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Travel in a Changing Cuba

Entering a Communist totalitarian state, I expected more militaristic security personnel at the airport. Instead, we were warmly welcomed to Cuba by the female immigration and security agents wearing uniforms that included shorts and patterned fishnet stockings.
06/01/2016 03:30pm ET | Updated June 2, 2017
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Entering a Communist totalitarian state, I expected more militaristic security personnel at the airport. Instead, we were warmly welcomed to Cuba by the female immigration and security agents wearing uniforms that included shorts and patterned fishnet stockings. It was the first of many surprises, mostly pleasant surprises, we experienced in Cuba.

We were grateful that our stars aligned to visit shortly after President Obama's historic visit and shortly before the imminent tourist invasion. The first Carnival cruise ship from the U.S. docked with its 700 passengers one week after our visit. The Kardashians arrived the same week to film their "reality" vacation. In the Fall, U.S. airlines will be allowed to fly 20 flights a day to Havana and 10 flights a day to nine other Cuban cities (currently there are just a dozen or so daily charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba). Walking through the narrow streets of Old Havana, visiting restaurants and music halls, sharing the freeway with horses and 1940s automobiles, I can't imagine how an influx of 20,000 or more Americans each week will be accommodated.

Cuba is a land of contradictions. There is much about it frozen in time, set in its ways. Yet creativity abounds, and entrepreneurship is spreading. You see meticulously painted and maintained homes next to homes that appear one step from ruins. There is gorgeous natural scenery and conspicuous pollution. The people are friendly and open, but the society is not. Freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and travel are severely curtailed. Everyone can read, but they can't use the internet.

There are 11 million people in Cuba, about 2 million in Havana. The country rightfully boasts about its 99 percent rate of literacy and its 70,000 doctors and free health care (Cubans have lower infant mortality and higher life expectancy than Americans). After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union pulled out, the economy contracted by 70 percent and there was a decade of extreme food, medical, and other shortages that are described as "the difficult period." The last decade has been much better for the island, and the new relationship with the U.S. promises more.

The country is still resolutely communist and closed. In Revolutionary Square, there is a giant image on the side of one tall government building of Che Guevara with his quote: "Until the everlasting victory, always." Across the plaza another tall government building is graced by a giant Camilo Cienfuegos profile with the quote: "You're doing fine, Fidel." While Barack Obama's visit was popular among many people we visited (at a restaurant where the Obamas dined, the servers were still ecstatically buzzing about meeting him), Fidel Castro is less sanguine. In a hotel lobby, I found an English translation of a book about President Obama authored by Castro that was entirely critical of our imperialist, capitalist leader. Revolutionary Plaza and every city center or major plaza has a statue of independence martyr José Marti. There are many billboards among the palm trees in Cuba, but they only advertise the Castros, Che, and other revolutionary leaders beckoning Cubans to stay resolute in support of their nation and its ideology.

What struck me most touring Cuba was what I did not see -- disparities of wealth and poverty. There were no gated communities or wealthy residents walking downtown flaunting their luxury brands. There is a refreshing lack of the branded stores catering to wealthy residents and tourists that are ubiquitous in other historic city centers. Even the finest hotel rooms and restaurants were locally owned and relatively cheap by American standards.

We spent one evening dining in a relatively poor neighborhood outside Havana with one of our guides translating a discussion with local families. While walking through the neighborhood, we passed the over-full garbage dump on the corner and visited grocers whose food was too expensive for most people to purchase. The food stamp booklets they receive will ensure they don't starve, but are not enough to eat well. For those who struggle, though, they have housing, health care, literacy, and each other -- there is a lot of sharing and bartering at least in the community we visited.

From my limited time and purview, despite the lack of freedoms, those who are struggling economically seem to have more dignity than many of those struggling in the U.S. During my trip, I was reading Matthew Desmond's new book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" which profiles the difficult and desperate lives of people in my home city. Even as Cubans described the harrowing desperation of "the difficult years," it sadly seemed to only match the circumstances people experience in my city every day. Maybe it was the housing, food, literacy, and health care available to all. Maybe it was that poverty is not based on exploitation -- no one is profiting off their struggles. And maybe it was the low crime rate. It was refreshing to travel in a country with no private ownership of guns -- gun crimes are virtually non-existent.

It is important to note that many people we spoke to wonder when and if they will see benefits from the new development tied to tourism. When will their streets and homes be fixed? When will they be able to travel to visit family members in the U.S.? When will they have more freedom? I hope soon indeed.

We stayed at a "casa particular" in Havana, a private home bed and breakfast. The home was meticulously clean, the breakfasts wonderful, and our hosts warm and helpful. Housing in Cuba ranges from homes like the one we stayed in to those that look like rubble held together with glue. While walking through Old Havana, we were looking for a street name that is usually affixed to corner buildings. While walking by a particularly crumbled building, I remarked to my partner Jennifer "It looks like the street name fell off the building." She replied, "It looks like the building fell off the building." We saw a lot of buildings in such condition.

They are converting from 100 percent public housing to private ownership, so people will be able to buy and sell homes. In the past, a family home was truly a family home. When a child married, they did not receive a new home but would move in with one of their families. If one needed a bigger home or wanted to move to a different area, you visited a park where Cubans met to trade homes.

Getting around is wild. We appreciated that red and green traffic lights had large timers on them for drivers and pedestrians. They need it. Pedestrians have no right of way -- no one will slow down when you cross. At all. Old motorcycles all have side-cars. The vintage 1940s and 1950s American cars are everywhere. While they are beautiful on the outside, their insides are assembled from a hodgepodge of parts that click, clank, hiccup, and spew diesel smog into the air. Also, car interior comfort has improved tremendously in the past six to seven decades. We're glad our wonderful guide had a modern car for our long drives.

Driving on the freeways, there were two things you notice beside the revolutionary billboards. First, a traffic jam typically means you are behind a horse and buggy or old Soviet tractor and you can't pass because another one is slowly coming toward you in the other lane. The second is the bridges to nowhere shading hitchhikers. During the Soviety-backed era, there was an ambitious road-building project and bridges built along the highway. When the Soviets pulled out, most of the bridges had no roads connecting them. Government workers by law must pick up hitchhikers, and the hitchhikers group under these bridges often accompanied by a police officer, who makes sure they are picked up.

When we were looking for the address of a home on the outskirts of town, our guide asked a young man walking with a box of pizza if he knew the address. The guy yelled over to an older, shirtless, shoeless man sitting on a bench in the park who shouted the directions to us. Our guide turned to us and said, "the Cuban Google."

The internet is a process. If someone does not sell you a legitimate wifi card on the street, you get in line at the national phone company. Unless you get lucky or resourceful, you might wait an hour to buy a card with a code to log-in on the phone company's wifi networks, perhaps $5 for 2 hours of surfing time. There are not many wifi hotspots where you can use it. You find them when you see groups of people huddled together with their phones out. Then that wifi you've waited and searched for will work about 50 percent of the time. Most of those getting online are foreigners; most Cubans' phones can't get online or are severely restricted in access by the government-owned phone company. There is actually a black market in which people record pages from the internet and sell them to Cubans on DVDs and flash drives.

Inefficiencies are not limited to the internet. Someone told us of an afternoon spent looking for diapers. They visited five stores, and all of them were out. This may be a result as much from the U.S. embargo than on the state ownership of stores, but shopping and other errands require a lot of lines, waiting, and patience.

Filling in the gaps caused by the embargo and inefficiencies, everyone seems to know how to hustle. They are problem solvers. We witnessed several circumstances where barriers and challenges were overcome creatively. We also watched a perfume deal go down with the seller's paranoid eyes darting around as he handed over a vial of designer perfume to his customer as if it was a drug or weapons deal. They've figured out how to keep a 1940s Dodge running on old Soviet parts, and that adaptive capacity extends to many areas of life.

That innovative spirit is alive in many of the new restaurants, clubs, and galleries that have opened. A highlight of our trip was the Fàbrica de Arte Cubano, a former factory now filled with contemporary art galleries, performance spaces, drinks, and food. We viewed two incredible art shows, heard Ravel's Bolero played before a young audience of cheering Cuban hipsters and foreign visitors, and there was a band setting up for the next show in another gallery when we left.

The music, which is everywhere, swings. Almost every restaurant where we ate had live music. On a beautiful Cienfuegos evening, we saw an amazing band playing outside next to a statue of the legendary singer Benny Moré with an all-ages audience from children to seniors dancing in the street. When we went back to our hotel, there was another amazing singer in the rooftop bar. Our one disappointment was visiting a "Buena Vista Social Club" performance and being seated behind dozens of long tables of tour groups who were there with more enthusiasm for mojitos than music, and were being pandered to by the singers.

My hope is that the influx of tourists and trade will open opportunity and freedom to the Cuban people, who will see tangible benefits in their lives. I hope that such change, though, will not turn Cuba into another homogenous tourist zone. I hope that the uniqueness of the country and its culture will not be ruined by accommodating tourists' desire for the familiar, the easy, the branded goods and services, the party. I hope that local entrepreneurs rather than foreign chains meet the new demand, and that things remain a little slow, a little difficult, and a little unaccommodating. I hope those visiting will explore the deeper culture and not just come to party with rum and cigars.

We visited an organic farm and sculpture garden in Matanzas, where Hector, the passionate and charming farmer-artist shared his love of art, music, and delicious food with us. He told us he wants to cut back on the number of tour groups visiting his farm for tours and lunch because it has become a hassle and he already has "everything he needs." I hope the country, like Hector, can manage to benefit from the new tourist trade without catering too much to it or being consumed by it. I hope change is good for the Cubans and not just for the tourists.