I just returned from an amazing week in Cuba. I went there legally, from Miami to Havana.
I wanted to go someplace warm in mid-winter but I didn’t want to sit on a beach in the sun. I wanted to learn. It took quite a lot of digging to discover that the U.S. government has granted licenses to a number of tour agencies to arrange trips to Cuba for U.S. citizens.
Last November, a high school chum in Houston told me she had just returned from Cuba, and she gave me the name of her agent, who is based in New York City. Her name is Myriam Castillo, and I found her via this article in Forbes because she doesn’t have a website. Some of the other agencies that organize people-to-people trips are mentioned in the same Forbes article.
Myriam planned a fantastic week for four of us. It was a customized tour, tailored to our interests in the culture, art, and history of Cuba. We visited museums, went to the homes of established artists, visited art galleries, toured historic sites, saw the countryside, ate wonderful food, and consumed countless mojitos. We were accompanied at various times by an architectural historian, an art historian, and various other experts.
We were excited by the sight of many vintage American automobiles from pre-1959–Chevrolets, Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, Buicks–most in beautiful condition. We were amazed by the large number of tourists from Europe, South America, Canada, and yes, the United States. Last year, 400,000 tourists from the U.S. visited Cuba. When we departed the Havana airport on the morning of February 8, ten flights were leaving, and eight were headed for Miami. One of them was an American Airlines flight. Most, like ours, were charters carrying about 150 people.
The architecture of Havana is varied and wonderful, with some beautifully preserved buildings but very many in decrepit condition. A beautiful public square of stunning homes and apartment houses would be adjacent to blocks and blocks of squalid abodes. The magnificent and elegant Italianate mansion that houses an astonishing collection of Napoleonic artifacts is next door to a crumbling and ramshackle mansion built in the same era.
The Cuban people we met were warm and welcoming. The culture is vibrant. The music is fabulous.
Tourism is a major industry, probably the biggest in the country. And yet, the island is isolated in many ways, with no cell phone service and very limited access to the Internet. I was able to log on at a major hotel, but service was spotty.
There is no advertising, few shops, not much to buy, no billboards other than political slogans like “Defend socialism.” Everywhere, one sees Che souvenirs, so many that it seems like revolutionary kitsch.
And yet it seemed to me that Cuba is on the verge of a major transition. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen, it is happening already. A new generation is coming of age. They want opportunity. They want a better life. Little pockets of entrepreneurialism are opening up. Officially, the government owns everything, but there are many inconsistencies. Private restaurants called paladares offer excellent food (and pay heavy taxes). Because of a shortage of hotel space in some cities, many private homes rent rooms to guests. The old world is passing, dissolving, and a new world is beginning, shoots of grass breaking through the concrete.
The embargo seems as antique as the now ancient slogans.The sooner the embargo is lifted, the sooner there will be normal relations between our countries. As it now exists, cruise ships bypass Havana because they are not allowed to visit a U.S. port for six months if they dock in Cuba. Cuba’s isolation from the U.S. has impoverished many Cubans and done nothing to weaken the regime. If we wanted to weaken the regime, we would end the embargo and encourage open exchange among our populations.
We loved our trip. It was beautifully planned. It was educational. It was filled with surprises.
I hope that President Obama lifts the embargo and restores normal relations between our nations. This would be a major legacy for him, ending a dispute that began more than half a century ago. It is time.