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A Trip to Cuba

I have traveled to Cuba six times now. I studied in Cuba in 2003, for a month, and in 2004, for a semester, with a few other more recent trips mixed in here and there.

All of my trips were legal ones; a point that should not be overlooked.

The fact that many of my trips came years apart should also not be overlooked. After several changes in the law and regulations, I was unable to return to the island legally. In the past few years, however, these restrictions have eased and I'm allowed to return as part of "people to people" exchanges approved by the U.S. Treasury Department. The upshot of all this is that apart from money and free time, there's no reason why Americans can't legally travel to Cuba these days.

This past trip just happened to take place during the Habanos Festival. I didn't take many photos at the events as I didn't want to be "that guy" at the party. Nevertheless, my girlfriend and I went to several events and had a wonderful time.  The other interesting thing is that there were another 10 Americans on the trip who by the end of the stay were smoking cigars with me morning, noon and night and they developed a real appreciation for the hard work and passion that goes into making a cigar.

On my most recent trip, I was struck that for an island that hasn't seen much change since 1959, things are beginning to happen at a breakneck pace: at least by Cuban standards. I saw tremendous improvements to the infrastructure in Havana. The government has set up special zones within the city that require any money earned from tourism to be reinvested in renovating the crumbling city. This is most noticeable in Old Havana, where buildings I feared I would never see standing again have been completely restored to their former beauty. Cobblestone streets have been dug up and water mains that used to lose over half of the potable water to God-knows where have been repaired. Long gone are the many trucks that used to park on the street and hamper the water system. While the streets were dug up, I even saw workers installing fiber optic cable. Yes, there's real progress.

The big talk around town these days is currency unification.  Since 1994, and out of the need for economic survival, Cuba has been a dual currency country.  There's a Peso Cubano (CUP) and the Peso Convertible (CUC).  Cubans are paid in CUP and this currency is used for purchasing goods in stores that sell food and basic household items at highly subsidized prices.  Of course, these goods are rationed and every Cuban family has a ration book. Yet, each family's ration does not come even close to meeting a family's needs.  As an example, each family is rationed six kilos (a little over seven pounds) of rice per month.  For a family of four, this will barely get you through two weeks.  You then are forced to find a way to get more food.  This is where the CUC comes into play. The CUC essentially is a separate currency used for the purchase of imported goods.  

There are many stores around Havana that are well stocked with electronics, household appliances, home improvement products, etc.  But these stores only accept the CUC.  The only way to get CUCs is to work in tourism for tips and/or be lucky enough to have friends and family abroad to send you money.   While one can argue that the CUC helped save Cuba in the 1990s, when Cuba lost the support of the Soviet Union, it has created a society where teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals struggle to survive on the equivalent of $20 a month; while cab drivers and hotel doormen can earn that in one evening.  

No one is quite sure what's going to happen, other than the government stating that it will be getting rid of the CUC.  

  • Are prices going to skyrocket to match CUC prices?  
  • How will the exchange of monies proceed?  
  • Are people who have been hoarding foreign currency and large quantities of CUC going to have problems exchanging these large amounts?  

Even with all of this serious concern and worry, most people with whom I spoke admit that it's something that needs to happen.

My hotel in Havana actually had wireless! This was totally unthinkable just a few years ago. It was actually quite decent and I was able to Skype and Google Chat - voice only - to folks back home. There was a huge group of young Cubans - wealthy ones - who would come to the hotel each evening until the wee hours to use the hotel's internet services. I say "wealthy" because at 12 CUC per hour for internet in a country where the average salary is a mere 20 to 25 CUC each month, this is a tremendous luxury. Many would pass around USB flash drives filled with MP3s, movies and American TV shows. I must say that "Real Housewives of Miami" and "Dancing With The Stars" are quite popular. I had a 1 terabyte drive filled with thousands of MP3s and movies that I shared with several people. No doubt these files have already have made there way around the city many times over. 

After returning to the United States, I saw on the news that Cuba's government is now beginning to permit data service on their cellular phone system.  Prices will be $1+ per megabyte. Incredibly steep; but again, it's progress.

Cruise ships are starting to fill Havana's harbor. The Cuban and Brazilian governments have been working furiously to create a new deep water harbor west of Havana in Mariel. The harbor has been dredged to a depth of 60 feet and in its current configuration can handle 2 Panamax ships at a time. This almost triples Havana harbor's cargo capacity. The harbor opened a few weeks ago and has already begun accepting container ships. New highway and rail connections are still being constructed to feed the goods from Mariel to Havana. The other benefit is that Havana harbor is being turned into a cruise ship terminal. I saw two cruise ships there. One even was an operator officially licensed by the U.S. Treasury to depart from Miami and sail around the island; with Havana and Santiago de Cuba both being ports of call.

Lots of other investment is happening. I ran into several officials from the U.S. who were in Cuba to ink deals to sell meat and produce to the island. This takes advantage of the the embargo's only loophole, which permits Cuba to buy food from U.S. companies, albeit with several restrictions. All foodstuffs must be paid for in cash prior to leaving the U.S. No credit is permitted. Yes, artichokes from California, chicken from Florida and cheese from Wisconsin all can be found in Cuba. I even saw a Kirkland (CostCo's store brand) pepper mill at one of my dinner tables.

Private business is expanding rapidly. With the goal of slashing over 1,000,000 government jobs deemed unnecessary and redundant, the Cuban government began a process in 2011 of "opening up" the economy to private business. The Cuban government legalized about two hundred private enterprises, including real estate agents, antique dealers, handymen and contractors. In 2011, the government permitted the purchase and sale of property. This meant that Cubans, for the first time in decades, finally could buy and sell their homes. A fixer- upper, one bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood in Havana can be had for about 20,000 to 30,000 CUCs. Higher end properties are selling for upwards of 1,000,000. There even are rumors of Cuban Americans "buying up" properties via relatives still living on the island acting as proxies. 

An enormous change in culture is occuring as well.: People aren't as careful these days about voicing their opinions. I say this with complete acknowledgment that censorship is alive and well in Cuba and by no means do I deny there are people imprisoned on that island for “going too far” in the eyes of their government.  But the bar has been lowered; I think rather dramatically in only a few short years.

I read an article criticizing, albeit delicately, the slow implementation of economic reforms.  I spoke to a professor who told me about a study she was doing. She quite candidly was assessing people's honest opinions of the government by asking them to draw a picture about what the government meant to them. My favorite was the picture someone drew of five bureaucrats all standing around and pointing to a pothole in the street; on the left side was the date "1990" above it and on the right side one saw the same picture with "2013" above it.

There's a variety show on Cuban television with a character called Lindoro Incapaz. The last name, depending on the context, means unable or inept/incompetent. The sketches routinely show him speaking to citizens in flowery revolutionary language as they ask simple questions about why they don't have running water. If you understand Spanish, you even can check him out on Youtube.  

As I said, this was my sixth trip to Cuba and with each trip, I find answers to many questions that I had posed to myself at the end of my earlier trips to the island; but only to find that my answers to those questions brought even more questions.

Contradictions are everywhere. One can get overwhelmed by it all and it's difficult to describe the feelings. Fortunately. there is someone who can do it for me.

Irene Wright, a U.S. historian and journalist published a book in 1910 called "Cuba". She says about Cuba: "Here logic and rational sequence are not the rule. Life runs, not like reality, but after the style of librettos of stage plays, From largest to smallest, contradiction exist in all the details of our daily life. Here, there are woods which sink and stones which float. Here the executive pardons persons not yet convicted of any crime, and the congress legislates against incorrigible suicides. Business firms send creditors no bills, but signed receipts instead, to dun them. Here black is not necessarily black, but may carry a legal document to prove its color white; white is not surely white, but may only "pass" for such. Under these, and a thousand other circumstances of which they are typical, one learns to hesitate to call a spade either a qualified shovel or an agricultural implement; but compromises by stating, if one must commit oneself, that at a given time and at a given place it looked to one something like an azadón."

There are miles yet to go; but with so many recent miles already traveled, I choose to remain optimistic for Cuba and it's wonderful people.

Christopher St. Peter, San Mateo

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