Cardella: Cuba Libre

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(Part 2 of 2)

By Tom Cardella

If you are to believe the tour guides, Hemingway is still revered in Cuba. We visit one of his former homes. We are not allowed inside. We must be content to peer through the windows, and it is difficult to see very much at all. The grounds outside the home are surprisingly not very well maintained. Although I am a fan of Hemingway, the visit is uninspiring.

Hemingway won a Pulitzer Prize for his short novel, “The Old Man And The Sea.” We are taken to the small fishing village that inspired his tale of the old man’s struggle to catch a giant marlin. Our visit is brief. The tour guide explains that there is not much to see. Except for the occasional tour bus, it seems that the sleepy life of the village has not been disturbed by the fame of Hemingway’s novel. The ocean glistens. The few Cuban men in the village seem indifferent to our visit.

At night, many of the tourists on our ship opt for tours of once-famous night spots such as the Tropicana and Café Paris. We decide to explore on our own. Havana is described as one of the world’s safest cities. And it certainly feels that way. Late in the evening on this weekday night, not much was going on in the main plaza. There are some street musicians, and small crowds gathered at several of the cafes. Our feet quickly tell us that they have had enough walking on cobblestone. We call it a night and return to our cruise ship. The next day we will spend at sea. And then we will head for Cienfuegos, Cuba. It turned out to be worthwhile.

Despite the restrictions on our travel to Cuba, immigration enforcement is surprisingly relaxed. You are whisked through the metal detectors staffed by an almost totally female workforce. The women are pretty and young, their uniforms are short tight-fitting skirts and black patterned stockings. Yes, I noticed. There is no restriction, incidentally, on the amount of alcohol and cigars a tourist can bring home. The America First theme of the Trump Administration has not imposed restrictions. Yet.

It is another day and that means another eight-hour mandatory tour (although because of the ship’s cruise schedule, the time of the tour is considerably shortened).

Upon entering the terminal at Cienfuegos, we are separated into groups for various cultural exhibits. We are seated in a modest, nondescript building. The room contains an empty bar. We are treated to a concert by five Cuban college students. The group is collectively known as Avanti. Four of the students are female. The instrumentation is various woodwinds, plus a French horn. The kids are bright, attractive and talented. Eager to please us with their skill. Their program is mostly classical and Cuban in origin. Each student takes a turn introducing the selections. And as a nod to the West, the kids include “Elephant Walk” by Henry Mancini and “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. Looking at these kids, you can see the promise of Cuba. You hope they will become the generation that will see that promise finally fulfilled.

The main attraction in Cienfuegos is the botanical gardens. We see many beautiful and interesting varieties of trees. But strangely, the “gardens” aren’t gardens at all in the strictest sense. The grass is not trimmed and looks unkempt. We dutifully follow the guide along a narrow dirt path where we are interrupted frequently by tour buses trying to get to the parking area. I am still distracted by the students’ concert we just attended. From this day forward, I will always think of Cuba and those kids anytime I hear “Yesterday.”

Cuba Libre is a simple mixed drink. Cuban rum in Coca-Cola, a twist of lime, and maybe some Angostura bitters. Cuba Libre translates to “Free Cuba.” But despite its charm and the smiling, unfailingly courteous Cubans we met, Cuba is not yet free.

Raul Castro, we are told is expected to “retire” on April 19 of this year. Fidel’s brother loosened some of the chains on his people. Our guide tells us proudly that Cubans can now buy and sell houses. Some elements of private enterprise have emerged. And the Castros have been lauded for their national health-care program. I am told that Cuba exports doctors these days. Ironically, the restored capitol of Cuba’s government overlooks a square surrounded by aging structures. Perhaps Raul is reminded every day of his failed promises.

Along our tour, many hospitals and clinics are pointed out with pride. One of the guides tells their tour that even facelifts and transgender surgeries are free. As is the Cuban educational system, including higher education. Those who can’t qualify educationally for college are sent to trade schools. But unemployment is high. In the plazas, you can see men sitting on curbs or walking idly in the streets. Cuba has its homeless too.

Once the Soviet Union could no longer support Cuba, the Revolution was exposed as a failure. Cuba is an island of broken promises. The American embargo also failed. Cuba is still a communist dictatorship. The Cuban people are the victims. Even her best baseball players have deserted her.

Cuba deserves better. She deserves better than Batista or the Castros. Those kids playing “Yesterday” deserve better. Cubans are resilient.

Cuba Libre! Free Cuba!