By P.J. Thomas
When President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, he became the first sitting president to set foot on the island in 88 years. Change is coming so quickly it’s difficult to keep pace, though U.S. citizens still cannot simply board a plane for leisure travel.
When Pathfinders’ Publisher Weller Thomas and I traveled to Cuba in the late 1990s, permission had to be obtained from the Treasury Department and purchases were limited to just $200 per person.
On our first day in Havana, many people assumed we were from Jamaica or a similar island until they heard us speak.
“Where are you from?” we were asked repeatedly.
“United States!” a group of teenagers exclaimed. They wanted to know all about American culture, peppering us with questions about baseball and which celebrities we knew. One young man simply pointed his finger as if it were a gun and said, “Tupuc, pow pow.” That was sad.
Jeffery, a young student who was studying English at a nearby school, latched onto us and each day when we stepped outside of the hotel, we found him waiting. He became our unofficial tour guide. He, delighted to have a chance to practice English, and I, equally happy to pull some long-forgotten phrases of high school Spanish from the cobwebs of my mind, enjoyed each other’s respective company.
Cuba has been the forbidden island for as long as the majority of Americans can remember. In 1962, under the Kennedy administration, diplomatic relations were severed after President Fidel Castro seized all U.S. businesses in Cuba and brought them under state control.
International trade and communications were halted and travel between the countries was severely restricted, requiring approval from the Treasury Department. Gone were the days when American mobsters and movie stars used Cuba as their playground.
So it was with an air of excitement that we visited the forbidden island aboard a chartered flight from JFK International Airport more than 15 years ago.
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is sprawled out just 90 miles from the Florida Keys. Nevertheless, it was still surprising when no sooner had the tail of the plane cleared the lights of Miami Beach that it began its descent and the captain advised the flight attendants to prepare the plane for landing.
A picture taken in March of President Obama peering out the window at Cuba as Air Force One was preparing to land brought back memories of us doing the exact thing. On our flight, every passenger with a window seat had their noses pressed against the glass for a long-awaited look at this exotic land.
During the taxi ride to the hotel we were jittery with excitement. Though nighttime, we peered out of the taxi window at the 1950s automobiles and at an extended bus we would later learn was called a camel, since it looked as if the bus had been sawed in half and welded together with another to carry more passengers. Havana is old, not just in the charming architectural sense, but gritty with years of grime, and many of the beautiful old buildings desperately need power washing and a good coat of paint. The salty air can be hard on concrete and the buildings easily start to show wear. Some have been stunningly restored, while others have pitifully crumbled.
During that 1997 visit, young Jeffery, our self-appointed guide, had introduced us to the Cuban people. We saw women posed in doorways in cultural clothing with huge cigars stuck in their mouths.
“Pictchie, pitchie,” they cried out to passing tourists. For about $1 or $2 U.S., you could take a photo with them.
We visited restaurants where it was evident supplies were scarce. The reply when asked for ketchup, “It will be here soon, maybe Wednesday.” Chicken was presented, simply fried, no salt, pepper, or flour coating like back home. Nothing here resembled home. It was if we had fallen asleep and awoken in 1955.
Music poured from the doorways of small, six- or eight-seat restaurants. Music was sung in the hotel lobby where Hemingway had stayed. It poured from the courtyards, where anyone was likely to grab a partner and salsa. The state-approved song about Che Guevara was played repeatedly. In fact, pictures of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary sidekick were plastered everywhere.
Jeffery proudly took us to his home. As we darted down alleyways and then climbed two flights to reach his apartment, we only hoped we were not being set up for a robbery. We felt so ashamed as we sat in the sparsely furnished apartment while he introduced up proudly to his mother and prepared some of the strongest Cuban coffee ever. Knowing the scarcity of milk (several people asked us to buy it for them), it brought tears to my eyes when he offered the coveted drink.
Havana is safe, too. Government soldiers regularly patrolled the streets, chastising anyone who even looked as though they were hassling the tourists. One evening we sat in the central square. It was one of those breezy evenings in which the palm trees swayed overhead and the rhythms of the city slowed. We looked on as grandmothers watched children play, young women paraded in skin-tight spandex, and everyone emptied their hot apartments to simply socialize. When a group of men nearby became animated, we jumped up, prepared to scurry away.
Jeffery was puzzled.
“That group of men over there. It looks like someone is starting to fight,” we told him.
“No, no,” he said with a laugh. “They are listening to the ballgame. They are talking about which player is best.”
We smiled sheepishly. We had not seen the small radio in the center of the crowd.
“Funny,” I said. “There is not a park in America I would sit in when the sun went down.”
Fast forward to 2016
There is more evidence of capitalism as paladares, the home restaurants, have increased. In places, particularly in Santiago de Cuba, the heart of the Afro-Cuban culture, musicians work for tips on street corners, food and nuts are sold from the ground-floor windows of houses, and many offered their services as tour guides. It is whispered that Fidel Castro will be buried here one day.
There are an increased number of restaurants, galleries, festivals, and modern tour buses which roll through the countryside. Cuba is once again the place to go, and construction abounds as foreign investment pours into the country.
Hotels, though architecturally beautiful, can be hit or miss. Beautiful on the outside, four- or five-star, it is not uncommon to find mold on the hotel room walls or the elevators inoperable. But many are being renovated by international hotel groups, which should improve the quality of the rooms and service. Some have been renovated already in lovely areas that resemble the most elegant beachfront communities in the states.
The beaches are by far the most beautiful in the Caribbean. In Varadero, the major resort community with 21 miles of uninterrupted beach, you will find major hotel chains, that is except for American-owned companies.
But that, too, is changing. In March 2016, Starwood Hotels and Resorts was granted permission to manage three state-owned hotels in Cuba, the first time in 60 years. Airbnb is accepting reservations. Carnival Cruise Corporation will operate cruises from Miami to Cuba with its Fathom brand through a people-to-people program beginning in May. Expect the Carnival Cruise brand and other cruise lines to achieve permission to add Cuba as a port of call very soon.
When that happens, sadly, it will transform this mystical place into just another Caribbean port where tourists pile from 3,000-passenger cruise ships for a day of shopping. They will swig cool mojitos and dance on tabletops at places like Señor Frogs and sip coffee from Starbucks. They will bring home bottles of once-forbidden Cuban rum and boxes of coveted Cohiba cigars. They will give hardly a thought to the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs.
It’s been a long time coming, and U.S. tourism will undoubtedly increase the standard of living for the Cuban people. My advice, once the remaining restrictions are lifted: get there quickly, before it changes too much.