journey to cuba cover

By Melinda Welsh

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This article was published on 12.04.03

Journey to Cuba

A booming tourist trade; a socialist government; a proud, educated people; and an autocrat on his last legs. Welcome to Fidel’s Island.

I boarded a charter plane in Miami thinking a trip to Cuba would involve awesome beaches and a Cold War-, frozen-in-time-style society, where truths come only in black and white. Yes, simple would have been good; black-and-white would have made writing easy.

But as it turned out, Cuba is 8 million shades of gray.

Between its battered economy, sympathetic social goals, lack of basic freedoms, proliferating prostitutes and cultural richness, the country turned out to be as complex as a logarithm.

What makes Cuba so muy complicado?

For starters, here is a country that thinks it’s an idea—i.e., socialism—that teaches people to work according to their capacity and receive according to their needs. But mix lofty sensibilities like that in with the sunshine, the rum, a new tourist-dollar economy and El Commandante Fidel Castro’s long-standing game of jeopardy with a sworn enemy to the north, the United States, and you’ve got a convoluted cocktail.

The Sacramento-based delegation I traveled with was fated to be among the last legally licensed “people-to-people” tours of the island by Americans. Sponsored by Global Exchange, our trip was educational in nature, with participants encouraged to learn about Cuba from its people. Last year, 30,000 Americans traveled to the island under this now moribund license. Another 30,000 traveled on religious or academic licenses, the kind that will remain valid; an estimated 50,000 traveled there illegally.

It cannot be overstated that, since 1959, Cuba has made huge gains when it comes to hunger (nobody in the impoverished country goes without food), literacy (all Cuba’s children can read and write) and health care (everyone on the island has free medical care). Embarrassingly, the island ranks better than the United States in the latter two categories.


But Cuba is ruled by a one-party government run by Castro—a man who, at 77, has outlasted eight U.S. presidents. It has no free press, and people who criticize the revolution sometimes get thrown in jail—often for a very long time. Even stalwart supporters of Cuba had to take a step back from their hyperbole last spring when Castro threw 75 dissidents in prison with seemingly little provocation.

One has to wonder how long the high positives and troubling negatives can continue to coexist in Cuba. In fact, in these days in which globalization is all the rage and even China has opened its doors to the best and worst of American capitalism, many people believe the island represents the end-stage application of socialism in the modern world.

Yeah, but when my husband and I asked a toothless man on a random street corner in Havana what he thought about the future of his country, he told us socialismo would survive and delivered an on-the-spot lecture on Cuba’s right to sovereignty and the difference between a people and its government. “Your president is a stupid man … stupido,” he told us. “But in my country, we understand that the people are not the same as the government.”

A few weeks before leaving for Cuba, members of our delegation became disquieted as President George W. Bush held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, announcing moves to further intensify the 44-year-old, U.S.-sponsored economic blockade—bloqueo—of the island. Basically, the embargo bans most U.S. trade with Cuba and prohibits most U.S. citizens from visiting the island. Though both the Senate and U.S. House subsequently voted to oppose Bush and cease enforcement of travel restrictions there, their plan was not destined to win. Bush played hardball and threatened to veto, causing a backroom deal that tightened the travel ban and reinforced the end of people-to-people travel.

The news didn’t stop anyone who’d signed on for our journey. Organized by Sacramento’s Dr. Bill Bronston, founder of the local organization Tower of Youth, our group of 22 included a roster of prominent doctors from across the country; a Hollywood casting director; and a handful of well-known Sacramentans, such as James Seyman (owner of the Tower Cafe) and Jeanie Keltner, founder of Because People Matter. The group was to travel legally under the people-to-people license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department—an authorization that is over by this month’s end.

We gathered in Havana in late October at Al Capone’s regular address in pre-Castro Cuba—the historic Hotel Nacional. We were ready to experience the country’s beauty, ponder its paradoxes and learn what we could from its people.


Yamile Martinez has deep brown eyes, a flashcube smile and a love of much that is good about America. Fluent in English and trained as a teacher, the Cuban woman, 28, is fully modern with a passion for rock ’n’ roll music and American movies. She is equally ardent about her country’s heritage of revolution—about how Castro and Che Guevara came down from the mountains and led the 1959 revolution that freed the peasants from the rule of Fulgencio Batista during the days when American mob boss Meyer Lansky and his pals ran the island as a Mafioso paradise.

Martinez was charismatic and resourceful. But she was clearly uneasy about her country’s future and her own. Among other worries, she was preparing to be out of a job by month’s end—she works as a guide to delegations such as ours—because of the end of people-to-people travel from America.

Like 11 million others Cubans, Martinez survived the Great Depression-like years of the “special period” during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The island was under an economic blockade from the United States and had come to rely on the giant communist country as its chief benefactor and trading partner. The demise of that government was near catastrophic for Cuba. “We had not enough food,” said Martinez. “Electricity was scarce. There were no lights, no oil, no transportation.”

But the Cubans made it through the downward spiral, more than partially because the government allowed the flow of U.S. dollars into the economy and decided to foster tourism. Indeed, almost 2 million people—mostly from Canada and Western Europe—have visited the island as tourists in the last two years. It’s no wonder, given Cuba’s beatific Caribbean vistas, multicultural zeitgeist and sensurround musica salsa. Countless government-run or joint-venture hotels now line the island’s world-famous beaches, especially to the east of Havana.

One weekday afternoon early on in our trip, we found more international tourists than Cubans strolling the decaying streets of La Habana Viejo—Old Havana. As in much of the country, the sensual beauty seemed somehow mixed in with the squalor. Rebuilt apartment units stood next to dilapidated structures; stylish outdoor restaurants sat adjacent to thrashed tenements; brilliant murals loomed beside broken-down dwellings; and kids in tattered clothes played samurai warrior beneath towering spires in the magnificent Plaza de la Catedral.

Our delegation learned that tourism is an enterprise that comes with an almost surreal set of problems for a socialist state that touts egalitarianism.

For starters, the introduction of dollars created a dual economy in Cuba. The people who work in tourism—from taxi drivers to hotel maids—work for dollars, while professionals and others—including doctors and teachers—work for Cuban pesos. Thus, a teacher might make 250 pesos a month (about $10 American), though a hotel worker might make that amount in tips in a few days. It’s true that Cuban citizens don’t pay for fundamentals such as basic food supplies (all are issued ration cards), education (it’s free, even at the graduate level) and health care (it’s free and available) and that many don’t pay for housing. Still, those who work for pesos often find themselves struggling. “Cubans won’t die of hunger,” one Cuban-government official admitted frankly, “but they will probably go to bed without the foods they like to buy.”

On one occasion, I struck up a conversation with a Cuban in his late 20s who turned out to be a trained marine biologist. He’d made only $9 per month as a scientist, he said. Now he sells cigars on the streets. “I needed the dollars,” he said simply. Then he added: “If I could, I would swim to Florida.”

The government is trying to offset this problem, by asking tourism workers to “donate” a portion of their tips for redistribution and by upgrading certain salaries, particularly for doctors. Still, the job incongruity continues. “It’s very, very sad,” said Martinez, citing lawyers and others she knew who had left professional careers to turn to hotel work.

Not surprisingly, tourism also has increased prostitution in Cuba. Men in our group reported frequent encounters with Lycra-clad jineteras, local women who troll the clubs or the ocean boardwalk called the Malecón at night, hoping to hook up with foreign tourists for food, clothes—for dollar bills. At a midnight concert for the famous Cuban band Los Van Van, one fellow in our delegation was propositioned by two women—“Are you alone?”—who spelled out for him what services they could provide. In meetings with public-health officials, some doctors in our delegation were dismayed that the Cuban government didn’t seem to be doing more about the potential for the spread of HIV and AIDS given the increasing number of prostitutes.

In his Rose Garden press conference, Bush claimed that prostitution was encouraged by the Castro government. But a Cuban-government official told us this was nonsense. Prostitution exists, he said, because of the desperation of the people and the battered economy.

“We are a poor country, and, yes, we have prostitution,” said Julio Espinosa Aguilera, coordinator general for international relations at the Cuban National Assembly. He noted that there are plenty of prostitutes in America, too. Does that mean they are encouraged by the U.S. government? “If we wanted to, we could end prostitution,” he said. “But the solution is not to put these women in jail. The solution is to try to improve the country.”

For earnest, hard-working Cubans like Martinez, improvements are desired but seem distant. And the end of the people-to-people visits from the United States underscores just how far off Cubans might be. Some 110,000 Cuban-Americans still will be able to travel back and forth, under certain restrictions, to visit family members. But the type of educational travel Martinez specializes in is over on December 31.

“This is gonna be a very strong blow for us,” said Martinez about the demise of the license. I was saddened later when she told me that she was considering hotel work herself—cleaning rooms or waiting tables—after the regular American visits soon come to an end.


As you drive east out of Havana, revolutionary billboards demand your attention. “The Future Is In Your Hands!” urged one. “We Have And We Will Have Socialismo!” proclaimed another. Unlike American ones that sell products, Cuban billboards sell socialist standards: “Our Principles Are Not Renegotiable!”

We pulled into the city of Matanzas and met a tall, white-haired doctor who was far more subtle in his approach to socialism. Dr. Juventino Acosto had the sagacious style of an island Socrates. “My homeland is humanity, not just Cuba,” he told our delegation sincerely before showing us around the community health clinic where he directs healing in a both “natural and traditional” manner.

The Clinica de Medicina Natural y Tradicional reminded me of just how poor this country really is. Though clean, the place was utterly dingy, with peeling paint and broken floor tiles. The halls were dark and lined with long, rickety park benches upon which patients sat waiting for treatment. In one examination cubicle, a single worn towel hung on a rusty metal hook. In the physical-therapy room, we found only one visible piece of equipment: an ancient, rusted-out exercycle.

Acosto seemed perfectly at peace with the surroundings, despite how far it all was from Western medical standards. He dispensed reassurance with a smile; clearly, he and his staff did their best with what was available. He explained how Cuban medicine had embraced alternative healing techniques, particularly from China, during the “special period” when it was difficult to get access to traditional medicines.

Overall, the past decades have seen a dramatic growth in the health-care delivery system in Cuba. In fact, since 1968, the island has jumped from having 6,000 doctors to having 67,000; from two medical schools to 22. Indeed, Cuba is so proficient at training doctors, that the government regularly sends crews of them off on international health missions.

But none of this encouraging news had prepared me for the gritty condition of a neighborhood health clinic in a poor country. As members of the delegation toured self-consciously through Acosto’s facility, a group of about 20 sixth-graders appeared out of nowhere, wearing the uniform white blouses, maroon slacks or skirts, and neatly tied red scarves that Cubans of that grade routinely wear. They began to sing-clap-step their way toward us across the dingy room. After they treated us to a song about peace, Acosto led them in a question-and-answer session about the importance of exercise, hand washing and making good nutritional choices. “When your father goes to the store for meat, what do you tell him to buy instead?” Acosto asked. “Pescado!” shouted the schoolchildren in giddy unison. Fish! As it turned out, the sixth-graders attend the clinic once a week to learn about being “health promoters” and to sing to the sick.

A few days later in Havana, a lineup of Cuba’s top doctors put some numbers on the clinic experience, spelling out the negative health impacts of the U.S. blockade on Cuba before 30 international journalists. Because the blockade doesn’t allow a cargo ship to dock in the United States for six months after it has visited the island, other countries are discouraged from trading with Cuba, said one hospital administrator. Thus, antibiotics are difficult to procure; so are most medicines. Medical equipment is scarce, and replacement parts are rarely available. Computers are old. The island’s Tropical Resources Center—an internationally reputed research facility on infectious diseases—can barely get decent microscopes. Scientists and medical doctors are halted from going to conferences because visas from the United States are unavailable. The list went on and on.

Throughout the trip, our delegation was shown around many clinics, hospitals and medical schools, and, regardless of Cuba’s many complexities, at least one truth seemed plain and simple: The blockade is harming millions of real and regular people in this already poor country. “The policy of this country represents a crime against humanity,” Bronston, the Sacramento doctor, told me at one point. “Bush’s further tightening of the blockade is an outrage.”

Walk east down the Malecón, and you’ll soon arrive at a large gray building surrounded by high metal fencing, locked gates and security checkpoints. The perimeter of this enclosure is well-guarded and surrounded on all sides by many dozens of uniformed, rifle-bearing Cuban soldiers.

One of them blew a whistle to get my attention as I approached the fence. He firmly instructed me to go back the way I had come—to be gone from the area. I proceeded toward him anyway and started talking earnestly, in stunted Spanish, about how I was an American journalist and wanted to go inside the building. As the soldiers conferred about what to do with me, I asked one of them why there were so many of them gathered around this one building. “Porqué está aquí?” I asked. Why are you here?

The soldier responded with deadpan incredulity: “Are you kidding?”

The forbidden place where we stood was not a prison or some secret lair of Castro. No. It was the U.S. Interests Section, our government’s equivalent of an embassy in countries where we have no formal relations. The compound is seen by many Cubans as the Death Star of Havana. For some, it is the corporeal symbol of a government that wants to do them in. For others, the area is simply a dangerous place to be seen. Indeed, two different taxi-cab drivers actually refused to deliver me to the building, saying, “No, no, no,” and then offering me walking directions.

Many of the 75 dissidents jailed last March in Cuba had attended meetings in this very building. They were accused of accepting funding from James Cason, the head of the U.S. Interests Section, and of collaborating with America’s widely known efforts to promote dissent in Cuba. And it is true that the U.S. government basically has done everything in its power—including invasion at the Bay of Pigs and an attempt to assassinate Castro—to try to bring down the island’s government.

But when the 75 were convicted in one-day trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Cuban government, the international press went wild. Human-rights organizations around the globe—from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch—condemned the jailings as well as the subsequent execution by firing squad of three boat-jackers who waylaid a ferry boat carrying hundreds of people in their quest to get to America. Even stalwart Cuba boosters—including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago of Portugal—went on record criticizing Cuba for these civil-rights abuses.

Speaking before our group, Joahana Dablada of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended her country’s right to jail the dissidents. “[The 75 people] got money from a foreign government—yours—to overthrow our system,” she said simply. “Your government wouldn’t tolerate such a thing,” she said. Neither would hers.

Later, I asked a Cuban urban planner about the arrest of the dissidents, and he agreed that it was all very unfortunate. But he ultimately blamed the blockade and the aggression of the United States. Our country was, after all, going to war in Iraq at around the same time as the arrest of the dissidents, he said. “We’ll be glad to talk to people from your country about our human-rights record,” he said, “once you [in the United States] get your foot off our necks.”

Whether or not the dissent comes from economic stress, it seems clear that Castro has faced increased internal opposition lately. In 2002, a dissident named Oswaldo Paya orchestrated the gathering of 10,000 signatures on something called the Varela Project, which called for a national referendum to guarantee free elections and amnesty for political prisoners. Paya—who spent time in a Cuban jail from 1969 to 1972—recently was nominated for a Nobel Prize by Czech President Vaclav Havel. Still, the Castro government largely has ignored Paya’s initiative.

Asked about Varela, Aguilera—the Cuban National Assembly official with a winning smile—began by admitting that he also wanted improvements in Cuba in the area of civil liberties. But “the so-called Varela Project is dead,” he said. According to him, Paya’s effort was basically a public-relations stunt, a “manipulation of information” that was intended to help bolster the U.S. effort to bring down the Castro regime. He said Paya timed a release of a second batch of Varela signatures so as to coincide with Bush’s Rose Garden speech. “We are an independent and sovereign country,” said Aguilera. “We accept advice from all over the world. But the decision is ours.

“There’s one condition,” he said. “No conditions.”

The words from Aguilera seemed familiar in sum and substance. Respect us, he was saying. We’re willing to talk about anything, but we insist on our independence.

I spoke to plenty of other Cubans about freedom of speech throughout the trip. Luis Brunet, a director in the Cuban theater, told me flat out: “We don’t have such problems in Cuba at the moment.” When I asked a group of television executives from Channel 2 if their work was ever censored by the government, they laughed and said, “No, no.” Many cited books and recent films—like Strawberry & Chocolate—that openly complain about the dismal economic conditions in Cuba.

In Matanzas, I met a Cuban News Agency journalist, Barbarita Bosio, and asked her if journalists in her country long for freedom of the press. “People think there is no freedom of speech here,” she responded. “But I don’t agree. … Nobody tells me what I can or cannot write.” The next day, Bosio wrote an article for her government-run news agency about what it was like to be interviewed by an American journalist about freedom of the press.

Generally, it was surprising to find that Cubans seemed to be in the information loop about American sports, culture and movies. One late night, my husband and I watched part of a Sacramento Kings game via satellite. When I told Cubans I was from California, they’d laugh and joke with me about our new Terminator governor. When I asked one 12-year-old girl to tell me who her favorite actress was, she proclaimed, “Oh … Julia Roberts!”

Early on in the trip, a Cuban woman told me, “We Cubans have America in our heads.” And my experiences along the way showed this to be true. But an unrestricted press does not exist in Cuba; freedom of speech is not present. Yes, Cubans can complain about their country and even its leaders—but they’d better not organize a protest rally.

And make no mistake. The White House continues to use this as a key argument for maintaining the blockade and continuing travel restrictions to the island.


Right after Bush’s Rose Garden announcement, the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a Cuba press briefing of his own. “The president is cooking up a crisis over Cuba,” he said, recalling that U.S. troops had been sent to invade a tropical island once before, to overthrow nationals and “rescue” Americans so as to bolster a president’s sagging ratings in the polls. “Cuba might be auditioned as a modern-day Grenada,” wrote Jackson, referring to former President Ronald Reagan’s island invasion in the 1980s.

But anxiety about a possible invasion from the United States seemed almost non-existent in Cuba. Sword rattling from the United States has gone on for decades, and Cubans seemed to think one threat was like the next.

The dire warnings I’d received about not talking to Cubans about certain topics turned out, of course, to be baseless. I was grateful for the candor many showed when answering difficult questions: What did they think would happen when Castro died? Are the institutions and ideas more lasting than the man?

Rumors of Castro’s ill health abound. Indeed, Martinez saw the leader faint briefly during a speech under the hot sun in June 2001. However, his health is said to have improved since then, she said. Asked what she personally thinks will happen when Castro’s reign as leader is over, Martinez looked away and choked back tears.

“It’s not clear who will lead,” she finally told me.

Many others were similarly emotional in their responses. Roberto, a bartender in Verdado, went into a long description of how his father had spent many years in jail for disagreeing with Castro and subsequently had moved to Florida, the hotbed of anti-Castro fervor in the United States. Roberto, who remains a Cuban national, made a discerning comment about his country’s future when he told me somberly, “Castro is smarter than the others. But that whole generation—in Miami and Cuba—probably has to die before things can change.”

Ultimately, if and when the blockade comes down, one wonders how Cuba will make a transition to a future of free trade and enterprise (Starbucks on every corner?) without losing the enormous gains it has made in areas like education and health care. Be careful what you wish for, goes the old saying, because you just might get it.

Yes, Cuba is muy complicado.

Members of the Sacramento group were moved by their experiences in Cuba and returned to America with plans to follow up. All had become convinced—even Hank and Carol Darlington, an adventurous Republican couple from nearby Granite Bay—that the blockade was wrong and should come down.

Bronston and the delegation’s many doctors—who had legally brought 250 pounds of medical equipment and humanitarian aid into the country already—pledged to help medical students they’d met in Cuba get opportunities to train in America. Hollywood casting director Michael Fenton was invited back to teach at the film school. Of the Sacramentans, Keltner—the group’s official magnet for small children wherever we happened to venture—joined senior activists Bill and Gloria Powers in vowing ongoing support for Cuba’s right to sovereignty. Seyman and fellow Tower Cafe supervisor Ruben Reveles plan to feature art and photographs from Cuba at the restaurant and in other ventures. My husband, Dave Webb, hopes to help bring Cuban artists to tour on the West Coast and to perform at the University of California, Davis, Mondavi Center, where he works.

Global Exchange, the San Francisco-based group that organized our trip, is laying off employees because of the end of people-to-people tours and is basically regrouping in its push to educate Americans about Cuba. Other organizations that specialize in such trips are likewise laying people off and shuttering offices.

The week we arrived back in the United States, the Bush administration began judicial proceedings against dozens of people who had visited Cuba illegally.

This imperious punishment of U.S. travelers and loss of people-to-people exchanges represents just how regressive U.S. foreign policy remains when it comes to Cuba. It’s as if our political leaders don’t want us to see this island in all its complexity—its opportunities mixed in with its obstacles. It’s as if they want us to believe some black-and-white version of things as approved in Washington, D.C., rather than exercise our freedom to travel and learn for ourselves.

Still, there is no doubt—regardless of the stricter travel ban—that many Americans will continue to enter Cuba. They’ll go through third countries and hope they won’t be noticed. They’ll face huge fines if they are caught.

I remember Daniel, a fellow from San Francisco we met briefly over tuna sandwiches at a lunch stand in Havana’s crowded Verdado district. Asked why he came to the island at a time when American citizens were discouraged from doing so, Daniel grinned, hoisted his backpack and said he was there because of what Bush had just said in the Rose Garden. “I’m here,” Daniel said, shrugging, “because I was told I couldn’t come.”

Somehow, the young American reminded me of the Cuban official with the winning smile—Aguilera, from the Cuban National Assembly—who had told our delegation that his country’s sovereignty must be respected by the United States. In fact, Aguilera had sounded every bit as American as the backpacked traveler. Respect our independence, he’d said. The only condition is no conditions.