Having exposure to Communism in Eastern Europe during the 1970’s and in China and Vietnam in recent times after introduction of a limited market economy, Cuba provided a dramatic view of change unfolding before our eyes. It was like entering a timeworp. Cars from the 1950’s , building of late 19th century and early 20th century architecture unchanged and dilapidated and women wearing fish net stockings.
Our visit was part of a cultural people to people program. We visited a day care center, a senior center, a community development center, artist and writer organizations and music and dance organizations. We traveled to fishing and farming communities and enjoyed talks and discussions with Cuban professional people on urban development, health care and politics.
We were not surprised to encounter not always efficient air conditioning, sometimes faulty plumbing, occasional brief electoral power outages and sidewalk potholes all of which we experienced in developing countries in other parts of the world. What was surprising was Cuban people on the streets wearing shirts with the American stars and stripes and others with pins displaying the Cuban and American flags together. The warm friendliness of the people was like we have experienced in other countries with different political systems but it was unexpected to be approached in Havana by a police officer who wanted to shake hands.
Cubans define their history in distinct periods. There was Independence in 1902 when Spanish control was overthrown with involvement of the US in establishing a new government structure satisfactory to us.
The Revolutionary period was launched in 1959 when Fidel Castro and his group defeated and replaced the Batista dictatorship. In 1990 the Soviet Union started to withdraw economic support and remove advisors resulting in what Cubans call the “Special Period”. A weak economy under a socialist system further limited by the 30 year American embargo went into a freewill. Out of desperation the government started to accept western tourism and a degree of foreign investment
Fidel’s dream of a totally socialist society with no private ownership and enterprise came to an end.
Even farmers trying to bring their fruits and vegetables into the towns to sell were previously prevented by roadblocks. Rationing was introduced and continues to this day. Rice and small amounts of beans, chicken, eggs etc are provided to each household monthly. Health care and education al all levels are available to all citizens at no cost. The average earnings of Cubans is equivalent to about fourteen dollars US per month. The maximum for professional people is forty dollars per month. A physician assistant/radiologist at a clinic told us she studied for nine years for her degree and after practicing for several years is currently earning the equivalent of twenty three dollars a month.
Today twenty percent of the Cuban economy is based on private enterprise . Over a million cubans out of a population of over eleven million are engaged in some form of non-governmental work. Most of our meals were at excellent private restaurants where we met the owners. Arts and crafts products are widely sold by individuals . Now able to have legal ownership of their homes, people are opening bed and breakfast businesses. Taxi’s are now private with owners of vintage 1950’s cars in good condition attracting flocks of foreign visitors. Two thirds of all capital development in Cuba today comes from foreign investment . New hotels and businesses are going up in Havana and other areas by non US corporations and investment entities
After being transported in Havana in a bicycle taxi pedaled by a man with four children, we paid him his fee plus tip totaling $15.00. For less than an half hour of work he earned a month’s salary of most Cubans. Waiters and waitresses in restaurants and cafes we visited are earning 15% tips on food and beverages costing slightly less than US prices. It is no surprise that a Cuban surgeon in whom the government has invested a great deal in education and training should instead now choose to drive a taxi whenever possible.
Everywhere we went Cubans talked about change. They feel there must be more opportunity to improve their standard of living and advance technology where they feel they are two generations behind much of the world. Fidel is near 90 years of age and no longer head of the government or the Communist Party. His brother Raul is in his early 80’s and the next senior official in his late 70’s. Cubans look forward to a younger future leadership focused on economic development. This has priority over other political progress.
Fidel Castro has lived to see his socialist society dream fail. He is witnessing growing private investment and a restless population betting their future on a market economy they are creating. His goal of eliminating racial inequality has also not come to pass.
Dark skin Cubans are still the poorest segment of the population ( as in so many countries) and are subject to discriminatory treatment by the police. There is dissent and social tension today in Cuba due to this situation. Restoration of relations with the United States and the visit of a US president of color where there has been no dark skinned high Cuban government official since the Revolution has made a strong impression.
Our trip to Cuba began as we gathered in Miami at the Sheraton Hotel for a briefing and overnight stay. There were 19 participants. Early next morning we left on an Aruba Airlines charter flight for the 45 minute flight to Havana, Cuba. After meeting our guide, Hiroshi Pino Nunez, we boarded our coach where we were given an introduction by Hiroshi. There are 11.2 million inhabitants in Cuba with 2 million living in Havana, which is the most populated city in Cuba.
Our first stop was at Revolution Square, Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel gave his first speech of the Agrarian Revolution. This immense plaza was first built in 1952 during Batista’s reign but became the sight for the mass rallies following the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Most of the buildings around the square also date to the 1950’s. The large memorial towering over the square is 358 feet tall and includes a statue of Jose Marti , Cuba’s national hero. A wire sculpture of Che Guevara is proudly displayed on a building facing the plaza. Parked along the wide boulevard surrounding the plaza were numerous clasic cars offering tours of the city. We were to become very familiar with these well-preserved cars of the 40’s and 50’s. There are 11,000 of these cars in Havana and 53,000 throughout Cuba. What a great introduction to our eleven days in Cuba.
As we drove to lunch, Hiroshi provided us with more general information on Cuba. He commented that Cuba permits no firearms or weapons of any sort except for the police and that there are no illegal drugs tolerated in the country. Cuba is a cash economy with no credit cards. We will be using CUC pesos which are equal to the US dollar but in converting there are taxes which result in a net of .87 US dollar to the CUC. The Cuban peso which is used by the locals is equal to 24 Cuban pesos to the CUC. All households of Cuba receive a ration book annually. This allows them to receive basic food items at a designated market where they can receive 7 lbs of rice per person per month, 6 ounces of chicken per person per month, 5 eggs per person per month and 300 grams of bread per person per day. Powdered milk is available for babies up to 7 years and then yogurt. They can also receive a small portion of beans and oil. There are also stores called bodegas where a person can purchase food outside the ration book but Hiroshi commented that the food is poor quality. Markets of fresh vegetables and meats are also available but the average salary of a Cuban worker is equivalent to $14.00 per month so it is difficult to feed their families.
After our bus ride we arrived at El Divino, our first introduction to the Cuban paladares. They are private restaurants owned by individuals . These establishments have only been allowed since Raul Castro’s moderate economic reforms in 2011. This particular restaurant was located on a large plot of land with lovely plantings as well as an attractive, open aired, terraced building where we received an excellent meal of sea bass, beans and rice and plantains . After lunch the 12 year old daughter of the owner took us on a tour of the grounds. We observed many trees and plants on our walk some familiar to us but also new fruit trees as such a red pear tree and a tree of very small, almost bead like lemons which were very sweet. On this property they also provide daily meals for local seniors and offer day care services as well as art projects for local children with some government support.
Following our lunch and tour of the property, we drove to the Saratoga Hotel where we were pleasantly surprised with a large, open lobby, helpful staff and large comfortable rooms. After checking in and receiving our luggage we left for a tour of San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress. After the occupation by the British in 1762 it was 11 months before the Spaniards regained the capital. This convinced the Spaniards to maintain an effective fortification of the entrance to Havana harbor. The erection of this immense fortress began in 1763. In January, 1959 the barbudos as Castro and his bearded revolutionaries were called occupied the fortress and set up their headquarters. It was here that Che Guevara executed many Batista regime officials.
Our hotel is located in Habana Vieja or Old Havana close to the Capital building, reminiscent of the US Capital, and Central Park which is a large, peaceful park with numerous palms, walkways and benches. We spent many enjoyable moments here. Havana’s historic area has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and we did see efforts to rehabilitate many of the crumbling buildings. A difficult issue is that persons living in old buildings where they have lived for generations were granted free occupancy of an apartment or section of a building but no one has ownership or responsibility for the exterior of the structure. Therefore, a family or individual might restore or continue to furbish their interior but feel no responsibility for maintaining the exterior of the structure.
In the evening we drove to La Moraleja in Havana’s Velado district. This district has become a prestigious residential area . It is both the modern political and cultural centre with the Plaza Revolution and other historic buildings as well as many grand colonial homes.Our paladar for the evening was in a lovely old home on a tree lined boulevard. We were escorted down to the wine cellar where we had a room to ourselves. Our dinner began with mojitos for all. We would become quite familiar with this national drink over the trip. Appetizers served family style included finger size chicken croquettes, plantain with small dabs of ground lamb, and corn pudding. A delicious start. We were then served platters of pork, shredded beef, rice and beans and lobster. The lobster in Cuba is like a large crayfish with nuggets of meat in a circular section of bone; difficult to extract but delicious. With the meal we received a fine red wine. Dessert was scoops of ice cream followed by decaf coffee and 5 year old rum. Quite a delicious welcome dinner. The young entrepreneur owner of the restaurant spoke to us briefly after dinner explaining that he purchased and rehabbed the building prior to opening this restaurant.
The next morning we began with a lecture on the history of Cuba and its development. He began with the discovery of Cuba by Columbus in 1492 and the foundation of the country in 1519. Havana Bay was a natural defensive position and became important to New World trade. It developed to become the most fortified city in the Americas.
Professor Vasquez emphasized the blending of architectural styles in the city related to every country which influenced the island. He related that the Hotel National where we will stay at the end of our trip, was built in 1930 by an American architect. Between 1905 and 1955 many upper class mansions were built in the city. He described Havana as giant heads on a dwarf’s body. From 1959 onward the grass roots revolution took hold. In 1960 there was was an urban reformation. Havana was frozen in time. There were no demonstrations, no changes to the city and certainly no evictions as everyone was given their individual properties. The Cuban heritage survived. Property was owned and supposedly rent was paid to the owner but since no one could be evicted, people continued to live without paying. A sense of ownership was absent. . Buildings were falling apart.
Between 1989 and 1995 there was a “Special Period”. The Russians left after the Cuban Missile Crises stopping important economic support and trade decreased. It was a difficult time for the Cubans. In 2014, due to Fidel’s illness, Raul assumed power. This was a time of change. Over 2/3 of new construction or rehabilitation is now provided by private funding sources. In 1981 Cuba was 69% urban and 31% rural ; in 2012 it was 76.8% urban and 23.2% rural.
Now there is an aging society and a decreased birth rate. These changes are impacting the population. There is an emerging private sector investing in real estate. People are encouraged by the current progress. “The Future is Now” he claimed. There are social programs which protect the homeless with government social programs including housing. In the private sector, persons have been saving money for many years. Money can now be earned through private enterprise. Young people are combining savings to open paladares while relatives in the US send money to family members in Cuba. We saw the results of these changes throughout our trip.
Our next visit was to the Church of Mercy where we met a priest originally from Louisiana, a member of the Vincent de Paul order. He spoke of his church and his congregation. He spoke of the difficulties Cubans faced after the revolution in practicing their faith. People who professed a faith or claimed to be a believer were unable to attend the University or be hired for a government position. This poorest citizens of Cuba tends to be predominately black. He admitted that many parishioners also followed the Afro-Cuban religion or Santeria as we would hear often during our trip.
We then visited the Senior Center sponsored by the church. This was an exciting and rewarding visit where we interacted with about 55 senior Cubans who attend the center daily for activities and a noon meal. We spent quite a while singing and dancing with the very energetic attendees.
In the evening we spent a delightful time at Muraleando. Located in a barrio on the outskirts of Havana, this is a community arts project where a group of artists have developed a center for children of the area to learn art, dancing, and theatre. Much of the surrounding area is covered with colorful murals on walls of homes and areas where amazing sculptures are displayed.
About 80 children participate in these programs and we were treated to displays of their singing and dancing led by an energetic young man and a great band. Marilyn even got to dance with the young man leading the group. A fun experience. Many women in the community assist in the project. Annually they host an international group of artists who come for up to a month or more to add more art to the area. This area was originally a huge trash dump, according to our local guide who heads up the project. Community groups cleared the rubbish and built the facility. They removed 65 truck loads of trash from the area in a 3 week period. This was an amazing feat.
There is obviously great pride now in the community where we saw only beautiful art displayed and no damage or graffiti.
After enjoying a community meal upstairs in the facility served by local women, we returned to our hotel for the evening.
The next morning we enjoyed another lecture from two gentlemen with a presentation they titled “Our Personal Vision about U.S. – Cuba Relations”. Their hope is that we are moving in the right direction. They first described the Platt Amendment enacted in 1902 in which the Cuban economy and government were controlled by the US. Their hope is that going forward Cubans could receive more balanced information about the US and have full internet for all. In 1990 socialism collapsed resulting in drastic economic times for the Cubans. Under Raul there has been significant change with private enterprise making up 20% of the economy. The government would like to continue free services such as health care and education but in order to do so it needs to grow the economy. The US embargo is still affecting the country. They listed a series of changes that should take effect:
- continue talks with the US which have begun under Obama
- end the embargo and normalize relations
- eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act
- give back Guantanamo
- eliminate hostile action by both sides
- increase people to people interchange
- increase sports, cultural, scientific and academic interchanges
No US corporation can do business in Cuba. No vessel can come to Cuban ports which comes from or goes to a US port within 6 months. There are also banking restrictions on doing business with Cuba. This conversation was most enlightening. We hope trade can resume in the near future.
Our next adventure was to a local market. What a beautiful array of fruits, vegetables and meats. Local people were shopping where they can buy these items outside of their ration books at quite reasonable prices by our standards but still with the very limited cash they earn each month it is extremely difficult to properly feed their families. We were given an item to purchase with 1 CUC. Our task was to purchase pimentos- green peppers. We received a bag full – must have been 15 or more for our 1 CUC.
After the market we went to a Catholic Day Care Center. Unfortunately it was a vacation time for the children so we only met with the teachers. 160 children are cared for here. Some are orphans but many are from working families or from families with social problems. The care is all day and includes toilet training, learning to eat independently as well as primary education such as colors , numbers and Spanish language as well as learning to draw and identify shapes. According to one of the teachers, discipline is emphasized to help them cope with dysfunctional behavior they may be experiencing in the family. It is important to the staff that the children learn to be independent. The staff believes that given the family situations for many of the children they will be taking care of themselves at a very early age. The teacher told us that the education and discipline training the children receive here is much more stringent than that in the public schools but they do adhere to the Cuban educational system as dictated by the government. There is also a psychologist, pediatrician, and social worker at the school who make family visits to follow up on the children’s care.This free educational facility is open from 7:30 until 4:00 daily and provides 2 snacks and a lunch for each child.The school only admits children with the greatest needs. Some graduates have returned to become teachers helpers.
We then went to the Fine Art Museum where we visited the Cuban art floor with very modern art. One artist, Lam, was a protege of Picasso and the influence was certainly evident. We are not great modern art lovers so we were probably not as impressed as we might have been There were some very interesting paintings.
Following this visit, we all took bike taxis either back to the hotel or, as in our case, to Plaza Vieja. This large plaza has been attractively renovated and we had spied a coffee shop we wanted to visit. Our “taxi” driver was a delightful 35 year old man with 4 children. He insisted on waiting for us at the plaza even though we explained we were going to have coffee and then lunch. We first went to El Escorial for coffee. This lovely, old coffee shop on the corner of the plaza was crowded with locals enjoying their Cubano coffee as did we. After walking around the plaza for a bit we stopped at another renovated portion of the square at La Bohemia for lunch. This restaurant was located within the large renovated section and set back with an open area surrounded by trees and plantings. We each enjoyed a ham and cheese panini and lemon soda.
We then went back to our bike taxi and rode to Central Park located near our hotel where we wanted to walk around and “people watch” as well as take street photos of the cars. As we entered the park we noticed a large collection of men gathered around and excitedly gesturing and talking. We stopped near by to try to understand what was happening. One gentleman approached us with a newspaper and pointed out the baseball section. They were discussing their favorite teams! This is a baseball country.
After a rest back at the hotel we drove to the outskirts of Havana to visit a public art project in Jaimanitas. This village is the home of a Cuban artist and sculptor Jose Fuster who has decorated over 80 neighborhood homes with ornate, Gaudi-inspired murals and domes. Visiting his home we felt as though we had entered a child’s dream world. With castles, fantastic animals and every imaginable structure all covered with brightly colored tiles. The artist was in Europe on a art tour but his son greeted us and told us how his father has willingly offered to “tile” the homes of his neighbors. We ate dinner at the outdoor area of the home entertained by Cuban guitarists. The dinner was delicious Wahoo,rice, beans, mixed vegetables and curried chicken. Eclairs were served for dessert.
Cienfuegos was our destination the next morning. This city, a World Heritage Site, has a lovely preserved historic center and one of the most beautiful bays in the Caribbean. After settling in to L’Union Hotel we had an orientation walk around the city. During the walk we observed the costs of household appliances which are listed in both CUCs and the Cuban peso which is the currency of the Cuban people- 24 pesos to the CUC. The government has been promising to eliminate the 2 peso system but has not done so yet. The average earnings as already mentioned of the Cuban people is $14.00 per month. A professional person might earn as much as $40.00.
Hiroshi then gave us some information about the current situation. The Cuban people were very angry at Fidel’s speech following Obama’s visit. Raul had only military experience prior to assuming power after his brother. He has no diplomatic experience and does not speak English unlike his brother. All of the top leadership in the country is elderly. Fidel is 90, Raul is in his 80’s and the vice president is in his mid 70’s. Hiroshi felt that most of the protestors in Cuba are ignorant of the policies and are only protesting for themselves. He ended his comments with the statement – Promises are never fulfilled.
In the afternoon we experienced one of the highlights of our trip. We enjoyed a choral presentation by the Cantores de Cienfuegos. This is an extremely talented group of young people who have performed throughout the world and will be competing in Missoula,Montana in June or July at an international choral competition. The performance was held in an old colonial era building. The room was large and the acoustics were amazing.
This evening we drove to the coast where we enjoyed an amazing dinner in a paladar, Villa Lagarto, set on the ocean. The dinner consisted of a delicious vegetable soup as appetizer followed by roast pork, rice and beans, potatoes and squash. Dessert was delicious with cake and flan. We sat at tables open to the sea breezes. There was a small dock/deck with adirondack chairs where many of our group enjoyed closer views of the ocean. After our return to the hotel a number of us adjourned to the roof of the hotel for spectacular views of the city and delicious mojitos or other cocktails,entertained by a musical group.
The next morning we walked to the square where we met with a variety of writers and artists who were part of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cienfuegos. This group is part of an NGO which is selective in its choice of the best writers and artists in the country. They represent all parts of the arts including writers, artists and musicians. This group has promoted the people to people interactions we were experiencing. There is no other organization like this one in Cuba. They encourage difference of opinion among the 193 members and respect each others views. They include 6 members of the communist party as well as both gay and straight members. We certainly saw many artistic examples of diverse opinions concerning the Cuban philosophy as well as numerous examples fostering US-Cuban relations. The ability to criticize the current government philosophy through art seems to be tolerated. They certainly foster free expression and have overcome some efforts of the government to censor their work. Initially as they worked to develop the people-people effort the government criticized saying they were working with the enemy but now they have the government’s backing. Currently 10% of their sales goes to the government as tax whereas previously it was 47% which resulted in strong protests. We visited 5 different galleries including pen/ink tiles,watercolor and acrylics, architectural displays and needlework. We were extremely impressed with these artists works.
At lunch we enjoyed another vegetable soup. In the afternoon we returned to the Union headquarters where we enjoyed a dance performance by youth between the ages of 8-11. Groups are taught dance and music by professionals and include youth groups beginning as early as 6 years up to 25 years of age. This was another example of the community at work to educate the youth of Cuba.
After dinner at another impressive paladar, we returned to the Union to enjoy a son band playing Cuban classics. Son is the lively Afro-Cuban musical style we have heard all over Cuba. Watching the locals dance was certainly a treat.
The next morning we left for Trinidad. Along the way we first stopped at the Botanical Gardens where we had a local guide show us many of the lovely trees and flowers within this immense acreage.
In 1901, Edwin Atkins, owner of the Soledad sugar works 9 miles from Cienfuegos transformed 10 acres of his large estate into a sugar cane research center and filled the area with tropical plants. In 1919 Harvard University bought the property and founded a botanical institute for the study of sugar cane and tropical flora. It has been run by the Cuban government since 1961.
We stopped along the road at a fruit stand run by a family. They had a large variety of fruits on display and cut up mangoes and pears for us to try. They purchase fruit from the neighbors to sell at this very humble but attractive stand.They are in the process of building a small restaurant adjacent to the stand to serve their products. Another opportunity to experience the warmth and hospitality of the local people we met throughout our trip.
After this visit we continued to the small town of Soledad across from the gardens. The village began here in 1820.in 1870 Edwin Atkins came to Cuba to study and bought the sugar mill in the town. He was the first American to invest in the sugar industry in Cuba. The sugar mill continued as an industry until 2002. The town is an agrarian corporation with milk being the primary product. The school principle walked us around the small town of 4200 residents. There are four medical facilities and 2 elementary schools as well as a polytechnic high school There is also a home for seniors. We visited a store where residents use the ration book to procure groceries. Hiroshi showed us the ration book. Monthly households can be given 5 lbs of rice per person; 6 oz. of chicken, 5 eggs plus a small mouth of beans and other staples. We also visited the pharmacy where persons can obtain medicines prescribed by the doctor. The clinics are staffed by 5 doctors one doctor per day for 24 hours.
Upon our arrival in Trinidad, we visited a government sponsored center for basket making. This center was started in 1982 . The workers work 8 hours per day. Each five and one half months they receive a 1 week vacation. They have two 15 minutes breaks morning and afternoon and one hour for lunch. They work on piecework . They can make one basket every 1 and 3/4 minutes and are expected to produce 3 baskets minimum per day. They receive $11-12 per month or 255 Cuban pesos. After the baskets we visited a pottery shop. The owner told us that the business began in 1892 with six generations of the family working in the trade. We watched as he skillfully and quickly built three pieces of pottery from one lump of clay. Certainly quicker and better than I ever did.
After this visit we checked in to our hotel, La Ronda on a side street in Trinidad. Trinidad was founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Its early success was built on sugar and slaves. It has been described as a city frozen in time with original cobblestone streets and pastel-colored homes. The hotel is very comfortable with an inner courtyard exhibiting numerous romantic photos from the 1950’s. Our chambermaid left us very clever and carefully constructed “sculptures” from our towels and other items on our beds each morning.
In the evening we went to another paladar – Son y Son. This lovely colonial home was built in 1830. The current family started the paladar after 1980 but had occupied the home prior to 1959. Again a delightful meal served in a quiet, comfortable setting.
The next morning we began our exploration of Trinidad. We first visited the home of a single , divorced Mom who is raising three young adult sons, one of 28 and twin sons, 20. . She has been in the home since 1939 living there with her brother and his wife. She can no longer work due to high blood pressure. Her son who is studying medicine was at home and spoke with us. His twin brother is in Santa Clara studying electrical engineering and computer science. The son said he will have to study for 6 years for his general practitioners degree plus a speciality if he chooses. After graduation he will be required to complete 3 years of social service in medicine perhaps in another country supported by Cuba. In order to enter the university students are required to pass a rigorous exam of Spanish history, math and science. We asked the mother how she is able to support her family. Her old son provides some support and the children’s father also provides support for his sons. Her son said that he is hopeful for the future of Cuba but also said that the hospitals in Cuba are 20 years behind the hospitals in the western world.
After this visit we went to the home of two artists. This was a much more financially comfortable family with a lovely home. The husband carves portraits in wood which are absolutely amazing. He collects old wood from homes that are being renovated for his work. It takes him from 1 week to 1 month to complete one portrait. The recycled wood, mostly cedar, is sometimes over 100 years old. The wife creates various pieces of hand embroidery and crochet.
In the afternoon we walked back to the old historic center of Trinidad to seek out a coffee shop. We found Cafe Don Pepe where we enjoyed a delicious cafe con leche in very pleasant surroundings. The cafe was a very popular spot where foreign visitors were waiting for tables. The center of Trinidad is a lovely historic center.
As we walked down a side street we came upon an open window where we could see a day care center with all the little ones having a siesta
In the evening we again went to a paladar -Sol Ananda. The owner of this lovely old colonial home has also been the owner of Sol y Sol where we ate the previous evening. The house was built in 1715. He discussed with us the rise of the paladares in Cuba. In the 1980’s there were only 3 paladares in Trinidad and only in the outskirts, no paladares were allowed in the city. In the 1990’s Raul allowed people to open paladares in the city and did not restrict their growth.
The next morning was another adventure. We boarded open Russian trucks to drive to the surrounding Sierra del Escambray mountain range. 500 feet above sea level in the altiplano where coffee is cultivated. There are only 3 areas in the world, Jamaica, Hawaii and Cuba where these coffees are grown. We visited the home of a coffee plantation grower. Five generations of his family has grown coffee in the region. He described the process to us. He is extremely careful with the soil which he checks regularly. He adds compost to the soil annually. He grows the seedling coffee plants and transplants them when the sprout has 6 pairs of leaves. It takes 3 years for a coffee plant to bear fruit. November is the annual harvest. Production has decreased due to climate warming. Prices used to be fixed but are now flexible. Prices have increased due to decreased production. Coffee used to bloom three times a year but now only bloom in April. The farmer now also raises pigs and chickens as well as mangoes, guava and avocados to supplement his income.The fruit trees are now bearing year round versus one time per year previously. His only government contract is for the coffee so money he raised with the sale of pigs, chickens and fruit is his own.
Our return to Havana began this morning. On our ride back we drove through miles of crab migration. The road was littered with crushed bodies as well as hundreds of red, scuttling bodies trying to make it to the sand to lay their eggs.
On the highway to Havana we were impressed with the lack of traffic. We would only see a car or truck every 10-15 minutes. After a number of hours we stopped at a fisherman’s village outside of Havana. Cojimar is a small village where we met with the local fishermen. 750 fishermen belong to the local corporation. They have about 100 boats ranging from small to about 35 foot long. Most are wooden. The men go out approximately 6 miles during day time and 3 miles at night. They catch swordfish, mani, red snapper, marlin and shark. They fish using bobbin lines approximately 9 miles long which the let out from the boats. There are hooks every few feet. They use sardines and minnows as bait. There government contract dictates to whom they sell the fish.
This is the community where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote The Old Man of the Sea. He was here during the late 1930’s and 40’s. He met Fidel during a fishing competition. He entertained many famous people including Ava Gardner and Gary Cooper. We visited his home a few miles from Cojimar. Where we were able to look into his large home and walk the grounds. His boat, the Pilar, was also displayed.
We arrived in Havana and checked into the historic, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which overlooks the harbor and the sea wall and El Moro. A spectacular spot for our final days in Havana.
In the morning we had a fascinating lecture by Fernando Saez, director of the Ludwig Foundation, a non -profit created to promote Cuban culture. He spoke to us on the history of dance in Cuba. He emphasized that dance expresses the soul of the Cuban people as well as music and baseball. Culture affects everything we do and expresses all parts of the Cuban culture.Si Cuba was a performance of dance in NYC in 2011. Fernando stated that Cuba is a dancing island and a stage for the culture of the island. The African influence in Cuba represents the mix of persons from all over the world. Cuba received numerous slaves from Africa to work in the sugar industry. It is important to understand the “voices” that needed to be absorbed into this new culture since these slaves were from very distinct African regions with no way to communicate with those from other areas. Humans have the same necessities as each other- communication is the most important necessity. Body language ( dance) can be a way to communicate one’s feelings without words and to achieve communication across cultures. Santeria was the religion of the African slaves and became part of the Afro-Cuban culture. There are 3 tracks of dance communication:
Religious -In the Afro-Cuban religion (Santeria) participants perform rituals which result in transcendental dance for self to reach another reality.
Social – all dance is social . it is a way to connect with another person or group. Rhumba, Mambo and Cha Cha Cha are examples of this track. Cuban children learn dance at a very young age.
Artistic dance – one needs an audience for this track. Ballet was the first artistic dance – first academy was opened in 1931. In 1948,. Alyssa Lanza opened the Ballet Co. She went to orphanages to find young boys with the physical ability to dance. It was not popular for families to encourage their sons to become dancers. In 1957 modern dance was introduced.Martha Graham was a great influence to young Cubans. Afro-Cuban influence was strong in Cuban modern dance.
After our lecture, we visited the Necropolis de Colon or the Colon Cemetery. This immense cemetery of 135 acres was designed in 1860 and built between 1871 and 1886.although world famous it is the cemetery of the people of Havana. A body is kept in the burial plot for 2 years then the bones are removed and stored in the catacombs underneath the cemetery. There are many beautiful statues and memorials here. Among them is the Monument a los Bombers which pays homage to the 25 fallen firefighters of a fire that occurred in 1890 and La Milagros. Another is the tomb of Amelia Goyri de la Hoz who died in childbirth in 1901 along with her baby. Keeping to the custom of the time she and her baby were buried together. According to popular legend a few years later the tomb was opened and she was found intact, holding her baby in her arms. She became a symbol of motherly love and a protector of pregnant women and newborn children. Her tomb is a pilgrimage site for future mothers.We observed a woman going through a ritual at the tomb and hundreds of tiles, notes and memorabilia lining the area next to the tomb.
We then visited Malpaso, one of Cuba’s first private dance company which is directed by Fernando Saez whom we met this morning at our lecture. The group was founded as a repertoire company in 2012. The dancers are between the ages of 22 and 35. Twelve dancers put on an energetic series of dances for us.
The dance group is housed in a Jewish synagogue. On the wall at the entrance was a plaque that we found quite profound.
Our farewell dinner was held at another paladar, Starbien. It was a delicious dinner with a series of appetizers including beef carpaccio , chicken croquettes and others. We enjoyed a delicious pasta dish as the entree. The dessert was either chocolate or lime pie. We had one more surprise before our evening ended . When we left the restaurant Hiroshi had a series of classic car taxies lined up on a side street. We rode back in style in a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air .
And so ended our person to person cultural exchange in Cuba. Both Warren and Marilyn agree that our group was one of the most congenial we have traveled with and we hope to see some of them on future trips.