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Misunderstood Cuba Surprises and Delights

by Alf Nucifora

The invitation came suddenly in the mail, an opportunity to join a legally- sanctioned, fact-finding trip to Cuba with a group of respectable business types and their spouses. It takes me all of 10 seconds to sign up. This is a dream come true, to see Cuba before Castro dies and the US invades its shorelines with a full-frontal assault comprised of troops drawn from capitalism's elite McDonalds, Blockbuster and Starbucks.

First Impressions

The trip there is uneventful. Fly to Montego Bay and from there a quick one hour hop on Air Jamaica to Havana. Jose Marti airport, Canadian-built, is modern, clean and not all that different from what the international traveler would see anywhere in the world. The move through Immigration and Customs is quick and uneventful although the immigration official is somewhat surprised by my request to have my passport stamped. Most Americans choose not to leave a trail in deference to current US law which frowns upon "fraternizing with the enemy". So far, no sign of the visible police state apparatus that I saw in East Berlin or Prague in their Communist heyday. From there, the images come fast and furious.

Two gleaming motor coaches greet us manned by government guides and cigar-chomping drivers. On the journey to the hotel, we see block after block of Soviet-style high-rise apartment buildings stark in their ugliness and unfriendliness. Old fifties vintage American automobiles strung together with ingenuity and chewing gum dot the streets. The Soviet-built Lada (think Fiat) is Everyman's car supplemented by a regular sprinkling of Audis, Toyotas, Volvos, Renaults even Hyundais and Kias. The surprise is the fleet of black, modern, high-end Mercedes cabs, as with all other property in Cuba, government-owned and operated.

Our hotel is the Nacional, Mob-financed and managed in pre-Revolution times. It looks like the Breakers in Palm Beach, designed by the same architect in fact. A no-frills room, mini bar with Coca-Cola from Mexico, obligatory toiletry collection in the bathroom, no shortage of toilet paper as we had been warned to expect and American TV networks including VH1, A&E, Discovery, TNT, CNN, ESPN and the Cartoon Network. Direct-dial phone service to the US is available at $3 a minute. The crowded lobby, infested with European businessmen and foreign tourists is noisy with laughter, argument and the ubiquitous and annoying cell
phone chimes.

I go for a very early morning jog passing street vendors peddling papayas the size of an NFL football. Mile after mile of architecture dating from the 16th century lies in a state of neglect and decay. Buildings, that in the US would appear on the Registry of Historic Sites or be featured in Architectural Digest are devoid of paint and house multiple families with laundry strewn from balconies. Electric wiring is strung willy-nilly and illegally like spilled spaghetti. Exquisite, centuries-old tile work lines the sidewalks, and everywhere the sight of ornate hand-wrung wrought iron. Young prostitutes returning from a hard night's work line up at government bakeries to receive the daily bread ration. Noxious fumes belch from car and bus exhausts, the result of leaded-only gas and a singular lack of catalytic converters. And everywhere the accumulated layers of grime and blackness. For 40 years, Castro ignored the cities investing instead in building the agrarian economy and improving the lot of the rur al peasant. The decades of neglect are clearly evident in the destruction of one of the world's great architectural showcases. It may be too late for Havana.

A trip to the supermarket, the Supermercado 70, again government owned and run, reveals a traditional grocery store environment, about 10,000 square feet of regular food store offerings but without the variety or quality that one is accustomed to in the West. Shelves are full with European and Cuban produced brands. Here and there a familiar sight Gerber Baby Food, Pringles Potato Chips, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, Del Monte canned fruits and the old stand-by,
Ritz Crackers.

You Gotta Love the People

The real eye opener was the charm of the Cuban people. In spite of forty years of suppression and failed policy, Cubans have not lost the ability to joke, to laugh, to sing and smile and make the best of an otherwise dispiriting situation. They still carry that twinkle in the eye. You can just feel them waiting for Castro to pass on so that they can get on with life the way it's supposed to be. They're a people waiting to break out. These are the Italians of the Caribbean, laden with style and bonhomie and waiting for Armani and Versace to bring back the joy of life.

They're highly educated (95% literacy and 500,000 college educated out of a total population of 11 million), and bursting with entrepreneurial fervor. The dirty secret is that all those college graduates are trained-up with nowhere to go. Doctors and engineers make less than minimum wage workers in the US and get paid in Cuban pesos to boot. That's why they're taking wait service jobs in restaurants that cater primarily to tourists and business visitors. It's the tips they want in American dollars.

In part 2, of this series we'll conclude the Cuban journey with an assessment of the business environment, discuss the role of the media, review the infrastructure and politics and opine about the irrational position taken by the US government with respect to American-Cuban relations.

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