Building a bridge to Cuba

Although the news wasn’t a surprise, I was heartened to hear President Obama announce the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. This breakthrough came after months of secret talks between the nations followed by his acknowledgement last December that the relationship between the two countries was headed for a profound change. This Monday, the Cuban flag was raised over the country’s newly restored embassy in Washington, DC.

In 1961, the United States enacted an economic embargo with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. The sanctions were tightened even further in 1996, again in an effort to unseat Castro. History has shown us that these restrictions haven’t attained their goals; the Castros are still in power and democracy has eluded the island’s citizens.

Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as "The great homeland that grows."
Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as “The great homeland that grows”

Although past U.S. administrations have sought to moderate or remove the sanctions, politics has, until now, stymied any efforts. Politicians seeking the votes of the large population of Cuban exiles in the swing state of Florida have been unwilling to support any changes.

There are many reasons why what seemed impossible before, now appears to be happening. For Cuba, their two main benefactors, first, the Soviet Union and then, Venezuela, imploded, leaving the government without critical economic support. Tourism, trade, and investments from the United States will offer them much-needed monetary infusions. For the U.S., not only have the sanctions failed to oust the Castro regime, but they have severely constrained our country’s trade and foreign policy options. In addition, with an agreement, the Cuban government will lose a powerful scapegoat. No longer will they be able to blame their failed economics on the policies of the United States.

Demographics have also played a big role in the softening of the stance of both countries. The Castro brothers are now in their eighties and soon these powerful symbols of the revolution will be gone. In addition, the original exiles – the most vocal opponents to any change – are also aging, and younger Cuban-Americans are more open to removing the restrictions of the embargo. Although no one believes that Cuba will instantly become a bastion of human rights and democracy, it will be hard for their government to maintain its current policies when there is more freedom of communication, travel, and commerce.

Cuba's famous Malecon at sunset
Cuba’s famous Malecon at sunset

When my husband and I traveled to Cuba earlier this year (you can read about our journey here, here, and here), we found a country hungry for change. The Cubans we talked to (and there appeared to be little or no restrictions on our interactions) were friendly, welcoming, and eager to engage with Americans. Despite – and maybe because of – the hardships they face, many have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. They are also very proud of their country. Cuba has a 96% literacy rate and their citizens enjoy free education and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba’s water quality is among the best in the world, as is its citizens’ nutrition levels, health, and life expectancy.

Cubans are also very proud of their medical system. Cuban doctors are highly trained and their skills are in demand around the world. In fact, some 50,000 Cuban medical workers have been deployed in over 66 nations. That, of course, hasn’t included the United States, but maybe that could change. There has been a lot of concern lately about the dearth of general practice physicians here in the US. As the Baby Boomer population ages, more and more medical care will be needed. In addition, now that healthcare is more widely available through the Affordable Care Act, we need more doctors to provide care.

I know that there are many who feel that the sanctions should remain and that formally re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba sends the wrong signal. I, on the other hand, think it’s time to admit that our half-century estrangement hasn’t yielded the results we wanted and has actually produced many unintended negative consequences.

Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana's buildings are at risk of collapsing
Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana’s buildings are at risk of collapsing

By joining the rest of the world and opening up relations with Cuba, we can start a dialog that could result in increased freedom for their people. It might also mean that we could help satisfy our growing need for doctors by inviting members of their highly-trained medical establishment to practice here. Wouldn’t that be better than to continue a failed policy which, after more than 50 years, has yet to show any positive results?

Bears Sighted in Cuba

“We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”

– Motto for the United Buddy Bears, an international art exhibition promoting peace among nations.

Buddy Bears in San Francisco de Asis Plaza
Buddy Bears in Havana’s San Francisco de Asis Plaza

We were very fortunate to be in Cuba when the United Buddy Bears were being displayed at the San Francisco de Asis Plaza in Havana. The brightly painted fiberglass bears represent the over 140 countries recognized by the United Nations and are designed to promote peace, tolerance, and international understanding. They stand hand to hand to represent the people, culture, history, and landscape of the different countries, not the political systems.

The design on each bear was created by an artist from the individual countries and, no matter how large or small, or rich or poor each country is, they have the same size bear and are equal in standing. It was interesting to see how the various artists choose to represent their country – many were quite beautiful, some (including Cuba’s) were a little humorous, and others inspiring. All were fascinating.

The bears were first exhibited in Berlin in 2002/2003, before moving on to Austria in 2004. They have now been shown in over 23 countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, and India.

Buddy Bears

In March, the United Buddy Bears leave Cuba for their next destination, Santiago de Chile. I tried to determine if they were scheduled for a stop in the United States, but was unable to find anything. I hope they will not only be displayed here, but will also be embraced with the same generous, open-hearted spirit they have found elsewhere.

Cuba's Buddy Bear
Cuba’s Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Buddy Bear
U.S. Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BB Lineup 2

 

 

 

 

Cuba: A Nation Rich in History

On the morning of our second day in Cuba, we were treated to an unexpected scene in downtown Havana. In celebration of Jose Marti’s birth date, hundreds of school children paraded down the avenue next to our hotel. Many of them were in costume, some held signs or flags, and all participated in vigorous chants led by their adult supervisors. It was the first of many times on our trip that I wished that my Spanish was better but even so, the pageantry and the sweet, earnest faces of the children was a joy to watch.

School children celebrating Jose Marti's birthday
School children celebrating Jose Marti’s birthday
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana's main square
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana’s main square

Jose Marti is a Cuban national hero for his role in the struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century. His writings, including poems and essays, promoted liberty and political freedom. His dedication to Cuban independence – including sovereignty from the United States — and his fight against slavery and racial discrimination is honored throughout Cuba with statues and celebrations like we were fortunate to witness.

After watching the parade, we took off on foot to discover other sights of Havana, including the capitol dome (currently undergoing renovations), magnificent old buildings in various stages of decay, and the entrance arch to a long-gone Chinatown.

The rest of the day included a tour of the Necropolis de Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world, a private talk given by Roberto Salas’ about his stint as Fidel Castro’s private photographer in the 1960s, and a tour of ceramic artist Fuster’s amazing compound in which he has created a spectacular and joyful “Homenate a Gaudi” (“Homage to Gaudi”).

Havana is a photographer's dream
Havana is a photographer’s dream

Colorful buildings in Havana

Entrance to Chinatown
Entrance to Chinatown

 

The capitol building under repair
The capitol building under repair
Necropolis de Colon cemetary
Necropolis de Colon cemetery
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car

 

Cuba: Separated from the U.S. by 90 miles and 50 years

There are many reasons why the tiny nation of Cuba had such a huge hold on my imagination for so many years. Some of the lure was the image I had of a country frozen in time; most of the buildings, infrastructure, and automobiles pre-date 1961, when the United States began its trade embargo. What I knew of the culture and the people was also appealing; I’ve always been attracted to the Latin ethos, perhaps because it contrasted so strongly with my plain vanilla self. And then there’s the arts – especially the music and the dancing – which had a special hold over me.

The beauty of Salsa
The beauty of Salsa

Just a few years ago, traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen would mean breaking the law. The travel ban was relaxed somewhat in 2009, which allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. When, in 2011, “people-to-people” visits were sanctioned so other U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba, albeit with certain restrictions, I started to research my options. I hoped to find a tour that had a good mix of organized excursions and unstructured free time so we could explore our surroundings on our own. Last October, when I found one that fit my requirements, I signed up for the next planned trip without hesitation.

Very early on the morning of our departure, a group of 18 mostly strangers gathered together, visas in hand, in the Charter Airline terminal at Miami airport. Exhausted but excited, we began the process of getting to know one another as we made our way through the series of steps necessary for U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba. About 2 1/5 hours after we arrived at the airport we boarded our plane for the short flight to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

My first glimpse of Cuba!
My first glimpse of Cuba!

When we landed and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I could barely contain my emotions. I had dreamed of this moment for so long it was hard to believe that I had finally made it. I was in Cuba!

After making our way through immigration, retrieving our bags, and going through customs, we exchanged dollars for CUCs and we were on our way. Our first day’s agenda included a short orientation walk in Old Havana, lunch, and a tour of the Havana Club Rum Museum before checking into our hotel in downtown Havana.

Jose Marti International Airport
Jose Marti International Airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
Catholic church in Old Havana
Catholic church in Old Havana
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The view from our hotel room in Havana
The view from our hotel room in Havana

Stringing Together the Florida Keys

Because our journey to Cuba would be launched from Miami, my husband and I had an opportunity to fulfill another long-held desire: to drive the scenic coastal highway along the Florida Keys. Although we had been to Florida several times before, we had never tacked the time onto our vacation necessary to make the journey. This visit though, we added a few days to explore the area, which had the additional benefit of allowing us to acclimate ourselves to the three-hour time zone difference before we reached our main destination.

Although I was aware that the Keys – and especially Key West – had become a bit of a tourist trap, I still wanted to see them for myself. I was intrigued by pictures of turquoise waters and distinctive architecture, fascinated to read about the time Hemmingway spent in Key West, and inspired by the romance of the many songs written about this beautiful necklace of islands along the coral archipelago.

42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West
42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West

There are more than 800 islands that make up the Keys but fewer than 50 of these are inhabited (“Key” is derived from the Spanish word Cayo which means small island).  The Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West is a series of causeways and bridges — including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge – and provides plenty of vistas along the way. It was built to replace the Overseas Railway that was constructed in the early 1910s and then destroyed by a category 5 hurricane in 1935. It takes about 3 – 4 hours to drive the 110 mile route, depending on traffic and the number of stops needed to admire the scenery and, of course, to grab a cheeseburger in paradise.

We only had two days set aside for our visit and, looking back, we should have allowed for more. There is a lot to see and do on these beautiful and captivating little islands.

Hemmingway's house and museum is home to 40 - 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats
Hemingway’s house and museum is home to 40 – 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. If you look closely, you can see Truman’s “thumb”
The study in Hemmingway's Key West home
The study in Hemingway’s home, where it is said that he wrote “To Have and Have Not,” a novel about Key West during the Great Depression
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
Sailing into the sunset
Sailing into the sunset off the shores of Key West
The crowd at Mallory Square gathers to watch the sunset
The crowds at Mallory Square gather each night to watch the sunset
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon

Kicking the Bucket List

Ever since the film “The Bucket List” came out in 2007, the phrase has become a part of the American vernacular. Whether or not the term pre-dates the movie, I have no idea, but it seems that now just about everyone has made some type of bucket list. It might be a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” or it could be a list of places to visit or goals to achieve before a specific end time (going off to college or getting married, for instance).

List

When I first heard the term I thought it was a clever, light-hearted way to describe a list of experiences to be had and dreams to fulfill. I’ve used the phrase many times myself but, lately, what used to sound clever now strikes me as trite. In many cases, “Bucket List” trivializes the passion, desire, and curiosity that helped to create the collection of destinations and dreams I would like to pursue while I am still able to do so. These are not merely items on a to-do list to be checked off as I flit from one to the next, but real experiences to be lived and savored.

Recently, I was able to fulfill a dream I have had for as long as I can remember: travel to Cuba. I’m not sure what planted the seed of desire in me, but I have fed and nurtured it for many years. I’ve collected articles, accumulated books, and closely charted the political winds as they have raged, then calmed, then raged again, carrying my hopes with them. As close as Cuba is – just 90 miles from the tip of Florida – it might as well have been on another planet because of the travel restrictions placed on U.S. citizens.

Then, last fall, the right opportunity presented itself and we immediately said “yes”! The person putting the trip together had experience, passion, and a great sense of fun and adventure. We’ve never been interested in traveling with tour group before, but this one promised just the right combination of group time and free time. It would give us the opportunity to see parts of the country, learn about its culture and history, and have experiences that we would find very difficult to realize on our own.

All of the arrangements were made before President Obama’s December 17 announcement of the beginning of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. When we heard of the impending thaw, we were so grateful that we would see Cuba before the travel restrictions were lifted. We wanted to see Cuba before it is irreversibly altered by the deluge of American tourists that are sure to come once diplomatic relations are reestablished.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Miami to begin what would feel like a journey on a time machine, back to the late 1950s, before the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on this tiny island nation.

Next:

Key West: Separated from Cuba by 90 miles and 50 years