Look for What You Don’t See

February 12
Dateline: The Secret Cuba

In the first of the talks he was scheduled to deliver, our National Geographic writer-in-residence Tom Miller cautioned us about falling victim to the Columbus syndrome, a common occurrence for first-time visitors to Cuba.

During his years of exploration, Columbus only set foot in Cuba once. And that was for less than 24 hours. But according to lore, he called the island the most beautiful land he had ever seen. And Miller, after reading the introduction to his book on Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba, acknowledged that we would all find great beauty here in the next few days.

“However, what you don’t see can be as important as what you do see,” Miller cautioned. For example, he said we would not see newsstands. The reason is simple: a free press does not exist in Cuba. Like virtually everything else, all news is controlled by the government, which for years has translated into the will of Fidel Castro and his Communist followers.

Miller also noted that the relationship between Cuba and America is complex, especially when you contrasted a 50-year embargo with the fact that almost every Cuban family has family members or friends living in the United States.

The author found himself in Cuba immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade in New York. During a final dinner in Havana, the piano player at the restaurant played “America the Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” back to back. Miller assumed that the medley was an effort to get better tips from any Americans in attendance. But the pianist gave a different reason. “I did that for what you all suffered,” he said. Even Castro offered to let U.S. planes use Cuban airports in the aftermath of 9/11. 

However, all that good will, doesn’t eliminate the fact that an air of police state governing and secrecy “goes under and through and above all officialdom,” Miller said.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

The Last Virgin City in the Americas

Arriving for Tom Miller’s talk on “Havana from the Street” we learned that Tom would not be our speaker. Instead we would be hearing from Miguel Coyula, a member from the UNEAC Commission on the City, Culture and Architecture, who would be discussing the challenges Havana is facing in trying to preserve its rich architectural and cultural heritage.

We really shouldn’t have been surprised with the last minute switch. In all its contacts, National Geographic had cautioned that in Cuba things seldom go exactly according to plan. Here’s how they put it:

It has been our experience that changes, sometimes significant, are likely to occur to the itinerary, often with very little notice. The order of activities, the time of events, the activities themselves, the speakers scheduled, and even the hotels and restaurants currently confirmed may change. A spirit of flexibility and patience will go a long way toward making this adventure an enjoyable one.

As Coyula was setting up the computer for slides to accompany his talk, our guide Hilary handed out  specially designed Cuban travel journals that National Geographic had prepared for the trip. As part of the conditions of the cultural exchange, we had all agreed to take notes on what we saw and did and actively participate in programs and talks with both Cuban officials and regular citizens.

Coyula began by stressing that he was optimistic about Havana’s future. “As far as the restoration and the preservation of Havana is concerned, after years of misunderstanding, understanding is coming,” he said.

The priority for any true restoration must take the burgeoning population of modern-day Havana in mind. Currently, 2.2 million people call the city home. And that number is growing. “The city has become a magnet. Everybody wants to come here,” Coyula said. “So our effort is not just to preserve the buildings, but to improve the city. If you don’t hear a baby cry and you don’t hear a dog bark, the city is tasteless.”

A large problem facing the restorers is the deplorable conditions of many of the older buildings caused by a combination of age, Caribbean weather, and harsh financial conditions. For example, 3.1 structures in Havana crumble to the ground daily. Almost 15% of the city consists of now uninhabitable tenements. Old Havana, in particular, is extremely deteriorated. There, residents have been moved into provisional communities until their homes can be restored.  

Coyula explained that to understand the Havana of today you have to begin with the Havana of old. Initially, the Spanish paid little attention to Cuba because it lacked treasures the conquerors were seeking. But Havana quickly became the major port of distribution for all of the Spanish new world. “It was first ignored because of lack of gold and now all the gold was coming to Havana,” he said. The riches made the city attractive to pirates and so, in 1589, Castle Morro was built to discourage any attacks on the port. Today, that still-standing fortress is one of the city’s main attractions.

The city has always reflected a totally European flavor, unlike other Spanish cities in the Americas. Parts of the city remind visitors of Spanish towns. Others are reflective of French New Orleans. “The indigenous culture was exterminated in only 30 years, so there really isn’t any lasting influence of those peoples here,” Coyula said.

Two huge financial booms also greatly shaped Havana. The first was the wealth brought from the massive sugar plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1950s, the American Mafia established an opulent, but corrupt, gambling empire centered in Havana.

Those developments came to an abrupt halt on Jan. 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro and his supporters triumphed. Havana residents, angered by years of outside control, “took to the streets to destroy all the gambling houses. They even took baseball bats to the parking meters,” Coyula said.

For the next 30 years, Cuba relied on economic support from its Communist partner the Soviet Union. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 left Cuba with 80% of its trade income gone. Castro and his party referred to the next few years as “The Special Period in a Time of Peace” But the reality was much harsher. The people were forced to endure unimaginable shortages of virtually all items. For example, Havana was blacked out 14 to 16 hours a day because there was no fuel to provide electricity. The 50-year old American trade embargo and the Soviet dissolution forced Cuba to look elsewhere for economic help for all its projects, including  renovation and preservation. Today, such projects are being funded by Spain, England, Israel, and most recently, China.

Coyula said that while he “didn’t see any lifting of the (American) embargo” in the immediate future, he believed that Havana could be restored using the funding from other countries and new sources of revenue such as expanding tourism..

Citing those of us in the room as an example, Coyula explained that officials project that Cuba will  be visited by 3 million tourists this year. Most of them will come from Canada, Mexico, South America, and selected European countries. But because of recent relaxing of restrictions, 100,000 Americans are also expected to visit. “Maybe these visits can lead to a dismantling of the embargo,” Coyula said.

“Because of its special circumstances, Havana is really the last virgin city in the Americas,” the architect said. “I would like to see my city preserved and I hope that common sense will prevail.”

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

La Melia y El Malecon

We arrived at the Melia Cohiba. It would be symbolic of the duality we would constantly find in Cuba. The outside  reflected a world class hotel. Inside, both the massive lobby and spacious bar areas reinforced that idea.

But a closer view exposed a darker underside. You could buy a book on the best writings of Fidel Castro in both English and Spanish in the hotel gift shop, but you couldn’t buy a camera or a camera battery if you needed one. Cameras or camera batteries for sale don’t exist in Cuba, even in hotels striving for world-class status. The elevators were painfully slow and often simply stopped working. Even if they did grind from floor to floor, the edge of the elevator and the edge of the floor never matched up. Internet connections were even slower. And, if you were to use the hotel phones, it could take up to an hour to connect to the outside world.

The view from our 9th floor room was spectacular. Two sides of the room were windows offering a view of the neighboring Riviera Hotel, once owned by American mobster Meyer Lansky and a centerpiece of Cuba’s gambling empire; El  Malecon, the famous 100-year-old stone walkway ringing Havana which comes alive nightly with thousands of strollers; the deep blue waters of the sea; and a large section of resort-area Havana.

Our room itself was spacious and accommodating. A bidet in the bathroom indicated that it had been designed on the European, not the American, model. There was a large sunken oval tub, but no shower. You could shower by using the hand-held shower head and metal-link tubing wrapped around the tub’s faucets. We had a small flat-screen TV with about a dozen stations. Most were in Spanish, but there were the BBC and CNN international news channels, as well as 2 MTV channels. Usually, we would rush right out to explore, but we only had about an hour until our 1st scheduled lecture. I figured out the shower system and took a shower. Judy unpacked. We changed and headed downstairs to hear from our writer-in-residence.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

Moon Over Miami

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here, over the next few days, I will be posting journal entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2011. This is the 2nd post. I hope you enjoy and I’m looking to going back to Cuba someday.

February 10 2011
Dateline: Miami, Florida

I woke up early this morning, fueled by pre-trip energy and filled with questions. Would Cuba live up to my 50 years of dreams? What would daily life really be like on the embargo-impacted island? Could I possibly run into Fidel Castro? How would I survive for 10 days without my iPhone and iPad?

During the months of preparing for the trip, National Geographic had sent us lots of information. Several times their letters and emails had stressed that you couldn’t bring any devices into Cuba with GPS. Such devices would be confiscated at the Havana airport and might, or might not, be returned to you on your departure. I considered disregarding the warnings, but I decided against it. I didn’t want Judy to spend 10 days saying I told you so. So I was going to Cuba with only my Kindle and Judy’s antiquated cell phone for electronic comfort.

As I looked at the 2 bags Judy had packed 2 days earlier, I reviewed the preparations we had made, some of them based on our previous traveling experiences and others specifically designed for this special journey.

Judy had changed our U. S. dollars into Canadian money, which was cheaper to exchange in Cuba. National Geographic had sent us a lengthy reading list and we had divided up the reading. Judy had read three books, including Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee’s Travels Through Castro’s Cuba written by Tom Miller, who was to be one of our three guides in Cuba; another about an American woman living in Havana; and a biography of Fidel Castro, written by a friend of a friend.

For my part, I had also read three suggested books on Cuba, re-read Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and Sea (since we were going to visit at least two Hemingway sites), and had seven more Cuban titles on my Kindle. I also had packed two books, the one by Miller which I was planning to read on the trip, and the 2nd edition of National Geographic Cuba, a guidebook which we had received free in one of our multiple mailings. Judy had created an emergency medical kit since we had been warned that many, if not most items, could be in short supply in Cuba. We each made 1 major purchase: a fashionable light-weight black sweater for Judy in case of any chilly Cuban nights and a new small orange Olympic carry-on bag for me.

After weighing our two mid-size suitcases and our two carry-ons one more time with the new suitcase scale we had purchased (together both suitcase and carry-on could not exceed 44 pounds), it was time to hit the road.

Although Cuba was foremost on our minds, there was going to be an additional benefit to our stay-over in Miami. I would get a chance to meet up with one of my former students, Scott Sayre, whom I had not seen in 21 years. Scott and his long-time partner Jeff Wetter, whom he planned to marry later this year, were also staying overnight  in Miami prior to a cruise in the Caribbean. We made plans on Facebook to have lunch and a catch-up afternoon.  Arriving in Miami after an uneventful flight from DC, we were able to meet up with Scott and Jeff. Four hours and one lunch later (a tasty Cuban sandwich for me), we boarded shuttles for our respective hotels.

For us, it was the Miami Airport Marriott, where we were to meet our fellow travelers tomorrow morning for the short shuttle ride back to the airport. Since we had to be at the airport by 7 a.m., we made it a really early night, turning in right after watching Fringe. Knowing all I wanted to do in Cuba, I figured it might be the last full night’s sleep for a week-and-a-half.  

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

Cuban Ties, Cuban Dreams

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here, over the next few days, I will be posting journal entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2011. I hope you enjoy and I’m looking to going back to Cuba someday.

Tomorrow I will begin a trip to Havana and the island of Cuba, a 10-day excursion that has been more than 50 years in the making.

My fascination with Cuba has always been centered around a now fading, sepia picture taken in 1957. That photo features my Father and Mother, surrounded by 18 other travelers, all posed outside Morro Castle, a massive fortress that has guarded the Havana Harbor since 1589.

If you were to have asked my father (he is in the front row with the hat above while my mother is to his left) his profession, he would have said dry cleaning plant builder and operator. But if you were to have asked him his passions, he would have said my mother and gambling. In the the 50s, he was able to combine both by taking my mother with him on short flights from Florida to Cuba, where the American Mafia was running an extremely lucrative gambling empire.

However, that was all to change on Jan. 1, 1959, when a band of guerrillas led by a young Fidel Castro swept down from the mountains, deposed then-president Fulgencia Batista, forced American interests from the island, and established a Communist/Socialist regime a mere 90 miles from Miami’s beaches.

By the time I first came upon the photo, say 1960 or so, the island was off limits to Americans. I had to content myself with the picture, a travel book of my Mother’s entitled Around the World in 1,000 Pictures (which I still have) that included 6 pages of black-and-white travel shots of Cuba, and the headlines from Havana.

Once in power, Castro aligned himself and his small country with America’s enemy Russia. It was the time of the Cold War and no spot, with the possible exception of Berlin, was hotter than Havana.  

In 1962, America, Cuba, and its partner Russia, gave me my first glimpse of the possibility of a real-world Apocalypse – 13 days in October now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but then thought to be the imminent end of all days. Many believed the standoff between the world’s two superpowers over Russia’s installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba would end in fiery flashes of destruction and towering mushroom clouds.

Like the later assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who, for Americans, was to play the hero’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, most everyone who lived through those harrowing 13 days has vivid memories. I was 10 years old. I was in the 4th grade at Bridgeton Christian School. My father and mother worked about 12 miles away in Salem, New Jersey. As I recall, I wasn’t  really scared of dying. But I didn’t want to perish without seeing my mom and dad one last time. So I came up with a plan. Mrs. Robinson was my teacher. She drove a large Oldsmobile. She kept her car keys in her purse. She kept her purse in her desk. My plan, even though I had never driven a car before, was, at the first sound of an air-raid siren, to grab Mrs. Robinson’s keys, jump in her car, and drive to Salem. Fortunately, however, Russian leader Nikita Kruschev blinked first and I never had to test my pre-teenage driving skills.

But there was another Cuban threat consequence on my formative years – the mandatory Civil Defense drill. We practiced two types. In the first, we hid under our desks. In the second, we lined up in front of the hall lockers, placed our arms on the wall, and then put our heads on our arms. A fellow reporter once told me that he thought the drills had left him with severe psychological hangups. They simply left me convinced that those in authority didn’t always have the best of ideas.

My next brush with Fidel and Cuba came in my sophomore year at Villanova University. In the early evening of the last day of our 1st semester, we were taking my roommate Steve Ferrera to the Philly airport to catch a flight back to his Boston home. Somehow, during the party-filled day, we had acquired a Mexican sombrero. At the airport, our friend Rich Nocella, with the festive hat perched on his head, began hollering “Cuba … Cuba … Viva la Cuba.” Unfortunately, this was during the time when planes were being hijacked to that island. The next thing we knew, we were besieged by airport security, who whisked us into separate rooms and mentioned the threat of 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine before letting us go.

After college, Cuba continued to be off limits. Presidents came and went. Nixon. Ford. Carter.  Reagan. George Bush, the 1st. Clinton. George Bush, the 2nd. But the Cuban embargo, begun under Kennedy and extended by Lyndon Johnson, continued.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, some of the travel restrictions to Cuba began to ease. Some organizations were being allowed to offer cultural exchange excursions to Cuba. In 2011, we discovered that National Geographic was offering 10-day people-to-people trips to Cuba. We had traveled to Kenya once before with National Geographic and had a exhilarating, informative experience, so Judy immediately notified the organization that we wanted to join one of their upcoming Cuban excursions. Representatives there got back to us and said all their tours were filled, but they would put us on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we were notified that more trips were being offered and we immediately decided to join the Feb. 10th trip.

So that background brings us to today – the day before I can finally follow the traveling path of my mom and dad and spend time in Cuba. 

Langston Hughes, the noted African-American author who both spent time in Cuba and wrote about his experiences there, once asked – what happens to a dream deferred? Now, I was about to find out what happens when a dream deferred becomes a dream realized. Cuba here we come.