The bright tropical sun enveloping Cuba starkly exposes what the newly-arriving visitor will see as depressingly sad: miles and rows of crumbling, once-elegant buildings.
Yet Cuba’s people don’t seem beaten down by what at first looks like a giant slum. Instead, they seem upbeat, warm and open even to the Americans who most believe have deliberately kept them in this impoverished state.
Those are among the contradictions in what many call a land of contradictions. This beautiful country no more than 90 miles from our coast has been shrouded in mystery to most Americans for the 53 years since their communist revolution. We have been kept away from it, kept in the dark about it, supposedly to punish its leaders, but all we have succeeded in doing is punishing its people.
In April, I was privileged to participate in an ongoing program called Sisters Across the Straits, a project of the League of Women Voters of Florida that is aimed at creating relationships and bridges among our people.
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For many years, it was almost impossible to travel to Cuba without doing so from another country, or without having special permission. A relaxation of the rules in recent years allows for travel for cultural and educational or people-to-people exchanges, and that is the provision used by the league. We were not considered mere tourists and could not just wander about and sightsee. Rather, we met with local nonprofit organizations to discuss their situation and exchange ideas. Our official partner in Cuba is the Women’s Federation.
Most Cubans say that what they want from us is to lift the embargo against trade and open communications with their country. Even though trade with other nations seems to be flourishing, they believe they cannot reach their full potential while our embargo exists.
Our nation has a long history with Cuba, most of it with good relations. The Cubans still have affection for Americans and most things American. Witness the amazingly well-kept 1950s American cars that ply the streets. Their capitol building is a copy of ours, though they like to point out that theirs is almost a foot taller.
What our country does is so important to them that they have an agency devoted to studying our government and politics, the Center for the Study of the United States. It is an arm of the University of Havana and has at least 17 professors who do research there, in areas from economics to history.
A professor from the center told us they have the best library on the U.S. in Cuba, and that they study our elections so much they pay more attention to them than to their own.
They view what happens in our elections as crucial to their future, especially in prospects for lifting the embargo or otherwise improving relations. They were very curious on our views on who might be Mitt Romney’s running mate or what Obama’s chances are for re-election. We told them their guess is probably as good as ours.
Professors at the center also acknowledge that the main force behind the embargo is the Cuban refugee community in Florida, which has far more political influence than its numbers warrant. But because Florida is a swing state, candidates of both parties prefer to maintain the status quo on Cuba.
Still, there is a feeling in the air of hopefulness and change, though some of that comes from within as President Raul Castro moves to allow more private businesses to flourish and cuts back on government welfare programs.
A law professor told us that the government is currently working on 700 new laws to allow for private businesses, investment and similar activities their government had no provision for in the past.
All businesses were government-owned, all jobs were supervised and paid by the government. In return, people had free places to live, free medical care and until recent years free food.
Raul is changing that, while intending to keep the political system. Just a week before our group was there, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and urged Raul to make changes to allow for more political freedom. Raul replied quickly that there would be no political change.
That attitude is why the refugee groups are unrelenting, and why President Obama last month reconfirmed the official U.S. position that there can be no open relations with Cuba unless there is political change. This came when Obama refused to allow Cuba to participate in the recent summit of the Americas.
The U.S. position is both frustrating and a source of pride to Cubans. While they say they want the embargo removed, another one of the contradictions is their claim that the embargo made them strong and able to stand on their own. And yet they also talk with sadness of the dark days after the fall of the Soviet Union when people nearly starved to death because of the loss of that nation’s economic support.
The crumbling buildings are gradually being restored as funds are available. An architect who led us on a walking tour of the old city said that besides the cost it’s difficult because people often resist moving out of places they have lived in for years, despite the conditions.
Life can be harsh for the ordinary Cuban, certainly by our standards. People live in buildings that appear to be in dangerous shape. Most do not have air-conditioning. Laundry flaps from the tiny apartment balconies because they do not have washers and dryers. Water is scarce in some areas. Women lug LP gas containers back and forth for refilling, because that is their normal cooking fuel, not something they use for recreation as we do.
Cubans say Raul knows this and is trying to improve conditions.
The government has chosen tourism as its top priority for economic development. Although there already is much more tourism in Cuba than Americans might think, the Cubans envision how much more could happen if the embargo were lifted.
Cuba is every bit as pretty and beachy as Jamaica, the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands that Americans love to flock to on vacation. Cruise ships could call there, dumping their thousands of passengers onto the streets of Havana to dine and buy the famous cigars and rum.
Cuba isn’t quite ready for a flood of tourism that size, but could get there pretty quickly if necessary. Service is excellent but accommodations and food are not quite what Americans would demand.
Even in one of the biggest and highest-rated hotels in Havana, our rooms were not ready when we arrived and some could not get in their rooms until dinner time.
Just take food, for example. Never mind the spicy, flavorful food in Cuban restaurants in Florida. The food in Cuba was rather bland. Many members of our group remarked that it had no spices, and that onions and tomatoes were sorely lacking. Cubans probably can’t afford the spices and can’t get them, but that could change if the economy improves.
Currently, the government controls tourist services such as buses, drivers and guides. Although it seems to be trying to encourage private restaurants, the government forbids its guides to take tourists to the private restaurants.
They can’t have it both ways. Our group told the bus to stop a few blocks from the private restaurants we wanted to go to, and we walked. The two we managed to visit had much better food than the government-run eateries.
And take Internet access. It was available in our hotel, but it was very slow and you had to pay for it. It cost the equivalent of $2.60 for 15 minutes. They say that is one thing that would be remedied if the embargo were lifted, because they could get better Internet service. But would they let residents use it? For now, the university and government agencies have Internet access but it is not available to most residents.
And speaking of money, their money system is laughable. The country operates two currencies, one for residents and one for tourists. Not every place can take the tourist money, known as Cuban Unified Currency (CUC) and pronounced “kook.” This allows the government to control where tourists are spending their money, and who can serve tourists.
While they try to figure out how to foster some entrepreneurship under their form of government, other nations are happy to do business with Cuba. As McClatchy Newspapers reported April 14, many countries are doing business there. China, for example, is partnering with Cuba to explore for oil offshore. So here is China drilling for oil some 70 miles off our own coast.
Along with those great old ‘50s U.S. cars, the streets sport a wide variety of late-model European and Asian cars and trucks. The tour buses are made in China.
We may well miss the boat while our government continues to maintain the embargo. Many in our group said it is puzzling that our own powerful business interests aren’t screaming for change, but so far that is not happening. Meanwhile, we have regular relationships with other communist countries, including Vietnam, with whom we fought a bloody and long-running war.
The Cubans say they feel change coming, in their own country and in ours, but they may be more hopeful than realistic. Many younger Cuban-Americans want normal relations, but so far they do not outweigh the political clout of their elders.
Contact Zane Wilson, a former reporter for The Sun News, at email@example.com.