Cuba is like color blasts for the eyes. The bright blue of the ocean, the primary-colored buildings, the plethora of rainbow-colored antique cars, and the flashy dress of the women who pose for paid pictures are all visual treats that delight the senses.
Touchdown at the Jose Marti International Airport is the beginning of a step slightly back in time, where automobiles of the 1930s await amid the bustling arrival of visitors who descended through the open doors of the limited embargo unveiled by President Barack Obama in 2014.
I was lucky to be among the first of a barrage of American tourists who were eager to hop a plane to travel the 90 miles from Miami and enter the country whose mystery beckoned.
Staggered at first by the lack of American luxuries (Umm, no washcloths?), it was soon a mere inconvenience against the sparkle of the magic awaiting us with their food, music, and mojitos. The culture was vibrant. Havanans seemed happy and welcoming.
Cuba and its people ooze with cultural pride. Music and dance, creative arts, and artistic monuments makeup and signify their underlying pride that you see throughout the country. Ana Marie Fielding, a Cuban and owner of Inbound Cuba (InboundCuba.com) says, “Cuban people are talented and proud of their heritage.”
Despite political policies, the people love their homeland; they are proud of their cultural lineage and do much to keep it alive. Honoring “Papa” Hemingway and his former home, Finca Vigia, the Cuba retreat where he penned “The Old Man and the Sea,” is a feather in their cap.
Pride in their refurbished classic American cars of yesteryear, owners offer a tour of the city that is a must for tourists. These owners will zip you along Malecon Boulevard with the top dropped, music blasting and make a decent profit for doing so.
The historic Hotel National de Cuba overlooks the Malecon. Its grounds, along with the grandeur of the hotel, are a haven for tourists who sit outside sipping mojito’s and enjoying the ocean view. Young Cubans find the five-mile long esplanade, a seaside pedestrian avenue along the side of the North Atlantic Ocean, a place to gather, be seen and socialize.
Mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse and buggies roll in mixed traffic on the streets of small countryside towns where laundry flaps outside on clotheslines strung from windows drying in the fresh Caribbean air.
Private restaurants called paladars feature “Cuba’s new breed of entrepreneurs,” where the owners are the chefs who gladly explain the farm to table nature of their food while discussing the economics of their businesses and serving dinner on the porches of their homes. Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions (IETravel.com), says, “when President Obama loosened up rules on private restaurants, there was an explosion of paladars because people could get ingredients from Miami.” Paladars doubled under Obama numbering more than 500.
The Cuban people seem to roll with the political punches. First, the U.S. trade embargo beginning in the ’60s, then the lifting in 2014 only to be caught off guard by President Trump’s prompt reversal shortly after taking office in 2017. “Cubans have an undaunted spirit; they keep taking poundings. They don’t know very many periods of good times,” Cox explains.
Trump’s restrictions on travelers, banning the very “people-to-people” travel license under which I traveled in 2016, includes rerouting cruise ships and possibly thwarting the expected income of over 130 million dollars that tourism was bringing to the country. “Cubans are in an economic crisis now,” Cox says, adding, “they are suffering because of what our government has done.”
With several free medical schools across Cuba, exporting doctors is a business for the government, according to Fleming, who says, “The government gets good money for sending doctors abroad.” “Being a doctor is seen as a very noble profession, but most Cubans just want to work in tourism,” she says.
Not the beat of their Cuban music nor strength of their spirit seems to waiver under the weight of the lost revenue. Habana Compas Dance, a private school for modern dance, the Buena Vista Social Club with its musical performances and the Korimakao Project, home to musicians, dancers, and artists continually pump out the familiar percussive sounds of Cuban music.
A community project In Cayo Santa Maria & Caibarien, “Par La Costa,” focuses on the use of recycled materials to create beautiful art. At the same time, the serenity of nature’s gentle waves at The Memories Paraiso Azulejo Beach Resort welcomes any American tourists that can navigate the invisible red tape of politics.
Kathy Starks Dow is a former high school journalism teacher, a Golden Apple award-winning journalist at the Rockland Country journal news newspaper where she was a local beat reporter, and an author of a children’s book, Low Down Dirty Words.