Monday, May 26, 2014

Cuba Calling

(5/26/14) For the last week I have been on a journey of a lifetime, I traveled to Havana, Cuba. It was part of a Journalism Fellowship Tour. In the next couple of installments you'll get to experience what I saw, meet some of the people I talked with about Cuba, and here in their own words why this United States neighbor to the south is more than the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an aging Dictator, and where America sees itself and Cubans see themselves. Some of the post will be serious, some will be anecdotal, and others will be impressions. As always I welcome feedback. Now the simple disclaimer, I do not speak or write in Spanish, if there is a name or two misspelled charge it to my head and not my heart. Now join me on this journey.

Cuba Calling

(Havana, Cuba) The idea of going to Cuba percolated in my mind some 5 years ago when DeWayne Wickham called me to consider joining him in this Caribbean Country. In many ways Cuba has been Wickham’s backyard. He has visited over 18 times bring back interesting and surprising details of a Caribbean nation that some have seen as a pariah and others see as an economic dream.

I heard him tell tales and now I was going to see for myself. Cuba is not an easy country to get into. I’m reminded when the opportunity came several years ago he asked me to spend a night in Cancun, Mexico in order to fly to Cuba. I decided not to go.

These day’s restrictions aren’t as stringent but, when you go as a journalist you get scrutiny. Special visas have to be made in order to get into the country and to practice what is my “craft.” Special permission is given through the Cuban Embassy in the U.S.

So why am I here? I am here to learn, I am here to understand, and most importantly I am here to listen.

Getting out of the States

Even with our group of seven it took nearly 2 and half hours just to clear customs and get on a 45 minute plane ride out of Tampa. We went via a charter on ITT. Our group is made up three instructors(Jackie Jones, Dr. Buriti Kopano, Pam Newkirk) and the Dean from Morgan State University(DeWayne Wickham), a producer/host at Baltimore's WEAA-FM station (Carla Wills), a Public Relations Specialist ( Rosa Grillo whose family is from Cuba/and our official translator),  and myself.

Each of us has different expectations and goals. Mine is simple to find stories that might not be on the beaten path from cultural, the environment and education.

Arriving at Jose Marti Airport it took be back to St. Lucia and Jamaica, lots of water and then an Island. The waters have notorious currents which have taken the life of many a Cuban trying to make it to shores of the United States. The waters were choppy and parts of the city’s famed Carlos Manuel DeCespedes Avenue closed last week because of high winds.

Customs in any Caribbean county is a mixture of natives and tourist. Our group sticks out, because we don't blend into the population. By the time we are cleared all there is left for us to do is pick up our luggage. While waiting a uniform attended asks if we’re part of a group. We respond and our leader is questioned.  Then a second female uniform officer asks for me by name and inquires if I’m a Reporter.  Then she proceeds to ask, “Why are you here?” I explain we will be visiting the University talking to professors and students. That’s when Dean says show her your visa. She looks at it and says okay. Our translator explains in Cuban-Spanish why we are here. All is okay. Let’s just put it this way, being a Reporter in a foreign country, you take your life in your hands; best to be on the right side of the law.


Our guide is Abel Contreras. He is affable and seems know his way around Havana and the myriad of questions we pose as we make our way into city. Like many third world countries there is a certain rhythm when you enter into a foreign land. Here there is no distinct between rich and poor. There is a working class that seems to beat to a different vibe.

The time warp for Cuba seems to center around the 1959 Revolution. Foreign capital is hard to come by but, they have made it work. Our guide reminds us that “Cubans like Americans in the 50’s wanted a Cadillac if you had money; if you had a little bit of money you owned a Buick, and then a Ford.” He tells us by the 80’s Havana was being flooded with cheap Asian and Soviet Union cars (you’ll know them as nondescript).

We past a section of town he calls “The Forest.” This community is dotted with highrise apartments with large wire murals of Che Guevara and Jose Marti. Entering the area known as the Old City, our guide puts a lot of things in perspective. “Most of our buildings were built in the 30’s…our infrastructure needs a lot of help…if there was a question of repair the buildings or feeding the people, we choose feed the people.” It’s a different mindset.

As we pull along DeCespedes Avenue which runs along the Bahia of La Habana I ask about one of the areas I’m interested in during my stay, environmental stability. I see a couple of men with fishing rods. “Fishing, not so good, it comes in spurts,” he says,” a month ago there was the migration of the red fish but, not much now.”

We pass several high rise buildings that were once hotels and office complexes, a part of the western establishment, now occupied by renters.  Memories of these iconic symbols have been replaced with names harking to that glorious time of the Revolution. The buildings are right out of the 50’s. They are reminiscent of a time period when Havana was the playground of the rich and the American mob could keep Cuban rum flowing and the roulette wheels spinning. 

This is also where we find monuments to Cuba's glorious past. Our guide tells us their names as if it were a monopoly board game.  The generals are from the early 17th Century and 18th Century. This section is commonly referred to as Old Havana.

This is an urban district with small bodegas, eateries, and some graffiti. One of the reasons why Cuba has been able to hold on for so long from an American embargo is its friends. In the early days it was its patronage from the Soviet Union/Russia, these days it’s the Venezuelans. Trade with the Caracas increased when Hugo Chavez ruled. We notice him in a billboard with Fidel Castro as we left the airport.  Petro/gasoline is selling at 1.70 Cuban pesos’ a liter (diesel just under a one Cuban peso).

We arrive at the National Hotel famed for its visitors and Mojitos poured with Havana Club Rum(this is the Cuban drink of choice). As we wait at a seaside bar we are treated to a room where photos of famed visitors grace the room. Many of them performed live dating back to the 1920’s. This was the playground for the rich and those who wanted to be seen. It was formally a casino. There is a life like statue of Nat King Cole who played the Hotel but, wasn’t allowed to stay because its American owners were from the south and practiced “Jim Crow.” What an irony. When the Revolution came they honored him by placing a statue to honor his work.

The people talk about the Revolution often and there are a number of reminders from Fidel Castro images to others who challenge authority. Books, posters, and photos are often displayed at these sites. We have our first meal at an outdoor restaurant family style. The staff monitors a whole pig being roasted over an open pit, turning ever so often to get the right texture. The sumptuous meal consists of beans and rice, chicken, and pork. One in our party dines on grilled fish. By the time we finish we head to our hotel the Hotel Parque Central in the middle of old Havana. As we whine our way through streets it’s obvious this is in a neighborhood that is in the central part of a bustling urban area.

“Now let me tell you some things I think you already know, drink only bottled water because you may not be used to our municipal waters. Be aware of your surroundings. Lastly, make sure you put your passport, travel papers, and extra cash in the hotel safe. You do not need to have your passport with you at all times in Cuba,” says Abell.

I then ask sarcastically, “How much Havana Club should we drink?” He responds, “That depends.”

We arrive at the hotel and check in. We are given a cocktail of champagne and fruit juices. We’re told about internet services and other items. We get instructions for the next day and I grab a night cap at the bar with our translator Rosa who is being flirted with and she just enjoys the playfulness of the staff. “That’s just the way Cuban’s are” as we listen to an all female band regaling us with Cuban favorites.

There are English and European tourist in the room and they must find this setting exotic. It might not be Casablanca but, it already has the feel and ambiance of a little naughtiness mixed with possibilities.

I on the other hand have had a full day and decide to pack it in. I can't wait for tomorrow when the journey really begins.


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