Inside Cuba - Island of beauty, poverty

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Wendy and I spent seven days in Cuba from Feb. 28 to March 7. Our trip, with a group of editors and publishers from the Inland Press Association, started in Miami, where we flew to Havana. We also visited Santiago and Guantanamo while in Cuba, where we traveled by plane, cab and bicycle cart.

I relived the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, observed the communism of Castro and saw the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (only by telescope on a hill overlooking the entire base). I also saw the friendly people, the terrible living conditions, the beautiful country, the unbelievable Spanish architecture that has deteriorated to slum conditions, the triple-A quality baseball and the athletic, medical and cultural ministries. I saw the top-notch Cuban National Ballet and the exceptional Cuban music and art and visited the U.S. interest section.

I read the national Communist newspaper and its emphasis on news that put the United States in a negative light while the island nation seeks our money, food and tourists.

I found Cuba fascinating, but I was disappointed that I had not previously taken the time to learn more about this country of many contradictions before the trip.

With visas approved by the U.S. government, Wendy and I joined eight other journalists in a guided tour of parts of Cuba.

Depending on where one visited and their experiences, people could come away with completely different views of the island. However, I think all would agree the people are friendly but not necessarily happy.

I feel my experiences were not broad enough for me to form a complete opinion, but I will share my observations.

First, I highly recommend anyone interested in visiting or knowing more should read the July 2000 edition of the Lonely Planet tourist guidebook on Cuba. It's available at local bookstores.

Eighty percent of Cuba's people live in poverty but don't whine or complain about it. They've adjusted to their conditions because in a communist country with implied (and sometimes used) penalties against dissent, it takes more than bravery to oppose the present administrative structure.

The administration of Fidel Castro spends more money on its image abroad -- attracting tourists to refurbished areas, the arts and sports -- than it can afford, but communism has always done this.

In Havana, Cuba has the greatest number of architecturally attractive buildings I've ever seen in a city of 2.2 million people. Most were built by the Spanish in the early 1900s but have deteriorated to ruinous status. Each year about 300 buildings collapse, and it is estimated 88,000 will have to be demolished.

Most of these buildings are owned by the government, which has little money to maintain them. Cubans live in many of these buildings along with Russian-designed Pruitt-Igoe-like concrete block buildings which have also deteriorated (40 percent of the windows are broken).

Our group was presented with an attractive movie-set facade tour of facilities but found much poverty and decay behind the scenes.

The dollar is accepted in Cuba. Castro permitted this in 1993 after the Russians pulled their subsidies and low-cost oil (used to generate electricity). The economy fell about 30 percent as a result, and many in the U.S. government hoped the decline would create a demand for free elections and a new government. However, even at age 75 Castro remains strongly in control and is riding out the economic downturn.

He's done this in spite of a fractured economy by emphasizing tourism.

The average Cuban makes $8 to $10 a month. The government provides its citizens with food coupons, which are barely adequate. Any dollars one can obtain by any means are treasured. Bread lines of 30 yards for a six-inch-diameter piece of bread were common. Doctors and engineers make $18 to $20 a month. Any benefits -- cars, better homes, bonuses -- that you can obtain through favoritism are also available.

The English-speaking bellhops in our hotel were generally engineers or doctors who were making $80 to $100 a day in tips, which beats the $18 to $20 a month in their trained professions.

Most of the farms were government-owned, and the land had been taken from the large landowners after the overthrow of the regime of Fulgencio Batista. a corrupt dictator who had taken over the Cuban government with a military coup first in 1933 and again in 1952 and whose policies had created the climate for the successful Castro revolution of 1959.

Some land was used to raise farmer-owned foods sold in farmers' markets for a percentage of the profit. Then there are "dollar stores" with a large selection of foods and clothing which those with dollars (the economic elite) could buy.

From what we saw during our week in Cuba, the country has little infrastructure, and what's there is poor.

Trucks hauled water (for toilets and showers, but not to drink) to the hotels weekly. Visitors drank bottled water.

The electricity went out three times in Havana during our three and a half days there. We ate in one of the private residences by candlelight. This is another way for Cubans to acquire U.S. dollars. Castro has loosened many previous restrictions in the last seven years.

Most better (and some new) hotels are joint ventures of the Communist Party and foreign governments. The government gets 50 percent of the profit.

The fallout of last September's terrorist attacks on the United States is having a big impact on Cuba, including a reduction in tourism. Occupancy at fancy resort hotels is down by about 25 percent from last winter. So Castro is squeezing hotel investors from Canada, Mexico and Europe, denying them a share of profit unless they can meet preset profit goals.

By the way, the hotels we stayed in had excellent food and accommodations with U.S. prices.

The roads are in poor condition. Eighty-five percent of the cars were 1959 models or older. When Castro gained power and confiscated American companies, the United States put a blockade on trade with Cuba which still exists but is being debated today in Congress. There were some later model Russian cars and newer German and British cars for a select few. Some of the government-owned taxis were also later model cars. In rural cities we saw more bicycles than cars and many bicycle-powered two-seat travel taxis.

We saw no public drunkenness or drugs, but we were told both are increasing problems.

Next: The government, Fidel Castro, the Cuban missile crisis and our itinerary.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: