When we debarked in Cuba, we were met by the media at the bottom of the gangplank. We soon saw that this visit of 700 Americans (mostly Americans) was a very big deal to the Cubans. Our 17 buses were paraded through Havana by a police escort, with people watching and sometimes waving from the sidewalks and windows.
Here’s NBC News’ coverage
and from El Pais in Spain
We arrived at the foot of some wide steps leading to the University of Havana campus, and after a speech were told to go up and meet our student hosts waiting at the top. As we surged forward, we heard John Lennon singing ‘Imagine’ through the loudspeakers. Although I knew it was a carefully orchestrated moment, I also saw that the Havana students were young people with a genuine hunger to meet their American peers. I was moved by their eager faces and by the song to mount the steps singing with hundreds of my shipmates, tears on our faces. “Imagine all the people living life in peace...”
Poster for Free the Cuban Five in background
|Later on campus|
There is so much to say about our visit to Cuba, that you might have to ask me about it and set aside an hour to listen. There were many contrasts and contradictions. The people were warm and welcoming, but many are forbidden to speak to foreigners, and the University faculty and students had obviously been prepped with certain messages to convey to us. At least one of our students was stopped by the police because she had inadvertently taken a photo of a government building. Another of our passengers witnessed the police harassing a citizen on the street for speaking to him.
Everywhere there were banners and leaflets shouting “Free the Cuban Five!” and most of the ‘graffiti’ I saw repeated government slogans. As it turns out, the Cuban Five had only three left in US jails, and two weeks after we left President Obama announced their release in exchange for USAID worker Alan Gross and an intelligence agent. One of our professors remarked that much of what we saw and heard was probably directed at the Cuban media in preparation for this change in US-Cuban relations.
In spite of the high literacy rate, universal health care, and communist/socialist ideals of the government, Cuba does have classes and a lot of poverty. There are two currencies, and those not in power get paid with the one that can’t be used in many of the places tourists go. Our guide told us that the government is the only entity that can import cars, and to buy a new one you have to be ‘qualified’—plus have the equivalent of $260,000 in Cuban Convertible Pesos (no pun intended). This helps to explain all the quaint 1950s Chevrolets that are still kept running with ingeniously crafted parts and fixes. Some enterprising car owners sell rides and photos in their cars to tourists.
|Cuban peso for the people aka CUP|
|Richard considers the options|
Beyond the politics and economics, though, I saw a beautiful, interesting place full of music, color, and friendly people. One of the vignettes that stays in my mind is this:
My friend and I are at a sidewalk café enjoying a $12 lobster dinner that includes a mojito and flan, and two wandering musicians are serenading us. They really were quite good at guitar-picking and harmonizing. Two groups of pedestrians are approaching from opposite directions—some locals, and a white European couple. They all notice the music and start swaying as they walk, and when the two groups of strangers come face to face, the Cuban woman and European man share a brief dance before going on their ways.University of Havana dancers performing a feisty folk dance
|This woman crochets and sells garments in this small space|
under the stairs, open to the street.
|Catedral San Francisco, Havana|