Most people are surprised when I tell them that I recently returned from a trip to Cuba. They are even more surprised when I tell them I flew directly from Miami to Havana. That is because, until recently, our government did not allow direct flights between Cuba and the United States. That has changed.
Today, there are several flights a day between Miami and Havana. They are euphemistically called “charter flights,” but when traveling in a jumbo plane operated by American Airlines, the passenger is unaware of any difference between these and any regularly scheduled flight. To travel on one, however, an American needs to be a part of what the State Department calls a “cultural group.”
I was traveling with The Theodore Roosevelt Association, a national organization, that went to Cuba to study the Spanish-American War and to visit related historical sites. Because most of those sites are in the area of the city of Santiago, we were allowed to travel there and to spend three nights. I say “allowed” because I had the impression that the Cuban government does not, as a rule, encourage American tourists to travel much outside the city of Havana. I could be wrong. It is not always easy to figure out just what is and what is not going on these days between Cuba and America.
One thing is certain: Things are changing. Slowly, but inexorably, the hostility between the two governments is softening, and I sense that this involves intentional movement from both sides.
During the week that I was there (I also spent four days in Havana), I did not experience unfriendliness or discourtesy from anyone. I, and others with me, were free to walk about the city at our will, and in many ways might have simply been vacationing on any Caribbean island.
On the other hand, I was never completely unaware that Cuba remains a communist police state. In fact, when I took my morning walks in residential neighborhoods, I encountered multiple policemen on foot, seldom less than one to a block. The government still owns virtually all businesses, factories, farms, hotels and restaurants, although there has been relaxation of these conditions recently in the case of small restaurants.
We were told that many people own their own homes, but I could not be sure about that. I suspect that a communist government may have a different concept of what “own” means than we do. There is very little to buy, and accordingly, there are no advertisements on billboards, except for political slogans extolling the revolution, demanding that “La Patria” must always come before the interests of individual citizens and reminding everyone that Fidel is a great hero and patriot.
On the plus side, Cuba has a fine tropical climate. Havana is a charming if run down city. I kept imagining how marvelous it could be if only capitalism were at work, renovating and restoring it. The Cubans that I met were polite, cheerful and attractive. We were treated to two occasions where we had a chance to meet groups of children who, like children everywhere, were completely captivating.
There seemed to be only two brands of beer for sale, both made by government-owned companies, but every place that it was for sale also had live music.
The privately owned automobiles are mostly vintage American makes and models. We went out to a restaurant one evening in a taxi that was a 1955 Ford. These cars are lovingly maintained by their owners and some day, if and when free enterprise arrives, they could be worth a tidy sum. There are also new cars of all kinds, but they are either government owned, or diplomatic.
OK. Cuba is a third-world country. One does not drink the water, and public accommodations have neither toilet seats nor paper. I think that people have enough to eat, but the food (even for tourists) is plain and monotonous. People are, for the most part, poor.
The government has blamed much of the poverty on the fact that the United States has long imposed an economic embargo. However, I learned that Cuba is completely open to trade and tourism with Canada, Europe, all Latin American countries and everyone else. It does not make sense to me that the serious economic problems can reasonably be blamed on the U.S. embargo. If I am right, we ought to lift the embargo and thus remove the whipping boy that the Cuban government has long used to explain its problems.
Cuba does not have free speech or a free press. One is hard pressed to buy a newspaper or magazine of any kind, and certainly none that is not published by the government. Tourist hotels provide satellite television for their guests, but Cuban citizens (unless they have government connections) can receive only a handful of government stations. Travel, for most Cubans, is restricted. Permission is required to leave the country, and is often refused.
And so the bottom line – while I deplore the problems, I really liked Cuba. The Cubans are delightful, and I pray that the day will come soon when those people will enjoy the benefits of political and economic freedom. And I will go out on a limb – I think that day is coming. And it will be peaceful.
In the meantime, be grateful that you live in America. Don’t neglect to vote.