Monday, November 24, 2014

Visiting Communist Cuba beguiling, bedeviled with problems

Visiting Communist Cuba beguiling, bedeviled with problems
22 hours ago • By JEANNE BAER / For the Lincoln Journal Star4

Only 93 miles, the distance from Lincoln to Grand Island, separate the
United States from "the great unknown" floating in the Caribbean -- the
mysterious island of Cuba.

Cuba is not so mysterious to Canadians and Europeans; several million of
them flock there each year to play golf, frolic on the beaches, gulp
mojitos, savor authentic ropa vieja, salsa-dance the night away …
basically to enjoy all this sun-drenched country has to offer.

But to most Americans, Cuba is simply a big Communist question mark.
That's because, until recently, it's been off-limits to us, except in
special cases.

A couple of years after Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries
overthrew Batista's dictatorship (1959), Cuba began expropriating
everything that the U.S. had built or bought since the turn of the
century -- sugar mills; petroleum interests; telephone, electricity and
insurance companies; hotels; casinos; and banks. Some put the value of
this colossal property grab at $7 billion in 2014 dollars.

In short, what had been a fairy-tale marriage between Cuba and the U.S.
in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, turned into an acrimonious,
winner-takes-all, divorce. And who could blame the U.S. for slapping a
trade embargo on Cuba in 1962?

In the half-century between then and now, the strength of the embargo
has ebbed and flowed. Most of that time, the only approved travel to
Cuba has been for academic, medical, religious and humanitarian
missions. Nonapproved Americans (who could and still can reach Cuba by
flying from Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean) may face a fine of several
thousand dollars and/or criminal prosecution, for contributing tourism
dollars to the regime.

But although vacation activities like golfing and scuba diving are still
off-limits to Americans, we now legally can travel there to build
bridges of goodwill. In 2011, the Obama administration began allowing
U.S. citizens to take guided tours designed to encourage interaction
with locals and an understanding of Cuba's culture.

That's fine with me; a people-to-people tour is my idea of the perfect
vacation. As a part-time documentary photographer with photgenic hopes
and dreams, I relished the opportunity to interact with "real" people,
whether they are schoolchildren, farmers, artists, Santeria priests,
professional dancers or cab drivers.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in and around Havana last April
with 13 other photographers from all over the U.S. I did one double-take
after another, as I tried to reconcile Cuba's juxtapositions: The lush
tropical beauty and the deterioration of its architecture; Cuba's
joyful, resourceful people and the repressive government that keeps them
from fulfilling their potential.

But through the trip's greatness and grimness, every hour was fascinating.

At this point, about 100,000 Americans annually are exploring Cuba
through these people-to-people tours. If you go, here's a small sampling
of what you may see.

A rich diversity of architecture styles. For a century, Havana was
spectacularly wealthy and has the architecture to prove it. In the
cities, you'll see buildings designed in Spanish colonial styles --
often with Moorish touches -- of the 15th and 16th centuries, Cuban
baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco and all sorts of eclectic
styles with international influences.

The bad news is that due to their age, plus salt spray, humidity,
termites, hurricanes and overcrowding, they are crumbling. Seven out of
every 10 houses need major repairs, according to official statistics.
Some 7 percent of housing in Havana has formally been declared
uninhabitable, yet people still inhabit it. The good news is that
finally the government is beginning to restore some of these
once-elegant structures (especially in the tourist-frequented areas,
naturally enough).

Scores of classic cars from the 1940s and '50s, confiscated from their
American owners after the Cuban revolution. Although Cubans can't get
U.S. parts to maintain them, most have managed to keep them running with
the help of coat hanger wire, duct tape, super glue… who knows? But the
considerable expense of restoring these vintage beauties is a good
investment; a cab driver in one of these popular vehicles makes more
than a doctor in Cuba, due to the tips he gets. (One of my favorite
experiences was riding around Havana in Hemingway's own bright yellow
1957 Plymouth Star Chief.)

A ballet school. The one we toured is to prepare dancers for the
National Ballet of Cuba. Once a mansion, the school has also been a
hospital and before that, the U.S. Army Cavalry HQ during the
Spanish-American war. It's depressingly run-down, but its young dancers
are hopeful and hardworking. Cuban dancers are coveted worldwide for
their discipline and skills, and thus, when dancers defect while touring
out of the country, getting a new dancing job is not difficult. (Last
year six dancers defected when the National Ballet was touring in Puerto

A tobacco farm. The Vinales Valley is home to some of the richest
tobacco-farming land in the world. The area is also famous for its
mojotes, giant limestone outcrops that dwarf the curing barns and little
"creole cottage" houses of the farmers. It was fascinating to learn how
tobacco is carefully grown, cured, processed and, finally, lovingly
hand-crafted into a cigar through a complex combination of artistry and
skill. I no longer think that $50 is an outlandish price for a premium
cigar, all things considered.

In rural areas, you'll see some rusty farm equipment putt-putting along,
but most of the work is done by horses and oxen. I spent some time
photographing one field where the farmer was planting corn by
broadcasting it – something we haven't done in this country for centuries.

An artist's studio, cooperative, or community project. Like many tours,
ours stopped at the home of Jose Fuster, a ceramicist who has slathered
his entire neighborhood with mosaics. His own property is a labyrinth of
whimsical, bright-colored mosaic sculptures and includes a gift shop and
lunch spot for tourists. Capitalism has found a home in Cuba and is
encouraged by the government, in some cases.

So much more. You may dine at the famous Hotel Nacional (home of
big-boss mafia meetings in the '50s) or stroll through the world-famous
Colon Cemetery with its blindingly white marble statues. You may visit
an orphanage or Ernest Hemingway's home, or even a Santeria house with
its altars to Catholic saints, African deities and Cuban revolutionary
heroes. One of my favorite subjects was Namibia, a powerful athlete who
is Cuba's only woman boxer -- amazing. Another was a baseball game with
players from a church league (only recently allowed), wearing uniforms
donated by an American Legion team from Sedalia, Missouri.

Every Cuban we met was friendly, helpful and seemed sincerely glad we
were there. Although Cubans may seem exotic to Americans, we are not a
novelty to them; most have friends and/or relatives in the U.S., and our
radio and TV signals reach Cuba loud and clear.

In short, I have been fortunate enough to visit 30 countries, but found
Cuba the most interesting.

Jeanne Baer is an author and speaker who has owned Creative Training
Solutions for 24 years. But her lifelong passion has been photographing
people around the world and telling their stories.

If you go

* "People to people" tours are available from more than 100 licensed
travel companies at this point. A few of the best and most reputable are
found at,, and This last company offers many special-interest
tours, so if you'd like to focus on photography, dancing, art, jazz,
baseball, nature or many other topics, they've probably got a tour to
fit your interests. And often these specialized tours are smaller than
the more general tours are.

* Cuba is expensive, especially compared to the rest of Latin America. A
weeklong tour almost always costs around $5,000 per person. That
includes the flight from Miami, good-to-great hotels, most meals and
transportation and guided tours every day. So if you find a tour
advertised for much less, it may not include these things.

* Cuba hosts many festivals throughout the year, so you might want to
build your trip around one, but it's fascinating all year 'round.
Remember that the climate is like southern Florida, only even hotter and
more humid. Go when it's cold in Nebraska, so you can appreciate the heat!

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