TERRE HAUTE —
The name has a ring that attracts. Curiousness? Forbidden? Both.
Ten years ago, while traveling with the Indiana State University Alumni Association in Spain, our guide related how he had led several groups to Cuba.
Cuba. Bautista. Castro. Revolution. Bay of Pigs. Embargo.
Once the playground for actors, singers, athletes and mobsters, the island nation was closed to Americans, legally, by the stroke of John Kennedy’s pen. That hasn’t stopped some Americans from using Canada, Mexico and other countries as stepping stones.
For those not wanting to be in the bad graces of their government, the island was as exotic as Mars.
Thanks to licenses granted by the Treasury Department to a handful of American companies, ISU sponsored the trip in mid November. Among the documents needed by travelers — tourists is not the operative noun for this travel — were a visa and a document indicating we were covered under the Cuban health service.
Once on the island, the 28 participants (13 from the ISU program, the rest from other sponsoring organizations) in the people-to-people program were limited in their movements. There was only one evening of free time for hopping in a vintage American automobile for a taxi ride to old Havana and other destinations.
That doesn’t mean the adventure was bland. Eyes were opened to the plight of an island that has languished, deteriorated and begun its march into the 21st century.
Our guide, who maintained a fine line of objectivity throughout week, told us how an average three buildings a month collapse in Havana. The old buildings, with the look of government or other institutions, were once the grand homes of the merchants who made fortunes in the sugar cane and shipping industries. They are now in decay, the stonework crumbling, balcony railings missing sections. And occupied.
Our tour director noted how the buildings look as though they should carry condemned signs, but the residents within have tidy living quarters. Residents could be seen on those balconies making mobile phone calls. (Our guide had an iPhone!)
Along the malacon, it was evident the government wants the city to reclaim some of its grandeur, as those same structures are behind rehabbed.
Driving through the city, those sights were depressing and heartening.
The times interacting with the people were limited mostly to the places where we were herded. A rum factory. A cigar factory. A cigar farm. A ballet school. A social center. And restaurants.
Food was plentiful for our group, from the limitless choices in the breakfast buffet restaurant at the Spanish-owned and -operated hotel on the ocean, to the grandeur of the Café del Oriente on the final night.
That same cornucopia is not for the island as a whole. The country, once a client of the former Soviet Union, imports 80 percent of its food. As our tour guide noted, “We taught the Vietnamese how to grow coffee. Now we import coffee from Vietnam.”
Fidel Castro made it a national priority to end illiteracy in the early ’60s. After the Soviets pulled out 30 years later, there has been no effort to restart the agricultural economy. Unlike the former effort, agriculture will need huge infusions of money, as farm equipment, at least in the two western provinces visited, was rarely seen. Indeed, the few field tractors sighted were pulling farm wagons usually occupied by hitchhikers along the highway.
The biggest cash crop is tobacco, and that is a labor-intensive process, from planting to harvesting to the finished product. The fields are prepared by oxen-drawn implements, most to protect the soil from compaction. But in the infrequent corn fields, no mechanization was evident.
For weed and grass control, machetes and scythes were wielded. Only at a rest stop along the highway was a man using a lawn tractor to trim the grass.
Along those same highways the countryside was almost unmarked by billboards. Absolutely no billboard advertising any consumer good. No Coca-Cola, no gas, no eateries. Just every now and then, a board with a political slogan. Coke is singled out because it is available — from Mexico, not the United States. On the other hand, most of Cuba’s import of poultry and rice is from Alabama.
A walk through a supermercado was eye-opening. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables anywhere. Dairy was limited to some yogurt and a small selection of cheese; the milk was powdered or in shelf packaging. (Fresh milk is available to children until they reach the age of 7.) The meat was unappetizing.
Several feet of shelves were empty, although those of boxed cereals and cookies were fully stocked.
Contrasting the laid-back atmosphere of the countryside was the high-energy production at the Tropicana. Founded in 1939, the open-air nightclub has been entertaining Cubans and visitors alike without interruption. The Vegas-style show was in stark contrast to what might be expected of a communist country.
And how much longer it will be so is conjecture. Since the ascent of Raúl Castro to the presidency, changes include the ability of baseball players to leave, real estate agents are back in business, Internet access is making inroads — even as the typical Cuban is hard strapped to pay for the limited time — and professional people are leaving their jobs for lucrative positions in the hospitality/tourist industry. For instance, our tour guide was an elementary school teacher and our driver an engineer.
The latter has meant Cubans have adopted the dress of Europeans and Americans. Indeed, the television offerings in the hotel included several U.S. offerings, some with subtitles, some dubbed, some in English without translation. The young guide at the museum of Cuban art was articulate, having learned her English watching the BBC; she is a big fan of “Downtown Abbey.”
On Fifth Avenue, a wide boulevard limited to autos and light trucks, three young women were seen on rollerblades. On the other hand, skateboards were not in evidence, although our tour guide said there are some riders.
On a personal note, one incident stands out.
Following lunch at La Paella, just off Plaza de la San Francisco, I was looking at the street scape when two 20-something men strolled past.
“American?” One of them said.
“Welcome to Cuba!” he said, pronouncing his country “koo-ba.”
I hope to hear that again. As a tourist.
Carl Bender is retired from the Tribune-Star, which he served as a reporter and news and copy editor. He’ll be looking through his Nikon viewfinder at the Galapagos and Machu Picchu in the spring.