GEORGE KENNEDY: Trip to Cuba reveals country conflicted about its future

Thursday, February 13, 2014 | 6:39 p.m. CST; updated 2:49 p.m. CST, Friday, February 14, 2014

It’s a half-hour flight from Miami to Havana, Cuba. That 35 minutes also takes you back about 50 years.

My wife and I made the trip a couple of weeks ago. Having lived in South Florida for nearly eight years before we came home to Missouri, we’ve seen and heard plenty about the Castro revolution from the exiles’ point of view. This time, we wanted the other perspective.

Not even a journalist would claim that a week in a foreign land qualifies a visitor as an expert, but it does provide an interesting set of snapshots. It also leaves me wondering about the wisdom of our government’s policies that seem to have succeeded only in making life more difficult on both shores of the Florida Strait.

You know, I’m sure, that there’s a U.S.-imposed embargo prohibiting most trade between Cuba and the US. The embargo makes it more difficult for Americans to visit the island, unless you have family roots there. (In our case, we were on an “educational” trip run by Road Scholar with a gaggle of our fellow geezers. So no, I didn’t go swimming in the Bay of Pigs, though it may have appeared that I did. I was, in the felicitous phrase of one of our guides, engaged in tropical fish research.)

In fact, our visit was highly educational. As with much education, it raised at least as many questions as it answered. The biggest and most important of those questions, one that will only be answered over the next decade or so, is what the next chapter will be in the long and tangled relationship between distant neighbors.

Cuba is, as others have observed, a rich country populated by poor people. The average monthly wage is the equivalent of about 25 American dollars. That’s not quite as bad as it looks, because all Cubans get high-quality health care and education from kindergarten through university free of charge. There’s also a free monthly ration of basic food and other necessities.

Still, poor is poor. Nearly every Cuban of working age we met had at least one unofficial job in addition to a salaried position. That salary, by the way, is close to the same whether you’re a doctor or a garbage collector, a schoolteacher or a professional athlete.

Tourism has replaced sugar as the biggest generator of highly sought-after foreign currency, so many of those American classic cars from the 1950s that still roam the streets of Havana — now mainly powered by Chinese-made diesel motors — are private taxis. If you’re an ambitious Cuban, and ambition is a trait common to those on both sides of the water, tapping into the tourist trade is likely to be your goal.

As the travel brochures like to say, Cuba is a land of contrasts. Our luxurious Chinese-built bus frequently had to brake when it ran up behind a horse-drawn cart hauling a load of sugar cane or a rural family.

In Havana, we stayed in the famous Hotel Nacional, where the heads of American Mafia families met in 1947 to divvy up the spoils of a country they largely controlled. Out on the hotel lawn, I admired a couple of cannons with placards explaining that they fired on an American ship when we invaded in 1898.

Our government has declared Cuba to be a “terrorism” supporter. From the Cuban perspective, it’s just the other way around. It was the CIA, after all, that sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. It was the CIA that encouraged dozens of plots to assassinate Fidel.

It was the CIA that trained and our government that gave refuge to Luis Posada Carriles, who took credit for a fatal hotel bombing in Havana and has been accused of arranging the 1976 bombing that brought down a Cuban airliner, killing 73 passengers including the Olympic fencing team.

Cubans like to point out that Fidel has outlasted 11 U.S. presidents. He’s old and sick now. His younger brother, Raul, is in charge. Under Raul, small-scale private enterprise is being encouraged. We met a charming woman, a professional singer who now operates a small bed and breakfast and who has ambitions to expand.

That’s classic capitalism, you’d think. She shook her head. Smiling, she insisted, “We don’t want to be like you. We don’t want to give up our socialism, only to improve it.”

Already, this capitalist version of socialism is eroding the equality that was the major goal and most important legacy of the revolution. As the saying goes, some Cubans are more equal than others. When and if the embargo is lifted, an economist told us, foreign investment will create more winners and losers.

Near the end of our visit, as I enjoyed a cold Bucanero beer, I asked our Cuban guide for his assessment of the contrasts we’d seen and the predictions we’d heard. He responded with a summary we heard more than once.

“It’s complicated.”

I could only reply, “Sin duda.”

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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Michael Williams February 14, 2014 | 12:39 p.m.

"That salary, by the way, is close to the same whether you’re a doctor or a garbage collector, a schoolteacher or a professional athlete."

Me: Says a lot, to me. In fact, it calls into question the REAL reason Cuba is a rich nation populated by poor folks. Most of that demographic "blame" is placed upon the US embargo. I think there is some merit to that statement, but I submit state-sponsored disincentives play a far more important role.

I'd like to know if a Cuban citizen can leave Cuba whenever he/she wishes so long as he/she has a passport.

Like I can do from these shores.

I'm not speaking about travel to the US. I'm speaking of "to anywhere in the world."

Anyone know?

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy February 14, 2014 | 2:10 p.m.

Michael --

In response to your question, I just did a quick Google search and found an article from The Guardian of Jan. 15, 2013, that explains a relaxation of travel rules for Cubans that now permit almost any Cuban to travel anywhere he or she can get a visa to enter, using only a passport and national ID card.

The article includes interviews with several dissidents who said they have been told by government officials that they too are now free to travel abroad.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 14, 2014 | 4:36 p.m.

Thanks, George.

I guess we'll have to wait and see if what they are "told" is what they can "experience".

Just sayin'.....

PS: I hope they can travel. I have little respect for a country that puts up a "wall" to keep its citizens in....compared to a "wall" that keeps non-citizens out. Big difference.

It's interesting that a quick google search revealed not one major cruise ship docks in Cuba, even though most of those ships are not registered in the US. These ships travel all over the world! There are small cruise lines that do so (100 footers), but no big ones. I wonder why?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 15, 2014 | 8:18 a.m.

Group tours to Cuba are already available. For example, International Expeditions (headquartered in Alabama) has offered tours for at least the past two years. I've received several brochures. Prices are low compared with Costa Rica and Panama (but I'll continue to stick with Costa Rica and Panama).

Why would there be any problem with Cuba allowing its citizens to temporarily leave Cuba - so long as there are also family members remaining in Cuba (as "security")?

(Report Comment)

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