I recently was one of the first Americans to travel to Cuba solo without an organized group (although still licensed for educational purposes). My first trip was in March, 2015, a couple of weeks before the solo trip. The first trip was with the New York State Bar Association in conjunction with Cuban Cultural Tours. On my first trip, I saw and experienced Havana mainly through organized programs such as the Revolution Museum, the National Museum for Fine Arts, artists’ studios, and fancy paladars (restaurants), one of which was where the movie “Strawberry & Chocolate” was filmed. On my second trip, depending on my broken Spanish and my contact with local individuals and new Cuban friends, I explored and was exposed to the unofficial life of Cubans and the beautiful countryside of places like Cienga de Zapata, the largest wetland in Cuba, Las Terrezas, a community of 1500 Cubans at a biosphere reserve, Vinales Valley, an UNESCO world heritage landscape with limestone peaks, and Cayo Julio, a northern beach and village community. I also wandered through the city of Matanzas, snorkeled, swam and hiked in caves with crystals, chased wild pigs into the forest, and puffed a cigar (although I do not smoke) on a restful Sunday afternoon with local campesinos (farmers) near the tobacco plant fields.
My base on both trips was a room with a view in Havana. (According to Virginia Wolf, every woman must have a room with a view to gaze, write and feel alive – I agree). I opened my shutters to stare down at the Prado (wider avenue) and the tiled square. The streets were squeaky clean, lined with lampposts and trees – like a Spanish train set scene. The rooftops gave me a panoramic view of the peeling buildings of Havana (in NYC we call it “distressed chic” and pay thousands for it) and the Malecon highway adjacent to the blue waters of the Florida Straits.
My view of the rooftops from the seventh floor also provided a glimpse of daily life. I saw a young woman teaching her baby to walk. The little one hobbled bowlegged with two fingers held to the mama’s hand. On the next roof, an old man fiddled with containers daily. Laundry is strung and flopped in the sky. As Professor Rafael Hernandez, author of the The History of Havana pointed out, Cubans live with physical transparency, with windows and doors wide open. I watched the sky colors change, tranquility without checking e-mails and calls every ten minutes. The various shades of blues and greens, turquoise, and cobalt that reflect from the island’s water on deserted beaches inspired me to watercolor. I gave the watercolor upon request with a warm message in Spanish to my new Cuban brother and driver, Frank, his wife, Karenia and their older daughter and younger son, a most handsome family. Frank and Karenia live in Alemar, one hour outside Centro Havana, and travel each day to work. They live as many Cubans do, in a Soviet-constructed, tall, concrete, multi-colored apartment building.
On the cobblestone and tar roads were long buses provided by China and American Chevys dating back to the 1950’s, some shiny and convertible, others were more worn, passenger cars for Cubans, vintage beauties nonetheless. I rode some nights on the leather seats with the warm breeze caressing my face and blowing my blond curls. (My hair, yellow, swimming in the sea appeared to a couple of Cubans who had never seen blond hair in the northern local keys like a tropical fish!) The maze of narrow paths of Habana Vieja (old Havana) are surrounded by Spanish Colonial style buildings, fountains and churches. Stepping over piles of rubbles from fixing underground pipes for sewage (a good project of the City), Professor Marta Nunez and I discussed our children and her new grandchild. We walked arm in arm like old friends. Professor Marta Nunez of sociology was a Cuban diplomat to the Soviet Union and then Russia. She was a visiting professor at Harvard, has a class of Brown University students in Cuba, and lectures for the National Geographic. As a child, she attended an American school in Cuba before and after the revolution. She is an author for the independent magazine, Termos, and has completed extensive research on the new private businesses cropping up in Cuba. Professor Nunez compared by gender the functioning of independent small businesses concerning the renting of rooms, snack bars and retail sale of clothes. The last edition of “Termos” also included an article on transgender issues.
The last couple of nights on my second trip, I found a hotel room for half the price and which had double the space as it contained a large living room. More Cubans stay here and there is less security. Some tourists may like the strict scanning of IDs and traffic control of the grandiose five star, which excludes its own people and at times treats the Cubans with utter disrespect. After a while, I found it suffocating. I forego the grand central fancy lobby of the Parque Central for the Plaza Hotel or a casa particular, a room in a private house.
On my first trip, in conjunction with my nonprofit, Art Helping Life (arthelpinglife.com), I brought a large suitcase filled with children’s clothes, shoes and stuffed animals for a group home of children whose biological parents are not capable of parenting. As a family lawyer, I greatly appreciated the lack of institutionalizing the children. A small group of lively children, eight to ten years of age, live in a pretty house on a suburban street with at least three caregivers. Family style living, with only two children in a bedroom and home-cooked meals, is the norm. At school, they are not ostracized or stigmatized because they live like everyone. I spent an afternoon with the children on the floor drawing and singing together. I had a glow from the many hugs and smiles. One girl, new to the home, stayed close to me, riding my hip like my own daughter, Jasmine did when she was two. The Santa Claus effect is avoided because the gifts are left in the car for the group leaders to distribute later so the children do not associate people visiting with material benefit. Our group of good-spirited and social-minded lawyers collected funds and items for the children as well. Millie, originally from the Philippines, who has a successful immigration practice with her husband, Michael, delivered the funds to the group home. Austin, a financial advisor, who grows mango trees in Florida, acted as our unofficial accountant. Suzanne and Gerry brought a team’s worth of children’s baseball uniforms and gear. Wendy, a fellow Bennington grad, provided art supplies. Grey, a commercial attorney in Alabama, organized his hometown, Mobile as a U.S. sister city to Havana. The donated funds were used for needed communal items for two of the group homes – fans, washing machines, and a bus for cultural excursions. I met Ana and Jorge, two Cuban photographers who share their affectionate hearts and artistic talents with the children through their kids’ photo club. They spend time with the children every week.
Many Cubans impressively recognize a commitment to the “collective” good of the community, as teachers, artists, and doctors, even at the “official” pay of 20 CUCs per month (about US$25 per month). Karenia has a degree from the University of Havana in swimming education and is dedicated to teaching children how to swim, even though her husband urges her to leave the school to make a full time beauty salon where she can earn more money. Artists teach at the local schools and prepare pieces for the biennial art show. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world (higher than the United States) and more doctors per person than anywhere in the world. The literacy campaign of the 1959 revolution worked. Young people and educated volunteers traveled to all parts of rural Cuba to teach the elderly and workers in the wetlands to read. People do not pay rent or personal taxes. They obtain a modest food ration and free health care. Mansions and buildings of wealthy foreigners and Cubans who left Cuba after the revolution in 1959 were deeded to the families living in them or utilized for institutions of learning. Artists are given studios and materials to create. The cultural and athletic life is rich and diverse. Proper training, in sports, academics and the arts, is a priority.
Satire and irony is, at its best in Cuba, comparable to English wit on the London stages. Dry humor with a message is a sign of an intelligent community. Critical thinking is alive and well in Cuba. I delightfully soak it up in the brilliant lithographs of Tomy Ortiz Sanchez of the Taller de Graphica Experimental workshop and the power point presentation of Professor Rafael Hernandez entitled, “Accepted Truths About Cuba.” The intellectual discussions I have had with Cubans match those I was engaged in when I attended London School of Economics. I was a political philosophy major and to once again discuss Hegel, Gramsci, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Kafka, was a thrill.
It was refreshing not to see McDonald’s arches on highways and Banana Republic and jeans ads glued on buildings. The mail in Cuba does not consist of glossy Victoria Secret catalogues or envelopes pushing credit cards to minors. It is not nirvana – sadly, young adults are smoking cigarettes. There is strict gun control and no evidence of personal crime. Domestic violence does exist especially mixed with alcohol, as car accidents after parties. There is no drug trade passing through to the U.S., like in Costa Rica. The police can be difficult issuing tickets. The human rights of LGBTQ people are spreading through the activism of Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela. Cuba was the first country in the Americas to legalize divorce and serial monogamy is the norm. Judges include lay people. There is no begging in Cuba like I experienced in India and Guatemala. There is not a mother in a straw hut with outstretched arms crying for me to be the madrilena (godmother) of her sick baby as I experienced in Bolivia in 1990.
Many Cubans have two jobs, one for the good of the country at a miniscule wage and then a second stream of income to make money for the family – such as through tips as a lawyer/ professional, tourism, farming or small business. Cubans have self respect. They will not bargain their price for their work or their art if the amount requested is lower than its worth. Sugar, nickel and tourism are some of Cuba’s greatest economic resources. There is an official market and alternative markets. On a larger scale, the government is open to joint ventures. Canada, Spain, Brazil, and Singapore are doing business in Cuba. I predict the U.S. will become one of the biggest trading partners with Cuba when the U.S. lifts the failed policy of the embargo. The service sector represents sixty-three percent of the Cuban economy with nineteen percent being agricultural and seventeen percent being industrial. For better (desired consumer items, business equipment, capital, and income) or worse (loss of a safety net, debt and materialism), Wal-Mart, Pfizer, American Express, MasterCard, Citibank, Coca Cola, Governor Cuomo, and even Chobani yogurt have had contact with Raul Castro and his administration or have recently visited Cuba. President Obama has declared that Cuba will be taken off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism which will open international banking and credit to Cuba. The Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York is waiting to import vaccines from Cuba to help their patients.
The internet exists in Cuba and is growing. Twenty-five percent of the people have internet access and cell phones. People have gmail and facebook accounts, although some people can check it more easily than others. Only nauta.cu, the Cuban internet service is on the cell phone, but those who have access to a computer from work or a friend can get emails regularly. Service can be slow. For others, it is costly and more sporadic to go to an internet café and pay US$2.50 – $4.50 for an hour. The first free legal wi-fi has been provided by artist Kcho’s Cultural Centre which has close ties to Raul Castro. Netflix will soon be available but expensive for the average Cuban.
At the Revolution Museum, the Bay of Pigs Museum, and on sporadic billboards at times throughout my travels in western Cuba, the actual black and white photos communicate the horrific and spotted history of the U.S. towards Cuba. I also learned much from the Cuban economist, Professor Juan A. Triana Barros, the Cuban lawyer, Osvaldo Miranda Diaz and Canadian consultant, Gregory Binkowski who lectured our group. I read every word of the detailed, Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana by New York Times journalist, Ann Louise Bardach. Dictator Batista, American Corporations like the United Fruit Company, hand in hand with American gangsters like Al Capone and Myer Lansky, ignored conditions of extreme poverty and used Cuba like a private playground. Corruption was rampant. Any opposition to Batista was squashed, including the torture of university students. The revolution by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, who are legendary historic figures, was supported by the majority of the people. Fidel Castro did visit the U.S. during President Eisenhower’s administration and appealed to Nixon and Eisenhower for diplomatic and economic relations. Both turned their back on Fidel Castro and Cuba. Numerous assassination attempts were made by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro and destabilize Cuba. The Soviet Union stepped in and financially supported Cuba until the 1990’s. When Russia withdrew four to six billion dollars of aid annually, Cuba severely suffered financially. The Cubans call it, “The Special Period.” Many young people have been trying to leave Cuba ever since. Cuba now permits people to leave, but Cubans must wait for the US government to issue the visa. Frank and Karenia want to join Frank’s father in Miami and try to raise their children in the U.S. He is waiting over a year for the visa. His friend just received the visa after waiting nearly two years. Should Frank’s friend sell his nice home in the suburb of Miramar, Cuba and his car or wait to see if it works out in the United States? Frank said he will try to make it in the U.S. or go back and forth or return within five years permanently to Cuba if the United States proves too difficult. He makes more money than most Cubans as a tour guide and driver. His daughter, Rachel can bring her own food to school with more variety than the school lunch of rice, beans and maybe an egg. Even the teachers, who do not have family members with second sources of income, wish they could eat Rachel’s lunch. The average urban Cuban does not eat the freshly grilled seafood, lobster and fish that exist in abundance at the hotels, the paladares and even the small restaurants by the Caribbean Sea like in Cojimar (where Hemmingway wrote “The Man and the Sea”). I also visited Hemmingway’s former home, outside of Havana where his boat Pilar is anchored on land in the backyard.
Pork (Cedo) is well liked in Cuba and exists everywhere. I particularly liked the yucca with the chicarrón (crispy pork skin) crumbled on top, the sweet plantains (platanos maduros), and the just picked coconut, papaya, and a large orange fruit which is a tasty cross between a tangerine and mango. Yes, the aged Havana 7 rum, hard-rolled Cohiba cigars, and coffee are exquisite!
At the Miami airport, the Cubans living in Miami told me they now go back once a month or every two months to visit their family in Cuba and to bring large suitcases or packages stuffed with DVD(s), flat screen televisions, kitchen appliances, and even “Be Curly” hair conditioner. A woman sitting next to me on the plane flying from Miami to Havana was very excited. She had just spent three months for the first time with her family in Miami and was returning home. She showed me photos of her loving family in both places with comfortable homes in Cuba and Florida. She has pets in both homes, along with siblings, cousins and nieces. The large American supermarket impressed her and she had pictures of the long stocked shelves. An estate attorney, Minnie and her wife, Denise, a retired police sergeant, came to Cuba with our lawyers’ trip to find Minnie’s childhood home. Minnie, as a young girl, left Cuba with her family at the time of the revolution. She found her first home in Santo Suarez and was invited by the people living there to come in. It was a tearful experience.
Our group visited Jaimanitas, outside Havana where ceramicist Fuller has turned a bus stop and neighborhood houses into a whimsical tiled mosaic. It reminds me of Gaudi’s structures in Barcelona crossed with Alice in Wonderland in the East Village, NYC. We also visited the Nacional Hotel and the Habana Rivera Hotel, national monuments that preserve the art deco of the 1930’s down to the telephone booths and dinner plates, all in mint condition.
One cannot write about Cuba without highlighting the richness and diversity of its music. Music Professor Alberto Faya, with his nimble young pianist, took us on a sonar journey from the African songs of the slaves, to the classical Spanish guitar brought with colonialism to the Caribbean and Central American influences of Jamaica, Haiti, and Mexico to the salsa, rumba, jazz and reggaeton. The El Paridiso show included musical numbers, costumes and dance moves that were equivalent to Fosse’s Chorus Line and Motown on Broadway. At La Zorro y el Cuervo, a small jazz club, I sampled Roberto Forensco and his band Temperamental. The percussionist, Rodriguez was so rhythmically tight and one of the fastest drummers I have ever seen, sticks flying, similar to Led Zeppelin’s or Prince’s percussionists as well as the Bahian drummers I saw in Salvador, Brazil. I thought my night was complete, fully satisfied musically. However, the best was yet to come. I met Giselle, an Afro-Cuban singer from Santiago de Cuba on the street in Vedado when I was waiting to enter the jazz club. A beautiful and warm heart, we became fast friends, chatting in Spanish and a little English. Giselle told me that she has a boyfriend (novio) in Macedonia and that she just returned from five years there. Giselle pulled out her cell phone to show me pictures of her in the deep frigid snow. She told me she has her own apartment and was performing later that night at a tiny club next door to El Cuervo called Café Amour. Very few Cubans know this place, never mind not a single tourist. Giselle pleaded with me to come. After the show was over at El Cuervo, I entered Café Amour. Giselle’s voice was Latin silk and African clicking all at the same time, throaty and melodic. I felt I could listen to her for hours. She called my name and city from the stage “Cheri, Nueva York, mi Amiga!” I hopped up to dance and felt the sweet passion of Cuba running through my veins.
Ancient Yoruba practices with orishas (gods and goddesses) brought over by West Africans to Cuba during slavery are alive and well, and add significant depth and uniqueness to the spiritual culture, art, and music of Cuba. Such practices are called Santeria in Cuba, Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil and sometimes voodoo in New Orleans, Louisiana. I visited Regla, Fort San Severino, and Callejon de Hamel where Santeria is explained or practiced. The surreal murals of Salvador Gonzales Escalona at Hamel in Centro Havana are inspired by Santeria. My favorite goddess is Yemanya, who wears the sky blue color and is the female protector of the sea. My favorite male god is Shango, who wears red and represents fire and power. All people have a male and female orisha like yin and yang.
A woman in Regla walking up a hill with two plastic bags of groceries, stopped when she saw me. For some reason, we hugged and she holds my face inside her warm hands. My eyes tear. She reminds me of my deceased Jewish grandmother, Grandma Rae who would speak Yiddish to me and giggle with me for hours. There are approximately 1500 Jews in Cuba. I went to the historic synagogue in Havana with over 200 members. There is a photo of Steven Spielberg inside the synagogue, as well as bongos for the children’s Hebrew class. My grandfather, Rabbi Gus Sutter would have been pleased. Jewish organizations were among the first to get licenses to come to Cuba from the United States.
Cubans genetically are one to three percent Taino or indigenous. The Spanish killed the Taino men and took the Taino women. Thus, you can see the remnants in the names of Cuban places, and in the genes and faces of the Cuban people. Cuban people are also a mix of African and European ancestry. Professor Marta Nunez pointed out that the Cuban characteristics of working hard and finding creative ways to survive are from our African heritage.
When I came home from my first trip, my dear father said to me, “you didn’t go to Veradero, where we spent our honeymoon.” So on the second trip, for one day, I sank my feet into the golden sand shores of the Caribbean jewel in a disney-like setting of hotels, and horse drawn carriages. I practiced my sparse French and Italian with the Europeans who listen to the alluring whisper to travel to Cuba during the frosty winter. I visited Al Capone’s former stone and tile house, and the former mahogany filled mansion of the DuPonts, which the Cuban government has owned and been operating as a restaurant and golf course, respectively. At the end of the day, I headed to a small side street where I ate ropa vieja (shredded meat in a tomato based sauce) with only Cubans. I watched across the street as many Cuban women of many shades happily greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. My one regret is not rescuing a Cuban girl on the beach a couple years younger than my nineteen year-old daughter from the clutches of a portly bald, at least fifty-five year old Italian man. He rubbed his large hand over her tiny leg like she was a porcelain doll. She looked restrained and uncomfortable. I swam next to her in the ocean, we connected with half smiles but she did not volunteer any information about her situation and I did not ask. Why didn’t I do anything? It was the same feeling I have had when I did not buy a meal for a homeless woman on the streets of Brooklyn, as I was running for the subway so as not be late for a collaborative law meeting. It reminded me of the stereotype of the “tragic mulatta” symbolized in the play “Octoroon” by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins. Mulatto is a derogatory term stemming from mule. There is the Spanish term “mestizo” or as my daughter is often labeled “bi-racial”. The future of the majority in America is brown people and/or multicultural people like Cuba, President Obama and my daughter.
During my last couple of days in Cuba, I realized that I was there during the Panama Conference. I turned on the Cuban television channel. Aside from American cartoons in Spanish which I love, like “Pato Donald” (Donald Duck), I saw the images of the Venezuelan President on the streets of Panama more than images of Raul Castro. Some Cubans were frustrated about the inclusion of a former CIA man, Luis Posada Carriles, who was responsible for the murder of Che Guevara, in the civil delegation. Other Cubans were happy to see Obama and Raul Castro communicating in public and the inclusion of Cuban for the first time in several decades. At the Miami airport enroute to New York, I watched CNN. In this historic moment, CNN was focusing on an old African-American man living in Cuba who over twenty-five years ago was accused of killing a police officer when he was a young activist for civil rights. I returned to New York the night of April 11th and the next morning I picked up the Sunday, New York Times and a bagel with lox from Shelsky’s on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, Brooklyn. On the front page of the New York Times was a photo of Raul Castro and President Barack Obama. The U.S. embassy is opening in Cuba. Some Cubans are very happy about it, like Frank; other Cubans like the artists I met are more cautious, saying it could be dangerous. One thing is certain, I will need to return to Cuba to find out the answer. I will also return to explore the east of Cuba, and to happily accept the invitations for a home-made dinner of my new Cuban friends.