The Devil's Island

Mindful of the penalties for unauthorized travel, I have vividly imagined a trip to Fideland and, with the aid of Photoshop, created some very realistic pictures.

You can't fly directly to Havana from the US, and, oddly enough, airfares from other points of departure are roughly the same: no matter where you leave from, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, or even Europe, it will still cost you about $400. (Actually, there is a direct flight from Miami; it costs $400 too.) I leave from Cancun, largely because it's cheap to get there ($134 + $90 tax).

Mexicana will take a reservation over the phone, but it won't accept US credit cards for tickets to Cuba. So at Cancun airport I pay cash. Cubana has a flight leaving in an hour and it's cheaper, but a sign at the ticket desk announces that $100 bills are not accepted. (They must not want to experience the artistry of their comrades in North Korea and Hezbollah, who are expert counterfeiters of Benjamin Franklins.) Thus, I am spared the ideological dilemma of putting money directly in Fidel's pocket in order to save a few bucks. 

Cancun is a big, busy airport. There is but one, underused machine for wrapping luggage in plastic. Normally, I figure these machines are for worrywarts, but, having read about the honesty of the baggage handlers in Havana, I decide to be a worrywart myself.

The flight is only 50 minutes. From the air, it doesn't look like Thomas Edison has had much of an impact in Cuba ? there not many lights below. 

The first stage on entry is immigration, where the gal spends 5 minutes comparing my visage to the very recent photo in my passport. Then, 10 minutes of interrogation, making sure that I don't know anyone in Cuba. After that, a careful inspection of my outbound air ticket. (Like anyone would want to stay!) Finally, I am passed. 

The next stop is the metal detectors. One expects these before boarding an airplane, not after getting off! After that, a very thorough patdown. Just like entering a prison, which we are. 

Then, a queue to exchange our real money for prison scrip. Like the Soviet ruble, the Cuban peso is worthless. They used to use dollars for real transactions, but now have something called a "convertible peso." It's not real money, but it's the only currency that will buy anything. All lodging, meals, and other purchases are priced in convertible pesos. Each peso is supposed to be worth a dollar, but they have now arbitrarily set the rate at $1.08.

After all of this, you would think that our luggage would be waiting for us. Welcome to socialist efficiency. Every few minutes a bag or two would be placed on the belt. They are working at the speed of inmates serving life terms, which they are. (Fidel's life.) At least 80% of the items have been wrapped in plastic. After 20 minutes of waiting, mine arrives. 

I'm done, right? Hardly. As I head toward the "green" lane at customs I am pulled aside. Apparently, it is my fortune to be selected for a quality assurance survey. Clipboard in hand, the guy starts asking me questions. But, first, do I have a pen?

He asks all the same questions I just answered, plus a bunch more. Then, he disappears with my passport. Finally, he returns and tells me I am free to go. By now, they are opening everyone's luggage, and a long queue has developed. I seek out my erstwhile interrogator, pointing to the long queue. My pen still clutched in his hand, he tells the gal to let me through. Free (of sorts) at last!

The taxi ride to town costs a month's salary (for them). We speed through unlit streets past crumbling buildings, with few other vehicles on the road. I can see numerous figures disporting themselves in the dark.

My hotel is a 1926 high rise which has been rehabbed and proudly sports 3 stars. It has elevators (one of which is working) and AC. Apparently the rehab of the hotel did not include paint. I turn on the TV ? satellite pirated from Mexico ? and there is CNN, MTV, and playing on the movie channel, "Team America, World Police." What a great place to watch a satire about meglomanical communist dictators. 

In the morning I venture outside. It looks like what I expected to see in Beirut. This is Havana Centro, a vast grid of complete urban decay. Across the street, in the window of a clothing store, are a few cast-off bits of apparel. Next door is a pharmacy; its shelves are nearly bare. The streets are a museum of cars from the 1940's and 1950's stilling rolling along in various states of repair.

It's a holiday of sorts: Martyrs Day. A few days ago, July 26, was the big celebration, the anniversary of Castro's 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks, in Santiago, Cuba's second city at the other end of the island. Fidel and his brother Raul were captured, but, unfortunately, not executed. The attack is celebrated as the start of the revolution.

I walk the short distance into old Havana. Similar decay, possibly even worse, with some restored buildings (European money). This is the tourist district, and there are lots of them. Lots of stores too, but I quickly learn the rule: if a shop is open and has anything you might want to buy, it's convertible pesos only. (Although they are still called "dollar shops"; convertible pesos are still widely referred to as "dollars.") Ditto for restaurants: if they have food, it's dollars only. You can buy almost nothing for pesos, giving new meaning to the expression "your money is no good here."

There may not be anything to buy, but there is plenty of free propaganda. Instead of advertising products, billboards are selling the party line. Quotes from Fidel are everywhere. Every city block has a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (its chief purpose is to spy on the residents), and they compete with enthusiastic murals. As you might expect, every economic difficulty is blamed on the US embargo. (Never mind that they can buy unlimited food and medicine from the US, and Canada, Mexico, and the rest of the world will sell them anything they want.) There are two themes: everything here is wonderful and Bush is the devil.

Because it is impossible to get by on one's government salary, everyone is hustling for a buck. Corruption is universal. Those unable to steal from their workplace demand bribes for doing their jobs, i.e., checking in luggage. On the street, I am offered cigars every few feet. (A sign at the airport warns that any box of cigars not bearing the hologram tax stamp will be seized as "counterfeit." Hustlers approach me constantly, but even though I am not buying, they really do want to talk. Everyone has relatives in Miami. One guy's father and brother left in 1980. Another guy's brother paddled a raft for four days to reach freedom. They all hate the government and want to get out themselves. They know exactly where Fidel places on Forbes list of the world's wealthiest men.

Dinner is at the Hanoi restaurant. The menu listings have Vietnam names, but the ingredients and preparation are purely Cuban. I don't see any oriental faces and I don't think any boat people washed up here. As in all restaurants, there is live music. After playing a ballad to Che, the musicians cadge the diners for tips. Very revolutionary.

The next day I take a look at Vedado, the "modern" part of town. "Modern" is a relative term ? with buildings dating mostly from the 1950's, it is somewhat less ramshackle than the rest of the city. In addition to hotels, offices, etc, it contains both the monument to the explosion of the Battleship Maine and the Plaza de Revolucion. (Despite the exhortation, in Cuba they do not "Remember the Maine.") The US Interests Office, a quasi-embassy, is surround by propaganda boards and Cuban police to keep people from approaching. Next to it is the Plaza de Dignidad built for rallies to demand the return of Elian Gonzalez. A forest of flags has been erected to prevent Cubans from seeing an electronic news display put up the Americans.

Monday is a slow day. The principal activity is the Museum of the Revolution, housed in the former Presidential Palace. It's overcomprehensive and unairconditioned, but unmissable. Here, the visitor learns important facts such as before the revolution dire economic circumstances compelled women into prostitution. Unlike today.

Behind the museum is a giant glass case housing the Granma
, the cabin cruiser that brought Fidel and his band of merry men from Mexico back to Cuba to relaunch the revolution. Surrounding it are tanks and planes that defended against the Bay of Pigs invasion and the wreckage of a U-2 spy plan they shot down.

On Tuesday we depart Havana. The major tourist cities are connected by a system of comfortable long-distance buses. Dollars only, of course. Inter-city transport is a major problem for Cubans. Prices are cheap, but you have to reserve a bus ticket at least three months in advance. The government has purchased a large fleet of new Chinese-made buses, but you rarely see them running. Instead, they are parked at the station. At every road leading out of a town or city great throngs of people are standing around in hopes of getting a ride. Some wave money to flag down passing cars. Others climb aboard the open backs of trucks. A government agent is present to place people on all types transport and to collect fares. City buses frequently are converted trucks. Outside of Havana taxi are usually bicycle rickshawss or horse carts.

Our first stop is Santa Clara, about four hours from Havana. On December 29, 1958, Che derailed an armored train here. The soldiers aboard surrendered almost immediately. Two days later Batista fled Cuba and Fidel ascended the throne. The railroad cars have been left in place and turned into a museum of the Battle of Santa Clara. The town later "adopted" Che and built a huge memorial with giant statue and a museum. The museum contents are mostly photographs and various items touched by the hand of Bonaparte ? my favorite is a "Zippy Zither" along with the score to "Home on the Range." Now there's an image: Che drumming his zither and longing for where the buffalo roam. Across the hallway is a chapel-like area with a green copse suggesting the Bolivian jungle where his carcass rotted away. In 1997, thirty years after his death Che's bones were located, identified by DNA, and moved here. Unlike other museums, this one is air-conditioned, which encourages the visitor to linger.

This is our first night in a casa particular. Outside the capital, hotels are few. People are allowed to rent out spare bedrooms to tourists and offer them meals. It's heavily taxed and regulated, but gives many people access to vital dollars, and the competition is fierce. Each arriving bus is met by a crowd of women with cards describing the attributes of their casas. It's cheap, and a great opportunity to meet the people and see how they live.

Tonight the air is electric ? Fidel has undergone emergency surgery. For the first time in 47 years, he has temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul. When the 6:30 news comes on, everyone is glued to the screen. From the buildup, tributes, and lack of any actual hard information, I figure El Barbero is a goner. Instead of reporting on his condition and a prognosis, the entire newscast consists of fluff. Our landlady is a true believer ? when the party hack announces that all will be fine, she applauds along with the toadies on the screen. Meanwhile, in Miami, they are dancing in the streets.

There's really nothing else to see in Santa Clara, so the next day we move on to Trinidad, a gem of a colonial city with postcard scenes around every corner. The city is also home to the museum commemorating the war against the banditos. Castro and his men were revolutionaries who fought FOR the people. Those who resisted his rule were bandits and pirates. In this part of island the fighting went on for years.

The next day is a rail journey of sorts. A line built to haul sugar from the fields now takes tourists in open carriages 15 miles out into the lush countryside. After a few hours, it makes the return journey. It are supposed to be pulled by a 1919 steam locomotive, but they must not have gotten it working that day because ours is a diesel. Due to delays, the trip takes the better part of a day, but a very scenic and pleasant one.

The third day in Trinidad is a horseback ride. We depart from the edge of town and enter a national park. After about an hour we dismount for lunch and to hike to a waterfall, where some go swimming. Then, the reverse route back.

On to Camaguey, about a six hour bus ride to the east. The Trinidad bus station has an air-conditioned waiting room, but to get in it you have to show your passport (that you have one) ?cool air is for foreigners only.

Camaguey is supposed to be a charming colonial town, but it is a lot of nothing. We decline dinner at the casa only to find the restaurants are closed on Saturday night. I think they show respect to the rights of their workers by being open Monday-Friday, 9-5. We finally find an overly noisy bar that serves food.

There's not much to do but walk the streets and look in the shop windows. After almost 50 years of communism even toothpaste is rationed. The peso stores all sell the same few items, although one distinguishes itself with an ample supply of little plastic buddhas. The paucity of goods for sale is supplement by ample propanda displays. A repair shop advertises that it repairs both "soviet and capitalist" TVs. (Our casas often are equipped with "Minsk" brand refrigerators and other Russian appliances.) The typical building consists of an empty storefront with someone sitting at a desk to "greet" visitors.

One day here is plenty. On Sunday, we move on. The Camaguey bus station does not offer airconditioning , but it does have a large photo display commemorating Fidel's visit there. En route to Santiago, another six hours to the east, the driver periodically stops to conduct some private business, which seems to include the transport of goods and selling of empty seats. The scenery is mostly fields of sugar cane.

All of Cuba is lush and fertile, yet the country can't feed itself. It suffers from typical communist agricultural efficiency ? there is little point in working hard to grow stuff when you don't own the land and can't sell your crop. I don't see any intensive cultivation; even the sugar fields look sparse. Despite plenty of pasture, cattle are a rare sight. Beef is almost unobtainable, and dairy products are strictly rationed.

Although eclipsed by Havana, Santiago is where much of Cuban history happened: where Columbus landed; where the rum industry began; where independence was forged; and where Castro came from (nearby), fought, and triumphed. It is much poorer then the capital and much blacker, the descendants of slaves having created an Afro-Caribbean culture. It has far fewer tourists, far more decay, but is livelier. 
The Bacardi rum empire was headquartered here. A tour of the Museum of Rum, which I refer to as the Museum of Me (rum in Spanish is "ron"), includes a free shot of the product. The Bacardi assets were seized by Fidel and now produce the Havana Club brand, which is solely for export. The museum manager laments that he cannot afford it on his salary of $15/month. It's also sold in the dollar shops and, largely untaxed, costs only a few dollars a bottle. Cigarettes are cheap too ? about 35?/pack. I don't smoke, but at these prices I ought to start.

The velvet ropes part as we enter the very elegant 1900 Restaurant for lunch. The menu prices are reasonable; too bad there's almost no food (and no other customers). They have to send someone out into the street to fetch us a can of soda. Like all restaurants, it's owned by the state. They is plenty of staff, but very little service. Restaurants add a 10% service charge to the bill, but either the staff gets none of it (mostly likely) or they haven't grasped the concept. Even if you pay baksheesh the level of service from state enterprises (which is all them) is maddingly poor. It's exactly like the old Soviet Union, where they would joke "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." I mentally bestow "Hero of Socialist Labor" awards on the worst.

Emilio Bacardi's personal collection forms the basis of a very eclectic museum, featuring art, archeology, historical items, and the only Egyptian mummy in Cuba. My two favorite objects are the shrunken head and the handkerchief embroidered with the name "Fidel Castro Ruz" (that's his full name).

Tuesday, we hire a neighbor to drive us around in his 1949 Ford. The first stop is San Juan Hill, up which Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged. The site is covered with memorials to US soldiers. These days though, the sympathies are with the overwhelmed Spanish defenders. Unlike the Maine Memorial in Havana, the monuments have not been damaged.

Santiago has a magnificent natural harbor (as does Havana), the entrance of which has been guarded for over 400 years by El Morro,. The fortification has been impressively restored and contains a number of historical exhibits. One explains the difference between buccaneers, filibusters, pirates, and corsairs. Another is devoted to the 1898 naval Battle of Santiago, in which the US fleet sunk its Spanish counterpart in short order. A modern plaque is dedicated to the Spanish victims of this "holocaust."

One can drive to the town of Guantanamo and peer at the US naval base through binoculars, but we don't because it's far from the city and you can't see anything anyway.

My druthers are to take the train back to Havana, but the only one that offers minimal comfort isn't running today. There is an overnight express bus which makes the trip in 12 hours, so that's what we take. At the station, I ask about a drink and learn that the nearest refreshment is 4 (long) blocks away. A few minutes prior to departure a security guard shows up with a cold soda, for which I give him a dollar. They're learning. 

Back in Havana, rather than waiting three hours for a connecting bus we hire a private taxi (i.e, a guy with a car) to drive us to Vinales in his 1960 English Ford. He has won the visa lottery and will shortly be leaving with his family for the US. Twenty thousand immigrant visas a year are given to Cubans, mostly for family reunification but some allocated by lottery. His English is good ("that is the language of America"), honed by watching satellite TV from Miami. (His neighbor has an illegal dish, and the signal is piped throughout the building.) He has to pay about $900 in exit fees and he is not allowed to sell his car, but he is a happy man. 

Everyone knows that Fidel is a short-timer, but, after 47 years, people have given up hope for real change. Both the hardcore, who have faith in Raul, and the dispirited majority suffer from a lack of vision ? they can't imagine a different Cuba. Almost everyone hates communism, but they don't want the Miamians to take over either. I thay had half a chance, a large portion of them would just leave. 

Vinales is depicted on all the travel brochures for Cuba. It is in a verdant valley surrounded by limestone formations amidst tobacco fields. The standard package tour of Cuba includes a drive out from Havana and a night at one of the big hotels for foreigners outside of town (Cubans are not allowed in hotels). A steady stream of tour buses rumbles down the mail street of the small town. We stay in a casa.

The attraction is the scenery. We take a half day walking tour through the surrounding countryside. Our guide is both surprised and disappointed that I don't have an opinion on the White Sox. (Baseball is the Cuban national sport.)

The limestone formations in the area contain a number of cave systems. On our walk, we pass through one. Very dark. Others are rigged for visitors. In the afternoon we visit one that features a boat ride on a subterranean river. We get stuck with a giant tour group. It's mass tourism at its worst, but it gives us an opportunity to be grateful that this is our only encounter with what most visitors to the island endure their entire trip.

The next day is another horseback ride through a different part of the valley. The finest cigar tobacco is grown in the Pinar Del Rio region, of which Vinales is part. We visit a tobacco grower whose produces for Cohiba and he offers a sample ? a $10 cigar without the band. The farmers have small plots (less than 1 acre) and live simply, without electricity. They use bullocks for plowing. The tobacco growing season, which lasts 3 months, is over and the fields are now planted in corn.

In the afternoon, we bus it back to Havana where we have an extra day. The interior of the Capitolio proves worth the $3 admission price. The former meeting place of the Cuban congress, those days it hosts ceremonial events and is home to a rare internet cafe. What may be the most beautiful and ornate building in Cuba is underplayed by the government, possibly because it belies the official position that nothing significant occurred during the period of the "pseudo-Republic" prior to the Revolution. I also discover the fixed-up portion of Old Havana, which eluded me last time.

El Dinosauro is still hanging on. The party newspaper (the only kind they have) reports that speedy-recovery wishes have arrived from North Korea, Venezuela, Bolivia, China, and the other usual suspects. A foreign expert is quoted declaring Fidel to be the greatest figure of the 20th century. Tomorrow he will be 80. "At his request," celebrations have been "postponed." Still, over at the Plaza de Dignidad are musical acts interspersed with tributes and slogans. Above the stage is the banner proclaiming "Fidel Siempre" ("Fidel forever"). We watch it live on TV.

Sunday, August 13th. This is it, the 80th anniversary of the emergence of El Vampiro. No one seems to be paying it any mind. The only discernable difference is that the normal 57 varieties of police stationed every few feet have been augmented by grey beret wearing special police, who are kicking ass and taking names. I wonder how many years you get for smirking?

It's also leaving day. Our youthful cab driver to the airport is another #1 USA fan. Ten years ago his father escaped by a boat and now lives in Jersey City. In a year or two, he hopes to join him there. In the meantime, he, too, is perfecting his English. I wish him well and tell him that, with luck, he won't have to wait that long.

Trip date: August 2006.