Flight D 650 from Havana to Miami, the red and off white airport terminal is trying to show signs of successful communism, but it’s really just capitalism run by stressed out Cubans. I bought a couple of last minute presents, a pound of coffee and H. Upmann Cuban cigarettes. Only one of the 2 cafeterias was open. And they did not have change for a 20 cuc bill at the kiosk where I bought the coffee. There were no bags for the presents. Checking in was as smooth as any airport. Even thought there was a sign in Spanish and English, some stressed out American tourist protested because my mom was using her right of getting to the front of the line at the handicapped immigration booth. My mother was starting to get upset. I tried to talk to them nicely but I could tell they were very anxious to get out of the island and never come back to Cuba.
We got through the whole check in process and sat down to wait for the boarding time. We shared some peanuts and transfer pictures on our phones using air drop. Our friend Gerry, who came along for the trip was touched by the Cuban spirit of perseverance and (lucha) fight to subsist. “If the government would just let the people do things, they would bring the economy back and everybody wins”. Gerry commented. “It sounds simple” I said, “but they are so afraid to loose control over the people”. The private sector is the answer to the economical situation in Cuba. “I agree with social plans like education and heath care” Gerry added; “but it’s not sustainable under the circumstances the country has now”. And It has never been, we see it in the crumbling infrastructure.
We were at a book store in Viñales, wondering through dusty old books. Cooking books next to political literature, children’s books among history ones. I was looking for any new title by any Cuban author, I found none. I pulled a book by José Marti, our national poet and it was 250 pesos (10 cuc). It seemed to me like an exorbitant price for Cuban’s monthly salary of 15 cucs. Another woman asked if the prices were in convertible pesos or pesos, and the cashier replied “it’s in pesos, we are still part of the proletariado”. She smiled noting that Viñales had a very capitalistic economy. The whole main street is full of paladares.
Have things improved in Cuba since the opening of the relationship with the US?
“Whatever the US government says is going to be good for the Cuban people is exactly opposite of what the Cuban government then supports”. One of my friends said. When former president Barack Obama visited the island he emphasized in the fact that the private sector was the way to make things better, “The middle class creates jobs” he said, pays taxes, and improves the living standards. The answer to that beautiful speech; of hope and reunification; by the Cuban government was to increase inspections, taxes and hardening of regulations. “Things are hard enough in Cuba”, some people commented “and now the mulato comes and makes it worse”, referring to Obama. My good family friend and mentor always says: “there is no way to end this” while he draws a spiral on the air with his index finger. Then he sighs and adds, “We have to keep fighting”.
What are fighting for? In the 1868 war we fought for independence and abolition of slavery. In 1895, the same. Beginning of 20th century we fought to get rid of the neocolonialism that the American interventions in the Cuban-Spanish war brought. Mid 20th, the revolutionary war “accomplished” what our mambises had fought for. And now? What are Cubans fighting for? “The rice and beans and the little bit of protein on the table”. My mentor said.
In some ways we could tell the economy is doing better. When the Americans were told they could travel to Cuba and the airlines started flying in; Cubans started fixing their houses to rent rooms to tourist, opening “Paladares” (restaurants), fixing the old American cars, cleaning up their towns, improving their English and hosting skills. The most popular tourist spots were renovated by the government to accommodate the increase in the demand. My friends with BnB said to me over a nice lobster lunch. “We invested everything and the day by day struggle to find the fresh fruits and eggs for our guest breakfast, it paid off, last year was a booming year”. And we could see it reflected in some people’s life style.
But the so called “proletariado” sees no salary improvement and the market prices don’t reflect their reality. The farmers market increased their prices making it mostly accessible to those receiving “hard currency” like the private sector of the people who have family abroad. When you ask a Cuban “How are you doing?” Typically they will answer: “Aquí, en la luchita”. here... in the fight. Nothing is easy, but they manage to survive. That’s why it can be said we are “luchadores”.
Music and humor shows help us to disconnect from the hard reality. A good friend in Havana quit taking her antidepressants by watching Turkish soap operas she records on a flash drive from a new business set up by the private sector, you can see little stands with a tech guy recording music, tv shows, series. That’s the way Cubans avoid the TV boredom.
For many years Cubans created their own entertainment. You could see them playing dominoes or chest on the streets; or discussing all kinds of subjects, from politics, baseball to Mozart’s private’s life. The new phenomena is the cell phone and hot spots around the city. Every mayor park now has wifi, so the places where people socialized are now to get connected with social media instead of family and friends around them. The internet access in the island is still very limited: Facebook and imo for chatting, YouTube with very slow streaming. But they patiently wait to get some communication with the outside world. Like the corporations, the Cuban government has figured a way to keep the young people pacified and out of their hair.
Every body has a cellphone now, it’s the new trend. With the very expensive SIM card comes the right to get an email, for which you need to be a Cuban citizen living in the island. One person can have up to 3 cellphone lines, what has brought another business to the Cubans, renting cellphones to tourist, way cheaper than what the telephone company would sell you a temporary line for. Despite the high customs taxes on vehicles (bicycles and electric scooters) I saw businesses in Viñales where they rent them to tourist. Horse back riding is a very popular thing in that area that has become very “profitable”.
Money from the tourism is definitely trickling down, especially if we support the private sector. The new US government regulations are going to hurt the upcoming season. Although Cuba is ready to receive a lot of tourism, people in the States are afraid to go there now. The mysterious attacks to US citizens working there are creating fear, not for the Europeans or Canadians visiting the island, just for the Americans. When I told people in my new home town that I was going to Cuba on a family trip, the first thing they asked about was: “Be careful with the sonic attacks there”. I have to admit I was totally ignorant of the news. So I went back home and did some research. I even called friends in Cuba to ask what was the input there on the facts. To which I got an answer of “it is all made up to get the US embassy out of Cuba”. The different sources I read online said that the FBI had gone to Cuba to research the incidents and had found out that Cuba does not have such a weapon that can cause brain damage, although the US government believes that Cuban government knows more about it than we think. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/13/politics/cuba-us-diplomats-acoustic-weapons/index.html
I would ask myself this question. Why would the Cuban government want to affect the relationship with the US and as a consequence hurt the economy of the island? Cuba goes totally out of its ways to have an impeccable international image. We, Cubans in the island get treated poorly, but foreigners get treated like royalty. I am not defending the Cuban government, if they are really involved in this incidents I just hope that the truth comes out soon. It hasn’t been the first time that a terrorist has used Cuba as a stage to create conflict and affect the tourist industry. Like the bombings of the hotels Nacional, Capri, and Melia Cohiba in Havana in 1997, organized by the Venezuelan terrorist Posada Carriles. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Cuba_hotel_bombings
The other side of the coin is that there are Cubans still waiting to be interviewed by US diplomats to acquire a visa to rejoin family members. Since the embassy has been moved to Colombia, it makes it more expensive and dangerous for Cubans to go through that process. The wet foot dried foot policy is over, stopping people from trying to raft the 100 miles to florida or trying to cross the Mexican-American border. So, the only way for Cubans to seek for save haven is to go through legal applications like direct family, fiancé and political refugees visas. But how are they going to apply for such visas if they don’t have an embassy to go to? I have a cousin whose mother has been in Tampa since 2011, waiting for her to come to the US. Her interview appointment was scheduled for 2020, after many phone calls asking about cancellations she got it rescheduled for 2018. Now they are wondering how they are going to do it. Her mom works at a nursing home making minimum wages; she makes minimum wages in Cuba. To go to Colombia she needs at least 1000 dollars for travel expenses, lodging, food and transportation, to go to an interview that might or not approve her entrance to the US.
And that is, my friends, the situation in the controversial Caribbean island, also called the Pearl of the Caribbean. So beautiful and so condemned. My time traveling there could not be better and felt safer. I visited with my family, reunited with friends that I haven’t seen in over 7 years and visited some of the most beautiful national parks. We enjoyed the unique Cuban music and the art. The Cuban people are truly beautiful in many ways and they give all they have rather than their leftovers. Our friend Gerry enjoyed very much spending time listening to my enthusiastic, crazy family sharing sharing their stories of their life. He left Cuba with a hand full of titles to read. He got a history lesson and a greater appreciation for our abundant life in the States. “We got it good in America”, I said to him, “It’s too bad a lot of people don’t appreciate it”.