As a very young child in the 1950s all I really knew of Cuba was that my mother was determined that our family would take a ferry over from Key West when we visited Florida. Unfortunately, history intervened and U.S. citizens were no longer able to travel to Cuba by the time we got to Key West.
As I got older I read stories about Cuba having been an exotic island playground for Americans during Prohibition. It was also where Ernest Hemingway lived when he wrote The Old Man and The Sea and it was home to the jazz great Benny Moré.
But I also grew up during The Cold War and was told that Cuba under Fidel Castro was a potential threat to the United States. I very vaguely recall hearing about The Bay of Pigs.
When the U.S. introduced the option of going to Cuba a few years ago, I started to think about going to this place I heard so much about but really knew nothing about.
In September of 2014, I was visiting a friend and she mentioned that she and some others were going on a People to People trip to Cuba. I immediately invited myself and another friend and we all booked the trip for April 2015. We went on one of Gate1Travel’s “Discovery” trips and flew from Miami to Cienfuegos on a charter flight.
When we booked our trip little did we expect the historic beginning of the United States and Cuba reestablishing diplomatic relations at the precise time we were going to be in the country!
Before going I read many articles about travel to Cuba. A lot of them contained misinformation as to how Americans can travel there legally, about the use of credit cards (not yet) and about what to expect.
Americans, at this time, are restricted in terms of how they can go to Cuba. We cannot use the beaches or travel independently seeing whatever we choose. We have to go under very specific rules which require, among other things, that we attend two to three educational or cultural events each day.
Another way of looking at it is that we will not have the experience that a Canadian, a German or anyone from another country will have when they visit Cuba.
I am very glad I went to Cuba but personally feel that it has been overly romanticized in most travel pieces. It’s a country with many economic problems and I hope it will benefit from increased tourism.
Cuba, even all these years after the revolution, still has an infectious appreciation of music, art, architecture and fine cigars. However, it also has dauntingly pervasive poverty, young people yearning for brighter futures and a lack of infrastructure for the predicted surge of American tourism.
In the Benny Moré School of the Arts in Cienfuegos it was easy to ignore the heat and uncomfortable chairs and focus on the talented, young, aspiring musicians who performed for us. The goal of the music program is to produce professional musicians.
A very rigorous year-long selection process begins with about 3,000 students across all of Cuba’s provinces. At the end only about 2% are selected for the total of 40 music, 12 dance and 10 visual arts places. Those who are selected attend the school for free and have a one-on-one student to professor ratio for education in their speciality.
Similarly, Cuba has programs for the creme de la creme of aspiring dance and visual arts students.
The Cuban appreciation for the arts extends to some of the magnificent architecture which can be found in all of the cities. However, the vast majority of buildings are in complete disrepair.
Since the revolution in 1959 Cuba’s economy has suffered from economic sanctions. The combination of low revenues and the costs of socialism for medical care, education, food, and housing have not left any money over to invest in property maintenance, much less improvement.
Somehow the best maintained buildings turn out to be government buildings!
Most people live in poverty, barely getting by with their $20 a month ration book for rice, beans and a very few other staples. Although Cuba boasts a very high employment rate the pay is very low. For example a surgeon in Cuba might earn $60 a month for what is clearly a high level position. A more typical income would be somewhere near $20 with some retirees receiving as little as $5 per month.
Cubans in town squares implore visitors for soap, pencils and other basic necessities. Cubans get by on so little that as a visitor you are starkly aware of the ease and privilege that most American travelers to Cuba enjoy in their lives.
As in many Latin cultures family is highly revered and the fates of the members of a family are linked. It’s hard to imagine the wealth and splendor of Cuba before the revolution. All but one of the wealthiest families of Cuba fled with their money. The opulence they abandoned has steadily disintegrated over the ensuing 50+ years.
Cuba’s economy took another very serious blow when the Soviet Bloc fell as those countries had provided Cuba with a great deal of money. That income stream ended virtually overnight with no way to replace it. That is why Cuba is so eager to embrace tourism and outside investment; they need it to survive.
Cuba also has a generation that is eager to demonstrate that they have entreprenurial skills. The government is loosening rules so that there can now be privately owned restaurants and some other types of businesses. Hotels are all wholly owned by the government or joint ventures with majority ownership belonging to the government. But as AirBnB and other private lodging and housing options begin to open up, more money will eventually find its way into the pockets of Cuban citizens.
Cubans are very proud of their heritage and history and eager to share it with visitors. It is important to remember that Americans can only visit and hear what has been approved by the government so always keep in mind that you’re hearing a “curated” version of reality!
The classic cars which still are prevalent in Cuba are a testament to Cuban ingenuity. The cars are kept running with Russian and Chinese parts combined with a massive amount of innovation. Similarly the music, visual arts, dance and culture have been maintained with determination, focus and pride.
This is a fascinating time to visit Cuba as it is undoubtedly on the cusp of change, whether it’s ready for it or not!