He was a big-shouldered, muscular Cuban guy. His name was Oswaldo, and we had just crossed paths inside the sprawling, warren-like San Jose Market in Havana. He wanted to talk because the Lou Reed likeness on my T-shirt had caught his eye and he knew a lot about American and British rock music.
He brought up the name of the band that helped launch Lou, the Velvet Underground. He showed me the Led Zeppelin tattoo on his forearm. He listened, wide-eyed, when I told him I had seen Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in concert, twice. He told me how much he loved “the Boss,” and I felt a little embarrassed to tell him I had seen Springsteen in concert four times.
Looking back, I wish I had left Oswaldo with more than just a few rock concert recollections. If I go to Cuba again, I’ll bring lots of rock and roll T-shirts. But maybe, just maybe, if the relations between our two countries continue to warm up, folks like Oswaldo will be able to get not just rock T-shirts, but even necessities that they now find in short supply.
I was in Cuba for a week in mid-October, following a summer in which the U.S. and this large,diverse island of 11.2 million people re-established diplomatic relations after 54 years of mutually shared estrangement. I was part of a group trip arranged through the University of Alabama Alumni Association and the World Affairs Council, an organization with chapters around the U.S. that promotes greater understanding of nations and the issues they face. There were 26 of us, and we traveled to Cuba under what is known as a People to People license. That U.S. license required us to have a full, education-focused itinerary.
And while we were not the first and we would not be the last group of foreigners to visit the various places we saw, I think we could not help but be fascinated. Among other things, we walked the streets of Old Havana and listened to a young architect describe the restoration effort now taking place there. We received tutoring on the food ration card that is issued to each Cuban,and we saw a performance of young dancers and musicians at an art school in the city of Matanzas. We also danced, learned about Latin dance etiquette and played a baseball-like game called Quimbumbia at a senior citizens center in the city of Santa Clara.
We ate a fabulous meal prepared at an organic farm in the breathtakingly beautiful Viñales Valley. We met with faculty members at the University of Havana and a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy, and we sat in on an intense round of drumming, chanting and dancing derived from the Santeria religion developed by Cubans of African descent. We also saw the wild and wacky ceramic sculptures and paintings with which an artist named Jose Rodriguez Fuster has transformed his home and surrounding habitations in the Havana neighborhood of Jaimanitas. And of course, we rode in Chevys, Fords, Dodges and other vintage cars from the 1940s and ‘50s that draw lots tourists to Cuba but also furnish transportation to everyday people who need it.
And whenever possible, we talked to people, asking them about their lives, what they thought of Americans, what they think might happen now that the U.S. and Cuba have allowed each other to open up embassies. We asked what might happen when Raul Castro, who took over the reins of the Cuban regime when his ailing older brother Fidel decided to step aside, steps down or dies.
Now, a one-week visit to any place does not make one an expert on it, and that is certainly the case with myself and Cuba. But I do feel I know a lot more about this island than I did before this trip, and I want to share some of the things I have learned and observed. Under the terms of our trip, we were required to keep a journal and to hold onto it for five years. What follows is based largely on notes I kept during the trip and afterward.
Again, what many of us wanted to know was what Cubans thought now that the U.S. and their country had opened embassies in each other’s capitals.
“It’s the best thing that could have happened to us,” said Carlos Changuet, the manager of Carenas, a musical group that performed for us in Havana. “Thank you, Obama.”
“We are brothers and sisters now,” a Cuban woman told me.
“We have many things we can trade with each other,” said a taxi driver named Moises, who was behind the wheel of a red-and-white, short-lived Ford car called an Edsel.
Echoing some of his countrymen, Changuet told us the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election could possibly determine how much warmer or cooler the relationship would become.
“I hope it will be Hillary,” he said.
Nestor Mesa, a professor who accompanied our group on a walking tour through the University of Havana, told of people laughing, crying, shouting and of car horns honking when President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 that Cuba and the U.S. would be re-establishing diplomatic relations. I think Mesa might hear some more of that racket if the U.S. Congress decides to lift the trade embargo.
“We know that this is going to be a process (toward full relations) that is going to be long,” Mesa said.
But when that process is over, he was asked, will we see a McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner?
“No, no, no, no, no,” Mesa replied. “It [meaning that] is not my country.”
Cuba may be an island, but its land mass of 42,426 square miles would take up more than 80 percent of Alabama. Cuba is nearly as large as Louisiana, and it is larger than Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Ohio and Indiana. It also could swallow up, altogether, the New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Ties that bind
Alabama has longstanding ties to Cuba. Mobile’s founder, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville, is buried in Havana. Alabamians fought on the island during the Spanish-American War, two of the most famous being “Fighting Joe” Wheeler and Richmond Pearson Hobson. Four Alabama Air National Guard members were killed during the ill-fated, poorly planned 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Fidel Castro’s regime. Currently, as part of the war on terror, an Alabama National Guard unit is now helping guard prisoners in the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay along Cuba’s southeastern coast.
On the non-military side, Alabama used to do a lot of trading with Cuba — and Gov. Robert Bentley wants to see that trade revived. In the middle of our stay, he signed a letter with eight other governors asking that Congress lift the U.S. trade embargo. Mobile, through which a lot of goods would be shipped, and Havana are sister cities.
Since 2002, the University of Alabama has had an Alabama-Cuba Initiative, under which UA students have been spending a semester in Cuba since 2009, UA faculty have been doing research studies on the island and Cuban professionals in a variety of fields have spent time in Tuscaloosa with their UA counterparts. In February, UA opened a Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship.
Auburn also has been moving on the Cuban front. In June, AU and Cuban educators signed a five-year agreement between Auburn’s College of Agriculture and the Agrarian University of Havana and the Cuban National Center for Animal and Plant Health. According to an Auburn news release, that agreement “paves the way for faculty and student exchange programs and collaborative research efforts between Auburn agriculture and the Cuban institutions.”
Also in June, UAB nephrologist David Pollock was in Cuba with other members of the American Physiological Society to sign a research collaboration agreement with the Cuban Society of Physiological Sciences.
More than a few times during our trip, my fellow group members and I were served a lot of chicken legs and thighs. For all we know, some of that chicken could have come from Alabama, and here’s why:
Because of the loosening of the trade embargo in 2000, Alabama has shipped a lot of poultry to Cuba. In 2014, according to Maria Mendez, director of Latin American Sales & Trade Development at the Alabama State Port Authority, about 100,000 tons of Alabama chicken parts were shipped to Cuba from Mobile, New Orleans and Pascagoula. Last summer, when Cuba put an embargo on Alabama poultry because of concerns over avian flu, an Alabama delegation whose members included state Veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier and Dan Connor, chairman of Auburn’s poultry science department, flew to Cuba to reassure officials there of the poultry’s safety, and shipments subsequently resumed.
Meanwhile, a north Alabama based-firm, CleBer LLC, is planning to build a factory in Cuba that will produce tractors for Cuban farmers.
Poor and vibrant
To say that Cuba is a poor, underdeveloped country is an understatement. You can read plenty of data about it, but you can see indications of it, as we did with our own eyes, and talk to folks about it.
While a major renovation and restoration effort is underway in the heart of the old city, Havana, like other Cuban cities we saw, is full of once-magnificent colonial-style buildings that made me think of the words “faded glory.” If we tend to think of cities as feminine, then I think much of Havana could be personified by an actress long past her prime, caked in makeup yet unable to hide the wrinkles and wear of the years, with eyeshade running in rivulets down her face. Havana has street lights, but they are only dim counterpoints to the night, as are the lights inside many homes and buildings. In the Cuban cities I saw, rust never sleeps, and I think the sunshine is especially welcome.
Now before you get the impression that Cuba is one big bleak house, you would notice if you visited that many Cuban homes and other buildings have a lot of color, one of the primary shades a cobalt blue that is apparently used a lot because it can withstand tropical weather. But not faring very well at all are the soulless, peeling and crumbling bloc apartment buildings that reflect the island’s long association with the former Soviet Union, structures like those that you can see all over the former Iron Curtain countries. (Not surprisingly, the Russian embassy, looming over the Havana landscape like a rough replica of an old German army hand grenade, may be the ugliest public building I have ever seen.) The only thing that offsets their baleful pallor are the lines of colorful clothes hanging over many balconies. In fact, if what I saw on the trip was any indication, today’s Cuba is a country of clotheslines.
Havana has its share of nightspots, and Mick Jagger was seen dancing in one the week before our group arrived. A lot of the joints feature music like that made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club CD and I took in that music at a couple of places and even danced. But one thing I noticed in these places was how few Cubans were at the tables.
On the Saturday night of our trip, some of us and our Cuban guide, Rigoberto Mir, headed to Café Taberna, a nightspot in Old Havana. There, we sipped mojitos and watched as a band, several of its members in their 70s, along with two vibrant, young, red-clad dancers, put on a swinging show. The audience seemed to be almost entirely European and many, including ourselves, were happy to get up and dance with the music. Toward the end of the show, a lot of us joined a conga line. As we made our way around the floor, I noticed the silhouettes of faces looking in the windows from outside and moving in time to the music. The faces belonged to Cubans, who I think would have been hard-pressed to pay the $25 cover charge.
That brings me to a man I met whose name is Alfredo. He is 65 and has five children and nine grandchildren. He also drives a taxi, a 1948 Plymouth Special, keeping it going with parts from a Lada, a Russian car still common in Cuba. The car’s interior was spotless, and Alfredo had put a leather cover on the steering wheel and installed a sound system far more modern than the car’s original AM radio. Also, according to Rigoberto who translated much of our conversation, Alfredo was also unlicensed. That way, he would make more money, and he needed it.
One of the recurring features of Cuba is a billboard or sign exhorting the glories of La Revolución and bearing quote-accompanied images of Fidel Castro and his rebel buddy Che Guevara. Alfredo is old enough to remember when Fidel, his younger brother Raul, Che and their forces toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. He said that during the fighting, some Batista soldiers killed a man in his rural community because the man was simply trying to sell a horse and they were sure he was trying to sell it to the rebels. He said the revolution changed things for the better. But, he said, those in charge needed to do more.
Alfredo said he drew a pension that, according to my calculations, amounted to about $10 a month. It would take half of that to buy some beef to supplement his family’s diet, he said, and it would not come close to buying a new pair of shoes.
“How can anybody live on that?” he said.
Alfredo had spent much of his working life on Cuba’s highways and byways, driving buses and trucks. We spent hours on those highways and byways as well, riding in something to which many Cubans in need of transport do not have access: an air-conditioned bus. Having driven more times than I can count in the interstate sprawl of Birmingham, I was struck by how little vehicle traffic was on the national highway that took us from Havana to cities like Matanzas and Santa Clara or the Viñales Valley.
Some of the sights that are still fresh in my memory are overpasses leading to nowhere, the crumbling concrete of abandoned agricultural schools, the lack of cattle in fields we passed, horse-drawn wagons using the national highway and leaving piles of poop to mark their passage, and clusters of hitchhiking Cubans standing along the shoulder of the highway, some of them holding aloft a wad of pesos to entice a passing vehicle to stop.
Tourism promotions say, “Come to Cuba before it changes.” Good idea, but don’t hurry. Those changes are going to take a while.
Take infrastructure, for example. Daniel De La Regata, a young architect sporting a Boston Red Sox ball cap who took us on a tour of the renovation work in which he is involved in Old Havana, put it this way:
“We are not prepared to deal with you.”
When our group first arrived in Havana, our lodging was in the Hotel Nacional, which overlooks the famous five-mile long seawall known as the Malecón and the harbor beyond. In Havana, the Nacional is to other hotels what the Alabama Theatre is to the other cinemas that serve our area – a venerable palace, a dowager amidst a group of young upstarts. The Nacional makes a lot of its long history and the VIPs of stage, screen, politics and crime who have stayed there. In 1946, American mobsters held a summit there and Frank Sinatra entertained them. In August, after the U.S. embassy formally opened its doors, Secretary of State John Kerry came by and held a press briefing with his Cuban counterpart. In the lobby, near the entrance to the bar, stands a statue of an Alabama native, the smooth-voiced crooner Nat King Cole. At the other end of the lobby, a short walk from a kiosk full of books on Fidel, Che and La Revolución, a uniformed attendant stands ready to push the “Up” button on the elevators and hold the doors open for passengers.
Renovations and repairs were taking place at the Nacional when we were there, and the roof was off-limits because of repairs needed there. We also were told that if we used any toilet tissue in the bathroom, we were to place it in a lidded basket. The reason? If guests were allowed to flush their toilet tissue — and the Nacional was packed with guests from all over when we were there — the volume would wreak havoc with the hotel sewage system.
If building inspectors were turned loose in Cuba, they would find enough code violations to last their lifetimes and those of their children. As some of our group reflected on what we saw and did while in Cuba, we shared a concern: If, in the relaxing of government controls, more people decide to open bed and breakfast places or rent parts of their homes to tourists, how long will it be before some of those structures — not to mention their fragile plumbing — break down under the stress that would come with those tourists, who are coming in ever-increasing numbers?
As we made our way to various destinations, particularly in cities and towns and rural areas outside Havana, we noticed that our bus was not the only one filling up one-lane farm roads, clogging narrow city streets or disgorging visitors to the sites on our itinerary. Other buses were preceding us or coming after us. One of the buses that followed ours to the site of a mural in the Viñales Valley had British passengers, and one of them told me how struck he was by the grim reality of Cuban lives.
“You and I don’t realize how good we have it,” he said.
“If you spend your money here, you are helping,” architect Daniel De La Regata said as he touted the restoration in Old Havana. Based on what the average family income is in Cuba — about $20 a month in 2014, according to latinofoxnews.com — every dollar helps. But it is not just money that the Cubans need.
On the morning when our travel group was boarding our bus outside our hotel in Santa Clara, some of us met and took photos of two older ladies, probably in their 70s, who were sitting near the entrance to a building across the street. When they told one of our group that they were in need of soap, he gave them a bagful, and I chipped in one of the Lever soap bars that I had brought to leave as part of the gratuity we were advised to give the housekeepers who cleaned our hotel rooms. Then a man who had been standing nearby came up and made it clear he wanted some of that soap in the bag. The ladies would not budge, and a fracas ensued. It did not last but a few seconds, but there was shouting, grabbing, pushing and swinging. As our bus began to roll, I saw one of the ladies put the Lever bar inside her bra.
Robert Olin is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Alabama, and since 2009, his college has sent about 75 undergraduate students to spend an academic semester in Cuba. The students who complete that semester come back “transformed for the better,” Olin said. They have insights, they have friendships; some even have fallen in love. And while they usually fly to Cuba with one or two full suitcases, “they come back only with what they’re wearing on their backs because they leave their stuff with their friends,” Olin said.
The Alabama State Port Authority’s Cuban-born Maria Mendez, who recently attended a trade show in Havana, says going to her native land is always like going back in time, and yet time is not standing still. We saw lots of Cubans with cell phones, and some of those whom we met during our various scheduled programs told us they were more comfortable talking about Cuban politics and relations with the U.S. than they would have been some years back.
“I think I have the right to talk about anything,” Havana University’s Nestor Mesa told us.
As our trip unfolded, we got indications that that right may not apply to everyone. During a briefing at the U.S. embassy, the diplomat told us of some groundless mass arrests that had taken place not long before our arrival. And at the arts school in Matanzas, the talented students who performed for us appeared to be on a short leash in terms of what they could say. When we asked them the name of the ballet piece that they performed for us, they said it was a tribute to the heroes of La Revolución.
Even our helpful Cuban guide, Rigoberto Mir, shared a joke that suggested that the right to talk in his country did have its limits. The joke goes basically like this (an American and a Cuban are talking):
“You don’t have any rights to free speech,” the American says. “In my country, I can stand outside the White House and call Obama any darn thing I please and nobody will do anything to me.”
“I have free speech, too,” the Cuban says. “I can go to my government buildings and call Obama anything I please and nobody will do anything to me either.”
A friend recently told me he heard the same basic joke in Soviet Russia 30 years ago, with Ronald Reagan’s name substituted for that of Barack Obama.
So, what does the future hold? That’s something I could not predict with any certainty, but my stance might not be a lot different from most Cubans. The Cuban government doesn’t exactly telegraph its moves, and that means, as Rigoberto said, “We are a country of rumors. We don’t have a lot of information, so we like to speculate.”
On the charter flight from Havana to Miami, I met Javier Figueredo, a native Cuban who now lives in Tampa, who was visiting his native country for the first time in eight years. When I asked him his impressions, Freya, his Colombian-born girlfriend, translated his answers.
“The buildings are worse, the streets are really bad, but he noticed that there is more private business,” she said.
We noticed that too, in the forms of the private restaurants at which we dined, the rooms in apartments that had been turned into snack bars or mini-markets, and in the casas particulares, or private homes offering lodging to visitors.
We also saw other things that suggest that many Cubans want alternatives to what they have at home, alternatives that beckon 90 miles to the north, across the Florida Straits. When our group visited the American embassy, for example, we saw something that we were told was not at all uncommon: a line, perhaps of two or three dozen people, outside the consular office. All of those folks, we were told, were hoping to obtain visas to the U.S.
A few days later, on the way back to Birmingham, I stood in a check-in line at Miami International Airport and struck up a conversation with a couple from Omaha, who were returning home from a fishing trip in the Keys.
When I told them I had just been in Cuba, they told me they had encountered some Cubans during their trip.
There were about a half dozen of them. They were in the ocean, in sight of the couple’s fishing boat, swimming toward the American shore.