Cuba Si o Cuba No?

It’s hard to know how to feel about Cuba, our mysterious neighbor 90 miles to the south. I was just there for four days, in the grip of a charming guide/purveyor of the Fidel-is-Fabulous party line, and it was New Year’s Eve. In Havana. Beer was included in the price of a meal. Mojitos were $1. And music was everywhere.

Even though the buildings were dilapidated (or maybe because of it), the city has an old-world beauty…

…untouched by cell phones or modern cars. In fact, most all the cars you see are old American beauties from the 50s. You can almost imagine your dad sitting in driver’s seat with his arm out the window, gunning it down the highway.

And yet… 53 years after the revolution, most Cubans still live on $20-$50 a month.

Only a few are allowed to work for themselves, and those who do are heavily taxed. The government decides what you get paid, and also pays for your rent, education (including college), food, health care, and most transportation. Communications are closely censored, and freedom of the press is a distant dream. It’s hard for Americans to imagine living this way, but for 53 years, the system has prevailed – and the exuberance of the Cuban people didn’t appear to be compromised.

My exuberance, on the other hand, was sorely tested trying to get out of Cuba, when I discovered that I had my husband’s visa (and he, deep in the Cuban countryside, apparently has mine). After two hours waiting for immigration officials to finish their sandwiches, complete the Feliz Ano Neuvo besos, and stop staring endlessly into space, I finally got through customs and onto the plane …thinking how weird it was that 11 million people there can’t make that choice.

Che, Larry & me.

While I imagine the lives of most Cubans are dramatically better than they were under dictators like Batista, it must be excruciating for those who left to feel like they will never be able to return to their beautiful country. So … Cuba Si o No? It’s an enigma.What do you think?

41 thoughts on “Cuba Si o Cuba No?

  1. Interesting post Betty. And it certainly elicited some interesting comments. Some enlightened, some not-so-much.

    I leave it to you to figure out which is which. 😉

    • Oh, I kind of figured it might — but that’s good! And yes, I do not consider the USA a leader in human rights, particularly in regards to Latin America where we have routinely tried to undermine elections, assassinate democratically elected leaders, backed some of the most repressive regimes, and worked very hard to keep the world safe for United Fruit Company and Dole — no matter what the cost to the people. It’s not a very happy history, or one we can be very proud of.

      • Betty:
        I see your point about USA and Latin America. I stand corrected on the notion that US may not be a leader in human rights. It is true that Cuba does not have the consumerism we have in this country, but Cuba has Tourism at any cost to the locals (this includes forcing familes out of their own homes to build hotels for tourists). The money from tourism does not go to the locals, but instead, it is enjoyed by the military or sent to spread communism in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America since the early 1960s…that is another reason for the US embargo. Thus, it would be fair to say that both Cuba and USA have played a role in the Latin America’s problems you listed in your posting.

      • Betty:
        You invited me to contribute to this blog suggesting I may shed light on the Castro regime as a Cuban American who lived under both Batista and Castro from birth to adolescence. I lost my house, many family members, dear friends, neighbors, all our posessions to come to freedom. I’m so thankful to the USA for opening its doors and being our host country. I could never live anywhere else. You said that most people were in the dark about Cuba. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn a lesson. I was naive thinking I could shed light on Castro regime in this blog. Most if not everyone in this blog has either vacationed in Cuba or plan to vacation in Cuba, and do not want to hear anything that would make them feel uncomfortable about their decision to vacation in Cuba. I have found resistance to my experience on the Castro regime in this blog from people who have never lived in Cuba. I never expected that; and that is the lesson I learned.
        Peace to all,

    • I loved LOVED those 3 old ladies — boy, can you imagine all the things they have seen in their lives?? Plus, it’s so expressive of the rainbow coalition of races that Cuba is … thanks for the comment, JM!!

  2. Need I say it again – Great Photos! I was in Cuba in April for 7 days and my photos look nowhere near as good as yours, Betty.
    Cuba is indeed a mystery. Our hotel was 4 star, all the food you could possibly want. And the restaurants were excellent. The ration store down the street had bare shelves and the ration pharmacy, the same; this is where the normal Cuban has to shop. No fresh milk, few eggs, no fresh chicken, few staples but thankfully fresh vegetables at the local market, grown mostly on little urban plots, 3rd-hand stores for clothes. Everyone who can works in the tourist trade so they can get the convertible peso and tourist tips; everyone else is paid in non-convertible practicaly worthless local pesos and depends on money from relatives in Miami, if they have them. In Havana, buildings are falling down; people are being moved out to remote locations at the same time buildings are being renovated in Old Havana into boutique hotels for tourists. Medical staff is sent abroad (Venezuela, South Africa) in exchange for oil so the local system suffers. There are watchers on each block to report on their neighbors; there is no international news, no smart phones, no twitter, no email. But the people do indeed seem happy and have a very “manana” attitude about their situation; it will be better “later” they say meaning, I suppose, when the Castro brothers are no longer in charge.
    Why oh why does the US not lift the embargo? Cuba is no threat to us and only a few US citizens wish it to remain, those few who have export rights to Cuba and others who play it for political gain. And it is to the advantage of the Cuban government to have the US to blame for their troubles so they are in no rush to end the embargo. Read about Peak Oil when the Soviet Union collapsed and you will read about true suffering. It is better now but still not good. If Cuba ever really had communism, it is long gone and they live in a true dictatorship, just as before the revolution.
    But we had a great visit and felt very welcomed there, to our great surprise!

    • Very thorough and informative comment, Judy — and I have to say that those were all my experience and observations in Cuba as well. The two-currency economy is bizarre and does favor the tourism industry (the country’s largest) over everything else. Food is not readily available and propaganda posters are everywhere, yet I don’t feel as if the US embargo is having that much effect, other than barring trade. I’m not sure if it would get much better if the US recognized Cuba, other than raining on Castro’s paranoia parade (although the CIA did try to assassinate him about 11 times which would make you a bit touchy). You were so lucky to have the opportunity to meet and talk to the people — that’s what I missed! Thanks for the great comment, Judy!


    • Judy:
      I was not going to read any more comments in this posting, but I feel compelled to answer your question. The reason the US has an embargo with Cuba is because Castro and his regime continue to violate basic human rights. I’m surprised you are not aware of that because the US has been very clear about that since 1962. If the US is considered the leader of the free world (human rights), how hypocritical would be for the US to have a relationship with a country that persistently, consistently and systematically continue to ignore human rights. The Cuban government has no power about whether the embargo continues or stops; this is US foreign policy, which Cuban Americans fully support. The people in Cuba “look happy” because otherwise they would be taken into custody and become suspicious to the neighborhood watchers, and they would be questioned. You are incorrect; it is not better for Cubans today in comparison to how it was with Batista. The only difference between Batista and Castro is that Batista threw the bodies in the street, and Castro throws them underground. During Batista Cubans could come and go out of Cuba as they pleased. Why is the Cuban tragedy so difficult for Americans to understand? The rest of the world, such as Europe and South America get it.

  3. I think your photos are gorgeous! Really really really gorgeous. We dont get to see much of Cuba, especially the beauty (must take eyes that can see beauty in crumbling, and in the faces of real people.) Thank you. P

  4. You look terrific!!!! Hope you got one of those fabulous orange and pink shirts…oh WOW!
    Did you see any obesity? What did they serve at that NY’s buffet where the mojitos were $1……
    Why did you leave early? Are you going to forewarn your husband about his visa? It must have been very trying….Most bureaucracy is.
    When I was there about 1983 we were told that under no, repeat no, condition should we try to leave the country with Cuban currency. So I didn’t. My real left wing friends thought it didn’t apply to them somehow. I sailed through on Teflon and they almost went to jail.
    The comic part was that I did have Cuban currency with me but didn’t realize it until much later.

    • Wow, Amy — what a story about the currency. I wonder why they didn’t want you to take it?? I left Cuba early, after just four days, because I wanted to get home to my 20 year old daughter who’s home from college — so I could watch her sleep in and watch TV all day. Hmmmm, what a good choice that was! But seriously, I’m hoping the immigration people there did keep Larry’s visa and will give it to him (like they said they would but I’m not counting on it), otherwise he’ll have to go through what I did … endless bureaucratic waiting (much like here!) I sure did NOT see much obesity because there’s not a surplus of food, helpings are not huge, there aren’t any fast food restaurants, AND the people play outside a lot and walk almost everywhere. Obviously, that makes a huge difference in health and weight … plus there is virtually no internet and/or electronics to create couch potatoes. It’s actually quite refreshing to virtually go back in time, regardless of how you feel politically about the country!

    • Amy:
      You have visited Cuba, but you have not lived under the Castro regime. Much of the info you have has been acquired either through Cuba’s political propaganda, or Cuban citizens who are communists, or what you have read in the newspapers either in Cuba or this country, or in the internet. You don’t have first-hand experience about Cuba’s regime because you have not lived under the regime. When you live in Cuba under Castro for several years and you see your children taken away from you to be brainwashed by the government then you will be in a position to talk from personal experience and say that the Cubans in Cuba today are better off because of Castro. There are 2 million Cuban Americans; you may want to talk to some of them.

  5. Very provocative, Betty! Amid the sensual allure of Ano Nuevo in the old-world charm of tropical Havana, the music, the festivity and the glorious reminders of 1950’s Detroit’s great design years (now kept running by ingenuity grafting on Chinese and Russian parts), ‘Cuba Si’ or Cuba ‘No’ is a very loaded question. Free education and medical care? Si! (A great beginning to a healthy life! – Cuba spends more than double the % GDP on Education than the USA does and has much lower mortality rate than other Caribbean or Latin American countries- Source: the World Bank Restricted creative, social entrepreneurial or artistic freedoms? A tough problem! How to safe guard ordinary Cubans from the onslaught of mad-dog U.S.A.-style capitalism and sectarian pressure? The Cuban people (in spite of repressive government) show incredible resourcefulness and resilience, even religious tolerance amid government indifference. What have the Cuban people to teach us about living on Earth with a lighter footprint? A lot, I think!

    • I think so, too, Boris … and it’s interesting you mentioned religious tolerance. On December 30, they held a Mass (with about 50 priests in attendance and a gorgeous choir) by the bay, behind the Cathedral .. and about 2000 people were in attendance. They stood for a few hours — it went on and on, and there was a very stately procession of the Virgin back into the church afterwards…after everyone sang the national anthem with great feeling and vigor. Like I said, I’m not sure how I feel about the regime but I do know that in terms of infant mortality, education, longevity and health care, Cuba is doing quite a good job with its people .. although the controls scare me, and like I said, if my land had been taken away, I would no doubt be bitter. I do have to say that with far fewer cars, a very limited internet and virtually no cell phones, families seem to spend a lot more time together, kids play outdoors constantly, and there seems to be a healthier atmosphere than our crazy consumerism and rampant 24/7 communications blitzkrieg! Thanks for the insightful comment & Happy New Year!!!

  6. Enigma? Absolutely.

    I lived for a year in Haiti, and am so sad I never made it to Cuba. My sister went last year and will go again this coming June.

    Thanks for sharing these amazing images of such a hard-to-capture place.


    • Wow, I’ll be going to Haiti in February and cannot wait! Cuba was a trip and brought up a lot of conflicting feelings for me– wondering why we in the USA hate our government so much and resent everything it does, while the Cubans, living in a real dictatorship, seem to rely on the government for nearly every aspect of their lives, and despite the corruption and control, don’t seem to have the same issues at all. Thanks so much for your comment and I’m glad you liked the photos — it’s so photogenic, it’s impossible not to take good pictures!! Betty Londergan 2702 Mabry Rd. NE Atlanta, GA 30319 (610-348-9279)


  7. Thanks for the perspective Betty and for making us think. That must have been wild to see the antique cars–like a parade or something.

    It is sad to see what happened to Cuba. It certainly was the highlight of many beach goers many years ago.

    • Happy New Year, SD! I don’t know if I was sad or just mystified by Cuba. It’s such a different way of life than ours — and while it’s certainly a dictatorship and repressive and controlling, I really didn’t see a lot of evidence of dissatisfaction among the people. If my land were taken away, I’d be furious and heartbroken, and if there was no way I could choose where to live or even dream of having a car, home, etc. I would feel trapped — but again, when I was in Uganda and saw what people had to do simply to pay for school fees, it was crushing. So .. I’m not sure.
      Thanks for your comment and yes, it sure does have gorgeous beaches!!

      • Cubans who live in Cuba have learned they only have four choices:
        1. Adapt to the communist regime and embrace communism
        2. Protest and go to jail or see your loved ones killed because of it
        3. Try to leave the island risking the possiblity of perishing in the process or be killed by Castro’s police
        4. Commit suicide
        Most of the people in Cuba have opted to embrace communism and the Groupthink mindset; that is why you don’t see dissatisfaction because showing dissatisfaction is against the law…and that is something that is hard for many Americans to grasp. Cubans who show dissatisfaction with the government end up in rat-infected jails. Free-thinking Cubans live in the US where people can protest, demonstrate, speak against the government and lobby to change laws.

  8. The Cuban people are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
    The vast majority of the people featured in Betty’s story are people who have grown up with the Revolution and do not know any better; they are not allowed to think or dream any better. It is important to point out that Batista was a dictator and so is Castro. Cubans have suffered in the hands of both of them.

    • Martha — I know how strongly you feel about this issue, having been one of the millions of Cubans who left Cuba in tears and fled to this country, so I’m not in any way trying to make light of the situation or pretend as if four days gave me any deep insight. I’m just sharing my thoughts and impressions and inviting anybody to weigh in on the issue. Thanks so much for taking the time to write .. and to talk to me! Feliz Ano Neuvo!!

      • Martha—no one is going to move you, even a little. However, when Fidel took over the situation was much graver than 99/1. Hunger, disease, illiteracy were endemic. That is truly tragic. It took couple of years before Cuba had the highest literacy rate in the world and was one of the first countries to totally get rid of polio. How many political prisoners do they have? Who knows? In the NYT yesterday I read about someone who says he’s a holocaust survivor–He was not Jewish or gypsy; never interned in a camp, never arrested,. Using that argument he immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. Maybe anyone who survived WW2 is a holocaust survivor. You would probably argue that there must be a better way to improve things and spread the wealth around a little……Look what happened to Allende in Chile & where that came from. Peace.

  9. Really beautiful photos. I have heard people say the government is working for the people, but I have trouble coming from our country, believing that. What a great experience for you and Larry. Love the cars!! I expect one of them may have been Eric’s PopPop’s!!

    • The cars were amazing .. and to think they’re still on the road and running is a great testament to the resilience and creativity of Cubans. For sure! I think parts of the communist government really DO work for the people and ensure that the grinding poverty you see in other Latin American countries isn’t a constant threat … but the lack of freedom and weird inequality (our 30-year old tourism guide, for instance, makes more than his father, a doctor) is hard to wrap your brain around. And of course, there are tons of political prisoners, many of them journalists… but it was a fascinating experience!! So happy you liked the photos!! Happy New Year, Deb!!!

  10. I was sad to come to the end of the post. Gorgeous photos, intriguing commentary. The old Cuba was frought with so many problems, under such a glitzy veneer. The veneer is now gone, but alas, the problems aren’t. It seems only the spirit and the resiliency of the people are the same.

  11. …and your thoughtful comments after each photo.

    Were you disappointed in the accommodations, which I’ve heard are quite rundown? And the food? Did you have any interaction with the people? Your blog was so interesting that I’d like to know more about your experiences.


    • Hi Ronnie! My only disappointment in the accommodations was that it was far from the historic district, which I love — but other than that, the hotel was fine. I’ve stayed in a lot worse! ( : Many of the people’s houses, though, are very dilapidated — they’ve been putting off renovations for years, and the projects they’ve built are now 40-50 years old and look it. … The food was delicious — lots of fresh fish, good rice, nice salads, pineapple and mango — but it’s expensive for the people so they rarely eat out. Because we were on an educational trip, and guided, we didn’t get a chance to meet many Cubans directly, although the students went out every night so they had more interaction — I really prefer trips where you meet the people in an informal way — which is why I’m SO jazzed about Heifer 12 x 12, my new blog. Hope you’ll follow, Ronnie — and THANKS for writing!!

    • Thanks so much, Cindy!! Although so many other great photographers have done beautiful work in Cuba, I just tried to capture what I thought was interesting .. and I’m so glad you liked the shots! Some were from my iphone camera, which is really pretty remarkable for such a tiny object — LOVED your sunset on the blog yesterday, btw!!! Very magical!

  12. You got some great photos, Betty! Looks like you’re on your way to being a photojournalist (or at the very least, a travel photographer). You captured a wide variety of images—travel photographer Bob Krist encourages photographing a “sense of place” and you’ve done just that. Bravo!

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