Cuba Libre

by Nat Winthrop

A huge steel memorial to Che Guevara overlooks Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución Che is far more visible in Cuba than either of the Castro brothers.

My 37-year-old son Dan—also a Montpelier resident—and I returned from eight days in Havana, Cuba just over a month ago. Dan served as my photographer and interpreter. Under President Trump’s travel restrictions, we traveled as journalists, reporting on art, contemporary culture, and technology. It was an amazing experience, profoundly different from all the various other Caribbean countries we’ve visited.

Cuba and Vermont have some things in common: the pace of change is very slow (something most residents value), a majority of people live paycheck to paycheck, and there are a great many creative people. Yet in most other ways, Cuba is so different from Vermont that it seems worlds away.

With its vintage cars, colonial architecture, and communist government, Havana appears stuck in time some 50 years ago. Yet there has been significant change over the past several years, and, with Raul Castro set to relinquish the presidency later this month, the pace of change may be poised to accelerate.

The first major change, begun around 2010, has been the slow introduction of free enterprise. This started with Cubans being allowed to own their own taxis, casa particulares (B&Bs), and small restaurants. With the government typically paying doctors, lawyers, professors, other professionals, and government workers between $25 and $50 a month, these small-time entrepreneurs can earn far more, and many doctors, lawyers, and others have quit their jobs to open restaurants and B&Bs or operate taxi services, car repair shops, and other small businesses. Most other government employees moonlight to break out of their subsistence lifestyles. Quality healthcare and education are free, but the majority of Cubans are very poor and live hand-to-mouth.

Wi-Fi hot spots in public parks are very popular with young Cubans and foreign visitors.

The other dramatic change Cubans are experiencing is through the Internet, which only became available to the general public two years ago, in the form of WiFi hotspots in a few public parks and other locations. At $1–$2 per hour, the web is still out of reach for most Cubans, and WiFi in private homes is strictly illegal, as the government still sees opening that world of multifaceted ideas, opinions, and cultural phenomena as a threat, and most U.S. websites are blocked. However, most Havana residents we spoke with expect that to change very soon.

Men playing dominoes on Havana sidewalks are a common sight.

Although the government sees the U.S. as Cuba’s number one enemy, virtually all Cubans we met were very friendly and welcoming to us. Part of this is undoubtedly because we represent a mysterious and enticing country and vibrant culture less than 100 miles from their shores. But American tourism has plummeted since Trump re-imposed travel restrictions; we are far outnumbered by Canadian and European visitors.

Most Cubans we met were hesitant when we asked if we could record interviews, and they typically clammed up if we asked any political questions. There is a pervasive sense that Big Brother is watching. There are video cameras on many street corners, and a neighbor might very well report you if you are heard being critical of the government—especially talking with an American. Yet one successful musician we interviewed confided, “We are not happy with the way the economic system operates here.” And several people expressed the desire to move to the U.S. or Canada, where many have relatives.

Havana has rich and thriving arts and music scenes. We attended a crowded salsa festival and visited the hugely popular Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Art Factory), an avant-garde installation of galleries, night clubs, and performance spaces to rival anything New York, London, or Berlin has to offer.

On reentering the U.S. in Charlotte, NC, we were waived through customs in two minutes. When I asked if anyone wanted to see the itinerary we were told we had to keep as journalists, the customs official smiled, saying “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.” Most U.S. tourists traveling with us checked the box “Support for the Cuban People,” and were also told to keep an itinerary or journal, but nobody checked. So it turns out virtually anybody (possibly excepting some Cuban Americans) can freely travel to Cuba for any reason without fear of scrutiny—and the round-trip fare from Burlington is under $350.

Nat & Dan Winthrop pose in one
of the many vintage taxis they hired.

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