One thing that has been a constant blessing in my life is the opportunity to travel regularly to different parts of the world. Visiting and interacting with people in different countries or even in different parts of the country where I live, has allowed me a variety of invaluable experiences that has literally opened my eyes to other perspectives, as well as sharpened my intellect.
My wife has always wanted to visit Cuba, especially before Fidel dies. A couple weeks ago we took the trip with our son. We had an excellent time! It was nice to be able to relax and recharge with some fun, sun and rum, after a taxing year. We stayed at an all inclusive resort, but also took a trip to the local town, as well as a day trip to Havana. The food was excellent and plentiful (no hot sauce anywhere though). The only disappointment was that they had no mint for Mojitos! But we managed. Here are some of my impressions of the island:
1. The revolution is still alive, but not doing so well.
2. The people are genuinely friendly. We didn’t get harassed on the beach or by overly aggressive vendors in the markets to buy their trinkets.
3. Although there was obvious poverty, there wasn’t that sense of desperate energy among the people. There were very few beggars, mostly in Havana, but a lot less than in other countries of the Caribbean which I have visited. We had a couple experiences involving corrupt officials asking for a “gift”, but these were minor incidents.
4. We didn’t see many police officers at all, however we felt totally safe and at ease being off the resort and exploring the local town and Havana with our 2 year old son.
5. Speaking of Havana… it’s an interesting city. It has a very historic feel to it, especially since the buildings are colonial and most of the cars are from the ’50s.
6. The people didn’t appear “repressed” to us. I mention this because while we were there, we were watching CNN and they reported that an American citizen involved with USAID was arrested for handing out cellphones and laptops to locals (see here). The reporter stated that this was an example of the “repression” the Cuban people were under from the Castro regime. My wife looked at each other and started to laugh and shake our heads. Can you say: “american propaganda!”
7. What does have a noticable negative impact on the people and the economy is the continuing U.S. economic, financial and trade blockade. There is trade with other countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia (particularly China) and of-course Canada, but U.S. laws such as ships which come to Cuba cannot enter a U.S. port for 6 months, has resulted in an unfortunate increase in the cost of goods entering the country.
8. The people are proud of the fact that they have universal education (including university) and health care. There are also many students on scholarships from various countries studying in Cuban universities and technical institutes, as well as Cuban professionals, particularly doctors and engineers, who have been sent by the government to work in many developing countries.
9. There is a substantial investment by the government into art and culture. They are also passionate about baseball, which is their national sport.
10. Although there have recently been media reports of racism against Afro-Cubans (see here), we didn’t observe any obvious disparity between them and those of Spanish descent… in fact there is a lot of inter-mixing. Granted we were there only for a week, primarily on a resort, and it didn’t seem appropriate to ask the Black staff if they felt they were being discriminated against in their own country. However I will mention that it was very noticable to my wife and I that the White tourists were catered to more than we were. At times we felt invisible as the staff (both White and Black) would serve the White tourists around us until we were forced to get their attention.
11. Raul is respected. Fidel is revered. Che is worshipped. We were told that in schools, at the end of singing the national anthem, students shout: “We will be like Che!” His image and books are everywhere.
12. We returned with rum and cigars!