“Cuba was magical! I never understood the importance of Cuba and it’s beautiful, rich, extraordinary history until I traveled there in March of 2016. Everything I read and most of the stuff I learned in school about the revolution, its people, and the embargo was lopsided and not entirely true. I was indeed, reeducated.
Cuba is moving at warp speed onto the world stage and its people are both excited and scared. The Cubans we met are fiercely proud and resilient. They want a relationship with America, but they are in no hurry to have us come down and build gated golf course communities, buy up all the antique cars or turn their hotspots into spring break hangouts with drunken college kids taking over their towns.”
The revolution was a perfect storm that happened in a climate that sort of resembles a lot of current climates around the world: 1% of native Cubans and foreigners controlled much of the wealth and the people rebelled. Yes, there are dissidents, but the majority of the Cuban people are extremely gratified that they took their country back.
Visiting a 300-year-old sugar mill where people from China, Africa, India and other islands were enslaved to work under horrific conditions by colonials helped me understand the deep resentment they still have for multinational corporations and why they are skeptical of allowing outsiders to own and operate companies in Cuba.
The U.S. embargo not only banned American countries from doing business with Cuba, but it also forbade other countries from doing business there. As a result, we gave them no other choice but to do business with Russia and China, who ignored our embargo. I never understood how it was okay to do business with harsher communist regimes around the world, but not Cuba.
Bernie Sanders would be in heaven: education is free through postgraduate studies and 97% of their population is well educated. They produce some of the best doctors in the world and 67% of them are women! Health care is free and doctors still conduct home visits.
The embargo forced them to become masters of green spaces, sustainability, innovation, creativity and organic farming. And though many are not happy with the food basket system and low wages, few go hungry in this country, crime is extremely low and there are no homeless sleeping on the streets.
When we first arrived, we spent a few days at a resort in Santa Clara, and though it was beautiful, I could have been anywhere in the Caribbean. It catered to European and Canadian tourists and there was no hint that you were in Cuba except for the people working there. Our daily excursions took us to villages and farms that restored the magic. Local families prepared our meals and people were eager to discuss America, especially the political scene.
As we trekked throughout the country, the evidence of their ingenuity was everywhere. We traveled on an air-conditioned, high-end bus with a bathroom and passed most Cubans on 50-year-old bicycles, horses pulling carts and every contraption you can imagine that has been turned into a mode of transportation.
We then spent a few days in Havana and it was off the chain! The city was electric and in constant motion. We drove down the street singing in beautiful old convertible cars and ate and drank and ate and drank until well, it was time to go home.
The food in Havana is scrumptious and the best of it is tucked away in nooks and crannies in places called paladares. Basically, the government has allowed a lot of people to convert their front porches and the roof decks of their homes into restaurants to meet the growing demand of tourists, and they can cook! The nightclub scene, artwork, historic lectures, cultural seminars, cigars, rum… yep, all there. The highlight of my trip was a visit to a small town outside of Havana where a bootleg juke joint still exists. We partied with people in their seventies and eighties who danced us under a table.
Be very clear, Cuba is still a communist country. They monitor and track everything. We did not get a chance on this trip to visit Santiago, where most of the Afro-Cubans live. Racism is alive and well and though the revolution claimed equality for all, Cubans of Castilian background still hold a lot of the power and benefit from their relatives who are allowed to wire money back from the United States to help out. Yes, Western Union is front and center.
They are not ready for the onslaught of tourists who want to visit. We experienced three rolling brownouts and everybody on our trip ran out of money. As of March, you still could not use a credit card, get money from an ATM or use the American banking system. You have to really plan well; when your money is gone, it’s gone! The first American cruise ship arrived a week before us, and the entire city of Havana ran out of drinking water, Coca-Cola, ice, and more.
Their beautiful buildings are falling apart and are in desperate need of supplies to restore them before it is too late. Many of the younger Cubans we spoke with want more Internet connectivity, travel freedom and access to the outside world, but even they do not want their country to change too much and don’t want to leave permanently.
I took my 12-year-old daughter and goddaughter on this trip because I wanted them to experience Cuba before the inevitable happens. Change. There are several major hotels and resorts under construction, and JetBlue, United, Royal Caribbean, Google, Visa and many others are all gearing up. Cuba will need these services and many more in order to meet the growing demand of international tourists that they desperately need in order to stabilize their country’s economy.
I can’t wait to go back! I love the spirit of the people and beauty of the land. I am still learning and grateful for my re-education.