Just 11 days on this humid island but its magic was palpable very quickly after we arrived. Our capable guide, Sandra Vazquez, and her boyfriend Alejandro – our driver – wove a tapestry for us: we met a farmer who is a major agricultural policy thinker, were included in a family party with a couple who had served as Cuba’s ambassadors to Canada, the UK, and Mexico, were guided through Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts – Cuban wing by a brilliant young curator; hiked in two national parks, one with a naturalist, the other a climber; and heard music from bands in restaurants, bars, on the street, in clubs – everywhere you turn music is throbbing sometimes softly like a gentle breeze that lifts you from your seat, sometimes with an Afro-Cuban beat. We have danced our way across Cuba – dancing with Sandra and Alejandro who are fabulous on their feet and who never say no to the music.
We’ve stayed in casas particulares – private homes, where we had our own rooms but with families – in one case not present [think Airbnb]. The range of accommodations helped us see a wide swath of social classes up close. In Vinales in western Cuba on the edge of a national park with gorgeous magotes – limestone haystack-shaped mountains – we stayed with two sisters who kept us laughing even with our fractured Spanish and who served us absolutely delicious meals. There we tried sleeping in a closet-sized bedroom with a mattress that seemed like it could have been stuffed with Spanish moss and a bath that had no toilet seat and no soap. Another evening we stayed in a large home in leafy Nuevo Vedado, an affluent section of Havana, with spa jets for every bathtub and a staff assisting our hosts with meals, etc. There we were fortunate to be included in a dinner/cocktail party with 14 or so guests where we learned from Jose Fernandez de Cossio [“Pepe”] and his wife Tanya about their roles as student leaders in the revolution of 1959 [Pepe was imprisoned and tortured by Batista’s forces] and his posting as ambassador to Canada at age 33 by Fidel. One of their sons fought with the African National Congress armed wing in South Africa in the 80s – and is now the ambassador to South Africa. Two other children are expats in Miami. Their family captures the tensions and conflicts that trouble this society – the frustrations with the economic deprivations enforced by the US blockade that drive some into exile, vs the pride in the opportunity, freedom and sovereignty that the revolution has achieved. For example we spent an evening with Alejandro’s mother, a 70 year old doctor who was a pre-teen during the years of the revolution [1956-58] who in the city of Santiago secretly carried messages under her clothes from revolutionary cadres and sometimes ferried a handgun hidden under her skirt. She is incredibly grateful for what the revolution has made possible for her life. As she explained, she had three strikes against her in pre-revolutionary Cuba: she was poor, a woman, and black. She became an MD, has practiced in several countries in Africa including Guinea-Bissau [where Cuba sends its over-supply of doctors as a form of foreign aid] and has traveled to every continent on medical missions and conferences, which as she says, was unimaginable to her as a girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba.
The landscapes on this island were an unexpected treasure. Vinales was to me the most memorable with its limestone hillocks draped with dense jungle – palms, vines, thorn trees that provide a green tablecloth to the cream-colored limestone. We walked through tremendous stalagtite and stalagmite-filled caves, took a boat through an underground river, and hiked with a climber to the top of one mountain with views that stretched over the surrounding small tobacco farms with their brightly colored wooden houses. Alejandro took us to visit a farmer who showed us his fields, his drying house, and the way to harvest tobacco – February is harvest season. He’s the third generation to farm this land but his son won’t follow him – the work is too hard, the economics too precarious. He rolled us cigars on the spot – his is the best tobacco-growing region in Cuba and he claims some family secrets in how its grown and how the leaves are prepared. We’re bringing back a supply for Cody and Noah to evaluate.
In Cienfuegos we were alongside a calm bay set just back from the Caribbean, in a small city founded by French from France and Louisiana in the early 1800s, with wide boulevards and parks. At Playa Giron we snorkeled alongside reefs that hugged the shore in the Bahia de Cochinos – Bay of Pigs – where the infamous CIA-backed failed invasion of Cuba landed in the early 60s. In Trinidad we swam in delicious waters on the reef-lined coast, then hiked in 1000+ foot mountains set just back from the coast, the Sierra Escambrey where Che Guevara led a column of revolutionaries in the months leading up to the overthrow of Batista. We hiked along beautiful trails in the national park there, swimming in waterfall-filled pools along the way, surrounded by dense virgin jungle with epiphytes filling the branches of every tree and orchids and other flowers hanging from the sky.
Of course the urban landscape of Havana is monumental – architecture on a grand scale from so many different periods from classic to art nouveau, art deco – and beautifully lit by the sun setting or rising across the nearby sea, then by lighting at night that rivals Paris or Barcelona. Though Havana is crumbling in many places the beauty is formidable. And the commitment to architectural and historic preservation is fierce: the City Historian has renovated and restored hundreds of buildings, brought back neighborhoods once considered lost, and returned the profits from re-purposed spaces to support social safety net programs for Havana’s poorest. It’s an amazing story that merits another whole communication.
Ending the malicious US blockade of this proud, determined country is long overdue. Fernando Funes, the farmer we met with our first full day here at his Finca Marta, is an example of the capability, innovation and confident spirit that one finds in Cuba. He has chosen to farm organically a healthy range of crops in one of the most inhospitable locations in order to prove what is possible at his demonstration farm – and inspire a path for a revolution in Cuban agriculture, which still suffers from the legacy of a one-crop economy of sugar cane and the failures of collective farming policies that have made Cuba import 60% of its food today. Funes has worked in agriculture in South America, Asia and Africa, has recorded a TED Talk with his vision, and will likely have a major impact on Cuban farming and agricultural policies going forward – hopefully. The man is inspiring and you leave him ready to volunteer in the fields. He represents what is possible in Cuba – in spite of the blockade. But the other side of the country is a story of frustration and exhaustion waiting for an improvement in material standards, leading to a loss of hope for the economy, professionals piecing together multiple jobs as itinerant musicians, taxi drivers, bellhops in order to put food on the table – and some dreaming of exile.
We leave Cuba with a personal understanding of the people’s warmth, their courage and achievements [free health care and education for all, a narrower income/inequality gap than would ever be imaginable in the US, a noticeable unselfconscious ease in racial mixing of people across all skin colors/tones] — and embarrassment at the continued punishment our country inflicts on their economy. But more than all that, we feel the Cuban spirit, strong like the seductive music that carried us dancing all across this beautiful island. We loved our time here and were incredibly fortunate to meet the people we did.
Dick & Deane