Monday, June 1, 2009

A Travel Editor's Perspective

Cuba comeback? Americans soon may find it easy to visit a once-favorite playground

Sunday, May 31, 2009

By Catherine Watson, Universal Press Syndicate

Cuba’s Revolution turned 50 years old on New Year’s Eve, and Cubans celebrated. But the main reason wasn’t because dictator Fulgencio Batista fled from Fidel Castro’s advancing revolutionary army just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1959.

No, Cubans were just doing what they traditionally do on New Year’s Eve — eat a big dinner of slow-roasted pork with beans and rice, then sit around with friends to drink good Cuban rum, tell stories and dance.

And have the traditional midnight water fight. I didn’t expect that.

But after four trips to Cuba as a journalist, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Cuba is never what an outsider expects. It is the only country I can safely call “unique.” For good or ill, there is no place quite like it.

At a minute before midnight, I stood in the doorway of the house where I was staying and looked out into a dark, empty Havana street. Then cheering broke out, and everything exploded.

Up and down the street, people were suddenly flinging bucketfuls of water out of their windows and doors, laughing and yelling at each other. Little kids ran out into the fray, shrieking when they got soaked, and even my dignified, gray-haired host joined in, tossing out a couple of pans of water himself.

What is this, I asked, when I got over the shock. “Tradition,” he said.

When the sun came out next morning, Havana’s streets were already dry, and there was no sign that anything had happened. That made the water fight an apt metaphor for Cuba and — until this spring — for America’s relationship with it. Changes, but no change, even though change is looking more possible than it has in nearly five decades.

Earlier trips had taken me across the country from Santiago de Cuba in the east to the province of Pinar del Rio in the west, but while it was always interesting, Cuba made me sad because of its nice people and poor living conditions. I vowed not to go back “unless things changed.”

Last year, they started to. The ailing Castro stepped aside in favor of his brother Raul. America elected a new president.

I went back to check, and sure enough, there had been changes — just not ones I expected.

Cuba is the biggest of the Caribbean islands, and it is beautiful — a scimitar of tropical greenery, sugar-sand beaches and picturesque Spanish-colonial towns.

It was Spain’s richest colony and almost one of America’s. Thomas Jefferson contemplated annexing it. In the 20th century, it became an American playground, controlled by corrupt dictators and Yankee mobsters. That ended with Castro.

So did a lot of things. The revolution put communist principles into practice. Today, most of Cuba looks like the Third World — shabby and poor. But, Cubans don’t act poor. In many ways, they aren’t.

Castro made good on his biggest promises: health care and education. Both are universal and free.

Cuba’s child-mortality rate is lower than in the United States. And its literacy rate — 99.8 percent — is higher. This explains why, whenever I’ve gotten lost, every Cuban I asked — including field hands — could read a map and give me directions: not always the case in the States.

More shops had opened since my last visit, and there were more goods, and goods people might actually want, such as nice-looking shoes, small washing machines, stylish clothes. The prices were high, but the people looked better dressed, better off than they had.

There were still people in costumes, posing for snapshots and hoping for tips — young street performers on stilts, women in turbans and quaint ruffled skirts, and one ancient little guy who wandered Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s pedestrian street, wearing a Santa Claus suit. There were almost no beggars this time.

The Soviet Union had supported Cuba by buying all of its sugar, the island’s main crop. When the USSR went, so did Cuba’s economy. As the island struggled to get back on its feet, Cubans endured all sorts of shortages.

Cuba turned to tourism, forming joint partnerships with foreign developers and building strings of high-quality beach hotels, starting on Varadero Beach, east of Havana. By 1996, tourism had replaced sugar as Cuba’s biggest industry, and it is still growing.

Last year — despite punishing hurricanes — Cuba counted 2.3 million tourists. That’s a stunning total for a country with a population of only 11.4 million.

U.S. passports used to list Cuba, along with Libya and Iraq, as places where “transactions related to travel ... are generally prohibited.” Today’s passports are less specific, but the rules remain complex. What they boil down to, for most Americans, is that we can go to Cuba — we just can’t spend any money there.

But other nationals can, and they do. There were vastly more tourists this winter — not just the ubiquitous Canadians who make up 35 percent of Cuba’s visitors, but big, noisy tour groups of Italians and French. And there were more restaurants, more sights, more pricey shops and more activities to keep them busy.

This time, there were many modern cars, not just staid Russian models. These new cars mean that the famous pre-1959 American classics no longer dominate Cuban roads.

The old cars are still there, just more diluted. Many are in private hands, lovingly held together with house paint and ingenuity. Others have been exquisitely restored and bear discreet signs on their newly shiny doors: “Rent a fantasy,” they say. But that isn’t private enterprise. Car rentals, like every other aspect of Cuban tourism, are controlled by the government.

Even with more vehicles, though, traffic was thin. You could still cross any street in Havana without paying much attention in either direction, any time of day. As far as I could see, there was no rush hour.

More of Old Havana has been meticulously restored, and more restoration is under way. Plaza Vieja, the last of a quartet of lovely Spanish-colonial squares, is nearly finished. Hotels, shops, restaurants and museums have opened on all these plazas and on the key streets that connect them, and the income they generate is being reinvested to restore more.

Enough streets have been spruced up, in fact, that it is now possible to stroll all the way across Old Havana from the harbor to the Parque Central and never encounter the grinding decay in which most of the population still lives.

But the veneer is thin. Venture one or two streets off the restored main drags, and you can’t miss it. Buildings are crumbling and windows are boarded. Pavements and sidewalks are pocked with holes or half-blocked by rubble. People live crowded into tiny apartments and drying laundry flies like flags off the balconies.

And there are still shortages.

Despite it all, Cubans dance, laugh, sing, flirt, joke and chat up tourists. It’s a mistake to assume that their friendliness is just a facade, or that they all secretly loathe the regime.

“The revolution isn’t about fighting any more,” said a man who had been a little boy when Castro came to power. “Now it’s more psychological.” It has come to mean standing firm, being brave, doing your best in the face of hardship. Plenty of Cubans, including him, are proud of that.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the sound of everyday Cuban life — people talking in the street or calling from one balcony to another; the clip-clop of horses’ hooves; stray dogs arguing over scraps; even the occasional crow of a rooster. And music — music is still everywhere.

It’s impossible to walk down any street, restored or in decay, in any town, and not hear Cuban music, mostly live, pouring out of houses and hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s also impossible to walk down a street and not get into a conversation. They still begin the same way: “Where are you from? Oh! The United States! My father (or mother or brother or son or uncle) is in the United States!”

Sometimes, the speaker has been there too. Either way, they tell you where, and the range of connections shows how close our countries used to be.

All such conversations eventually get around to the same thing: El Bloqueo, as Cubans call the American trade embargo, which is almost as old as the revolution.

The embargo grew out of the Cold War. The basic idea was to starve Castro out of office. It didn’t work.

To Cubans, continuing the embargo seems cruel. “You are friends with China,” one man said, in puzzled frustration. “You are friends with Vietnam. Why not Cuba?”

This winter, conversations had a new theme. People’s eyes would light up, and I’d know what was coming: “If only Obama. ...” “I hope Obama. ...”

On April 13 came the kind of change they’d been hoping for, when President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions that had prevented Cuban-Americans from freely visiting their relatives in Cuba and from sending money back to them.

Left unanswered was a broader question: When will the rest of us get to go to Cuba? That may change too, possibly this year.

In December, the American Society of Travel Agents requested the lifting of restrictions on travel to Cuba.

As ASTA’s president put it, “To use travel freedom as an instrument of foreign policy manipulation ultimately does harm to the very citizens it purports to protect.”

At the end of March, a Senate bill was introduced that would allow Americans to go to Cuba as we can to every other country. A companion bill has been introduced in the House. The New York Times reported that 67 percent of Cuban-Americans support lifting travel restrictions for everyone.

It may actually be time to think about reserving one of Canada’s cheap all-inclusive Cuban tour packages for next winter. Once we’re finally allowed to use them, they’ll be some of the best travel deals Americans can buy.

* * * * * * *


GETTING THERE: American tourists who go to Cuba without U.S. permission can be prosecuted and fined. For details on the travel restrictions, go to the U.S. State Department Web site,—pa—tw/cis/cis—1097.html, and the Web site of the Office of Foreign Assets Control,

MONEY: Cuba allows U.S. currency to be changed into Cuban pesos, but special fees add up to a 20 percent penalty. Credit cards, debit cards and travelers’ checks on U.S. banks don’t work. The options are opening accounts with a non-U.S. bank, getting travelers’ checks in foreign currency from a non-U.S. bank, or carrying another country’s cash.

LODGING: The most interesting places to stay are private homes with permits to rent rooms to tourists. Rates are controlled and last winter ran from $25 to $35 per room. A place to start looking is The best overall deals are all-inclusive Canadian tour packages.

FOOD AND DRINK: Cuban food is not spicy and, except at a fancy restaurant, not very exciting. Average meals in Havana run $8 to $14. Private homes permitted to serve food to guests are cheaper and often better. Cuba makes good beer, and Cuban rum is cheap and famous.

MUST-SEE: The 18th-century Governors’ Palace on the Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja; the great fortress complex of El Morro; and the Museum of the Revolution in the former Presidential Palace on Calle Refugio. Ernest Hemingway fans should add the author’s room, No. 511, in the Ambos Mundos Hotel on Calle Obispo in Old Havana, and Finca Vigia, his peaceful villa in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. The single best thing to do in Havana doesn’t cost a cent: A walk on the Malecon, especially at twilight.

ELSEWHERE IN CUBA: Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city, lies on the south coast at the eastern end of the island. It is the site of San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders fought against Spain in 1898. One of the spoils of that war is nearby — the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Trinidad is, like Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s as pretty and much quieter.

The Valley of ViƱales is green and lovely, among limestone formations that look like the landscapes in Chinese scroll paintings.

Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


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