In January 2017 I made a day trip to Havana.
President Barack Obama had lifted much of the embargo on the Communist island, though there remained a convoluted self-declaration system of officially justifying a visit to satisfy the residual regulations that limited Americans’ activities.
For example, one could not travel there to loiter at the beach and sip mojitos. The approved reasons ranged from social justice endeavors (support for the Cuban people, person-to-person encounters, and visiting public welfare facilities) to cultural and religious.
For me I wanted to see what Communism looked like, worship Jesus and directly donate to the church in Cuba, visit museums to see how they interpreted the world outside, and document living conditions.
And as Donald Trump would be sworn in soon, and thus the old embargo rules would likely be slapped back in place, I booked my flight the weekend before his inauguration.
Since making accommodations was difficult from the US (and I’d heard horror stories about Airbnb), I took advantage of an early flight there and a late flight back.
Being about 100 miles from Florida the flight would be short so time on the plane would be minimal.
It didn’t take long for me to get my first glimpse of the conditions and control mechanisms of the “socialist paradise.”
As the plane entered Cuban airspace the deplorable conditions of the farmland, which looked muddy and poorly cultivated, and the very basic rural electrification was apparent from thousands of feet above.
But it was the arrival that set the tone. After disembarking the jet via a rolling staircase, passengers went through metal detectors, which was highly unusual, and the military personnel rummaged through your baggage.
Air travelers undergo this procedure when departing for the safety of the flight; at the Havana airport you went through this for the safety of the regime.
As it was early in the morning I was hoping to have some breakfast, which provided me with yet another peek of life in a Communist country: empty shelves that in most other places would be well-stocked with food.
I was told there was a restaurant back inside the secure area, though that would have to wait for the flight back to Tampa.
Now, many folks expect to see classic American cars all over Havana as the US embargo and the rampant poverty that is characteristic of Marxism requires making do with limited consumer goods. But this wasn’t the case.
The 1950s vehicles aren’t that common and are seen mainly in the tourist areas where their owners hustle money from tourists wanting to pose inside or ride around these still-operable vehicles. However, one of the more typical cars on the road are dilapidated leftovers from the Soviet Union though the official taxis are relatively new Hyundais. The tourist buses are Chinese-made.
Across Havana the once-grand edifices constructed by the Spanish and succeeding domestic administrations are literally shells of their former selves and the crumbling buildings are utilized as brothels by opportunistic pimps and the women they exploit.
Soldiers are everywhere, especially by the State Security building with a facade that supports a large memorial sketch of Che Guevara. Here I took some liberties and wore the MAGA hat I snuck through security within my Saints hat and flashed a thumbs down. Minutes later soldiers who were guarding the perimeter were assembled where I had made my gesture of defiance to prevent an encore performance.
Across the city were murals honoring Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s late benefactor, and are painted all over the sides of walls and buildings that serve as canvases for state propaganda.
The people are impoverished and one woman was literally hawking trash for any amount of money (I bought for a quarter an old copy of Granma- the party line of the Castros- which would serve as my one souvenir).
Ironically many of the pedicabs around sported US flags and I was surprised to see Old Glory in any form on the streets of Havana.
While walking around I saw an enormous building that resembled a ramshackle housing project. Upon closer inspection I learned that it was actually their Ministry of Health.
Celebrated in the media for their supposed great health care access, all of the medical centers I saw looked more like small apartment buildings that in no way gave me a sense of quality medical treatment especially when compared to American health care facilities.
The church I attended Mass in was in a state of disrepair and provided me with my opportunity to contribute direct financial relief to the Cuban people. Attendance was sparse but God had stuck around after the Revolution.
Upon arriving at the airport via a Russian-built taxi that was almost like Fred Flintstone’s car, I looked forward to finally eating at that airport restaurant having sustained my trek through the Communist looking glass with a bottle of water I bought at the airport, a handful of Jolly Ranchers, and a small bag of Southwest Airlines peanuts.
When I asked what they served, I was told the eatery offered three sandwiches: ham (which I don’t eat), cheese (which I don’t like), and…wait for it…ham & cheese sandwiches.
My surplus of Cuban tourist money was used on the one thing Communist Cuba had in large supply: rum.
As the plane made the short climb out of the island penitentiary of Communism to the land of capitalism, I started to think about the people I saw.
The only person I interacted with at any length was the initial cab driver, who conveyed it was his dream to be an Uber driver in Miami one day.
The faces belied a simmering of discontent that was only restrained by visible shows of strength and power by the state through police and soldiers.
It is a status quo maintained through brute force.
And now deprived of hard currency due to COVID-19 travel restrictions on tourism, a “vaunted” health care system clearly inadequate to the task of battling the Coronavirus, and the Castros no longer in power the people of Cuba sense the regime teetering and an opportunity to create change.