Mike’s Note: The following is the first installment of my travel diary from a trip to Havana I took back in January. It will be released in parts as the journal covers numerous aspects, including the requirements for Americans to legally visit the Communist run island, conversations with both residents and tourists, descriptions of some of the places of note, religion in a Marxist country, and living conditions. The travel log captures the idiosyncrasies of both the place and the traveler, so at times it will come off a bit “gonzo.” At a minimum I hope these segments provide information of interest about this once-forbidden destination.
As a child of the Cold War, communism both instilled fear and curiosity. On one hand, I worried about a nuclear confrontation or something conventional (think Red Dawn- perhaps far-fetched for America, not so much for residents of Denmark, Belgium, or West Germany). Would World War III take place not just in my lifetime but during my adolescence?
Yet I was also intrigued by communism and the countries that professed Marxism. How did it work, or rather not work? What were conditions like? Were there tanks rolling about the streets, menacing looking soldiers clutching AK-47’s on every street corner, and propaganda posters everywhere?
Was it like something out of the largely forgotten Clint Eastwood movie Firefox? Would someone be checking if my papers were in order every tenth of a mile?
By the time I made it over to Eastern Europe, the Berlin Wall was being sold in gravel form as souvenirs, Soviet flags no longer snapped over the Kremlin, American tourists could file past Lenin’s dead body (just don’t put your hands in your pocket), and there was democracy everywhere (even in Albania- the North Korea of Europe)…well almost everywhere (cough Belarus cough).
With a few exceptions in east Asia, Ronald Reagan’s prescient declaration of communism being relegated to the ash-bin of history had largely come to pass.
Except in Cuba.
Castro’s Cuba stood in defiance to the” imperialist yankees” to the north and the reality of economic retardation that penetrated the Cane Curtain and touched the lives of an overwhelming majority of residents.
Surely things wouldn’t continue…but endure they have, as Fidel Castro outlasted ten United States presidents and almost outlived the Obama Administration before crossing over to the beyond on a rickety Soviet jeep.
With Castro el Segundo (Fidel’s brother Raul) declaring his intention to walk away from power next year, it seems the Revolution as it has existed was running out of gasoline and time.
If I wanted to beat Starbucks and McDonald’s over the Cane Curtain, I needed to move sooner than later to see communism without crossing the international date line.
Going to Cuba isn’t as difficult as it used to be as there are now domestic air carriers that fly to the island on a daily basis, including discount carriers Southwest and Jet Blue.
However Cuba is still a forbidden place for recreational tourism and visitors need to have to declare a reason that conforms to allowed travel, which ranges from visiting family to the more general “support for the Cuban people” and “person-to-person” visits.
In other words, sipping mojitos on the beach does not meet the official criteria to Cuba.
Truth be told, Cuba doesn’t have the hospitality infrastructure to handle the tourism juggernaut that will one day hit it from the states.
There are hotels, including the storied Nacional of Godfather II and very real mafia fame; however there are not nearly enough and many of the ones they do have are not up to American standards. Many couldn’t cut in Romania.
AirBnB is the default means of lodging for many visitors.
However, Havana’s harbor can handle large cruise ships that can deposit tourists right in the heart of old town.
Once the embargo is finally removed in total, cruise ships will serve as the housing beachhead until foreign investment feels confident enough that their investment won’t fall victim to El Nacionalization 2.0.
With hotel rooms in short supply and running higher than what a room goes for in Manhattan, I opted to fly in and out on the same day. I would embark on an express tour of communism in a land where nothing moves particularly fast.
I wanted to go to Cuba for a few reasons: to see what communism looked like, witness and worship God in the Marxist land, provide financial support for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, and converse with some of the residents willing to talk frankly with an American carrying a note pad.
As the pelican flies, Cuba is 90 miles south of Key West, or to put it parochially, from the door step of Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette to the north end zone of Tiger Stadium.
The flight from south Florida is about an hour and as the American commercial jetliner crossed over the coastline that was once patrolled by MiG fighters, Cuba’s poverty is apparent even from thousands of feet up.
The farmland looks nothing like what you would see in America. There are no neat rows of crops or bountiful fields but churned up mud adjoining small shanties. Industrial areas appeared no more impressive.
The airport terminal resembled a warehouse and you deplaned via movable stairwell.
Your first view of the communist state is the immigration police, garbed in olive drab uniforms resembling a Fidel-esque female clothing line. But what was really different was having to go through a metal detector to EXIT the airport: the state wanted to make sure visitors weren’t bringing special “gifts” for the discontented.
Your second taste of communism is the currency exchange. As a means of getting their hands on hard cash, the Cuban government dreamed up tourism money that is different from the pesos that the hoi polloi use. The official currency is referred to, appropriately enough, as the CUC or convertible peso. The common peso is worth just under 4 cents per unit.
In great contrast the CUC is indexed to the US Dollar though the Cuban government hits American dollar conversion with a 10% penalty (actually more when the rest of the miscellaneous fees are deducted) leaving American visitors really feeling like “cucks.”
Fortunately I was familiar with the Yanqui Penalty and brought euros, which aren’t penalized and have a much healthier exchange rate.
However the line to get ripped off at the currency counter is far slower than any DMV line in America.
La bienvenida al Comunismo.