We traveled to Cuba with the Harvard Alumni Association under a “Person to Person” visa, a program instituted under the second Clinton administration to promote direct contact with and support of the Cuban people. Hundreds of U.S. non governmental organizations (NGO’s) have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba; and 600,000-700,000 U.S. citizens travel to Cuba annually. The object of the plan was to demystify Cuba for Americans, as well as to extract policy from hard line Cuban Americans who had controlled the dialogue between the two countries until then.
The Obama administration’s foreign policy has been based on the theory that in order to “affect” other societies, America had to “engage” those societies. As a result he has liberalized remittances and travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans, but the trade embargo first instituted in 1962 remains in effect. Even more onerous, Cuba is one of five countries including North Korea and Iran that is classified as a terrorist nation. That designation excludes Cuba from transacting international trade in U.S. dollars and joining the global financial system, factors that further damage Cuba’s ability to trade freely with other nations.
U.S. policy today is a carryover from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when Cuba was exporting revolution to Africa and Central America, and when the Cold War and Communism were real threats to American security. But current policy is clearly counter productive and inconsistent. The U.S. trades with other Communist regimes such as China and Vietnam. Policy has been and continues to be held hostage by a hard line Cuban American community in South Florida and New Jersey which insists on “regime change”, the ouster of the Castro’s and a return to two party democracy.
While the hard liners are gradually losing power and dying off, there are no obvious groups to pick up the mantle on Cuba’s behalf despite the fact that polls show that 70% of Americans disagree with our Cuban policy. Given the current state of U.S. foreign and economic policy, it would appear that any interest in further changing Cuban American relations would have low priority for this administration.
Picture above is of the Riviera Hotel, a famous hotel from the 1950’s that was owned by the American gangster, Meyer Lansky. The lobby decor is the same as the late ‘50’s when the Mafia was kicked out by Castro. The mob had intentions of creating another Las Vegas in Havana, so it would seem that the biggest beneficiary of the Revolution was Las Vegas itself. Most of the people who visit Cuba are coming to see the city before it is turned into another Miami Beach. While some think that the change is near, by the end of our visit, the vast majority shared the opinion that things were not happening so quickly.
Most things in Cuba work pretty well despite the poverty and lack of funds. Our hotel, managed by the Spanish Iberostar chain, was clean and comfortable. Every once in a while, though, you are reminded that you are in Cuba. For example, if you want to change currency at a bank, be prepared to stand in line (see above). Of the three elevators in our wing of the hotel, two didn’t work - luckily we were only on the fourth floor. There was wifi (for a fee) in the lobby of the hotel, but since Cuba only has a satellite feed and no fiber optics cable, speed is notoriously slow and spotty. U.S. credit cards are not accepted, so all transactions must be in cash. People do not travel for the cuisine - diet is notoriously free of fresh vegetables, and quality of chicken, beef, and pork isn’t great. But beans and rice are plentiful, and we were always greeted with a rum drink before meals.
The Cuban economic structure is inverted or upside down. Education is free, so the population is relatively well educated and healthy, since health care is also free. However, the State controls an estimated 85% of the economy, and all doctors, lawyers, and other professionals receive the same salary, the equivalent of $40 per month!!! On the other hand those lucky enough to work in the tourist trade with access to hard currency are at the top of the pay scale. The lady with Susan in the picture above selling peanuts for $0.50 a bag (including the photo) is probably better off than most doctors. Artists also do well; because of a quirk in U.S. law called the Berman amendment passed in 1987, Americans are allowed to purchase Cuban art legally - photos, music, paintings, etc. Many Cuban musicians and artists are world famous and are able to earn money outside Cuba through arrangements with foreign artists and partners.
We had lunch at the Hotel Nacional, the famous state owned hotel frequented by world leaders, artists, and also leading Mafia figures. The hotel was made famous in the second Godfather movie where Michael Corleone is meeting with Hyman Roth at the hotel on New Year’s Eve 1958, the night that Batista fled the country and Castro and his revolutionary forces took the city. The building was in beautiful shape unlike most of the buildings seen on the drive from the airport. Many government, office, and apartment buildings were in various states of disrepair. The main differentiating factor is which buildings such as the major hotels have had foreign partners or investors that have provided the funds for upgrading the facilities. Note the three wheeled Coco taxi in front of the hotel, named for its resemblance to a coconut.
Sarah and Stella at Hanukah party. If you checked for Cuba posts, it’s too soon, but I had to practice downloading photos from my iPhone to the web site since I am not bringing my iPad with me.