Living in Miami from 1969 until 2003, our family had Cuban-American co-workers, neighbors, friends, and classmates. We heard many stories about how their families arrived in the US after the Cuban revolution in 1959. News articles kept us informed of changes in US and Cuban government policies and how they impacted the lives of those still in Cuba and those now living in the US. We were well aware of the divide within the Cuban-American community between the hardliners who insisted the American embargo continue until Cuba was free of its dictator and those who wanted to end the embargo to help eliminate the hardships which the Cuban people experience on a daily basis.
As an airline pilot based in Miami, once in the 1990’s I got to see Cuba from the air. My flights to and from South America were at night so I only saw the lights of Cuba as we flew over in the dark. On a delayed flight to Miami, we flew over the island during daylight hours. My first thought was how big the island looked. The countryside was lush with green vegetation. The northern shoreline was lined with beautiful white beaches and clear turquoise water. I hoped to be able to see Cuba from the ground someday.
Since the US embargo in 1962, Americans were not permitted to travel directly to Cuba. In 2015 when President Obama renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Americans soon would be allowed to travel there without prior permission from the government.
Jordan, our older son, went to Cuba last summer with CubaOne, a foundation which helps a new generation of Cubans and Cuban Americans build relationships. Jordan’s friend, Daniel Jimenez, who started CubaOne asked him to document a trip. Finding Cuba fascinating, Jordan encouraged us to travel there.
The rule since 2016 requires that a US citizen’s visit to Cuba fall within one of 12 approved categories: family visits; official business of the US government; journalistic activity; professional research; educational activities; religious activities; public performances; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundation; exportation of information; and certain authorized export transactions.
Reading travel books, blogs and watching many YouTube videos, I decided where to go and what to see. My friend Rebecca, who had traveled to Cuba, suggested that I read “Havana Real”, by Yoani Sanchez. One of the first bloggers in Cuba, her book is a collection of her posts from 2007 until 2011. It reveals the hardships of life in Cuba.
Here are some facts about Cuba
- Size – Largest island in the Caribbean, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania
- Population – 11.4 million (2017), 19.1% live in Havana
- Ethnic groups – 51% mulatto, 37% white, 11% black, 1% Chinese
- Life expectancy – 78 years, median age of population – 39.5 years
- Literacy rate – 99.7%
- Low birthrate – 1.6 births per woman (2016)
- Maternity leave – Women who have public sector jobs receive 60 per cent of their salary monthly
- Free education, free health care, food subsidies
- Home ownership – 85%, no homeless
- Industries the government owns – sugar, tobacco, coffee, construction, nickel, steel, cement, agricultural machinery, pharmaceutical, petroleum
- The government controls banking, communications, transportation, land, buildings, education, hospitals, natural resources, electricity, water, food production
- 72% of workforce are in government jobs, 28% in private enterprise
- Monthly salary of government employees – $25
- 200 categories of private enterprise allowed since 2008
- 535,000 Cubans work in private sector
- 4,000 paladares (private owned restaurants)
- 28,000 rooms in private owned casa particulares
- 4 million tourists in 2016
- Less than 5% of Cubans have access to the Internet
- El paquete semanal – ( The weekly package) One terabyte of digital material weekly via the black market. Can get TV series, soap operas, music and films. Since 2015 main source of entertainment for millions of Cubans for CUC$1
- CUC – peso convertible, currency used by tourists, 1 CUC = 1 USD
- CUP – moneda nacional, currency used by Cubans, 25 CUPs = 1 CUC
In 1994 to help a weak economy after the Soviets left, the two currency system was implemented. The government opened dollar stores to sell luxury goods to tourists. More and more goods were priced in US dollars. In 2004 the US dollar was removed from circulation and replaced by the convertible peso or CUC. Tourists exchange foreign currency into CUCs at Cadecas or Cuban banks. There is a 3% charge for major currencies except the US dollar for which there is an extra 10% charge.
Jordan suggested that we stay in either Habana Vieja (Old Havana) or Vedado. After many online searches for casa particulares and Airbnb listings in both areas, I chose Apartamento Plaez with two bedrooms and two baths in Vedado. The cost was $534 USD for 7 nights, June 8 through June 15.
After making reservations on American Airlines for my younger son, Andrew, and I, Cuba Travel Services contacted me. I was told how to obtain and fill out our Cuban Visas and where to check in at the Miami Airport. Upon receipt of the visas via FedEx, I filled in the blank stating that the purpose of our trip was “support for the Cuban people.”
Upon arrival at the Miami airport we exchanged our US dollars into Canadian dollars to avoid the 10% charge for US dollars in Cuba. Checking in at the Cuba desk at American Airlines, we showed our Cuba Visas. With only carry-on bags we proceeded to the boarding gate. Once on board our full flight we were delayed for an hour due to thunderstorms in the area.
After a 46 minute flight, we arrived at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Proceeding to immigration, we showed our US passports and Cuba Visas to the officer. She instructed us not to smile as she took our picture. We walked to the exit and were waved through by a female custom inspector. We went upstairs to exchange our Canadian dollars into convertible pesos (CUCs).
Once outside we hailed a Cubataxi. Because taxis don’t have meters, it is necessary to negotiate a fare before you get in. We agreed on 25$CUCs for the 25 minute ride to our apartment in Vedado.
Upon arrival at the apartment, we were met by Enrique and Raiza who showed us around the apartment.
Andrew, Enrique, Susan and Raiza
A wrought iron fence surrounded the sidewalk leading to a tiled front porch with two rocking chairs. Inside the apartment was a sitting area with a wall mounted TV which opened to a fully equipped kitchen. Off the hallway was a large bedroom, then one bathroom, and finally a bedroom and bath suite. There were wall unit air conditioners in each bedroom. If you wanted breakfast it was served in the main house for CUCs$5 per person. The apartment was located on Calle 23 which is a main thoroughfare, so it was easy to get a taxi whenever we needed a ride.
We also met Israel, the son of the owner, Pilar. According to him, the original single family mansion was built in 1911. After the revolution, it was divided it into three homes which were assigned to loyal party members. Starting in 1997 when casa particulares were allowed, Cubans could rent a portion of their home to tourists or friends. In 2011 the government allowed Cubans to purchase residential property. After Pilar purchased the building it was remodeled. Her family lives in the main two-story portion and the ground floor apartments are rented to tourists.
We took with us large packages of chewing gum, Oreos, Goldfish, granola bars, and dog bones. We also brought coloring books, crayons, pencils, glow sticks, toothbrushes, combs, make-up, battery operated fans and rawhide chews for dogs. We filled plastic bags with treats to give to every Cuban we met. Andrew brought a laptop to give away.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
In 1982 Unesco named Havana Vieja a world heritage site. In an area of 4.5 square miles there are 900 buildings that are historically important. Five hundred were built in the 19th century, 200 in the 18th century, and 144 built in the 16th and 17th century. Only 101 were built in the 20th century. Architectural styles include colonial, Baroque, art nouveau, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings. Some have stately balconies, limestone columns, and wrought iron gates.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 the government seized all businesses and buildings. Some buildings were converted into government offices. Some mansions of wealthy Cubans and Americans were subdivided for multiple family housing. All Cubans were assessed and housing was assigned according to family size and loyalty to the government.
A goal of the socialist revolution in 1959 was economic equality for everyone. Most of its efforts were concentrated in rural areas. Little money was allocated for building maintenance and infrastructure in Havana. With the harsh tropical climate and lack of maintenance, many buildings began decaying. After the US embargo began in 1962, building supplies were hard to get.
In 1979, Eusebio Leal Spengler, the head of the Office of Historian Authority, began a decades long plan to renovate the most important buildings. By 1981, eleven million had been spent to renovate 30 buildings. In 1993 during the “Special Period”, after the end of Soviet subsidies, Castro allowed Spengler to set up a tourist-management company called Habaguanex. It now owns 20 hotels, 40 restaurants, 50 bars, cafes and dozen of stores. Its revenues in 2012 were $119 million with $23 million in profits. From these revenues, one-third is used for further renovations and one-third is used for social programs. Since 1979 four hundred buildings have been restored. We saw some buildings that are being restored and many more in need of restoration.
Sightseeing in Habana Vieja
Plaza de Armas – In colonial times the square was the site of military parades, musical concerts and formal evening promenades. It maintained its political and administrative role until the mid 20th century. It is a shady park surrounded by many important buildings, El Templete, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Santa Isabel Hotel and Castillo de la Real Fuerza. A statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, father of the nation is in the center of the park.
Plaza Vieja – The original plaza was laid out in 1559 and was used for markets, festivals, processions, bullfights and executions. It is surrounded by important colonial buildings which have been restored to house commercial establishments on the ground floors and housing on the upper floors. At the center is a replica of an 18th century fountain that was torn down when the plaza was used as a parking lot for most of the last half of the 20th century. Both tourists and locals enjoy the plaza.
Plaza de San Francisco – It was the third plaza laid out in Havana. First used as a marketplace in the 1500s. The Basilica de San Francisco de Assisi was built in 1608. Across the street on the waterfront is the Sierra Maestra cruise ship terminal. The Stock Exchange and banks are on the northern side. Points of interest – The Lion’s fountain carved in 1836 by Giuseppe Gaggini, the bronze sculpture, La Conversacion by French artist, Etienne, The Gentleman from Paris, a statue of a boy with Francis de Assisi, and Chopin seated on a bench.
Plaza de la Catedral – This cobblestone square is surrounded by colonial era buildings and palaces. The Havana Cathedral was built in 1727 in the Baroque style. The interior is neoclassical with white and black marble floors. There are three naves, massive stone pillars, and eight side chapels. The bell towers are lit up at night.
El Malecon– The five-mile promenade and seawall which begins in Havana Vieja, runs along the north side of Centro Habana and ends in Vedado. Designed as a seawall to protect the city, construction began in 1901 and finished in the 1930s. It is where Cuban families and couples stroll or hang out on a hot night. It is considered Havana’s “outdoor lounge.”
Museo de Arte Colonial – The museum is housed in a 17th century mansion in Plaza de la Catedral. There is a large inner courtyard surrounded by galleries containing a wide variety of colonial art, furnishings, glass work, and porcelain. The upstairs bedrooms are furnished with period pieces. Admission – CUC$3
Parque Central – The park was completed in 1877. The statue of Jose Marti in Carrara white marble was added in 1905. It is surrounded by 28 palm trees representing his birthdate, January 28. Trees, fountains and sculptures were added to the park after 1959. Significant buildings surrounding the park are El Gran Teatro de la Habana, the Inglaterra Hotel and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The hot corner, esquina caliente, is where baseball is passionately discussed. A fountain, trees and grass were added after 1959.
El Capitolio– Modeled after the US Capitol although slightly bigger, it has been closed for restoration since 2010. The entrance hall has a replica of a 25-carat diamond embedded in the floor from which all highway distances from Havana are measured. The Statue of the Republic, a 56 foot tall Roman goddess, is covered in gold leaf. The dome is 302 feet high.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza – Built in the 16th century, it is the oldest fort in the hemisphere. The medieval style walls are 18 feet wide and 30 feet tall. It was too small and too far away from the harbor entrance to be very effective. Tourists enter a courtyard filled with cannons, then cross a drawbridge to enter the stone battlements. Exhibits feature items found in shipwrecks. Admission – CUC$5
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Housed in two buildings, the one we visited has a large central courtyard on the first floor which gives the building a lot of light. On the second floor are works of art from the 1950s to the 1990s. On the third floor there are 16th – 19th century colonial religious paintings, portraits, street scenes and landscapes. In two rooms there are modern artists starting from 1927. Admission – CUC$5
Museo de la Revolucion – The exhibits start with the 1953 barracks attacks in Santiago and continue through the Fidel Castro 1959 revolution. The glass enclosed Granma, the boat that brought Fidel, Che and 80 fighters from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, is next door surrounded by rockets, a tank, an airplane, and the eternal flame. Admission – CUC$8
The Hall of Cretins in Museo de la Revolucion – left to right – Batista, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush
Museo Numismatico – It has approximately 50 million dollars in value of medals, coins and banknotes from around the world. There is a 20 peso coin, the only one of ten that were produced. The museum is housed in the former Banco Mendoza built in the early 20th century. This was Andrew’s favorite museum. Admission – Free
Museo Armeria – On April 9, 1958, the Gunsmith Company store was raided by the organizers of the July 26 movement to overthrow Batista. Four young revolutionaries were killed. After the Revolution in January 1959, this store was declared a National Historic Site. In 1971 it opened as a museum and in 1993 it became a part of the office of the Historian of the City. Among the collection are the M2 carbine used by Che Guevara and a pistol used by Fidel Castro. Admission – Free, donations are requested
Michelle Obama’s Present to the Cuban People – In a park at the Martinez Villena public library in Plaza las Armas is a bench that was dedicated to the Cuban people by Michelle Obama after she and the President visited Cuba in March, 2016.
La Forteleza de San Carlos de la Cabana – Built between 1764 and 1774 this fort is a miniature city perched on a hill overlooking the harbor and Havana Vieja. It has several exhibition halls, restaurants and shops. There is a room where Che Guevara set up a command post after the 1959 revolution. An honor guard in 18th century dress parades from the fort to ceremoniously fire a cannon precisely at 9 pm every night. Admission CUC$6, CUC$8 with a guide
Calle Obispo – Originally the street was laid out in 1519 to protect people from the sun. Now this pedestrian street is a great place for the locals and tourists to stroll. It’s lined with shops selling handicrafts, art, and books, plus there are many bars and restaurants.
Our ride in a vintage car – Most tourists hire a driver of an antique car for a ride through the city. We rode in Roberto’s beautiful 1946 Chevrolet convertible from the Museo de Revolucion to our apartment in Vedado. Riding along El Malecon with beautiful views of the Straits of Florida off our right and the wind blowing through our hair was a Havana highlight for us! CUC$20
Vintage Cars – Havana is known as a city living in a time capsule. Many wealthy Cubans had American cars. Since the Revolution in 1959, these cars have been lovingly maintained without the benefit of American parts due to the US embargo. Many of these cars are parked outside the museums and hotels waiting for tourists who want to ride around Habana Vieja.
Paseo del Prado – This one half mile long tree-lined boulevard runs from the harbor to Parque Central. Starting in 1772 it was Havana’s most important boulevard. Beautiful mansions were built along the boulevard. It was remodeled to its present form in 1929. It has an elevated central walkway with marble benches and eight bronze lions strategically placed. We saw children being taught art alfresco.
Habana Vieja Paladares – Since the fall of 2010 when Raul Castro permitted greater self employment, many private restaurants called paladares have opened. When I received the June issue of Food and Wine, I was thrilled to read an article called “The Ultimate Eater’s Guide to Havana.” We ate in several paladares mentioned in the article.
Dona Eutimia – Callejon del Chorro 60, an alleyway off the Cathedral Plaza – We ate there twice because it was our favorite restaurant. For lunch Andrew had ropa vieja made with lamb and I had seafood kebob (plachon de pescado) and beans and rice. We had flan and a brownie for dessert. The frozen mojito was the best I had in Cuba. For dinner two nights later, I had the seafood kabob, Andrew had the breaded pork. We also had beans, rice and fried plantains. I gave Ricardo, the maitre d’, the Food and Wine Magazine with the article about the restaurant. In the picture below is Ricardo on the left with his staff. Lunch – CUC$40, Dinner – CUC$60
Cafe O’Reilly – 304 O’Reilly – This small restaurant had four tables downstairs, seating for 5 at the bar, and one table upstairs. I had a delicious mango mojito. We had empanadas and shrimp grilled in garlic. CUC$27
Mama Ines – Calle Obrapia 60 – The chef used to cook for Fidel. For lunch we had eggplant lasagna, croquetas, and homemade bread. CUC$33
Ivan Chef Justo – Calle Aguacate 9 – For dinner I had a vegetable plate and Andrew had the suckling pig. We also had beans, rice, tostones, a pina colada and a lemonade frappe. CUC$56
Factoria – On the corner of Plaza Vieja – A large restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. There was usually a band playing outside. It is a brewery serving tall carafes of beer and food. I had a dark beer and Andrew had a frozen lemonade. CUC$7
Hotel Ambos Mundos – Calle Obispo 153 – The hotel where Ernest Hemingway started and finished several books. You can visit room 511 which is where he wrote parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. We had drinks in the piano bar. CUC$8
Sia Kara Cafe – 502 Calle Industria near El Capitolo – Laritza, the owner, made the best pina colada I’ve ever had. It was so good I had to have another. Andrew had a lemonade frappe. It became his favorite drink. For lunch we had french fries and empanadas. In the picture below is the owner, Laritza, second from the left, with her staff. Her husband Gerald, who is French, is not in the picture. CUC$28
Churros – Our favorite churros were from a stand near Plaza Vieja. CUC$1
La Imprenta, Calle Mercaderes 208 – The restaurant was restored on top of the ruins of a printing house from the 19th century. For dinner we both had pasta with shrimp. CUC$21
Vedado – A large, mostly residential neighborhood a few miles west of Old Havana. It was a closed military defense during colonization by the Spanish, hence the name; “Vedado” “forbidden”. Residential development began in the mid-1850’s with a grid system where the streets are numbered and lettered. After Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American War, many American investors and wealthy Cubans built mansions in Vedado.
Famous hotels are the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera. In the 1950s, U.S. mobsters ran the casinos where many celebrities, socialites and American tourists came to gamble and enjoy the many nightclubs.
After the Revolution all the hotels, nightclubs, and homes of the wealthy were seized by the government. Some mansions were subdivided into multiple family housing, others were turned into office space for government entities. Some of these mansions have been beautifully restored, others are in disrepair or have even collapsed.
Sightseeing in Vedado
Cementerio de Cristobal Colon – Located on 140 acres, it was established in 1876. It contains one million graves and more than 500 major mausoleums, many made of Carrera marble. One is a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta which was built in the 1950s by a wealthy family. It was never used because they fled Cuba after Castro came to power in 1959.
Parque John Lennon – Fidel dedicated the bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a bench in 2000. A music concert is held there on December 8th, the day he was killed. His sunglasses have been stolen so many times, a government employee is in charge of them.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano – It is a unique art museum with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and DJs housed in an old electrical company. When you enter you receive a card on which your purchases are listed and you pay when you leave. Admission CUC$2
Restaurants in Vedado
King’s Bar and Restaurant Calle 23 between D and E – It was a 10 minute walk from our apartment to this bar and grill. We ordered grilled pork, grilled fish, beans, rice, a mojito and water. CUC$30
Vampirito – Calle 6 between 19 and 21 – Only a five minute walk from our apartment, it was located downstairs in a residential building. The menu had breakfast items, sandwiches, and burgers. Andrew had a pork sandwich and I had an omelet and toast. The young staff and waiters were very friendly. CUC$10
El Cocinero – Calle 26, between 11 and 13 – Located beneath a brick chimney which once was a vegetable oil factory, the bar and restaurant are up three flights of stairs. We had grilled pork, grilled fish, empanadas, a mojito and water. CUC$34
Atelier – Paseo Y 2 – ( no picture) This paladar was once a large mansion located near El Malecon. We had asparagus with cheese, chicken and beef fajitas, grilled shrimp, beans and rice. CUC$32
Decameron – Corner of Linea and Paseo – It is one of the oldest paladares in the city. We sat in a small room filled with antique clocks. For dinner we had tostones, penne with shrimp, homemade bread, shrimp with pineapple and ginger sauce, and lemon pie. CUC$50
French Bakery – It is located on the ground floor of a large mansion across the street from Lennon Park. Once we found it we bought croissants, lemon tarts and chocolate eclairs almost daily.
Vintage Cars we saw in Vedado –
Our Day Trip to Vinales – We hired Alexander to take us to Vinales, a rural town in the heart of tobacco growing region in western Cuba. It was a 3 hour drive each way in his 1946 Plymouth. There wasn’t much traffic once we were out of Havana. We bounced along due to the many potholes in the highway.
Before we reached the town we visited a small tobacco farm and toured the barn where the leaves are dried. We purchased a bundle of 10 cigars made from their tobacco. We drove past groves of mango trees loaded with fruit. Alexander stopped to buy some. They were juicy and sweet.
Vinales, founded in 1875, has a population of 27,000 people. It is in the center of a flat valley surrounded by karst hill formations locally called mogotes. The wide main street was lined with arcades painted in different colors. We ate at an open air cafe where grilled chicken was the specialty. We had grilled tuna, grilled chicken, beans, rice and fruit salad. CUCs$150 for the day drive, CUCS$43 lunch for 3 people
Locals we met in Cuba – We spoke Spanish or English with as many people as we could during our trip. We wanted to know what it is like living in Cuba.
Clara – (no picture) – A waitress who told us she had moved from Santa Clara to work in Havana. She complained that she wasn’t being paid fairly for the number of hours she works. Each week she takes a two-hour bus trip to Mantanzas where she is studying sociology in college. Because commuting is difficult she isn’t sure she can continue her studies.
Juan – (no picture) He was our waiter at a restaurant near our apartment. He has relatives living in FL, TX, and NY. He makes CUC$150 a month as a waiter and tour guide. He offered to take Andrew and I to Vinales for CUC$400! His wife works at a bank and makes CUC$45 a month. She is pregnant with their first child. According to Juan her job will be held until she returns to work when their child is two to three years old. His family gets “el paquete” every week. He loves living in Havana.
Enrique – He is an English teacher and also helps Pilar’s guests with any requests they might have. He made certain that we had everything we needed during our stay. Andrew gave him the laptop computer. Enrique said it would be very helpful when teaching his students.
Raiza – Working as a maid at the apartments where we stayed, Raiza kept our apartment very clean and well provisioned. She is very sweet and has a dog named Chulo.
Israel – (no photo) He is the son of Pilar, the owner of Apartamento Plaez. Graduating soon from medical school, he lives with his grandmother, Magalys, in the two story portion of the building. His mother is a lawyer working in Honduras. She travels home often.
Alexander – He was our driver for our trip to Vinales and to the airport on our departure. His grandfather immigrated to Cuba from Jamaica. Married to a lawyer, they have a 9-year-old daughter and are expecting their second child soon.
Margarita – We met her in the Plaza de Armas where she goes every afternoon to care for five street dogs. The dogs are sterilized, vaccinated, and tagged. The day we met her she had chicken, rice, and water for her dogs named Vladimir, Canela, Aparicio, Leon and Carinoso. We gave her two big bags of dog bones and money to help her care for more street dogs.
Luis, Barbara, Rachel and Jorge – We met them one night when we walked to El Malecon. They were celebrating Jorge’s 9th birthday. We gave them packages of glow sticks and showed them how to wear them as bracelets. The mother was very excited and wanted to be the first to wear one.
Beatriz – She was our guide at the fort. After our tour, we gave her CUC$10, which she said was equal to half of her monthly government salary.
Andres – Our waiter at Factoria in Plaza Vieja. He is also a baseball umpire. Married to a woman in San Francisco, CA, he wants to move to the US and work as a baseball umpire.
Two female guides – They welcomed us as we reached the second floor of the Museo de Arte Colonial. One guide asked us furtively in Spanish for something for her child. We gave them money, Oreos, and chewing gum.
Carlos – We met him at the Cadeca in the Hotel Nacional. He had applied for a US visa and was hoping to receive it soon.
Julio- (no picture) He was the owner of the tobacco farm that we visited in Vinales. He showed us his commercial driver’s license from Texas where he worked for seven years. He moved back to live on his tobacco farm with his wife.
Roberto – The owner of the beautiful yellow convertible that we rode in from Havana Vieja to our apartment. He lives in Vedado near our apartment and has a daughter in the US.
Omar – Our taxi driver from our apartment to the restaurant, El Cocinero in Vedado. His car was a 1954 Ford with a diesel engine. (on left below)
Orestes – Our taxi driver from our apartment to the Museo de Revolucion – He has a wife and four children. (on right below)
Tourists we met in Cuba
Marjorie, her niece Mecca, and friends, Adrienne and Lauren – They were staying in the apartment next to us. The day we met they went going to the beach in Varadero to celebrate Marjorie’s birthday. The last time she was in Cuba was 2000 when she had lunch with Fidel Castro! I got to see the picture of her with Fidel. Marjorie is a lawyer, a civil rights activist, a writer and presently working in government. Adrienne is a managing partner in a media group. Mecca is studying film in college. Picture on right – left to right – Marjorie, Adrianne, Lauren, Mecca
Jessica and Iggy – Jessica is a marketing consultant and works with Major League Soccer. Iggy, her boyfriend, played baseball in college and now works for NYU. His parents are Cuban-American so he wanted to visit the island. We sat next to them during dinner at the rooftop restaurant and bar, El Cocinero. During a torrential rain we huddled under awnings trying to stay dry. We saw them later that night at Fabrica de Arte Cubano.
Hector – We met him at Fabrica de Arte Cubano. His family is from the Dominican Republic. Working as a financial analyst at Nine West, he lives in NYC. He loves to travel and recently visited Japan. Friends traveled to Cuba with him for the weekend.
Ryan – We dined next to him at La Imprenta. It was his first visit to Havana. Born in Hong Kong, he now lives in Miami where he works for Royal Caribbean. He graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Margaret – Her parents are Cuban-American and this was her first visit to Cuba. She lives in San Francisco and is a manager for a vascular medical device company. Bringing three suitcases of medical equipment to Cuba, she planned to deliver them to hospitals.
During our trip we could see how changes in Cuban government policies are affecting the economic welfare of some Cubans.
Three quarters of Cuba’s workforce are still making $25 a month in government jobs. Even with free medical care, education, housing and weekly rationed goods, they struggle to provide for their families.
Since 2008 when Raul Castro approved 200 private enterprise jobs, over a half million Cubans are now self-employed. The estimate is that a self-employed person is making eight times what a government employee makes.
Cubans working in the tourist industry as waiters, waitresses, taxi drivers, tour guides, paladares and casa particulares owners receive CUCs as payment for services and tips from tourists. Since the buying power of one CUC equals 25 CUPs they can afford to buy what were once considered luxury items such as TVs, cell phones, computers, microwaves and home appliances.
The goal of the Cuban revolution in 1959 was to create a classless society with everyone making the same salary regardless of their profession. That isn’t the reality now as more and more Cubans working in the private sector, especially in tourism, are making more money than the government employees.
According to a government statement, “We will keep control of banking, communications, and transportation. We will continue promoting co-operatives more than private businesses. We don’t want to permit people to get rich. ”
The government pledges to continue protecting Cubans even though some policies are being changed. “We will make all these changes but no one will be unprotected. Socialism is irreversible in this country and we have to guarantee the revolution’s victories – health, education and social support.”
We are fortunate to have been able to travel to Cuba. The Cuban people were friendly, welcoming and helpful. During times of hardship they have thrived because they are resilient and resourceful. When we asked people if life is improving for them, the answer usually was “poco a poco,” little by little.
President Trump’s announcement about possible changes affecting travel to Cuba was made the day after we returned home. We hope there won’t be a change in US government policy making it difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba. There are economic benefits to the Cuban people as more tourists visit their beautiful island.