Friday, April 21, 2000
Cuba: One Visitor's Impressions
I hadn't really planned to write about the trip my husband and I took to Cuba earlier this month as members of an English birding group. What made me change my mind, of course, was the ongoing saga in Miami over Elián González, as well as a recent piece in the Boston Globe by columnist Jeff Jacoby in which he described the country as "a tropical hellhole, where life is so miserable that each year thousands of people risk everything to escape."
Actually, Jacoby is partially correct in his assessment of the situation. About 16,000 people leave Cuba annually which represents a little over one-tenth of one percent out of a population of 11 million . So, between the ongoing manipulations of the Cuban-American community in Little Havana and the outrageous statements from a columnist in Boston, I just had to talk about what we saw during our two weeks in Cuba.
Leaning in a different direction
Granted, the country has a totalitarian government, led by Fidel Castro, who in 1959 overthrew the last of five corrupt presidents. For decades, Cuba's leaders had been draining Cuba dry for the benefit of a few, including quite a number of Americans. And yes, Castro did ally himself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and a Russian presence there until 1993. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been leaning in a different direction, away from Moscow and toward Canada and Europe. Unfortunately (for the Cuban people, not Castro) the American Government has not lifted its long-standing embargo. Who knows what stands to happen when we do so, as we undoubtedly will when either Jessie Helms or Fidel Castro dies?
I can only tell you of the impressions that this beautiful country, slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania, left on me as we traveled from Havana, west into the mountains of La Gúira National Park, then east to Camagüey in the center of the island, then to the north coast island of Cayo Coco, and finally to the great Zapata Swamp wilderness and Playa Girón at the mouth of the Bay of Pigs, southeast of Havana (see map).
Yes, this was a birding trip, but with my eyes wide open, my travel book in hand, and questions at the ready, I was able to come away from Cuba with what I think is a good understanding of the country. And here is what I observed:
I saw no shantytowns in Cuba. Having traveled in Central and South Americamost recently in Venezuela, where thousands of squatters live in crude huts on hillsides outside of Caracas (a city we were advised to avoid because of street crime)the island was a pleasant surprise. Cuban people are clearly poor and rationing is evident everywhere, but the country is by no means miserable. People seem to get by and have devised myriad ways to supplement the meager salaries they earn.
As we traveled around the country it became obvious that, in fact, great strides have been made in distributing the wealth. Old Havana may be crumbling, but the countryside and other cities we visitedCamagüey and Trinidadseem to be moving in a positive direction.
In Havana Vieja, for instance, people have opened up restaurants called paladeres in magnificent Spanish style mansions that long ago were divided into three- and four-family homes. Often open 24 hours a day, a paladera can typically serve up to 12 people at one seating. There are strict rules governing these enterprises, which include a ban on serving lobster or shrimp, but according to the woman at the desk in our hotel, this ban is not always observed.
UNESCO, which designated Havana a World Heritage Site in 1982, has instituted a preservation operation in the city to help restore numerous antique colonial buildings that date as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. For those who saw Win Wender's film "The Buena Vista Social Club," featuring musicians from the old music halls of Havana, you know what I'm talking about.
Speaking of "The Buena Vista Social Club," there was music everywhere in Havanain hotel dining rooms and lobbies, on the streets, floating down from balconies. And throughout Cuba, that special Latin beat produced by Spanish guitars, bongo drums, small accordions, and maracas seemed to play out around the clock. When I think of Cuba it will always be to the tune of a rumba, a mambo, or a salsa.
But returning to the more serious side of my observations, I learned about the high literacy rate in Cuba (96%), and its successful education system. Schooling is enjoyed by everyone, not by just the privileged middle and upper classes as was the case before Castro. Our Cuban ornithologist guide pointed out students on their way to class in their neat red skirts and short pants for the lower grades and yellow skirts and pants for the older students. We watched children after school jumping rope and playing kick-ball on the Prado in the late afternoon as we made our way back from the Malecón, the harbor area, to our hotel.
Cuba is a country with universal healthcare with an emphasis on preventative medicine. Cuban population's life expectancy is the highest in Latin America - 73.9 years.
Stationed strategically along the way, and throughout Havana, were unintrusive soldiers, providing a sense of security not always felt by visitors to other big cities throughout the world. Once, when we became lost on a side street in Havana, a friendly soldier walked us up the block, and pointed us in the right direction back toward our hotel.
The tourists are coming
Are there tourists in Cuba? Not many Americans, but with vacationers arriving from Canada, Germany, Britain, France, and Spain, tourism is a thriving business in Cuba. A Spanish corporation had built the hotel we stayed at on Cayo Coco and there were signs of other hotels going up all along the way. I have to admit that I didn't miss finding a McDonalds on every street corner. I was able to see Cuba before American enterprise takes over.
The Russian connection, on the other hand, displayed itself clearly with dilapidated apartment houses on the outskirts of the city and an ostentatious Russian Embassy in Havana. Our Cuban tour guide Ivan, when asked the source of his name, said that there were many young people his age (25) who had Russian namesBoris, Sergey, Dmitrydating back to the Soviet influence in Cuba during the sixties and seventies.
Birding at the Bay of Pigs
Interestingly, the hotel at Playa Girón where we spent four nights was the exact location of the Bay of Pigs fiasco on April 17, 1961. We found a small museum just down the road, which highlighted events during the invasion by U.S.-trained Cubans, including a well-preserved Sea Fury fighter-aircraft in the courtyard outside.
I can't forget that the purpose of this trip was to see birds and I must say Cuba did not let us down. The nine of us, mostly birders from England, came home with a list that included 23 of the 25 birds found no where else in the world but Cuba. Admittedly not one of the better birders on this trip, I did enjoy seeing the world's smallest birdthe bee hummingbird and finding the Zapata sparrow.
When the embargo is lifted, Americansbirders and non-birders alikewill once again discover Cuba. And when we do, I think we will see the folly of continuing our cold-war policy toward this enchanting and embattled Caribbean island long past the demise of the Soviet Union. As for me, though, I'm just glad I got there to see for myself that while Cuba is certainly tropical, it is by no means a hellhole.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito