Getting There before Starbucks

A First Visit to Cuba

Like many stories travelers tell about Cuba, mine begins in a taxi. But it wasn’t one of those miraculously maintained cars from the 1950s that have captivated photographers for decades. And it begins not in Havana but in Miami, inside a compact Uber car owned by the son of a Cuban exile.

When José, the Uber driver, took my husband and me to our hotel the night before we left for Havana in June, his ninety-year-old mother was in the front seat. Traffic was slow, giving us ample time to chat. “So,” I said, “we’re going to Cuba tomorrow morning, first time for us. Have you ever been there?” 

If you’re a journalist asking this question in Miami, you’re fishing, and José instantly took the bait. His father fled Cuba in 1957 and met his mother, who had emigrated from Cuba years earlier at age sixteen, in Miami. José was born in 1958, “the revolution” triumphed in 1959, and his parents never went back. 

José had never been to Cuba, and never would—“not as long as Fidel and Raul are there.” The Castros killed family friends, he said, and he never met his half-siblings who stayed behind. As his rhetoric escalated, it seemed to suck all the air out of the tiny car. The climax came when he stretched out his bare arms to show me his veins. Bitterness, José admitted, was in his blood.

That night, during orientation for our InsightCuba tour, each traveler was asked, “Why do you want to go to Cuba?” Most of us, all Americans save one Australian and one Puerto Rican, cited the music, the culture, the architecture, and the desire to see it before other Americans flood the place. “I want to get there before Starbucks,” one man said, and we all laughed knowingly. But two women who had grown up in Cuba and left under duress in 1960–61 as young teens clearly had much more at stake. 

Tina Schonhaut was the daughter of a former U.S. embassy official and a Cuban mother. This would be her first trip back, and she had only agreed to go because her husband was keen to stock up on Cuban cigars. The other woman, Blanca, Cuban to her core, was the daughter of a former manager at a sugar mill. It would be her third return trip, but the first one with her husband. She asked me not to use her last name, reluctant to upset Cuban-American relatives who oppose any travel to Cuba while the Castro regime is still in place. 

The plane ride to Cuba’s José Martí Airport was forty minutes long—up, down, and you’re there. Looking down at that forbidden island for the first time, it was the nearness to the U.S. mainland more than Cuba’s lush beauty that made an impression. How absurd, I thought, that the U.S. government prevented Americans from traveling directly to Cuba for so long.

Inside the crowded airport, the luggage carousels rumbled under the weight of giant bundles encased in blue plastic and duct tape. Someone said they looked like the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It became a fun game to guess what could possibly be in those packages. A Cuban woman waiting to claim her own “pod” explained that these cumbersome bundles contained toiletries, clothing, appliances, televisions, and much needed medical supplies—in other words, anything in short supply in Cuba. She herself regularly made runs from her home in Miami to deliver goods to economically strapped relatives. Blanca, who knew the ropes better than any of us, had packed medicines in her bag to deliver to Cuban friends. The laden luggage carousels were our first hint of a defining feature of Cuban life: scarcity.

Outside we pressed through crowds greeting loved ones and were whisked away for an obligatory stop at the legendary Hotel National, where movie and sports stars, mobsters and financiers partied in pre-revolutionary days. It was there that I first noticed how Tina’s slumped shoulders and sour expression contrasted with the sunny excitement of the rest of us. This was Tina’s first time in Havana since her father had to abandon his embassy post in 1960. She was fourteen, and while her Cuban mother looked forward to a new life in the United States, for Tina the loss of her idyllic childhood life had been devastating. She was convinced that Cuba had literally fallen apart under the Castros, and nothing we saw in Havana and Pinar del Rio, a smaller city near the spectacular mountains and valleys of Vinales, would dissuade her.

Many of Cuba’s historic buildings are indeed in shocking disrepair. But in neighborhoods and on side streets as well as on the justly famous public squares, countless stunning Spanish-style façades remain. Havana retains at least the skeletal structure that would allow it to reclaim its place as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 

Blanca was as distressed as Tina by the architectural decrepitude, and sad that much of the construction we saw was for hotels similar to the Melia Cohiba, our Spanish-financed luxury base in Havana. “What about housing for the people?” she asked. But while the revolution obviously hadn’t delivered on its promise of social and economic equality, there was a bright spot. “Within the Caribbean, we have the oldest buildings,” Blanca said. The revolutionaries who toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista “had no materials,” she added. “If there had not been a revolution, they [Batista and his corrupt cronies] would have leveled all that and built horrendous hotels and casinos.” 

In 1961 Blanca’s parents sent their two daughters to the United States because the revolution they initially supported was taking a worrisome turn. Between 1960 and 1962, some fourteen thousand unaccompanied Cuban children were airlifted to the United States in a program dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan.” 

Blanca’s parents joined their daughters ten months later and expected, like other exiles, to return to Cuba. But many families were separated forever, once the United States imposed its embargo in 1960. No Cuban I met blamed the embargo for all of Cuba’s woes, but it has cruelly punished the country economically, and accomplished nothing politically.

José had warned me not to be taken in by Cuba’s “Potemkin villages.” Yet it was obvious that private home-based businesses are thriving throughout the country, in particular paladares (small, family-run restaurants), art galleries, and bed-and-breakfast establishments. Some paladares, like Havana’s elegant La Guarida, attract international celebrities and have been featured in top travel magazines. La Guarida became famous as a setting in the Oscar-nominated Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate), and has reportedly made its owners rich. Then there was the charming little paladar I stumbled on in Pinar del Rio. Dining tables were set up, among other places, in the foyer and in the owner’s bedroom. The bed, I should note, was neatly made. 

 

MOST CUBANS WORK for the government, but even doctors, engineers, and professors can’t survive on their salaries. Multiple generations of a family typically live under the same roof; there is a thriving black market; and many people depend, as we saw at the airport, on gifts from friends and family abroad. Those lucky enough to work in tourism make money on tips, but the quickest route to relative prosperity seems to be private business. Grudgingly allowed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and withdrew its economic support, private business now appears to be openly embraced. So are Americans, whose money is needed and whose cultural influence doesn’t frighten Cubans as much as I thought it would. A Cuban psychologist reminded us that even post-revolution Cubans grew up watching American movies and television shows. Today, those few who can afford computers and smartphones often buy infotainment packages to share or sell. 

Cubans want things Americans have, but they know the strength of their own culture, and of their dreams. Don’t expect slogans and images of Che Guevara, seen on billboards throughout the country, to disappear any time soon. Che memorabilia sells big even in capitalist countries, but in Cuba he is far more than a pop icon.   

In Pinar del Rio, en route to a tobacco farm, we hiked past one freshly painted house after another, all with at least one air conditioner chugging away. Each bore a little blue anchor symbol signifying it as a Bed-and-Breakfast. Hosts can apparently keep what they earn, which isn’t always the case regarding extra income. Some Cuban academics who travel to conferences abroad, for example, turn over half their earnings to the government. Musicians traveling abroad, however, apparently get to keep what they make. The rules are confusing, confounding and—these days—subject to change. The same is true regarding speech. A University of Havana professor who met with our tour group said Cubans are very good at giving canned answers to political questions, but I didn’t experience that. Perhaps it was because they no longer know for sure what is correct politically.

The professor felt comfortable openly discussing inequality in Cuba, which she has been studying—along with persistent sexism and racism—for several years. This wouldn’t have been possible, she acknowledged, ten years ago. You can also say, she noted, that these problems still exist in the United States. But for Cubans, whose 1959 revolution pledged to abolish inequality, “it’s very painful” to realize it persists.

No one understood this better than Blanca, whose comfortably middle-class family initially had high hopes for the revolution. Not only the poor, she said, but also a substantial middle class wanted to end Batista’s “reign of terror.” The promise of equal opportunity, and of free education and health care, had broad appeal. “My family was sick of Batista,” said Blanca, “and wanted good government.”

Trouble first arose over private property. Before the revolution, three generations of Blanca’s family lived together in her grandmother’s large, comfortable home in Varadero—today one of Cuba’s most popular beach resorts. Although the revolutionary government didn’t generally force people from their homes, it did take property owned for profit. “My grandmother had two other homes besides ours,” said Blanca, “and the tenants became the owners of those houses. People started to say, ‘Yeah, sure, social justice, but that’s mine.’”

The last time Blanca visited Cuba, with her daughter in 2001, she found her old home split into two-family housing. “You know how Cubans are so friendly,” she said—and I did. But when Blanca told residents she had once lived there, she was met with stony silence. She surmised they thought this well-dressed Cuban-American might try to reclaim the house. “I don’t want to reclaim anything,” she said. “But my cousins do!”

Blanca first returned to Cuba in 1979 with a “brigade” of adult “Pedro Pans” who had special permission from the U.S. government. “We were against the embargo, and wanted to re-establish relations,” she said. “We were very hopeful, but we had a lot of quibbles about what was going on—repression of homosexuals, censorship of the press, and all that stuff.” And today? “What I see is that Cuba is going to be a tourist mecca,” Blanca said. “And isn’t that what we had before?” Still, I sensed she would go back again.

As for Tina, she was grateful to be able to arrange a side trip to see the homes she once lived in, and to stand inside her father’s old embassy office. “It was very emotional,” she said, to connect with the past. But Cuba’s present or future doesn’t engage her. “I was glad I escaped,” she said.

For Tina, the tragedy was the revolution itself; for Blanca, it was the failure of the revolution to deliver on its promises. As for the rest of our group, unencumbered by personal loss, we left happily clutching makeshift music CDs, artwork, cigars, and memories of our warm and gracious reception. If I were to run into José again, I would urge him to put bitterness aside and visit his ancestral homeland.

Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: 

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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