Wednesday, August 09, 2006

cuba--2004

¡¡¡Silenc-YO!!!

The crowd at the Castle of the Three Kings of the Orient is larger than one would expect for a daily event, but the evening is lovely and there’s really no reason to avoid just hanging out with friends after a hard day’s work, or touring. The sun has just set and the show is starting…

¡¡¡Silenc-YO!!!

A soldier clad in 18th century uniform walks through the crowd wielding a torch, which he juggles like a bowling pin. This is the first part of an age-old ceremony, where the Spanish army would warn pirates that they weren’t welcome. Calling for silence in this solemn event, he’s soon joined by others similar dress. One carries a cannonball, the other gunpowder. They do their job and ker-POW!

That’s it. The ceremony’s over and the crowd begins to disperse, but one cannot help but think that what they were really aiming at was not ancient buccaneers, but Florida 90 miles to the northeast. This is Cuba, America’s nemesis, and forbidden fruit for tens of thousands of Yankee tourists every year. The government won’t let us go. What better reason to try.

The lure of Cuba is everywhere. Look at the travel section of just about any Barnes and Nobel or Borders bookshop, and you’ll find tons of stuff on Castro’s imprisoned island. Insight Guides, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s…and the World History section has plenty of volumes on Castro and Ché and the like.

Why have all this stuff if you CAN’T GO? It’s very annoying.

So it was poster in ‘s travel agency in Greenwich Village that immediately caught my eye. Legal trips to Cuba! For a short time only. I sort of had the money. It might be years before I had another chance. Why the heck not?

The reason why Cuba had suddenly big now right up there on the wall between Aruba and Bermuda, like everything having to do with it was political. It seems that a decade or so before, the state department and a company called Cross-cultural Solutions had made an agreement to issue the latter travel licenses for so-called “person-to –person “ trips.

This isn’t regular tourism, but a kind of diplomatic investigation where regular Americans can see what exactly was going on. The Clinton Administration didn’t really mind, and there wasn’t advertising, except for a few left-wing political journals.

Then sometime the spring of 2003, all that changed. Someone in the Bush Administration found out that much these trips involved a gentle political indoctrination. How the US is evil and all that rot. So, the official thought, if regular tourism is NOT allowed, then why the heck are we permitting THIS? The Treasury department informed CCS that their general Cuban travel license wouldn’t be renewed when it expired on December 31st.

This provided CCS both disaster and opportunity. No more Cuban trips, but before the license ran out they could make a killing on expensive tours and use the profit to subsidize their other projects, like building houses in West Africa. So they got in touch with General Tours and began advertising. The response was HUGE.

“Why are you going to Cuba?”
“For educational purposes.”
Don’t you know that there’s nothing to see in Cuba?”

Continental Airlines has a daily flight to Havana from Miami international but nobody’s supposed to know about. It’s officially a charter for another company and the check-in process is four hours long. Then you have to go on a separate security line and you wait while people going to Jamaica or Cancun just breeze on by. Then when you finally get to the gate, and we’re not talking about the waiting room, but the middle of the collapsible tunnel between the terminal and the plane, government agents verbally harass you and demand to see your license. Trying to make you feel like a criminal is just the thing to inspire solidarity with Castro.

The first thing one looks for when getting out of José Martí International are the famous antique cars. When the embargo was imposed in January, 1961, the importation of jazzy new cars was suspended, so the cars and the only alternative was crappy vehicles from East Germany, so people took very good care of their ’57 Chevys and ’49 Buicks, creating a rolling museum of cruising.

Some of these beauties are still there. They’ve got new engines, now, and the paint’s an inch thick, and the government has turned most of them into taxis, but the sight of a clunker with tail-fins can still bring a lump in one’s throat. But there aren’t that many, Havana has as many new cars as just about everywhere else. Nobody respects the embargo outside the US. Not even Israel.

We were assigned a bus and were told what was to be expected. This is one of those guided tours of the “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” type. One week, four days in and around Havana and a long trip to the quaint city of Trinidad de Cuba: Propaganda and a beach.

After a look at a monument or two in La Plaza de la Revolucion, we headed to our hotel, the “El Presidente” which is called that because the street next to it has statues of every president prior to Castro, except for the first one, who was considered too close to the US, and Batista, who didn’t have time to put one up to himself when Castro kicked him out. The first guy’s pedestal is still there, though. For some reason they couldn’t pull it out of the ground. Weird.

Havana needs a paint job. Except for the big hotels and diplomatic buildings, the paint is peeling off of everything. The government blames the US. They blame the US for just about everything short of the weather, even that, most likely. But the shabbiness gives the city a rustic charm. From the seawall known as the Malacon to the forests in the south, almost every façade has an air of genteel decay.

There is something to be said about group bus tours. If you don’t know the area, it can be rather helpful learning to find your way around. It’s also fun to find out the reasons for people coming on this thing. After all, it wasn’t the beach. Most of the people were on far lefty persuasion. Old veterans of the anti-Vietnam movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, younger anti-Bush activists who wanted to apologize to the Cubans for what JFK tried to do to Castro’s beard back before they were born. Then there were a few oldsters who wanted to see how the place changed since they were there last, sometimes more than half a century before. Also, there were a few like myself who just wanted to see the place.

The first night we went to the Miramar district for a pretty decent dinner of chicken, rice and beans while the band played the officially-designated musical set. Wherever we went, for some reason, we they served us the same stuff, and played the same music. It got so we almost got sick of it. That’s socialism for you. But this was a propaganda tour and the main dish was politics, which was unfortunate, because the world cup of baseball was being played and we couldn’t go as there wasn’t time. We had to go to a lecture on the status of women. There was a clause in the contract that he had to follow the program or the tour company would rat on us and we’d get a ten thousand dollar fine.

There were lots of these, One couldn’t really tell how much we were being told was bull and which was the truth. For example, we went west to the border of Pinar del Rio province, where we were going to look at a “community project.” I guess they wanted us to believe that a bunch of locals were doing some artsy-craftsy type of deal and we’d all go “oo” and “ah” over what they could accomplish without the help of the mean old United States. But noooo!! This small community project, was in fact the quite large Los Tarranzas TOURISM complex, which included a five star hotel, a faux arts and crafts center and a plantation museum, which made up for the who scam with one of the best views on the island. One could see both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean by just moving one’s head from side to side. The lush, dark green forests went on for miles and miles, one hell of a sight. The chicken, rice and beans were pretty good.

When we got back to Havana, we had the chance to see a recreation of the floorshows like they had back in the bad old days of Batista. Unfortunately, the thing cost eighty bucks and not having enough cash [and US credit cards being unusable], I couldn’t make it. I wasn’t the only one in this situation, so a couple of other people and myself went to a local disco that was recommended. Here we met some Germans who complained what s hole Havana was. When we had our fill of that, we hailed a taxi to get back to the hotel, and that’s when the adventure REALLY began.

The taxi was a beat up old East German thing, and the doors didn’t work all that well. Then the driver, who couldn’t speak more than two words of english began making noises that indicated I should tell the police that we were personal friends. I didn’t exactly know what was going on, but then I looked out the window and there was a cop car with the driver motioning to follow. What had we gotten ourselves into? When the car stopped at the corner, we tried to make a quick escape, but one of the cops pulled a gun and motioned for us to get back in. This was the Cuba I had read about. The fascist police state.

We went to the police station where they took the poor driver inside, while they were browbeating him, we made our own getaway in the other direction. They didn’t follow, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

This was a political trip, so we went to listen to a few political propaganda lectures on how the Cuban system works. Sort of like those timeshare things except you have to pay through the nose. Some of it was quite informative, but not in the way the Castro regime wanted it.

Take real estate for instance. People are allowed to own their own homes, but they can’t SELL them. So instead they swap. Person a goes down to one of the designated park benches in central Havana and looks around for someone who has a larger or smaller house, then they make a deal, pay off the proper official, and then hire some movers.

It’s a way that people avoid profit. Communism, right?

Then there’s the Committee to Preserve the Revolution, whose lecture we missed because the waiters were slow. They’re main job is to make sure that their neighborhoods are politically correct and take out the garbage on time. All pretty innocuous until you remember that they can have people taken away…

Finally, we left Havana and went crosss-country to pay homage at the tomb of Che Guavarra and see the sleepy little town of Trinidad de Cuba. This was interesting.

Cuba isn’t the tiny island it likes to pretend it is. It’s the sixteenth largest in the world and is bigger than the rest of the Antilles combined, not counting Hispañola. We got up at five in the morning and got on the bus for the road trip.

Once you get out of Havana, the landscape turns into that lush, tropical island you dream of. Acres and acres of lush forests dotted with occasional homes and other buildings. Not a factory to be seen. Then back to the politics….

Halfway between Havana and our hotel on the Caribbean, we made the obligitory stop at the tomb of Che Guevarra. It’s a big thing, designed for the mass rallies denouncing the United States or worshipping Castro. It was here a couple of years before the ashes of Che and his men were brought back from Bolivia, where, with Castro’s permission, the heroic image on a million tee-shirts was plugged full of holes in 1967.

The building is topped with a monumental statue showing how Che would have looked if he were still alive and in his 70s. It was so moving, a couple of women in the group cried.

Finally, we arrived in the hotel, which was designed by the Soviets and was in badly in need of repair. The beach was not and was the site of a splendid sunset. There is nothing like sitting on the beach with a rum and coke in your hand watching a sunset.

The reason we went over to this side of the island was to view Trinidad de Cuba, the heratige city of the southeast. This is one of the best preserved places in the Caribbean and is almost too quaint for words. Here, a minor miracle occurred.

I was wandering around looking at the architecture, when one of the locals, a beautiful woman in her late twenties, tried to start up a conversation with me. I had taken Spanish all the way from sixth grade to tenth, and most of it went in one ear and out the other, I could ask for directions and a few other things but a real conversation? No! But she spoke no English and for some reason, I understood what she was saying. My Spanish came back and I was able to have a genuine conversation in a foreign language. I was completely in shock as the words came trippingly off my tongue.

Then a fellow tourist broke the spell and said hi. I forgot everything-BAM!-it was gone. I sand “adios” and headed back to the bus, wondering what the hell had just happened.

We headed back to the hotel for a lousy meal and another beautiful sunset. The next morning we were awakened at around five and saw an even better sunset. We headed halfway back across the island to Havana and left the next morning with rum and cigars.

Since I returned, The laws against travel to Cuba have been tightened. You can still go illegally, via Canada [there are dozens of travel agencies who specialize in the place] or Mexico [two or three flights a day from Cancun] or pretty much everywhere, but it may not be worth it.

We’ll have to wait to wait until after the next election to find out what’ll happen.

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