A fond farewell to Cuba

We were too disorganized at the end of our time in Cuba to organize a formal group photo. But fortunately Josh Garcia from Tacoma, found the time to take a selfie of himself, his lovely wife Laura, and Jim Harvey before we boarded a plane at Cienfuegos to take us back to Miami.

The smiles say it all. We greatly enjoyed the visit to Cuba, the hospitality of the Cuban people, and thought we looked pretty sharp in our Panama hats!

Trinidad: A beautiful city

Trinidad surely is a beautiful old city. During a walking tour, we had the opportunity to view some of the old mansions that had been preserved as museums at the end of the 20th century, as well as a large church and lovely central square. The steps to the square were mobbed on Friday evening before Easter Sunday to view a religious procession.

A sign of the continuing poverty in Cuba can be discerned in the number of activities still performed with horses, mules, and donkeys. Ranchers ride horses in overseeing their fields, rickety small carts pulled by emaciated ponies dot even the major highways, careworn donkeys appear in the cities.

Part of the tour involved stopping into an art exhibit in which coffee pots were employed to symbolize the status of women in Cuba. Coffee pots bent forward are symbols of submission: Let me get your coffee. Upright coffee pots are symbols of equality: I’ll get the coffee; you do the dishes. Coffee pots bent backwards symbolize independence: Get your own coffee.

With our tour finished, it only remained to hold a farewell dinner at the Paladar San José, overlooking the plaza and the Good Friday religious parade.


Syncretism in Cuba

Cuba, like many nations in Latin America, displays a type of religion known as syncretism. It is a synthesis of Catholic beliefs brought by the Spaniards with African spiritual traditions brought by enslaved peoples.

Within 30 years of arriving in Cuba, Christopher Columbus’s successors exterminated 250,000 “Indians,” we were told by city planner Miguel Coyula on our first day in Cuba. One well-known and infamous story relates to Cuban chief Hatuey, who led an early 1500’s fight against the Spanish invaders. It was recorded by a Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, appalled by the inhumane violence he witnessed: The Spanish, said Hatuey, “worship gold,” “fight and kill,” and “usurp our land and makes us slaves.” He refused to convert and was roasted to death by fire at the stake. Before the sentence was executed, a priest told him that if he converted he would be a Christian eligible for heaven, otherwise he was destined for hell as a heathen. “The Christians are in heaven?” asked Hatuey. Told they were, he responded: “I prefer to go to hell.”

When sugar became the economic life blood of Cuba, slaves were imported to work the sugar cane fields. Coyula told us that by the middle of the 19th century, in a population of 3 million people, African slaves numbered one million. They were uniformly forced to become Christians when brought to Cuba.

But they brought with them their own religious traditions. Two in particular stood out: Santeria and Palo Monte. Invited to worship the Madonna, the mother of Christ, the slaves did so by producing a black Madonna and paying homage to one of their own deities while appearing to worship her!

These traditions live on in Cuba today. They were especially evident during our visit to Trinidad on the Friday before Easter (Good Friday), celebrated as one of the most significant events in the Christian calendar commemorating the crucifixion of Christ.

City Finance in Trinidad

In 1990, the Cuban government started encouraging tourism in Trinidad and opened five government restaurants and two bars, city historian and architect Nancy Benitez told us. Out of the profits from the bars, the government sent 2% to the city to maintain the homes.

Pleased with these developments, the city in 1998 developed a Master Plan to improve the city, including plans to expand room space. At that time, the government maintained only 800 rooms in the city, with an average of 3,000 visitors a year.

The Master Plan set off an explosion of entrepreneurship. Within four years, private owners opened 58 restaurants and 1,000 rooms in their homes, including the homes in which we stayed and the outdoor restaurant in which we ate. “We thought Cubans didn’t have any money to start new business,” Benitez told us. “We weren’t ready and the Master Plan was destroyed.”

To deal with the growth in tourism, Trinidad is now updating a 200-year-old water and sewer system with blue barrels to collect rainwater and hoping to build an electrical substation.

A major challenge, emphasized Benitez, is that although the government restaurants and hotels paid the city 2% of profits, the private enterprises pay taxes of 10% to the national government in Havana, none of which is returned to the city. The city bears the brunt of providing services, while the national government in Havana taxes the proceeds.

Casa Particulares

Although we did not stay in the largest of the preserved buildings, we were housed in very attractive substitutes, dating from 19th century. Known as “casa particulares,” these are private homes that are permitted by the government to rent out rooms to visitors on a daily basis. They offer almost complete privacy to renters, as the owners abandon the homes once their guests have registered. They leave behind assistants such as Yanerquis, or Yema, to maintain the casa and cook tasty breakfasts.

In these homes, one could easily be living in a Spanish or Italian villa. They are exceptionally comfortable and filled with art, artifacts, and bric-a-brac that speak to the desire of the 19th-century residents of Trinidad, with their wealth built on sugar and slave labor, to be understood as European. The pictures of the interior of one of these homes, speak for themselves as to the very high standard of living enjoyed by the people of 19th-century Trinidad — and by their successors today. While poverty can be seen everywhere in Cuba, even in this Socialist economy it is possible to see families enjoying an exceptional quality of life.

Trinidad: A Cuban Jewel

First up on Saturday, our last full day in Cuba, was a meeting with Nancy Benitez, a local architect and historian, who provided us with an overview of the city’s history and development.

Trinidad is a magnificent little city. Studded with beautiful large mansions preserved from the 19th century, graceful smaller homes, a handsome large public square and wonderful beaches, it is truly a Cuban jewel.

This city of 90,000 was founded in 1514 by the Spanish, nearly a hundred years before the establishment of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Sugar production fueled the community’s growth from 1800-1840. In that period, beautiful homes, with large and handsome rooms and shaded courtyards were built in the center of the town. Financed by the profits from sugar, the buildings were designed with large doors and windows, protected by bars, to let air circulate and enhanced with attractive chairs, china, artwork and artifacts from Europe.

How did these homes and and mansions survive? It turns out, said Benitez, that the road we took to Trinidad from Cienfuegos was completed only in 1957. Trinidad was almost completely isolated, except by boat, until the road was finished. So this jewel from the 19th-century was preserved, almost intact, from modernization and from the sort of gambling-based modernization that transformed Havana under the Mafia.

In 1968, the Cuba government named Trinidad a national monument and turned the largest of these homes into museums for the public to visit. In 1988, UNESCO named Trinidad an international Heritage Site.

Montezuma’s Revenge

No pictures, please.

An especially powerful revenge was developed by the people of South America in retaliation for the brutal way in which the Spanish conquistadores dealt with native populations in the “new world.” Known as Montezuma’s revenge, it is named after a Central American leader of the Aztecs in the early 16th century and consists of overwhelming nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The United States reports that many travelers to South America experience traveler’s diarrhea, with some estimates suggesting that between 40-50% of Americans visiting Cuba might experience problems. We seemed to be beating the odds. With two early exceptions among our party of 14, we appeared to be in reasonably good shape. But as the trip wore on, eight of our party succumbed.

Fortunately, the effects for the most part seemed to last 24 hours. Still, somewhere Montezuma smiled.

Arriving in Trinidad

Early evening found Cienfuegos in the rear-view mirror as we headed off to Trinidad, another coastal town about 90 minutes away.

Here we experienced the delights of casa particulares or private homes. Since the 1990s, Cuban families have been encouraged to rent rooms out of their family homes to foreigners. Featuring comfortable accommodations in remarkably luxurious homes with ample privacy (below), we found the casa particulares to be an excellent way to see a different side of Cuba.

We arrived in time to enjoy a wonderful meal in a beautiful outdoor setting at a private restaurant opened in a local house. We spent the rest of the evening resting up for our last full day in Cuba.

Cuban Economy and Money

It is not impossible but it is difficult for the visitor to understand the Cuban economy. Government finances are shrouded in secrecy, and day-to-day life revolves around three different kinds of cash.

The main cash crops in Cuba are tobacco, sugar cane, and coffee. The government pays farmers a nominal amount for their crops and requires farmers to give up 90% of their crop at that price to the government. Farmers keep 10% to sell on the private market, as in selling handmade cigars to tourists who visit their farms.

The government produces brand-name cigars, rum, and coffee from its 90% and sells the products at market rates. The government’s income is spent on providing a monthly income to everyone, subsidizing essential food (for free) to everyone, and providing free medical care and free education (through graduate school) to every Cuban citizen living in Cuba. Are funds left over? Where do they go? Who knows?

Meanwhile, citizens get the equivalent of $25 (US) a month guaranteed income, but even with subsidized food, education, and health care, that is insufficient to live on . Hence the “la luch” or “luchendo” – the struggle for life – described elsewhere in the blog. Just about everyone has a side gig to make ends meet – interpreting for tourists, acting as guides, waiters or musicians. Everywhere you turn in Cuba you find small, very accomplished, combos beating out Afro-Cuban music. The pictures below show an old man posing beside his burro for tourists to take pictures and a street artist posing as a statue for the same purpose.

Cubans are paid on pesos. But most commerce in Cuba from visitors involves a second unit of currency, the CUC, which trades at 85% of the value of an American dollar. The third currency? The American dollar. Cuban’s are only too happy to accept American dollars.

How did this bizarre system of three currencies develop? As best we could determine, it seems that when the dollar was introduced into Cuba in the 1990s, inflation threatened to devalue the peso, since there was no gold standard against which the set the Cuban peso. So a new currency, the CUC, was developed and established at 85% of the value of an American dollar. Then the value of the peso was set against the CUC, at 25 pesos per CUC.  We think.

National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba

Orlando Garcia, president (below), described the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba as something quite different from unions as understood in most western countries. This is not a union established to bargain with management on behalf of workers, but a “uniting” of artists and writers to strengthen their community and develop young artists.

A non-governmental organization, which selects its own members, the union is made up of 216 members, including 66 women. It promotes writers and artists. It publishes children’s books. And a lot of the union’s time is spent working with children since “we are not daydreaming in heaven,” said Garcia.

With its own dynamic “completely independent of the state,” the union has played a major part in defending artistic freedom and fighting censorship and efforts to control free expression along the lines of the Soviet Union.

“We aim to reinforce the belief that reading and the arts improve the understanding of young people and are something that lasts a lifetime,” said Garcia.