Two Weeks in Cuba

I just got back from two weeks in Cuba—not the easiest place in the world to get to from the United States, especially in these times of heightened scrutiny. (The recent relaxation of rules by the Obama administration made the trip possible for family and research.) My first impression upon leaving Aeropuerto Internacional José Martí-La Habana was of the ubiquity of street placards with revolutionary slogans. “Comandante en Jefe, tus ideas son invencibles,” said one, under a picture of a younger-looking Fidel Castro. Another warned, “La vigilancia revolucionaria: tarea de todos.” Perhaps my favorite sign was the one that boasted, “250 milliones de niños en el mundo duermen hoy en las calles. Ninguno es cubano.”

For all the revolutionary slogans, Cuba has inched further and further toward a free market economy, of sorts. There are now many private businesses: paladars and guest houses, for instance, which are frequented almost exclusively by tourists. The introduction of convertible pesos has created a system in which a few Cubans have access to this valuable currency, while the majority does not. As a result, people are always trying to get their hands on the convertible pesos and now you see street hustlers in a country that used to be mercifully free of them. The revolutionary ideals have become little more than a selling point, a way to attract foreign tourists.

There was so much to see and so little time to do it. We took a walking tour of Habana Vieja, with its stunning architecture; visited the Museo de la Revolución, where you can see the American yacht Granma, used by Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and 79 others to launch the Cuban revolution; saw a performance by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in an old church; waited for the cannon shot at the Fortaleza de San Carlos; took a tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory, which was smelly, loud, and frankly a bit Dickensian; and browsed many, many bookstores. By far the oddest sight for me were the Afghan students in Cienfuegos, amid scantily clad tourists and locals. They were apparently there to train as doctors, as part of the country’s own efforts to win hearts and minds. (I’m going to take a wild guess and say that training doctors might work better than dropping bombs.)

So this wraps up this very quiet and productive year for me. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and to write to me with your thoughts. I wish you all a happy and healthy new year, filled with joy and prosperity.