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Saturday, September 23, 2023

A weekend in Havana, Cuba

photo cuba (3) best1Ardain Isma

CSMS Magazine

The story of Cuba, an island of 11 million people in the Caribbean, has long been one of the world’s most intriguing ones. This fascination stems from Cuba’s resilience and determination not just to survive but also thrive amid a US embargo imposed up on the country since 1961. No matter one’s perspective in the Cuban’s story, there is always a dull and dubious consensus that cannot be ignored: The Cuban revolution is here to stay. One can understand why there is such a frenzy to visit Cuba since the Obama administration and the Cuban government, after years of secret negotiations, reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries.  

Last month, I was among the many wanderers around the world now rushing to visit the island. To me, however, it was a childhood dream that needed to be fulfilled, and my wife Maryse, who had been supportive of such a passion, jumped at the idea of going to Cuba. In a gesture of kindness to sweeten her heart, I bought two tickets from Carnival Cruise Line, one of the main lines that now travels to Havana on a regular basis.  

The night before the trip, it was very emotional for me. I had to admit. I spent the night with arms folded under my head and fingers intertwined, dreaming of La Plaza de la Revolución (The Revolution Square) where Fidel would deliver his fiery speech, blasting US imperialism. In the morning, around seven, we got in our car and drove west toward Tampa to board the ship. Along the way, I was worried about getting stuck on I-4 as this stretch of highway is notorious for its frustrating traffic jam. Luckily, the corridor, as it is commonly called, was more or less clear. It was roughly eleven am when we reached the port of Tampa. After a few hectic moments going through customs, we were finally on board, and as on every cruise ship, the festive atmosphere—food, music, laughter— was enjoyable and memorable.

To get a clear view of the ocean, Maryse and I went up to the upper deck which was decorated with both Cuban and American flags. There, on a raised platform, a DJ was blasting the air with salsa and rumba from Los Muñequitos de Matanza under the gleeful eyes of a slew of folks, young and old, moving to the beat of that rumba. We stood there watching for a while and then stepped down, strolling past the food court and toward a small open deck to join some couples who were enjoying the stunning view of Florida’s west coast.

By three o’ clock, we set sail. Off to Havana we went. Head leaning against my chest, Maryse watched with awe while feeling the surging waves, near and far, that came crashing against the belly of the ship and the sandy shores slowly fading before our eyes. Soon, the ship pushed its ways through Biscayne Bay, and the Miami skyscrapers seemed to have morphed into icing on top of a birthday cake. By the time the cruise ship reached the famous seven-mile bridge and circumvented the tiny inhabited islands on the fringes of the Florida Keys, I was already dozing off and ready to drift into a much-needed sleep. With a little pinch on my neck, Maryse preempted that. “Let’s go back inside,” she suggested, and I obliged.

The sun had melted away, sinking deep below the horizon as darkness crept its way onto the deck.  There was not much to gaze at any more, except for the dim glow of lights from high rises in the distance, looking like twinkling stars in the firmament. We left, as did the other wayfarers. “We’ll be in Havana by morning,” I muttered to myself. Maryse and I now headed for some food and then walked down to the ninth floor where, in one of the artistic venues, a Cuban band was performing. Below the stage, about a dozen people were following a black Cuban girl on stage doing something they called The Mess Around, which was none other than the hip rotation. Uproars of laughter swelled the room, sending the walls vibrating each time the girl wiggled her hip to do The Mess Around, and everyone followed. We sat there, savoring this precious moment until it was time to retire to our cabin, happier than ever, for at last, we were on the course that led to Havana, Cuba.  

We woke up before dawn and went up to the gym. In the morning twilight, I anxiously looked through the glass window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Havana Harbor. I saw nothing but the pinkish fingers of dawn locked in a bitter struggle with daybreak. Disappointed, Maryse and I went back down, took our shower and ate breakfast. By then it was nine am, and Havana was nowhere in sight. The sun was almost at its full strength.  I peered through the window, but I could only see the vast ocean, blue and still, and a lone seabird flying just above the deck. Around us, people started to get nervous.

Right behind me, stood an older man, bald-headed and pock-marked with distinguished, protruding ears. He said his name was Emilio, and that he was a Cuban expatriate from the town of Moron in the province of Camaguey. He had not seen Cuba since 1961. On the trip, he brought with him his wife and three grandchildren, all impatient to reach their destination. By ten am, they finally announced that we were approaching Havana Harbor. People rushed to the upper deck to catch a glimpse of that historic moment. Camera in hands, Maryse and I followed. Through the elated crowd, we shoved our way. At last, Havana loomed on the horizon, but our expected bliss was premature. Soon, the sky turned gray, and heavy clouds ballooned in the east. We lost Havana again, and to make matters worse, it started to rain.    

We hurried back inside as heavy raindrops pelted the ship. Nervously and impatiently, we waited.  Throughout the ship, our emotions intensified, and half hour later, the rain subsided. The sky cleared again. This time, inside the ship, it was jubilation. We were in Havana!

Almost everyone on board was American and, to me, this was the best sign yet that the P-to-P (people to people) initiative is definitely working. The story of Je t’aime, moi non plus (I love you, me no more), which has been the narrative across the Florida strait for more than 50 years, may be wearing off.

Maryse and I trailed a group of people rushing to the exit point. We were quickly stopped and told to go get a ticket. We did and came right back. Each ticket had a letter. We had the letter “O,” but they were only calling “A.” More than 1000 folks were ahead of us. We stood no chance of getting out as planned. Many people had purchased excursions at the time they bought their tickets. Each of these excursions was scheduled at different times—a sneaky way to take advantage of people’s ignorance and emotion. To get out, one either gets an excursion scheduled for the morning hour or one gets a ticket. Maryse and I had an excursion for visiting Old Havana, but that was scheduled for 2:30 pm.

We figured it did not make sense to wait for our letter “O” to be called. It would have been too late, unless we wanted to forego the excursion for which we had already paid. So, we went back on the upper deck where the city was in full view, contemplating the coming and going of cars mixed with pedestrians strolling along the breathtaking Havana Harbor amid a steady drizzle, that stubborn rain that refused to go away.

By the time we went through Cuban custom service and stepped onto Cuban soil, it was almost three pm. We first headed toward the currency exchange booth because we needed Cuban pesos. It was our first shock. The country’s convertible peso or CUC is equal to the US dollar. Although the exchange rate is the same, there is a ten percent charge for the transaction. Henceforth, we got only 87 pesos for 100 US dollars. Cuba has a stable currency that does not float. The island’s economy is not beholden to World Bank loans or the IMF—a financial independence Fidel fought hard to maintain.

Finally, we were outside in a tour bus, exploring Havana. First, we rode down toward the famous and exclusive esplanade called the Malecón or Avenida de Maceo named after Cuban independence leader Antonio Maceo. Soon the bus veered and headed down an underground tunnel, very impressive, showcasing Cuba’s infrastructure. We then emerged on a hilltop overlooking the city, where we were taken to an old Spanish fort, reminiscent of Saint Augustine’s Fort Castillo de San Marcos. A statue of Maximo Gomez, a Dominican-born Cuban who went on to become one of the main leaders who fought for Cuba’s independence against Spain up until the Spanish-American war in 1898, making Gomez and Che Guevara the two most famous foreign-born Cubans in the island’s history. 

I was not particularly interested in the fort. Nor was Maryse. Maryse went back in the bus, and I waited outside chatting with the locals while the other visitors went on to explore the fort. Suddenly, a red taxi pulled in, and the driver stepped out. He was a robust mulatto gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair. I asked him for a tour of Havana and he agreed. He said he had to first go pick up a passenger and that he would be back at four o’ clock. We also agreed to meet on the esplanade. Knowing the urgency for the job, the driver simply drove off. I went to tell Maryse that we had just gotten what we wanted. She rose to her feet in jubilation.

Meanwhile, the excursion went on. Next, we headed for Old Havana. This exclusive part of town with breathtaking Spanish-colonial architecture reminded me of the Old Port of Montreal. No vehicles are allowed. There are plenty of souvenir shops, fancy restaurants, vendors, euphoric shoppers and ecstatic wanderers promenading along the narrow streets. There are lots of panaderias (bakeries), sidewalk cafés, jongleurs and flower ladies wanting to pose for souvenir photos for a small fee. Maryse and I took a couple of pictures and moved on to a street corner where a group of folk musicians was performing Comandante Che Guevara, an old classic by Carlos Puebla, el cantante de la revolución (the singer of the revolution). When the singer noticed Maryse and I were sauntering up, he abruptly stopped the music and started anew.

Aprendimos a quererte

Desde la histórica altura

Donde el sol de tu bravura

Le puso un cerco a la muerte


Aquí se queda la clara

La enteñabla trasparencia

De tu querida presencia

Comandante Che Guevara…


We’ve learned to love you

From the heights of history

Where, with the sun of your bravery

You laid siege to death


Here, remains the clear

The endearing transparency

From your dear presence

Commander Che Guevara….


 I remembered that song, for I used to listen to it on Radio Rebelde when I was a child in Saint Louis. Then, it was Sylvio Rodriguez who sang it. The performance dragged on as joyful American tourists watched and appeared to be in seventh heaven. Then, Maryse and I went along, strolling up the street as groups of young Cubans, boys and girls, came to talk to us. We stopped and chatted a little while. I did the talking. Maryse, who knows no Spanish, could simply listen. I translated for her. By then, the rain had completely vanished. It was still gray, but no one noticed. A sea breeze from the Malecón filtered through, making it the perfect weather to wander aimlessly along the narrow streets of Old Havana. We soon ran up to a store where they sell Cuban cigars and rum. Maryse wanted to buy for her collection of tropical rums. The place was overwhelmed by shoppers. I left Maryse, who stood outside, face drawn, hopelessly trying to get a bottle of rum. I was not successful. There were just too many buyers.

I wrapped my arms around her neck and we meandered down toward the esplanade to meet the taxi driver for that historic ride to discover modern Havana. On our way, we met a Cuban woman. She was walking in the opposite direction and halted her march when we reached her. We began to chat and soon became friends. Her name was Milagros from the eastern city of Santiago. I asked her about the Haitians in the city, as I always do whenever I travel overseas. She said she did not know of any Haitians living in Havana. Then, I asked her about Martha Jean-Claude, the famous Haitian songstress who made Havana her home since the 1950s until she passed away in Havana 2001. Instantly, Milagros said, “of course.” Her round ebony face brightened as she began to tell us about Martha and her daughter Linda Mirabal who followed her mother’s footsteps to become a well-respected actress and opera singer in her own right. For years, Martha’s home in Havana was the unofficial Haitian embassy, where researchers, revolutionaries, Marxist intellectuals and others would go to experience a Haitian flavor in the Cuban capital. 

photo cuba 7 best 1After a few minutes of chatting, we hugged each other goodbye. Maryse and I went on. When we reached the boardwalk, the taxi driver was already there, waiting for us. One thing my wife and I noticed about Cubans on the island was their impeccable promptness. They understand the strategic importance of time. A broad smile on his face, he got out of the car, moved to the passenger door and, in a gesture of showmanship, pushed the front seat forward to let us in. We sat in the back like dignitaries on a very important tour.

We drove down and soon turned left, passing several boulevards framed by poorly maintained buildings which looked like what used to be prerevolutionary downtown Havana. Back then, they must have been areas of shopping districts. I asked the driver if there are currently plans to refurbish these buildings. He said the government has a massive project for those areas, but the biggest problem is how fast the project can go, for the buildings are occupied by ordinary people who may not have any other place else to go. Havana is a sprawling city with three million inhabitants. There are many parts of Havana that look like huge construction sites as Cuba is taking steps to build the infrastructure suitable to cope with so many tourists rushing to see this country in transformation.

We then left that part of town as we entered an area that reminded me of Port-au-Prince in the old days when I was a child—lovely private homes on hilly streets with well-kept front yards. This made me feel that I was truly in the Caribbean. Then, we came to the part of town that houses the University of Havana, the home of Cuba’s best scientists—an imposing building that extends for several blocks. We then rolled through the revolution square sitting across from the Ministry of Interior.

The area of the square contains some of the most emblematic figures of the Cuban revolution. A giant mural, which contains a steel sculpture of Che Guevara, cannot be ignored the minute one enters the square. The famous utterance “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” is written just below the portrait crafted from Che’s prominent picture taken by Alberto Korda in 1960. This sculpture is found on the eastern façade of the Ministry of Interior.

Also, adjacent to the Telecommunications buildings is an imposing portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos, another iconic figure of the revolution. In all, one cannot visit Havana without seeing this part of the city. The square is dominated by a 109-meter tall tower built with gray granite stones. It stands adjacent to the Palace of the Revolution. The National Library is located in the same area along many other government buildings, including Jose Marti Memorial.

Finally, we left the square to return to the ship, just as darkness began to make its presence felt. Street lights brightened our path as the taxi rolled along 15th Avenue where most foreign embassies are located in Havana. Indeed, it was a poignant experience for me, someone who had never visited Cuba before.

Moving through Havana, I noticed one interesting thing: Ordinary citizens live anywhere in the city. I did not see exclusive suburbs designed for privileged folks, as I usually observe when I visit other countries. It doesn’t mean there are no such upscale sections in Havana. 

Cuba’s isolation led to its innovation  

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Warsaw Pact countries blotted out of existence, Cuba watchers believed the revolution’s days were numbered. USSR was Cuba’s main trading partner, and losing that powerful partner was a colossal blow to the island’s economy. Henceforth, Cuba suffered from one of its worst economic stagnations since 1959. Then, the Cuban leadership made a bold and strategic move: If Cuba had to survive, it would have to be self-reliant.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Cuba’s Biotech Industry (read this) is nothing but technology at the cutting-edge. The scientific community in the United States also recognizes Cuba as a “leading biotech hub” confirmed by Life Science Leader in a meticulous editorial penned by Chief Editor, Bob Wright who drew his conclusions based from testimonies taken from Dr. Kalvin Lee, MD, who is immunology chairman at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. China has just invested ten billion dollars in Cuba’s biotech revolution for mass production of vaccines non-existent in China’s health care system.

The Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana is one of the world’s best venues in scientific research designed to treat deadly diseases like advanced lung cancer. The goal is to someday turn cancer into a chronic disease, not a deadly one. Cuban doctors and Cuban pharmaceutical products are saving lives daily in far-flung countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Thousands of international students can be found in Cuba’s universities. In Cuba, education and health care are free. They are not luxuries reserved for some privileged few, and the Cubans I spoke to were quick to consider such realizations as one of the greatest achievements of the revolution.

Cuba is not a rich country, and many of its citizens still cherish the desire to go seeking a “better” life elsewhere. Consequently, it is unjust to compare this small island in the Caribbean with its mega-industrialized neighbor, the United States. In the developing world, however, many countries’ citizens can only dream of Cuba’s progress in the struggle for human equality. The people on the island are well connected to the outside world through the social media and other means of communications. The folks I met in the streets all had their own cellular phones. They are well informed. Many Cubans are well-versed in English. As we were exploring around, we came to a vacant lot on a street corner, which was filled with young folks enjoying themselves to the beat of Daddy Yankee’s Despacito. They looked like teenagers everywhere.

For many years, we have been told that Cuba was a place frozen in time—the time when Lucille Ball played “I Love Lucy” or when Fess Parker played “Daniel Boone.” This narrative can no longer hold as millions of visitors travel to the island yearly. According to National Geographic Magazine, last year, 454,000 Americans visited the island—a thirty percent surge compared to previous years. The tourist industry is fast becoming a major component in the Cuban economy. Cuba Business Report confirmed that last year, Cuba received four million visitors, an increase of thirteen percent. This number has been projected to increase this year (2017) to 4.1 million.  

So, how does Cuba survive where many others fail?  In my opinion, the revolution has been able to withstand waves of counterrevolutionary constraints because of its patriotic nature safeguarded by Marxist principles. Cubans have a strong sense of nationalism, which is manifested in all aspects of their lives. They are extremely proud to speak about their accomplishments. Cuba’s story is a fascinating one in part for its poetic invocations of class antagonisms and an unforeseen inclination by most to create a consciousness driven by moral rather than materialistic motives.

My trip to Cuba was an eye-opener as well as a confirmation of what I had long perceived of the Cuban revolution. After two days in the Cuban capital, we set sail once more. This time, it was in the opposite direction, going back home to Florida.  As Havana Harbor reluctantly disappeared before my eyes and Maryse started dozing off, I simply held her tighter, yearning to be home again.

Note: Dr. Ardain Isma is a scholar, essayist and novelist. He heads the Center for Strategic and Multicultural Studies. He is the Chief Editor of CSMS Magazine. He can be reached at publisher@csmsmagazine.org . In case you are interested in reading Ardain’s latest books, you can click this link: Books    

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