boutique shops, and street-side
market where locally made wicker baskets, panama hats, cotton garments,
and trinkets of all kinds are sold.
Trinidad neighbors the Valley of the Sugar Mills, with the smokestacks
of sugar mills dotting the landscape. There are at least 70 historic
cane mills in this region.
Just 55 miles north of Trinidad is the provincial town of Santa Clara,
halfway between the northern and southern coasts. It is a thriving city
of 250,000 and ranks as the fifth largest in Cuba.
People of Santa Clara
Two people, both dead, dominate the history of this city. First is a
philanthropic woman by the name of Marta Abreu de Estevez (1845-1909),
who is credited with giving the city its present look by donating large
sums of money for construction of public buildings and a variety of
The other is Ernesto Che Guevara, commonly known as Che. Born to an
aristocratic family in Argentina in 1928, Che studied medicine but was
attracted to Marxist revolutionary ideas.
He traveled extensively throughout South America and was deeply affected
by the poverty, disease, and deprivation among the poor.
He joined the Castro brothers in their struggle to overthrow the
U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and played a pivotal role in the
two-year guerrilla war that led to the Communist takeover of Cuba in
1959. Here in Santa Clara, Che led a crucial battle in late 1958 that
turned the tide in favor of the communists, compelling Batista to flee
In post-revolutionary Cuba, Che was a central figure after Fidel Castro.
As minister of industries he instituted agrarian land reforms.
His aim was to help bring about a worldwide proletarian revolution. He
left Cuba in 1965 for Congo and then Bolivia. He was captured in Bolivia
and was summarily executed.
Che is celebrated as a national hero in Cuba. In 1997 his remains were
brought from Bolivia to Cuba and were entombed in a large mausoleum
erected in his honor in Santa Clara, where there is a statue of Che atop
a column, with disheveled hair, wearing his trademark fatigues and
beret, and holding a gun.
The inscription on the column reads: Until the Eternal Victory.
Tomorrow: Health care in Cuba.
S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at
the University of Toledo. His column appears every other Monday in The
Blade. Contact him at: email@example.com.
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