by Jeffrey Kassel
I RECENTLY MADE A TRIP TO CUBA, 35 years after my first visit, in 1979, with Anniversary Tours, when Jimmy Carter opened up travel for Americans. Today, the State Department requires the auspices of a “People-To-People” program, so I went with Road Scholar.
I went, in part, because Cuba is rapidly changing, and I wanted my husband Antonio, who is from Puerto Rico, to see it now. We had the advantage of Antonio being fluent in Spanish, while I have a working ability in the language.
Last time, I’d had to travel to Montreal to catch a flight to Cuba. This time, we left from Miami — where we met first with Annie Betancourt, a Cuban American who had been a Democratic candidate for Congress in Florida. She had lost to the Republican (Florida’s Congressional delegation is currently a 17-10 Republican majority). Betancourt is liberal compared to her Cuban-American anti-Fidelistas. While critical of the U.S. embargo, which has failed to collapse Cuba, she was also critical of Castro for the Mariel boatlift, in which he sent prisoners and the mentally ill to Florida. “If Cubans see the light,” she told us, “they get out.”
The airport in Miami, at the section where Cuba flights depart, was packed with Cuban-Americans and Cubans alike. Huge packages in blue-seal wrap filled the departure area to be weighed and loaded onto the planes. Consumer goods of all sorts are today headed to Cuba. This is a stark difference from my trip 35 years ago, when Cubans could not leave and return, Cuban-Americans rarely traveled back home, and there were no flights from Florida. Today, Cuban-Americans can visit the island and bring whatever goods they want to their relatives. Cubans living in Cuba are also free to leave Cuba if they can receive a travel visa from the United States — but that travel visa is more difficult to get than one would think. The United States Interest Section in Havana requires in-person interviews and a hefty fee of $150, whether or not the visa is issued. They are also looking to deny visas to those who are thought to want to emigrate to Miami for economic reasons. Visas are issued only to those who want to visit their families and say they want to return to Cuba.
SANTIAGO, ON FIRST IMPRESSION, is remarkable for its vibrancy. The locals are well dressed, and appear well nourished but thin. Cubans went through a period of near-starvation in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to huge problems in food distribution. However, the current diet appears to be healthy, if rationed, and good nutrition is monitored by the excellent medical care. You don’t see the obesity epidemic that especially afflicts poor people in Puerto Rico and the United States.
Santiago appears clean and orderly, with streets and sidewalks well maintained. The city has gotten a coat of paint (35 years ago, Cuba had a problem importing paint), definitely to satisfy tourism, yet just as aesthetically important for those who live there. The youth wear the latest Miami fashions. There appears to be much less use of tobacco than in my first visit. People act respectfully, calm and quiet. Everything seems well-organized and efficient, and everyone is cooperative. They wait calmly for the buses, which do not arrive frequently. No police are visible. The good behavior seems genuine, from the heart. Cubans seem relaxed, outgoing, and ready to engage in conversation with foreigners. Still, a recent quote in the New York Times about “the surveillance state” — “they kept their heads down and plowed their furrow” — did bring Cuba to mind. The tourist is certainly not aware of all that goes on.
Transportation in Cuba has changed a lot. Thirty-five years ago, there were lots of buses. Cubans speak of the “Special Period,” a time of economic hardship that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was Cuba’s primary trading partner, along with the Warsaw Pact nations. One of the problems Cuba encountered was finding replacement parts for Soviet-made buses. With that technology lost, Cubans used their ingenuity to convert trucks into people-movers. These old trucks were fitted with side benches and a rear staircase, as well as lots of standing room. These bus-trucks are all over Cuba these days, replacing the routes of Soviet buses.
Not all changes in Cuba are the result of local ingenuity. The embargo is also being violated every day. Cuba imports tourist coaches from China, for example, buses manufactured in China with American engines. Another example: Oak barrels for aging rum arrive from the U.S. via Canada.
Another major change in Cuba is the private restaurant, called the paladar. Cubans can now open their own restaurants and hire non-family members to work in them. Some are quite simple: a room has been converted into a simple restaurant. Others are elaborate, on the scale of a fine restaurant in any city in the world. All prices, of course, are in CUCs, pesos that can be converted to dollars, unlike the standard Cuban currency.
I VISITED A SCHOOL for the performing arts in Santiago. I was anxious to discuss the issue of gays in Cuba. Cuba has had a poor record when it comes to gays. After the revolution, Cuba wanted to build “the New Cuban Man”, and they decided to do this by changing gays, particularly effeminate gays, through hard manual labor. Gays were assigned to build roads, supposedly to change them into masculine heterosexuals. As for dance, when Alicia Alonso, the director of the Ballet Naçional de Cuba, came to New York in 1979, she told the New York Times that there were no gays in the ballet in Cuba, and she explained the system of dance education in Cuba: from a very young age, children were selected for special dance schools due to their physical attributes and athletic ability. At the first sign of a boy being effeminate, he is removed from dance school and sent back to the regular school system.
The good news, from what I was told and saw, was that things have changed significantly for the better. Today there is a frank discussion of homosexuality in Cuba. This issue is no longer buried, but is expected to be included in discussions about Cuba. We were told that mistakes were made, that discrimination took place, but that new leadership has emerged in Cuba, and the young generation does not hold the old prejudices. Raul Castro’s daughter is the director of the sexuality institute, and her influence has resulted in a policy of non-discrimination in Cuba. The director of the dance school assured me that gays were treated equally with non-gays. I was told that Alicia Alonso was told by a high ministry official that gays should not be in Cuba, and she responded that in that case she would have no dancers for her Ballet Naçional. Things change! I also visited the Ballet de Camaguey, which has many company working around the world, including in the San Francisco Ballet. In Cuba, these dancers earn $20 a month; abroad, they earn about $30,000 a year. Yet they do return to Cuba, where they can now keep all but a 10 percent tax on their earnings.
On to Guantanamo: not the U.S. military base next door, but the Cuban side. I learned today that Cubans are now permitted to lease land from the government in order to grow food and raise animals for the tourist hotels and restaurants. Those leasing the land can hire help to assist in their work.
I met with a “middle-class” family, both husband and wife employed at the local radio station, he as a director, she as an announcer. His grandfather had left Spain to escape Franco. The family became owners of various enterprises in Cuba, including a petrol station, all confiscated after the revolution. They were quite frank in their discussion. Cuba has been introducing more free enterprise, and more change is awaited, they said. Everyday consumer goods are needed. Life is taken day-to-day. Talking about their children’s education, they said it was not as good as it had been, as teachers are despondent about their low wages. They make the equivalent of $20 a month.
It was interesting to learn that the majority of the National Assembly are no longer Communist Party members, though no competing political parties are permitted. It was also interesting that Vietnam has provided the technical know-how for Cuba to plant rice fields. At the moment, Cuba is 70 percent self-sufficient in food.
CUBA CHANGED ITS CONSTITUTION in the 1990s to guarantee religious freedom. At the airport in Havana, on my 1979 visit, I had seen customs officers cutting open bags of flour being brought in by Catholic priests to bake communion wafers. This time, it was expected that religious sites would be part of tourism. In Camaguey (known as the “City of Churches”), for instance, we stopped at one of the most venerated religious sanctuaries in Cuba, the Nuestra Senora de Caridad shrine. We heard two sets of church bells in Camaguey, yet on Ash Wednesday, when we were there, I saw no one with ash on their face.
We also saw a film in Santiago produced by Cubavision Internaçional about religious observance through dance in Cuba. Included in the film was a scene at a synagogue, with a hora being performed.
The movie theater I passed in Camaguey had the latest Hollywood film available. There goes the embargo again! I also learned that most of the cane harvest is mechanized instead of the most grueling physical work: cutting cane with a machete. No more Venceremos Brigades of foreign comrades cutting cane.
ONE OF THE UNFORTUNATE REALITIES of Cuba today is that two parallel societies have developed. The local currency is the Cuban peso, while the artificial currency that must be used by tourists and Cuban-Americans, as well as by those who receive payments from relatives abroad, is called the CUC, the convertible peso. While there are about 24 standard Cuban pesos to the U.S. dollar, the CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar, one-for-one, so that one CUC=24 pesos. With consumer goods sold in CUC stores, Cubans who can get their hands on CUCs can live at a much higher standard of living. Cubans with CUCs can also enter the tourist hotels and stay or eat or drink. This dual currency has created a dual society, with haves and have-nots.
I visited, for example, a private fruit-and-vegetable market. The produce comes from private farms, and the market merchants are private entrepreneurs. The prices are four times the prices in the state stores, so only those with extra money can shop in the private markets.
Almost everyone in Cuba these days seems to be hustling. On the street, people are selling home-grown fruits and vegetables, or handmade earrings or asking for money if you want to take a photo.
Priority is set in Cuba, by orders of Fidel, for education and medicine, rather than fixing homes and buildings. As a traveler, on first glance, things look terrible because the housing and buildings are in great disrepair. (Cuba never invested in the Soviet model of building huge housing developments.)
Perhaps the most “tearing-at-the-heartstrings” sight is when elderly, very poor-looking women and men beg from tourists for money or for something they can sell. Yet Cuba has vibrant senior clubs and activities for those who wish to participate. Do those who beg need to, or are they on the margins due to a social problem such as alcohol abuse? Do they beg because they cannot live on their pensions? I pondered this but found no answers.
WE TRAVELED OUT OF CAMAGUEY to visit a cattle ranch, the King Ranch, of Texas fame before the revolution. Raising cattle is now a tiny fraction of what it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Cuba cannot get a steady, sufficient supply of material for the ranches, such as barbed wire and material to repair fencing. In addition, the Cuban cowboy, the vaquero, is aging, and Cuba cannot attract the young to become vaqueros. So little beef is raised, and it is not sold to Cubans, but to the tourist hotels and restaurants. When I visited a family of ranchers, I was told that they were Pentecostal, and that evangelists had opened a church nearby.
Back in Camaguey, I met a Jewish man who owns an art gallery. He said there are 20 to 25 Jews in Camaguey, and he invited me to the synagogue for Sabbath services, but I was unable to attend. I did pass the Cemeterio Israelit, the Jewish cemetery in Camaguey.
Some thoughts that I had at this point, several days into our journey: Americans, in general, have so much, and there is a movement among progressives in our country to cut down on materialism; the Cubans have so little, and they want material wealth. In America, we fail in giving priority to education, and until Obamacare, we failed to provide all with medical insurance; Cuba has put its money into education and medicine.
Will lifting the embargo help Cuba’s planned economy? Was Cuba wrong to put all its marbles in trade with the Soviet Union?
The people appear anxious to embrace free enterprise. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations, did Cubans expect communism to end in their country, too? I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a young Russian when I visited the Soviet Union in 1975. I asked him if the average person really believed what they saw on TV or read in the newspapers or were told at work meetings. He said very few believed what they heard, and just went about their daily routine.
There was also a lot of talk about Cuba’s good friends, the Chinese. China is investing in Cuba. Cuba retains 51 percent of businesses, but China takes the other 49 percent, such as in mining. China also sells tourist buses to Cuba. The model set by China, of a one-party Communist state with state capitalism as well as private enterprise, seems to be the model Cuba is looking to copy. Cuba needs to be careful about the future it wishes to create.
NEXT WE WENT TO TRINIDAD, a UNESCO Heritage Site that was one of Cuba’s original colonial cities. While the city is unchanged from 35 years ago — it is an historic site in perpetuity — back then it was a quiet backwater, the buildings a simple whitewash, while now, it is a tourist Mecca, with painted edifices, private bed and breakfasts, private restaurants, and lots of private tourist stores.
Then we went to Santa Clara, where we visited a children’s music-and-dance after-school program. So much is put into the children and their education and well being! At the other end of the lifecycle, we visited a senior center. What a contrast from those elderly begging from tourists. Perhaps it is being on the social margins that make them beg. At the senior center, the folks were spirited, well dressed and healthy looking. They engaged in music, dancing, games, and handicrafts. It looked like a nice group with which to spend retirement years.
At last, Havana. We visited the Centro Sephardi, the Sephardic Jewish Center. From the early days of its revolutionary victory, the government has rented out space in the Jewish communal buildings, and as the Jewish community dwindled, with most leaving for Florida or Israel, the very future of the Cuban Jewish community was in jeopardy. While Cuba does not directly subsidize the Jewish community, by renting space in these underused buildings, the government does provide income. Now that private cultural groups, such as contemporary dance groups, are free to teach and perform, they, too, are using Jewish communal properties. The Sephardic community converted their main sanctuary to a performing arts theater.
The Centro Sephardi also houses the Holocaust Memorial, and provides historical information on the Jews in Cuba. They emphasize the lack of anti-Semitism in Cuba, where about 2,000 Jews remain. They also are proud that there were many Jews in the Cuban Communist Party when the revolution occurred.
A discussion did come up today concerning the death penalty. Cuba feels the death penalty is needed as long as Cuba is under siege from the United States. The United Nations has condemned both the United States and Cuba for this cruel policy.
THE NEXT DAY WE TOOK A TOUR OF COLONIAL HAVANA, led by an architect involved in restoring the colonial city. Tourism has brought change to old Havana. Castro had required Cubans to have a permit to move to the capital, as he wanted more Cubans to live in the rest of the island, instead of what had been the decadent city under Batista. Havana’s infrastructure was therefore neglected to the point at which the colonial city was falling down building by building. That is now changing block by block, with buildings being restored. As they are restored, their tenants are moved temporarily to other housing; their apartments are refurbished, and they then return. The facades are recreated by the architects and historic preservationists, in the name of UNESCO.
At the National Art Museum, the docent was a very frank gay man. He did not hesitate to criticize the government for past abuses: for refusing to permit art it considered politically or morally inappropriate, and for forcing artists to quit or go into exile. The reason: Fidel said art must be for the revolution. The docent spoke of the attempt to change homosexuals and artists by putting them into re-education camps. But he is a revolutionary Cuban, he said, and today he can speak his mind without fear.
The next day I attended a lecture given by a professor at Havana University, who explained how a class split is again developing in Cuban society. Most of the exiles in Florida were wealthier, better educated, and white, he said. When they visit relatives who are still in Cuba, or when their Cuban relatives visit them in Florida, lots of consumer goods and cash are exchanged. This is creating two societies in Cuba: those who are white, with wealthy Florida relatives, and those are dark-skinned and do not have the benefit of rich Cuban-American relatives.
On my last day in Havana, I attended a lecture on religion. I learned that there are seven synagogues in Cuba, one Orthodox, and six Conservative. The one Reform temple has closed. Also, Christian missionaries are permitted in Cuba: At the airport, going to and from Cuba, I saw Southern Baptist missionaries. Also of note: The Cuban Communist Party now allows members to be religious believers.
Thirty-five years are a long time. I had visited Cuba back then with the hope that the spirit of revolutionary Cuba would influence our struggle in the United States. Over the years, I have heard so many negative things about Cuba that I’m sorry we weren’t able to visit dissidents to get their perspective. But I needed an “energy drink” of Cuba to bring me back to my enthusiasm. I’m more critical now, but energized.
Jeffrey Kassel has been a Jewish Currents reader since the 1970s. He retired after thirty-four years in the civil service. He was a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years.