Havana bound

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Four o’clock comes early in the morning (well, at least for those of us not milking cows). After prepping and queuing for hours, we finally left Miami for a 45-minute flight to Havana, capital city of Cuba.

Travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens was banned in 1961. Our trip was possible through our vocation as members of the media.

Cuba – why Cuba? Well, a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability of going somewhere our government forbids citizens to go. Others include the long shared history our country has had with Cuba from the explosion of the Maine to Castro, the Bay of Pigs and still with Castro today.

After accepting an invitation from the Inland Press Association, the trip was under way. I was joined by my father, Wayne T. Darling, chairman of the board of Lyle Printing.

On our seven-day trip we visited Cuba’s capital and largest city, Havana; Santa Clara; and Trinidad. Many meetings were established to foster communication between our group of 26 media members and representatives of the Cuban government.

As Cuba is a political dictatorship, much of their dialogue was well rehearsed and resembled an indoctrination of the state point of view. Officially, everyone was on the same page. In Cuba true freedom of expression and allowance for political opposition do not exist.

No freedom of speech. A visit to the International Institute of Journalism exposed this lack of freedom of expression and demonstrated the control over which the government has on information.

A Cuban journalism student related that she saw her future position more in terms of a liaison between the government and its people. In other words, she would tow the political line. She would inform the masses only that which the government espouses.

Further, a professor told us that “our role in the media is not to destroy ourselves.” He added that “those who violate our objectives are not with us.”

Big Brother is watching. For a citizen of Cuba to rise to any decent level in providing for his family, he must be part of the system, whether or not he believes in it. That’s how it works.

One would not receive the coveted job of serving the tourist trade if one did not believe in the system. He would not be exposed to receiving tips in hard currency – U.S. dollars. His child may not be tagged for university if he upsets the government. Big Brother is always present in the form of block supervisors.

Castro. While these are stark observations, many people seem to revere President Fidel Castro. This is more perhaps from a paternal view. After all, Castro is the longest standing head of a government in the world – 42 years.

The real sentiment seems one of, “what would we do without him?” And although in Cuba there’s is not abundance, many know of nothing else and all is provided for – well, sort of.

Housing, one of the most deplorable aspects of Cuban life, is provided. Food is a rationed, subsistent amount. Children 7 and younger receive 1 liter of milk per day. Those older do not. The low dairy production is attributed to poor fodder and lack of fertilizer.

Health care, by some criteria, is considered good and is available, if not always accessible. Education is free and has led to a high literacy rate. Jobs, while not high paying, are provided for by the government. The average monthly income is a mere $12.50 (we had a ride in Trinidad from a doctor moonlighting as a private car taxi driver).

Lots to overcome. An afternoon meeting in Havana with the President of Parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, left me with a great feeling for the difficulties this country has yet to overcome.

Alarcon, who is said to be the third ranking official in Cuba and possible candidate for succession to Castro, indicated that some of their biggest domestic issues are poor infrastructure and bad housing.

A look around the once majestic Havana confirms his statement. While many of the magnificent manor houses, government buildings and shops of the colonial era have been restored in the old city, still much remains in shambles.

Economic hardship. Castro’s claim that the embargo is the hinge that keeps the country down and thus lowers the level at which the citizen can exist is not entirely true. I would suggest that the withdrawal of support by the former Soviet Union in 1989 is the cause for much of Cuba’s woes.

For 30 years, Cuba’s gross national product was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. With the withdrawal of Soviet support in the early 1990s, Castro declared a five-year period of hardship known as “The Special Period.” This period of economic difficulty had enormous impact on the country and is now only being overcome by the country’s increase in tourism.

Nonetheless, our position is harmful as well. And the perceived reasons for implementation of the embargo are no longer applicable. Cuba is not a military threat to the United States and it is no longer “in bed” with the Soviets. Pentagon reports confirm that Cuba’s military capability is now only “residual” and “defensive.”

While I am not particularly enamored with assisting the nondemocratic, political dictatorship of Castro, I do believe that the issue needs revisited.

I am in favor of relaxing the ban of travel to Cuba. A greater influx of visitors from the United States can help to further educate the populace as to the real and definable benefits of a democratic society. Each visitor is an individual agent for change. This interaction could be positive and would put more hard currency directly in the hands of the people through tips at hotels and through the limited private enterprise operations that do exist.

Additionally, while Congress recently passed legislation to ease restrictions of the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, the financing language within the bill makes such transactions too difficult. While conducting business with Cuba will remain an uphill battle, we should do what we can to reduce these financing obstacles so that we can open a market for our farmers.

Cuba’s ability to obtain hard currency remains its greatest problem. If the United States were to permit open travel to Cuba the country could gain much needed hard currency and thus could afford our ag products.

Keep doors open. Nothing lasts forever. This type of political system runs out of steam eventually. Castro is 75. The United States needs to increase dialogue with this country, both with its current government and with those who would like to see it fail. We need greater discourse with this country of 11 million that is geographically so close, yet seems so far away.

* * *

Cuba… a tourist destination

Our hotel, the Golden Tulip, was a modern hotel with all the amenities. A joint venture with a Dutch hotel company, it commands a prime location for touring the old restored part of Havana. Much of the money to restore the colonial era structures comes from a grant from the United Nations, as Havana was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

The essentially intact portion of the old city dates to the 1500s, with most of the structures from the 17th and early 18th centuries. This enclave is touted as the finest example of Spanish Colonial era architecture in the Americas.

And it’s teeming with tourists. Most are from Canada, Europe and South America, but one sees many from the United States.

Of the 160,000 or so American tourists to visit the island legally each year, it is estimated that an additional 20,000 come to Cuba without permission. While I would not recommend such a trip, I am told that entry is easily made from a destination other than the United States.

As a means to accommodate the burgeoning growth in tourism and to spur the economy, some concessions to capitalism have developed. In particular are the paladares, privately operated restaurants. They provide for a truer sampling of both real food and real life in Cuba, as they are typically operated from the home. We had the occasion to eat at several paladares and enjoyed the experience, although I am told that the government is considering stifling the development of paladares. I trust with the continued demand for their service, this will not happen.

* * *

Cuba… at a glance

* Cuba is the largest island of the West Indies group, equal in area to Pennsylvania.

* The island lies just west of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and 90 miles south of Key West, Fla.

* The Communist Party of Cuba is the only political party.

* According to the USDA, prior to the revolution, U.S. owners controlled 25 percent of Cuban land.



Hemingway in Cuba…

The residents of Havana and all Cuban citizens have a fond place in their heart for Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway visited Cuba in the 1930s and eventually purchased an estate on the outskirts of Havana in 1939. He maintained his residence there until 1960.

He left his mark on the city and much can be seen today. We visited several hotels were he stayed and toured his estate (you can’t go inside, but most memorabilia can be viewed easily from peering through the windows and open doorways).

Hemingway had a reputation for consuming a drink or two and his old haunts are well publicized. Most notable are the El Floridita and the La Bodeguita from which one can see the graffiti he left on the wall.



Modes of transportation…

These include most anything imaginable – from horse-drawn wagons to the occasional nice taxi to camels. No, not the animal. This is the term given to a semi-tractor trailer rigged to a people carrier that resembles a two-humped camel. The occupancy of these vehicles far exceeds reasonable limitations. Given the heat of the day, thankfully we did not have occasion to travel in one.

The most notable mode of transport is the old Chevy from the United States. These cars dot the streets, along with other pre-Castro era models from the 1940s and 1950s. Not all, but many have had the original engine removed and replaced with a 1960s or 1970s Russian-made engine. These machines are a real treat and are available as taxis.

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