Over the New Year we went on a seven day cruise around Cuba, a long-planned trip with our newly married son Jonathan and his wife Tracie. This trip was Cuba specific, no long periods at sea or stops at other Caribbean ports. On Dec. 27 we drove down to Miami and boarded Oceania’s stately Sirena, a relatively small cruise ship with less than 700 passengers.
I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba ever since graduating from high school. My graduation gift was a two week stay with my Aunt Marion and Uncle Walter at their apartment on Collins Avenue in Miami in June 1960. It was my first time on a plane and a DC 8 Jet no less. It turned night during my flight from NYC and I was excited to sit in a window seat. I saw a light in the distance, convinced it was Miami and after some time of it seeming no closer, I asked my seat companion whether it was a light from Miami. He said, no, it was a light on the wing. Thus, my feelings of now being a jet setter were quickly deflated.
I greatly admired my Uncle Walter and Aunt Marion, both fiercely independent, idiosyncratic thinkers, excellent long distance swimmers (they would do a hundred laps in their apartment’s pool each day), and Uncle Walter worked out with weights. I had trouble keeping up with them and they were a laugh a minute. My uncle took me on his route of stocking cigar vending machines and told me he had a surprise for me. He asked me to pack overnight and we jumped into his VW Beetle and set off to Key West, which looked even more like a cow town back then. But what I vividly remember was the talk in the town about Fidel Castro and genuine fear he might invade the Keys. Yes, unthinkable, but it stuck in my memory.
During college I was painfully aware of Cuba, first because of the pathetic CIA Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and then those 13 eventful days in October 1962 when we were on the brink of nuclear disaster, with my dormitory in NYC in the bull’s eye. During my college years we thought – if we didn’t have a nuclear war – that we’d be drafted to fight in Cuba. I, like many, admired Castro when he first came to power, mostly for his engaging swagger.
But as with most communist forms of dictatorship, the moneyed classes were driven out and a “new class” came into being, communist officials who knew how to enrich themselves, even if they wore military fatigues. Milovan Djilas outlines it best in his classic The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, published by Praeger in 1957. Ironically, my publishing company bought Praeger thirty years later.
Some say Castro was worth nearly a billion dollars, lots of gelt for a humble revolutionary, while others say that figure is way, way exaggerated. It really doesn’t matter as after the revolution he lived well in relation to most Cubans and undeniably he had absolute power and admiration.
It was with these thoughts that we booked that cruise to Cuba sometime ago. We were fearful Trump would sever the ties that the Obama administration worked so hard to forge, but luckily we were able to depart and because we booked so early we were able to arrange our own independent tours with the emerging entrepreneurs in Cuba, Cuban travel agents.
To bone up on Cuba – more for a “feeling of the Island” than an exact history -- I read a fascinating novel by Rachel Kushner, a novelist of remarkable talent, her first novel, Telex from Cuba. This is told through multiple converging stories involving American families managing American sugar cane interests in Preston, employees of the United Fruit Co., and other privileged Americans in nearby Nicaro managing a nickel ore business. They lived royally on the backs of Cuban, Jamaican, Haitian and Chinese workers. Those stories are juxtaposed to the exploits of “Rachel K” a Cuban showgirl who poses as a Frenchwoman, and her suitor, a traitorous Frenchman who plays up to whoever is in power. Through their eyes we see Batista and Castro in action. It is quite a portrait of American imperialism and the struggle for raw power, culminating in the Cuban revolution. Through the novel I had a sense of what it must have been like to live on this island, one that has always been in a state of revolution of some sort, foreign powers and internal struggles perpetually at work.
Castro’s revolution ushered in Communism, and as we embarked on our trip I also wondered about how we would be treated by the Cuban people, and what their lives are really like. Although this was a seven days cruise, four of these days were on land. As a small ship the Sirena can easily go into the harbors of the three cities we visited, which included two days in Havana, one day in Cienfuegos on the south shore and one day in Santiago de Cuba on the far south eastern shore. The circumnavigation and the short trip from and back to Miami covered 1,667 nautical miles, giving one an idea of the size of the island.
Needless to say, the highlight was Havana which so clearly displayed the contrasts in Cuban life today. They are a proud people, striving to move towards a better life and while communism has provided the people with basic food, free education as well as all medical care, many live on the brink of poverty. The government now permits some entrepreneurial activity and in each city we visited we contracted with local Cuban guides (against the advice of the ship), and this was one of the highlights of our trip, being able to talk frankly with each. Our guide in Havana is a trained engineer, but he said work was scarce from the government (the only employer of engineers) and therefore he supplements what engineering work he can find with being a guide.
Those ubiquitous 1950s American cars you see in Cuba, particularly in Havana, are owned by industrious Cubans who keep those cars going, fabricating parts which are unobtainable. Those which are not convertibles have had their heating systems removed and honest to goodness air-conditioning retrofitted. These cars are hired by the tour guides and are part of the tour package. Some are not in good shape, no seat belts of course, and when you’re doing 60 MPH way out in the countryside with everything rattling it can be disconcerting.
Our tour in Havana was in a 1948 Ford convertible, looking like Greased Lightening before the paint job. No shock absorbers though, ouch, on the Havana streets! Cars such as these are revered in Cuba and are handed down from one generation to the next. The expense of maintaining them is more than offset by the tourist revenue opportunities. Before Obama opened up Cuba to more American tourists, the staple tourist trade in Cuba was Canadians and Europeans. The Cubans of course embraced Obama and the opportunities they imagined having Americans now as their tourist base, but since Trump there is trepidation that this fountain of income might be obliterated.
Because of changes made by the Trump administration, once again making it more difficult to visit Cuba, the exchange rate of the dollar to the CUC which is supposed to be on parity with the dollar, is penalized 13% (vs 3 or 4% when exchanging the Euro or the Canadian dollar). American dollars are sometimes accepted for payment, but that is not the general rule. No American credit cards are accepted and needless to say bank ATMs are non-existent.
One of the striking things about Havana is the juxtaposition of splendid Spanish colonial architecture to buildings that are mostly rubble or merely reflect the drabness of socialism. Only certain buildings are carefully maintained, mostly government related. Public transportation is in overcrowded buses, Soviet or Chinese made (as are most of the cars that are not classic 50’s American cars, although you’ll see a VW or even an Audi here and there). When buses cannot do the job, they use old American trucks for transporting people.
Conspicuously absent is advertising. Not needed in a communist country where all your “needs are taken care of.” Also mostly absent is political advertising and no monuments to Fidel (who did not want any, being a man of the people), although there are statues galore to Cuban heroes of the distant past.
While wandering the streets of Havana, salsa music emerges from every nook and cranny, meaning the ubiquitous bars and clubs, including those frequented by Hemingway, sort of a local American “hero” there, and why not, famous writer and thanks to his love affair with Cuba. Hemingway’s Floridita bar boasts it is the “home of the daiquiri.” A brief video of Hemingway's Mojito Bar and its continuous music can be seen and heard here: https://tinyurl.com/yb3mnfg7
Also present is the history of the revolution, bullet holes still apparent on the old barrack walls, now a school. Hotel Nacional de Cuba exhibits show the Cuban response to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Hotel was home to the stars before the revolution but on the grounds you can explore its elaborate trenches and grounds where 100,000 Cuban troops prepared for a possible invasion while Russia and the USA traded nuclear threats.
Other parts of the city such as the Plaza de la Revolución pay homage to Cuban heroes, as well as displaying munitions as a part of the U-2 spy plane wing which was shot down.
At the Harbor entrance is a massive Fort, El Morro, and nearby the 66 foot tall El Cristo Marble Sculpture, with its panoramic view of downtown Havana. I’ll let some pictures do the talking and these are only a selection of those I took and edited. More photos of the trip can be viewed at this link:
Next stop was on the southern coast of Cuba, Cienfuegos, where we were greeted by our guide and driver in a 1954 Mercury.
Cienfuegos has a beautiful bay and is in the heart of the agricultural region. Its small city center is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its 19th century architecture. Our first destination was the Botanical Gardens which, unknown to us, was miles outside the city, accessible on a narrow highway. When these old cars get up to speed one wonders whether they will hold together. The Botanical Gardens is the one sight in Cienfuegos which was disappointing in that the gardens seemed to be poorly maintained, and so many of the varieties of plants and trees can be seen here in Florida. But the ride out there, viewing the countryside, was worthwhile.
Baseball is in the blood of Cubans. It’s their most popular game and many major leaguers have come from Cuba. Cienfuegos boasts one of its most famous stadiums and I loved the homage to baseball outside the stadium.
Palacio de Valle, originally built as a villa in the early 20th century, and now a hotel and restaurant, has been carefully maintained, and its Moorish architecture is unique. The views from the top, of the bay and of Punta Gorda are stunning. There we stopped for refreshments.
The city center has colonial buildings surrounding the Park José Martí. Its famous Theatre Tomas Terry was being refurbished (nice to see the effort with such important landmarks). By the time we reached this destination, it had already been a long day so we returned to the ship.
The final port was fascinating, Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city of Cuba. This is on the southeastern part of Cuba, not far from Guantanamo Bay and also close to the two cities of Preston and Nicaro of Kushner’s novel. It is actually closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than to Havana. While entering the harbor there was an announcement by our Captain that the ship would be departing two hours earlier than scheduled because he was informed that the Port and the town were being closed. Closed? Just like that, no advance notice.
Nonetheless, we met our guide Sharon and the proud driver of one of the muscle cars of the 1950s, a 1957 Oldsmobile Starfire Ninety-Eight. The driver is one of seven brothers, and it was his grandfather’s car. He inherited it because he was the brother who took the most interest in maintaining it. No doubt, it was the most impressive of the three cars we were in during the trip and since my father was an Olds owner in the 50s, I felt very much at home.
Sharon was a fountain of knowledge, the best of the tour guides we had, having studied English and tourism. She explained why everything was being shut down. Former Cuban President Raul Castro, family, and government dignitaries were scheduled to visit the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where Fidel Castro and other Cuban heroes were buried, to honor them on this the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, led by the Castros. They officially came to power Jan. 1, 1959. She said if we hurried to the Cemetery, we might be able to get in before it closes.
Indeed, we were the last admitted before it closed and we were there for the changing of the guard before the dignitaries began to arrive.
We’ve been to famous cemeteries before, most notably the Cementerio de la Recoleta where Eva Perón is buried in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is equally impressive, particularly on the day we visited.
To stand before Castro’s grave, marked simply with the name “Fidel” on a plaque behind which his ashes are housed, fixed to a boulder from the Sierra Maestra mountains where he fomented the revolution was truly moving. He wanted to be buried alongside the Cuban patriot José Martí, whose statue and grave rises above Fidel’s. Many Cuban notables are buried there including the founder of the Bacardi-Rum dynasty.
Cuba is a blend of many cultures and many revolutions and no trip to Santiago de Cuba would be complete without seeing San Juan Hill and its place in Cuban history and the Spanish American war. Memorials there abound as well as stunning scenes from the top of the hill.
We drove by the former home of one of the daughters of the Bacardi family, beautifully maintained as it is now government owned and is operated as a trade school. On the grounds was a soviet jet on display.
Another roof-top bar awaited us on our return to the city, the streets jammed with revelers to mark the New Year and the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the revolution.
So we said goodbye to Sharon, the driver and walked back to the ship and soon cruised out the harbor, passing the 17th century fort which was built to defend the city, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca.
A sunset at sea
Then early morning arrival in Miami.
After returning we learned that at the ceremony Raul Castro accused the US of returning to a “policy of confrontation.” Seems that we have, and the Cuban people are worried once again about their future. He said that their independence and the revolution "had not aged". Seeing Cuba, I would agree.