Cuba's Complicated Path

Cubans are almost as fixated as Americans on the wacky 2016 presidential race. The window opened by President Obama, some fear, could slam shut if the GOP wins. "Dump Trump," a customs officer quipped, perusing my passport on a recent trip to the island.

Frozen for decades by the U.S. embargo, Cuba has begun to thaw. Restrictions on trade and travel have eased during the 16-month rapprochement. A three-city Carnival cruise is set to begin in May and ferry service from Florida is imminent. As many as 110 flights a day could fly direct from the mainland by the end of the year. Starwood Hotels and Resorts will be managing three prestigious properties in Havana. Airbnb is already a presence. While Verizon Wireless was the first to offer roaming in Cuba, AT&T and PayPal are also tapping into the digital explosion.

Despite these economic seeds, opportunity is limited -- even for educated folks. Free tuition, a staple of the 1959 revolution, triggered a surplus of graduate degrees. Cigar factory workers and street cleaners make more than many professionals. "We've created a world of first-class minds in a third-world country," our tour guide observed. "Exporting brainpower -- doctors, lawyers, professors -- is our No. 1 industry. The government gets a cut of their salaries."

Tourism is the No. 2 source of revenue, and it's on the rise each year. Many Cubans have re-directed their sights in an attempt to ride the wave. A former mechanical engineer was our docent at a sugar factory. Doctors drive cabs. Vintage cars -- a trademark of Cuba -- have been re-painted and repaired. A ride in a '58 Pontiac costs up to $40 an hour -- about twice the average monthly salary.

A guide in tiny Remedios tabled a radio-newspaper career so he could support his family. "Can journalists say or write what they want?" I asked. He shot from the hip. "It's a doughnut, as Noam Chomsky said," the fellow began, quoting the renowned linguist and left-wing activist. "The hole is the government, institutions such as education, health care. The doughnut is dissent -- permissible dissent. And the doughnut is getting bigger."

A former professor who taught us dominos had his own take on the matter. Freedom of expression is subjective, the writer-poet said, chatting over lunch. "It's like Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa," he noted -- a reference to "Rashomon," the 1950 Japanese classic in which eyewitnesses provide conflicting accounts of the same incident. "Four people, six opinions."

By all accounts, however, things have improved since 2006, when Raul Castro took the reins from his brother Fidel. "Raul is a practical man," we were told. "He can no longer paint over the cracks." Wi-Fi "hotspots" are gathering places where the world can be accessed for a fee. VICE News reports that hard-drives packed with pirated content are sold for a few dollars on the street. Information is power, fueling grassroots discontent.

The government is, slowly, responding. Cubans can now go into business for themselves -- 25 percent of them pay taxes. (The class system is rearing its head.) People are permitted to buy and sell homes. Local baseball stars who made their fortunes in the U.S. will soon be permitted to return. Castro hosted a lunch for a goodwill contingent sent by Major League Baseball. Negotiations are underway to let Cuban talent sign with American teams.

Castro makes it clear, however, that change is on his terms. He made no political concessions to Obama who, during his historic visit last month, said Cubans need more of a voice. How can the president lecture him on human rights, Castro asked, when he faces such challenges at home? What kind of country lets people fend for themselves when it comes to food, medical care, shelter? Castro denied incarcerating anyone illegally, despite evidence to the contrary. Obama has to answer for Guantanamo -- a detention camp set up by the Bush administration to interrogate potential terrorists. (Located on Cuban soil, it's an ongoing thorn in his side.) "Profound differences" remain, as the two of them put it. Still, it's a win-win situation. Cuba is getting a crucial shot-in-the-arm. The U.S. has taken a leap toward closing the last Cold War chapter and opening a path to investment.

Until Congress votes to end the embargo, however, there are asterisks involved. Americans can't travel as tourists, the U.S. government maintains. They must go for a purpose -- be it religious, philanthropic, cultural exchange. Beaches are, technically, off-limits because they smack too much of "leisure" All 20 in our group signed a pledge to participate in 90 percent of the activities. (Fines have been levied by tours in which that mandate was violated.) Group travel is no longer necessary but interaction must be documented.

Our trip was the "people-to-people" variety, examining a broad spectrum of Cuban life. We visited a dormant cattle ranch and a tenement being renovated. We stopped at a bodega that distributes monthly food rations and viewed an exhibit on the Holocaust. (Thousands of refugees, fleeing the Nazis, ultimately ended up in Cuba.) A baseball Hall of Famer discussed the national pastime. An economics professor tracked the twists and turns of U.S.-Cuban relations. Participants in the group included lawyers, teachers, journalists, and a judge, as well as a librarian, a retired CEO and an insurance company chief. Our 11-day stretch wrapped up shortly before Obama's arrival -- and the free Rolling Stones concert.

People are dying to go to Cuba, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams noted during the network's extensive coverage of the president's trip. But the infrastructure isn't there. "Wait a few years -- or go with limited expectations," he advised. "Maybe, just maybe, you'll be surprised."

One doesn't come to Cuba for "perfect," our tour guide acknowledged. We soon found that out. The first hotel had a trickle of hot water, the second a torrent of cold. Two nights running, my TV came on at 5:15 a.m. -- an abrupt start to the day. (The front desk blamed it on "ghosts.") Power outages made an occasional appearance. Toilets had seats or not -- depending on the venue. Because credit cards aren't accepted, we had to carry lots of cash.

Still, the downside was an inconvenience, at most, and the trip full of pleasant surprises. Cuba was safer than we were led to believe. Accommodations -- at least, on this high-end trip -- were comfortable. Rooms had hairdryers, outlets that worked. Wake up calls came through most of the time. In arty Camaguey, housekeepers arranged towels in the shape of an animal (the guest's glasses planted on its nose). Hotel staff poured into the bus as we departed, enveloping us in hugs. Havana's airport gave new meaning to "retro," but planes (however late) took off.

While Cuba isn't a destination for "foodies," the country is trying hard. Privately-owned "paladares" serve up carpaccio and ceviche, not just the standard chicken and pork. Rather than inquiring whether diners want red or white wine, some waiters are handing out wine lists. "Welcome mojitos" are a fixture at most meals, as is Bucanero, a good Cuban beer.

If the infrastructure isn't ready for prime time, culture and spirit are strong. Scarcity fuels ingenuity and creativity softens the edges. Music -- jazz, salsa, reggaeton -- is a constant. Artists' studios frame plazas full of foliage and families. While cobblestone streets and dazzling architecture are in need of repair, they make a charming package. Horse-drawn carriages and pedaled bicitaxis add an engaging "period" feel.

It's best to sample it now. Before café con leches are supplanted by Starbucks. Before Havana turns into the new Miami.There's a sense of possibility, at long last, but progress has its drawbacks. The Cubans should know that all too well, having struggled for half a century.