|Cuba is Hot Hot Hot!|
|By Sherri Ferris, President and CEO|
|Protocol Professionals, Inc.|
Everyone is talking about Cuba - the next great destination spot. And everyone is trotting over to the local theater to see "The Buena Vista Social Club", not to mention buying the CD or packing every available seat to see the BVSC play their wonderful, rhythmic Afro-Cuban music. You certainly won't find much travel data from your usual on-line sources, so here's a bit of insider information: Cuba is not for everyone. It's a country of deep contrasts. Fidel swore it would never again be the playground of the rich and famous. But rising above the abject poverty are many new elegant hotels. And, for the adventurous, many discoveries and forbidden delights await, hidden in the byways of a Cuba that has withstood the antiseptic broom of Communism 101.
It is a time of high drama. The traveler can sip in the past glory of the well known bar, "La Floridita", Hemingway's retreat; step into mud-filled, hot, steamy streets, filled with tight latex pants, colorful 1950's Chevy's and cigar smoke - lots of cigar smoke...; then pass through the lobby of the elegant Dutch operated Parque Central Hotel ($160 a night, cash - no American credit cards accepted and no ATM machines). This hotel feels strangely like the chic Plaza Hotel in New York.
In the eyes of the Cubans, who are not permitted in these new hotels, one finds both pride and resignation--a rebellious spirit, as well as acceptance that the only profound choice they will make that day, besides debating about local sporting events (men only) in the Parque Central square, will be to decide which meal will be their one meal for the day. No one makes enough money to buy more than that, even though the government subsidizes with a sack of sugar, a sack of rice and one weekly piece (not whole) of chicken in every pot! Whether doctor, lawyer, taxi driver or street sweeper - all earn $15 a month, and you can never change jobs, ever! That's communism. Not only is there not enough food, but there's not enough electricity either.
As the Aerocaribe plane lands in Havana on a star-filled night, one can see occasional street lamps scattered along busy highways, but if you blink, you could swear you were landing in Katmandu. Get the cows off the runway! In Cuba, by the way, if you kill your cow without a vet's signature, you will go to jail!
Keep in mind that it's not easy to get to Cuba. At the time of this writing, access is through Mexico, i.e., Cancun or Tijuana; Canada; or Central America. Visas to Cuba are obtained in these countries or by faxing a xerox copy of your passport to:
It is currently forbidden by the U.S. Government to do business in Cuba - due to the embargo, a controversial subject indeed. In fact, it is much too complicated to comment on here. Travel for cultural reasons is permitted. For the latest information contact any of the following:
Cuba seems at the crossroads of destiny, faced with a history of "the Triumphal Revolution", which has left a once colorful and lively Havana looking like East Berlin after the war. One sees endless dirt, rubble, fading Western Union signs, and loose electric wires, which cause the main street of Havana Vieja to be without street lights. Old ladies puff on large cigars, posing for foreign visitors to earn $1 in order to buy medicine from the (dollar only) pharmacies, whose empty shelves are covered with dust.
Behind the scenes, there is evidence of a once economically thriving capital city. Free enterprise prospers behind secret doors, where "private", often air conditioned restaurants operate by having family members of the cook lure tourists to the illegal restaurants. These entrepreneuring souls beckon the tourists to follow them down dusty alley ways, through unassuming doors, past bedrooms (sometimes occupied), to join the family for dinner.
There are approximately one dozen such private restaurants in Havana. Pay $7 hard currency and you can have black beans, rice, a salad of avocados and onions, black market lobster and shrimp--delicacies forbidden by the government, of course. It's all in who you know! The rather basic fare is made more enticing if accompanied by Hemingway's favorite drink, the Mojito, made of rum, sugar, lemon juice and mint, best consumed in the month of February, when the climate is most hospitable.
For a well appreciated hostess gift, bring American books (they're tired of reading Checkov), and remember to toast your hosts profusely, with a hearty "Salud, amor y dinero!" Translation: "Health, love and money!" Taboo subjects include discussing the irony of Castro's Cuban t-shirts displaying Che Guevara, as a commercial product!
If Cuba's lovely beaches, crawling with Europeans, have some allure, and you decide to venture outside of Havana by rented car, forget it, unless you have a grand sense of adventure and speak Spanish fluently. There are few road signs and the highways, if you can call them that, are filled with pot holes. They are as run down and as lackluster as the once famous Tropicana show, sadly an institution that has somehow survived in spite of itself since 1930.
If the new elegant Melia Cojiba or Parque Central Hotel is not your scene, there are bed and breakfast accommodations in private homes for $25 per night. Owners must pay $250 per month per room to the government. Do your math-if the room is rented every night of the month, the owner earns $500 profit.
What of Cuba's future? The answer to this question is what intrigues and draws many Americans to visit this island, so close and yet so far from the American way of life. When asked, "What do you think will happen when Castro dies?" a bright young man who speaks perfect English remarks, "Go underground and don't come up for days! There will be violence in the streets and a struggle for power! No one will know who is for and who is against whom." Fidel's brother, Raoul, Defense Minister, is waiting in the wings, but Alarcón, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Leal, the Mayor of Old Havana, are apparently greatly admired and respected.
The news media report that Castro continues to imprison dissidents while the leaders of the world watch and point fingers at his ongoing violation of human rights. A bright young and energetic professional man whispers to a foreign tourist in a local smoke-filled cafe, "We are not allowed to speak of these human rights violations. In fact we are not allowed to be here at all, except when we are 'accompanied' by tourists. There are police everywhere who will arrest you at the drop of a hat, especially the young people. They don't usually bother the old people if they speak freely. The truth is, we have no dreams, no vision for the future. We don't even have access to the internet - only the government does. They used to let us watch Russian movies on Friday nights until the people rebelled and demanded more variety. There is no freedom to make any choices for ourselves, except if we want to switch' apartments. Of course, we can not sell them, because we do not own them. This is the ultimate dictatorship! What I want for myself is to learn English, and also to save enough money to buy a lamp so that my daughter and I can read."
It's hard to imagine not having a light to read by, when most Americans simply complain of not having enough time to read. Ten dollars (almost a month's wages) is the price just to purchase a lamp to light Cuba's dark and uncertain world. With great courage and a surprising joie de vivre, Cubans face the imminent reality of economic and social upheaval. Many think it is a Haiti, waiting to collapse.
When asked if he enjoyed his work, a young engineer replied, "What work? We have no raw materials, so how can I build anything? It takes foreign currency to buy materials, and the only way we can get foreign currency is from tourism. Soon we will host a meeting of international leaders. Castro wants us to apply some fresh paint to the building facades along the Malecón (a beautiful walk/drive along the Havana shore). The buildings are crumbling behind the facade from thirty years of neglect and salt air, but Forever Commandante Castro thinks that by doing this we will look prosperous. Does he think we are fools? It's a good thing we have sugar cane to make rum and that our literacy rate is so high, because at least we can read the Havana Club rum labels, and we're discriminating enough to know that the seven year old variety makes the best Cuba Libres!
Additional Resources on Cuba:
U.S. State Department's new Cuban web site: www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/cuba/index.html
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