Postcard from Cuba: People connect, governments disconnect

Many old American cars in Cuba are used as taxis. Due to the U.S. embargo, many of the cars predate 1960, and the owners often have a difficult time obtaining parts to repair the vehicles. Photos by Lauries S. Miller.

By Laurie S. Miller

HAVANA — Sitting in his walker, waiting on his luggage at the Havana Airport, David Hiebert of Lawrence, Kansas, was looking forward to his second trip to Cuba – this time with six family members in tow.

Hiebert said one of his favorite things about the first trip was talking to people.

“I asked a 10-year-old boy what he wanted to be when he grew up,” Hiebert said. “He replied, ‘a tourist.’”

It’s not a surprising answer, considering that the average state salary is around $27, and many people don’t have the means to maintain what they own, said Miguel Coyula, an architect, urban planner and professor at the University of Havana. Cuba attracted a record 4 million visitors in 2016, an increase of 13 percent from 2015, according to Cuba’s tourism ministry. This increase is attributed to the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States that occurred under President Barack Obama.

It remains to be seen how President Donald J. Trump’s policy changes will affect American travel to Cuba in the future. Trump’s new restrictions, aimed at tightening travel and commercial ties between the United States and Cuba, were announced June 16.

While the increased flow of tourism dollars under Obama’s policy aided the Cuban economy, it also posed problems for a country with an infrastructure that is aging and crumbling.

“The average building age is 75 years,” Coyula said. “An entire city is getting old at practically the same time.”

Casa particulares, private homes operated much like bed and breakfasts, and paladars, restaurants operating in private homes have sprung up to accommodate the increase in tourism. Still, many hotels have aging electrical and plumbing systems and limited access to internet.

For U.S. citizens, travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute; however, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel under the Obama policy. These included such categories as family visits, U.S. government business, journalist activity and professional research.

Trump’s policy seeks to enhance the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism; its key changes further restrict American travel to Cuba and any financial transactions that benefit the Cuban military, according to a June 16 White House fact sheet.

Under Trump’s new restrictions, U.S. citizens will be able to visit Cuba only as part of a licensed group tour if they want to go to the island for educational purposes, and Trump is eliminating “people-to-people” trips, a subcategory of educational travel. Cuban-Americans will still be able to visit their families in Cuba and send remittances.

Hiebert and his family, along with 14 other people, traveled to Cuba on a “people-to-people” educational tour the month before Trump announced the new policy. The “people-to-people” experiences were designed to allow participants to engage and interact with the Cuban people, to study the island’s history and observe the changing environment and to exchange American and Cuban ideas.

The following anecdotes, observations and photos were collected on that May 2017 “people-to-people” trip to Cuba.


“Special Period”

From Christopher Columbus to Barack Obama, the influences of other countries and cultures help comprise the history of Cuba. While it has maintained its independence, the island’s story of the original Taino inhabitants is infused with Spanish and British interests, the introduction of African slaves and Chinese contract workers to labor on sugar plantations, and intervention from bigger countries, such as the United States and Russia.

Many Americans are familiar with the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro’s takeover of power on Jan. 3, 1959. Castro’s nationalization of all U.S.-owned property on the island precipitated the United States’ failed 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs and an expansion of the Cuban embargo to include all trade with the country.

The Museo Giron at Playa Giron offers the history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion from a Cuban perspective.

In talking about Cuba’s history, Ilen Rodrigues, a guide for Havanatur, the government-run tour operator in Cuba, often uses the acronym “B.C.,” or “before Castro.”

Americans are also familiar is the Cuban missile crisis, which occurred in October 1962 when U.S. President John Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island after the Soviet Union’s attempts to install ballistic missiles in Cuba. The stalemate lasted for 13 days, ending when the U.S. government agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing its missiles from Cuba.

One period of Cuba’s history may not be so familiar; this is the 1990s, or what the Cubans euphemistically call the “Special Period” in Cuba. In December 1991, the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba’s main economic trading partner, dissolved.

Rodrigues explained that the “Special Period” was hard on the Cuban people, who experienced long electrical outages and food shortages.  To escape the heat during power outages, Rodrigues said many people came out and slept in the streets. It wasn’t uncommon for people to lose 20 or 30 pounds as a result of food shortages.

In front of sparsely stocked shelves, Cuban guide Ilen Rodrigues shows a Cuban ration card, available to all citizens of the island country.

In an effort to add some protein into their diets, people in the cities brought small pigs and chickens into their apartments. Pigs were kept in bathtubs, Rodrigues explained, noting that they would be moved when families needed to bathe and then returned to the bathtubs.

“People got attached to these animals; they gave them names,” Rodrigues said, explaining that the families were then reluctant to kill and eat the pigs and chickens.

“What did you do?” asked Rodrigues. “You traded Poochie for an animal that you didn’t know the name.”


Diplomatic relations

“When we talk about people, the connection is good. When we talk about government, the connection isn’t so good,” said Carlos Alzugaray, Cuban diplomat, educator and writer, who labeled the United States and Cuba as “asymmetrical neighbors.”

“Big countries do what they want; small countries suffer what they must,” Alzugaray said during a presentation titled “Cuba-U.S. Relations after 17D2014: A View from Havana.”

As a professor at several Cuban educational institutions, Alzugaray served as a thesis committee member for Raul Castro’s son, Alejandro, now an engineer with a degree in international relations.

Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union, noted that Cuba’s response to “American hegemonics” generally falls within three options: modus vivendi, or an arrangement that allows both parties to coexist peacefully until an agreement is reached; resistance, or challenge.”

In one instance during his service as a Cuban diplomat, Alzugaray said he asked for advice before issuing a statement.  “Find out what the American position is, and take the opposite,”  he was told.

Asked to predict the successor to Cuban President Raul Castro, who has announced he will retire at the end of his term in 2018, Alzugaray obliged.  “I bet that the next president follows in Raul’s steps,” said Alzugaray, pointing out that Miguel Diaz-Canel was recently named first vice president and is a likely candidate to become president.

Alzugaray also addressed rumors that U.S. President Donald Trump would rewrite former president Obama’s policy of “friendliness to Cuba.” But his prediction proved to be incorrect in light of the June 16 policy changes.  

“Trump is too busy; he won’t be doing it,” Alzugaray said in May 2017. “We’ve gone from no-drama Obama to all-trauma Trump.”


Media and Internet

 The government tightly controls the Cuban media. The newspaper Granma is the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee, and television is operated through the state-run Cubavision. In channel surfing in Cuba, Americans can find some BBC news broadcasts and CNN from an Asian outlet. Limited access to the internet also thwarts the dissemination of information.

As a young university student studying philosophy, Maria Angeles-Garcia, has access to a free education in Cuba, but she said her research on euthanasia is complicated by the lack of internet access.

“It’s hard to research with no time on the internet,” she said, pointing out students can access and use computers, but the amount of time is limited. Angeles-Garcia said she has also had difficulty obtaining books for her research either because of the cost or lack of availability in Cuba.

Cuba’s “problems” take an economic shape for Angeles-Garcia, who strives to meet her financial needs for food, clothing and an apartment. On the side, she translates and writes the Spanish subtitles for what she calls “bad” independent American films, earning the equivalent of $10, or roughly a third of the average monthly government salary in Cuba.

Havanatur guide Rodrigues said many young Cubans access information through “el paquete,” or information downloaded on flash drives. She noted that much of the shared information is entertainment oriented.

“Do you think they want news? she asked. “No, they’re not interested in news.”


Rumba, cha-cha or  danzon?

Music and dance seem to be everywhere in Cuba; people perform in the streets and squares, in gardens and paladars, hotels and clubs and museums and recital halls. Nearly all the artists have CDs for sale – $10.

Children in a dance workshop perform in a gallery space in Cienfuegos.

A youth group enthusiastically performed in a gallery space in Cienfuegos, and fan-fluttering senior citizens demonstrated the danzon, a traditional Cuban ballroom dance, in Santa Clara.

Air-conditioning was non-existent as the Havana Queens a dance company founded by Rosario Garcia and Patrick Hoffer in 2012, practiced on an auditorium stage in a run-down building near Havana.  The heat, however, was in the performance rather than the actual air. Originally featuring only female dancers, the Havana Queens, now include male dancers as well. The group has won a number of awards for its music/dance videos.


The sites

Cuban children still play baseball on the small hillside field edging Finca La Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home located outside Havana. Although visitors can’t enter the house, they can peer through the windows to see his typewriter, his library filled with first-edition books and his scribbling of weight records beside the bathroom scale.

Finca La Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home in Cuba, is the resting place for his dogs (foreground) and his boat, the Pilar (background).

The home became the property of the Cuban government after Hemingway’s 1961 death. Falling into a state of disrepair, Finca Vigia was placed on the World Monuments Fund list of 100 Most Endangered sites and The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places. Working with the Cuban government, the Finca Vigia Foundation, a small American nonprofit working in Havana, has helped to restore the site.

Located on the property is Hemingway’s boat, Pilar. Nearby, stray dogs doze near the canine cemetery marked with the headstones of the author’s pets, Black, Negrita, Linda and Neron.

The restored home and Hemingway’s possessions echo his relationship with Cuba.

In Santa Clara, another historic site embodies the presence of a man and his relationship with Cuba. The Che Guevara Memorial and Mausoleum honors Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the famous revolutionary who remains a global symbol of leftist radicalism and anti-imperialism in popular culture.

Workers on scaffolding make repairs to the Che Guevara memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Guevara’s death.

Guevara met Fidel Castro and his brother Raul in Mexico in 1954 and joined the group being organized to wage guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista, president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944 and U.S.-backed dictator from 1952 to 1959. Proving his military ability, Guevara led the Cuban rebel army to victory at Santa Clara.

The memorial now contains the remains of Che Guevara and 29 other guerillas who died with him in Bolivia. Guevara’s execution remains a historic and controversial event. He was killed Oct. 9, 1967, by Bolivian soldiers, trained, equipped and guided by U.S. operatives. Guevara’s body was placed in an unmarked grave, and his remains were discovered and identified in 1997.

Today, most visitors are silent, and some are tearful, as they view the name plaques, the eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro and a replication of the Bolivian rain forest in which Guevara was killed.

The museum also includes Guevara’s gun, camera, medical certificates, binoculars and other personal effects, such as an inhaler he used to control asthma.

Che Guevara’s farewell letter to Fidel Castro is also encased in glass at the mausoleum.

“When Fidel died, he was shown in Havana,” said Cuban guide Rodrigues. “On the way to Santiago – the burial place – they stopped in Santa Clara,” she said, explaining Castro’s remains were taken to the mausoleum. “He spent the night with Che,” she said.


Dr. Laurie S. Miller, an assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Relations Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, spent nine days in Cuba, May 16-24, on a “people-to-people” educational tour.

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One Response to Postcard from Cuba: People connect, governments disconnect

  1. Sarah Wheeler says:

    Thanks for sharing Laurie! I enjoyed reading this and seeing the photos.

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