Monday, March 25, 2013

Cuba remains trapped between isolation and revival

Cuba remains trapped between isolation and revival
March 24
The Kansas City Star

HAVANA — Ten years ago, on my first journey to Cuba, I listened as a
friend drove around Havana and spoke about the challenges of the
"special period." That phrase seemed a choice piece of Orwellian
euphemism for the hard times that had beset Cuba since the collapse of
the Soviet Union a decade earlier.

The Russians had unplugged the cord that powered the Communist-led
island nation for so long, tightening the economic clamp imposed by the
perennial U.S. trade embargo.

It seemed obvious, in my travels around Havana then, that many Cuban
people were unemployed or underemployed or struggling to get by with a
ration book for staples and a monthly salary of about 18 U.S. dollars.
The decayed beauty of this city of 2 million — endless colonial
streetscapes of faded pastels, peeling paint and mold — was overwhelming.

Fast-forward to mid-February 2013. Cuba remains a land of — pardon the
cliche — mystery, where everyone seems to be waiting for better times
ahead. Yet Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is in a Havana hospital, and when he
dies of cancer a few weeks later, back home in Caracas, speculation
arises that his friendly economic largesse toward his mentor Fidel
Castro's Cuba will come to an end, prompting perhaps an even more
special period.

But that's all background context. To the casual traveler, the
foreground experience — seeing Havana on foot and by tour bus — involves
mostly pleasurable encounters with people and with what seems like a
newly efficient travel economy. The Cubans seem to have figured out that
the only real revenue stream they can count on is tourism. So the
Europeans, Americans (North and South) and Asians who travel here have
more refurbished and freshly scrubbed hotels and a wider array of
restaurants to choose from, many of them operated by an arm of Havana's
city government. The food was certainly somewhat better than we had 10
years earlier. And the music, as it always has, seemed to erupt
everywhere. The downside to this new-and-improved tourism effort could
be the loss of authenticity: A once-scruffy waterfront bar and grill
called Dos Hermanos has recently been prettified, surely beyond
recognition by the ghosts of patrons past, who purportedly included the
likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marlon Brando and one of Cuba's great
writers, Alejo Carpentier.

Around the edges of the central city, daily life of Cubans seems as
unclear as ever. The dreary old buses we saw packed with commuters 10
years ago have been replaced by newer models, though diesel-spewing
jalopies and who knows what else still perfume the air when you take a
morning stroll. Cubans who have managed to accumulate savings have been
given new opportunities to buy their own homes, and private enterprise
has become an option for those engaged in dozens of fields and various
types of businesses.

The tour I'd joined was oriented toward art and artists, and we were
somewhat surprised to learn that in the upper echelon of the art world,
among those who have a global footprint or show their works in the U.S.
and elsewhere, artists make more money than just about anyone else. They
are not subsidized, one artist told me, they pay taxes on their income,
and they are free to travel where and when they need to. Of course, now
it seems as if every young person thinking about college wants to be an

You can stand in the Museum of Decorative Arts, a palace filled with
French, English and Italian antiques, and wonder why the revolution
didn't stash this bourgeois stuff in a warehouse decades ago. You will
learn, though, that Cubans seem to enjoy showing off these treasures as
a kind of cultural patrimony. The sculptures and paintings and opulent
torchieres remain in place here because the wealthy family who once
occupied this mansion, like everyone else with money, took off after the
rise of Castro. They expected the revolution would be over in a couple
of months and they'd come back, one of our guides told us. That was 50
years ago, of course. "They're still waiting," she added.

U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba legally on licenses issued by the
Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control. Professional
researchers, including academics, can obtain a general license for
individual travel. Most people travel under a license issued to tour
operators for "people-to-people" journeys with humanitarian, religious,
educational or cultural missions. Our group flew to Havana on a charter
flight from Miami. According to our tour operator, about 350,000
Americans went to Cuba under such programs in 2012, and this year that
number is expected to double.

Bits of Cuban history and other factlets emerge in encounters with
historians and others. Christopher Columbus may have "discovered" the
island in 1492, but the Taino people preceded him, and most perished not
long after. The French arrived in Cuba after the Haitian revolution and
after Napoleon sold Louisiana territory to Thomas Jefferson's United
States in 1803; they started coffee plantations in the hills and kept
slaves, 12 to a stone-walled room no larger than the double-wide cubicle
in which I'm now writing. Slavery in Cuba ended in 1886, more than two
decades after the U.S. Civil War. The Partagas cigar factory makes five
of the best-known Cuban brands — Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta,
etc. — each a product of a secret blend of five different kinds of
leaves of varying character and quality; depending on the finished size,
a veteran roller in the plant turns out an average of 80 to 120 cigars a

I walked with my significant other, who'd lined us up with this
painter-led tour, down the Calle Obispo, a pedestrian spine of Habana
Vieja, toward a group dinner one night. I stopped to peer into a
bookstore window, and was soon joined by a woman who sneered, in
English, that nobody reads books any more. "They can't afford it," she
said. I don't know whether she was trying to get my goat or lure a coin
from my pocket, but I let it slide and sauntered on. Down the way, the
Plaza de Armas is lined most days with vendors selling used books and
old movie posters. I'd swear I saw the very same books 10 years ago —
the many biographies of revolutionary hero Ché Guevara, the faded
Spanish translations of "The Old Man and the Sea." Maybe the woman had a
point; maybe the Cubans are bored with the same old books.

One must be patient on a packaged tour, especially one that, to satisfy
two antagonistic governments, requires your attendance at all events,
including forced marches through tchotchke land. (My first experience of
this was in Russia, after the putsch in 1991, where, in my memory, our
strict, gray-haired-matron of a tour guide wouldn't let me skip the
opportunity to browse yet another display of matryoshka dolls.) Habana
Vieja is dotted with souvenir vendors, many of whom sell the same Ché
T-shirts, wooden trinkets and Havana street-scene paintings. We were
impressed by a visit to the Taller Gallery and Studio, where a dozen or
so printmakers were at work, turning out a higher level of art than you
tend to see on the streets or that we saw at the Mercado, an indoor mall
of art, souvenirs and bric-a-brac.

We did manage to play hooky one morning to make a visit I'd arranged to
the Finca Vigia, the longtime home of Ernest Hemingway. It's in San
Francisco de Paula, a village about 12 miles southeast of Havana's
center. Someone lined us up with a driver, who'd agreed to take us out
there, wait a couple of hours, and return us to our hotel for the
equivalent of $25. Deal. When I noticed the baseball bat on the floor
next to his seat, I asked, stupidly, whether he played, and when I saw
his awkward smile in the rear-view mirror, I quickly realized why he had
it. Even a Lada is worth protecting when you need to.

The Cuban government has owned and operated Hemingway's house as a
museum for half a century. It is filled with Hemingway's library of
thousands of books, artworks, locally made furniture, big-game trophies,
bull-fighting posters and other personal effects the writer and his wife
left behind, circa 1959, in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution. After
Hemingway's suicide in 1961, his widow, Mary Hemingway, was allowed (by
the Cubans and the Kennedy administration) to return for a few days to
retrieve manuscripts, correspondence, some paintings and other items,
most of which are now housed in the Hemingway Collection at the John F.
Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. But everything else remained, and
the trays of liquor bottles, the racks of magazines, the typewriter, the
record player and Hemingway's collection of Bach and big band music
speak to a leisurely way of life.

We had toured the house 10 years ago, not long before it was closed for
a much-needed restoration project. Most visitors can see it only through
an open front door and windows, which these days stay closed except when
the humidity cooperates. A onetime guest house is awaiting a renovation;
a conference center is under construction nearby; and Hemingway's
refurbished 34-foot Wheeler fishing boat, the Pilar, sits in drydock on
the grounds. The museum's director, Ada Rosa Alfonso, is looking forward
to the day when the museum can display one or more of the Buicks and
other vehicles that Hemingway drove while living in Cuba in the 1940s
and '50s, longer than anywhere else he lived.

Alfonso had sent us inside the house with a staff member and translator,
Tatiana Mena, who gave us a room-by-room, item-by-item tour. When we got
back to the museum office, we were trailed by a quartet of Argentinian
tourists who had concluded, as we emerged from inside the Finca, that I
was a VIP of such significance that they wanted to have their pictures
taken with me. Go figure.

As we left, we were surprised by the rumble of a couple of dozen
motorcycles coming up the Finca Vigia's drive. It was a tour group, from
the U.S., of course, and the bikers were spending two weeks riding from
one end of the island to the other. One of them told us of her daily
chore required by their "people-to-people" license: she had to keep a
journal. Wink.

Is Cuba on the verge of serious change? Will Raul Castro serve the
entirety of his last five-year term as el jefe? Will his successor open
the door to warmer relations with the evil empire to the north? How and
when will the U.S. reverse its policy toward Cuba and its people? What
is the statute of limitations for the revolution's nationalization of
private property and corporate? When will Cuban agriculture expand
enough to supply the nation's people and restaurants with adequate
supplies of fresh produce? (I saw one tour bus with a sign indicating
its occupants were involved in urban agriculture. Who would be learning
from whom?) How eager are American corporate interests to help redevelop
the Cuban landscape? How soon before Habaneros get used to a Starbucks
and McDonald's on every block? In Cuba, there are, of course, more
questions than answers. And waiting is a special way of life.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call 816-234-4762 or Twitter: @sbpaul.

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