by Daniel R. Schwarz, www.ithaca.com
Along with 185 other passengers, my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I booked a twelve-day cruise to Cuba on Pearl Mist, a small ship that is part of the privately owed American Cruise Lines which specializes in river cruises. We chose this boat because it visited four ports–Santiago, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Havana –whereas larger cruise ships only visit Havana.
The Ship Experience
We left Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale at 1 pm on Dec. 29, 2018 following an included night at a nearby drab Sheraton Four Points. The Pearl Mist is a slow-moving vessel and it took us more than fifty-three hours to reach Santiago from Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the cruise, the ship provided talks and festive if often modest entertainment. A Cuban folk music quartet and a Cuban Jazz group were the best on board entertainment.
On departure day, we learned for the first time that we were spending two nights in a hotel in Havana because the Cuban government decided that the Havana port should give preference to larger ships. Throughout the voyage, guests were provided with informal and not always well-organized talks by two anxious-to-please women familiar with Cuba. But we would have preferred in depth lectures by professionals—professors or perhaps retired diplomats– on Cuba’s history and culture.
Although we have been on much better organized trips, we enjoyed our days on the ship and are grateful for the opportunity to visit Cuba. Our cabin was almost 300 square feet and was quite comfortable, although the internet did not work very well and some days did not work at all. The boat did provide films which could be accessed on the cabin TV, and offered a small library with resources on Cuba. On days not in port, I spent my spare time walking on the decks for exercise. Pearl Mist does not have an exercise room.
The food was about what I expected and seemed to satisfy most of the guests. For the most part the meat dishes were much better than the fish. Soups were often interesting, despite a few misses. We would have liked more Cuban food and less bland American food.
The Cuba Experience
What People-to-People means is that all visits to Cuba are to be educational or cultural exchanges rather than simply for pleasure; for example, visiting beaches or going on a half-day fishing trip is prohibited. What our tour included was visits to historic sites and local artisans, exposure to Cuban music on and off our ship, and visits to places of business, some of which, notably restaurants and our Iberostar hotel in Havana, were privately owned. Although the USA has treated Cuba shabbily by continuing to enforce an embargo which undermines Cuba’s standard of living, the Cubans are welcoming to US citizens, in part no doubt because US visitors contribute to their economy.
Our first stop was in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city and the city which first fell in 1959 to Castro; Havana surrendered a week later. “The Triumph of the Revolution” is the universal term used by guides not only for Castro’s overthrowing the corrupt dictator Battista but also for the ensuing period from then to now. Battista’s regime encouraged the investment of the American Mafia and neglected the interests of the urban and agrarian working class. To get a sense of the corruption and decadence in Cuba –and especially Havana–on the cusp of the Castro revolution, read Graham Greene’s 1958 Our Man in Havana which was turned into a successful 1958 film. (My article title riffs on Greene’s title.)
On our Santiago day tour, we visited Santa Ifigenia Cemetery and saw Castro’s memorial as well as other tombs of important historic figures and saw the changing of the guard.
Our next stop was a school where people are taught how to play steel drums and where we heard a steel drum concert. We also visited San Juan Hill, the site of the 1898 victory of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, as well as an old fort, San Pedro de la Roca Castle. But we only got a somewhat limited sense of Santiago.
Our next stop was in Trinidad, one of Cuba’s oldest towns. Our focus was on the Historic center, known as Old Town, with many preserved and restored Spanish Colonial buildings. We visited the only museum on our entire tour, the Musee Romantico, which unfortunately lacked labels in English; we also made a somewhat perfunctory visit to a pottery workshop.
We next visited Cienfuegos–a port city founded by French immigrants in 1819–which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. We saw some beautifully restored Spanish buildings including a church. Our Lady of Charity, with an iconic image of the Virgin appearing to three sailors lost at sea. One highlight was a classical concert of Western music with an Afro-Cuban inflection. Perhaps the best part of our visit to Cienfuegos was our visit the following day to the Botanical Garden—where we had an excellent guide– before being bused to Havana.
Havana is Cuba’s only bustling city. We tried unsuccessfully to get tickets for the well-regarded Cuban National Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake at the Great Theatre in Havana where we saw an elegantly dressed crowd indicative of the growing financial disparity between a tiny minority and the rest of the population which is overwhelmingly poor.
Staying in a centrally located hotel was the highlight of our Havana stay, although for some elderly and ill passengers the change from the expected twelve-day cruise was an inconvenience. A splendid experience was visiting the Hemingway house and museum (Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia). We also enjoyed a walking tour of Old Havana and its environs and visiting the baroque Cathedral on a Sunday during Mass. The antique American cars providing taxi service is a highlight for many US tourists.
With a sound-and light gala featuring elaborate costumes and scantily dressed dancers, the Havana Tropicana show harked back to the Pre-Castro days of Cuba’s decadence.
Partly due to the People-to-People stipulations and partly due to the inability of young and sometimes grumpy Tour Director–one of the three young people who held the title of Cruise Director– our bus and walking tours were at best moderately successful in showing us how Cubans lived.
We had little substantive interaction with Cuban people other than our guides. On our land tours, we were divided into as many as seven buses. Our bus tours went slowly, and stopped for long lunches that lasted ninety minutes or more.
Our tours never visited public institutions like schools, hospitals or legislative bodies or gave us a chance to meet civic leaders. Much time was allotted to shopping. We would stop to see a nice view much longer than necessary; sometimes one or another bus did not complete the stipulated tour.Our tour guides repeated much of the same generic information every day, often provided little in-depth information, and left us to wander around the historic sites with little guidance.
The English of our guides ranged from non-existent to – excellent. Many of our guides spoke Cuban English which they were taught by Cubans who had never been in English speaking countries.
We need an experienced Tour Director who could get the best guides and arrange more substantive tours within the People-to-People guidelines. We could see that other tour companies were serving their clients much better.
After fulfilling our responsibility to take part in the slow-moving required People-to–People activities, we often wandered into districts where the average Cubans lived in minimum comfort, sometimes three generations in a tiny apartment. As is almost always the case, walking is the way to see cities. Thus, we walked to a Havana synagogue. That and other walks on our own gave us some sense of how Havana residents live. We met people living on the economic edge, including quite a few beggars asking for handouts. Despite being told how safe Cuba’s streets are, we heard firsthand from a few of our fellow passengers of being intimidated by scam artists.
Cuba lives in a world of before and after. Before was domination by Spain and then beginning in Jan 1899, the domination by the US, despite Cuba’s so-called independence in 1902. The USA underworld supported the Batista dictatorship established in the 1953 (see The Godfather: Part Two). Cuba had become a decadent playground where gambling, the sex industry, and money laundering flourished; put another way, it was run on behalf of a tiny exploitative minority at the expense of an impoverished people. After is the “Triumph of the Revolution” in Jan.1959 led by Fidel Castro.
When Castro triumphed the US cheered him on; indeed for the most part the US media enthusiastically followed his campaign and his ragtag military force as if Castro was the star of an American Olympic team. During April 1959 visit the US welcomed him. Only after Castro declared his allegiance to socialism and nationalized industry and private property, some of which belonged to US companies and citizens, did he become a pariah.
After the Revolution, formerly well-to do and middle-class Cubans subsequently escaped to Florida and formed a powerful cohort that hated Castro and Communism. This was during the Cold War when denouncing Communism was an US obsession. The US-sponsored failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile crisis soured relationships for decades. Obama made an effort at rapprochement and was warmly welcomed when he visited Cuba in March 2015, but Trump’s election has restored a more rigid policy.
The decades long economic and diplomatic embargo dating from Oct. 1960 has devastated Cuba, even more so after the collapse in 1989 of the USSR which had been Cuba’s major support system. In recent years Cuba has received some support from Venezuela, but that country has descended into economic and political chaos.
Fidel Castro died in Nov. 2015 after passing the Presidential torch to his younger brother Raul in 2011. Fidel is still held in great esteem by virtually all Cubans. While our guides were government employees, they answered questions in a straightforward manner. But true freedom of expression, while encouraged by the recent greater availability of the internet, is often more dream than reality, especially when criticism of the government and in particular its leaders, is the subject.
Cubans have longer life expectancies and lower infant mortality than US citizens as well as free education, relatively little crime, and medical care for all. But most of its citizens live austerely and use ration books provided by the government for their basics necessities. Notwithstanding Cuba’s one-party system and violations of civil rights, there are many worse countries in the world, including those where dissidents disappear and/or are executed and where artists have far less freedom.
With increasing government toleration for entrepreneurial skills and more people working in the private sector, the divide between rich and poor is growing. Under the new President Miguel Diaz-Canel it is not clear whether there will be fewer or more restrictions on private enterprise. Foreign investment in industry and agriculture will help Cuba’s economy. Growing the small base of those who are economically advantaged will take time. Of course, the result of modified capitalism will be even more economic disparity.
Conclusion: Thinking about the Future of Cuba
Despite our hearing expressions of occasional optimism, Cuba is economically a failing country due to the US Embargo, the collapse of the USSR, and the rigid Marxist economic model that prevailed for decades. Moreover, Cuba has a major imbalance between exports and imports and is suffering a brain drain of its professional class.
With its warm Caribbean weather and physical beauty, Cuba’s major export is tourism. Hosting over 4.5 million visitors in 2017, tourism is crucial to Cuba’s stifled economy. While US tourism is only a small part of Cuban tourism, those Cubans who live in the US and have Cuban passports can visit on their own; many send some money to their families still living in Cuba.
Should we not lift the embargo and invest in and trade with Cuba to help the Cuban people raise their living standard rather than punish them and starve them into submission?