HAVANA – Early in January, a group of two dozen Western New Yorkers took a trip back in time – to about 1960.
And they did so without benefit of a time machine. Instead, the 24 members of a Jewish Federation mission hopped on board the way-way-back machine by flying into Cuba.
Cuba – an island nation that seems to be stuck in the early 1960s, about the time when almost everyone there with any money or assets fled following Fidel Castro’s rise to power on Jan. 1, 1959.
That’s when the clock struck midnight in Cuba. And that’s why the signature visual image of Havana remains its American cars from the 1940s and 1950s. The Havana airport parking lots, dominated by Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Impalas, by Buicks and Studebakers, look more like the back-lot set for a movie being filmed from that era.
That half-century time lag was the key impression taken away by the two dozen visitors who spent five days in Cuba, arriving in Havana from Miami. They were on a mission beyond tourism and carried some basic supplies lacking in Cuba, including medicine, soap, reading glasses, crayons, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
All of us, especially those who had never visited a third-world or Communist country, were awestruck by the poverty that greeted our eyes as we toured virtually every section of Havana and its outskirts, viewing it all from our comfortable bus.
“It’s worse than Soweto,” one veteran traveler remarked.
Our Cuban-government tour guide proudly pointed out all the mansions and gorgeous homes that dot the lush Havana skyline along the Atlantic Ocean. Many of those, he repeatedly told us, are being “restored.” But in five days, we saw only one or two buildings where any restoration was going on; in fact, the absence of construction cranes was even more evident than it used to be in Buffalo, before all the waterfront and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus construction.
In the last day or two of our trip, many of us resorted to dark humor whenever we saw yet another building with a crumbling facade: It’s being “restored,” we would quip.
We also were awed by the strength and resiliency of Cuba’s small Jewish community, aided by the U.S.-based Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Cuba has only about 1,500 Jews out of a population of 11 million, but the Patronato community center and synagogue in Havana provides the old-fashioned definition of community, played out in a land of limited opportunities.
The signs of poverty and the half-century time lag are almost everywhere in Havana:
• Many houses sport clotheslines of laundry hanging out to dry. The reason: Many Havana residents took apart their clothes dryers and are using the motors for cooling fans to bat away the tropical heat.
• There were almost no fast-food restaurants, convenience stores or shops, a far cry from what you would see in any American or European city. There are gas stations and some small markets, with bottled water for sale, but not much else.
Billboards are fairly abundant in Havana, but they don’t “advertise” anything, other than the glories of the 54-year-old Cuban Revolution. That is said to be changing, though, as capitalism slowly creeps back into Cuba.
• Traffic is very light for such a huge city. The average citizen can’t afford to buy a car, and those who can still need government authorization to purchase a vehicle. Recent statistics cite 36 cars for every 1,000 Cubans, meaning that fewer than 4 percent of the residents have cars.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge underground market for used cars. On Avenido Prado, a street modeled after Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, one second-floor resident hung a small sheet with the message “Vendo Mi Auto” (I’m selling my car).
• Despite the lack of cars, public transportation is poor. We were told that people can wait two to four hours for a bus; that means that transportation becomes a huge issue for any institution. For example, Patronato, the large synagogue and Jewish community center, uses its own vans to bring its members to synagogue.
• A large percentage, maybe 70 percent of Cubans, “own” their own homes. But they don’t have the money to maintain them. So Havana today is the scene of many once-stately houses now plagued by crumbling concrete, chipped facades, exposed and rusting iron and missing or cracked windows.
That’s a sad sight, one tempered by the vision of what Havana could be if government restrictions and the long-standing U.S. trade embargo ever were lifted.
• Cuba has a dual-currency economy, using both Cuban pesos and convertible pesos, known as CUCs. Workers, we learned, are paid in Cuban pesos, making the equivalent of about 20 to 25 CUCs per month; that’s slightly more than $25. But almost everyone makes that amount. Taxi drivers make the same as doctors – but a cabbie can make more money because of tips. That’s why one of us, taking a cab one day, had a driver who had switched careers – from being an engineer.
The average Cuban worker, though, has access only to these Cubans pesos, which cannot be used in many locations. One member of our group bought some bottled water in a food store he described as a mini-Tops, but only people with CUCs can shop there.
And while capitalism slowly rears its head in Cuba, in the form of “paladars,” or private restaurants located in people’s homes, the average Cuban worker has no access to such luxuries. Paladars are frequented by tourists, mission members, expatriates or the few Cubans who have access to CUCs; a dinner there may cost 35 to 40 CUCs.
• Cubans get a regular ration of beans and rice, a little chicken and other staples. One of the saddest stories we heard came out of a Friday night Shabbat (sabbath) dinner we enjoyed at Patronato.
Local members of the Jewish community, sitting at long tables with 40 or 50 people per table, enjoyed a decent no-frills meal of a piece of grilled chicken breast, a small raw-vegetable salad, some saffron rice and canned pears. The sad part? We were told that for many Cubans, that was their best and most nutritious meal of the week.
Even foreign workers, including those at the U.S. Interests Section (the substitute for an embassy) who earn CUCs, encounter regular shortages of such items as cheese, detergent, apples, cereal and eggs.
The average Cuban, we were told, hasn’t come close to moving into the 21st century. Those with TVs normally get only three stations; any Internet access comes through dial-up; you don’t see people using cellphones; and young people don’t have access to video games.
On the other hand, Cubans are quick to point out, they have universal health care, low illiteracy, little racial or ethnic discrimination, and access to good secondary and higher education. On the recent five-day visit, there was no evidence to rebut Cubans’ claims of having a low crime rate.
And, it must be noted, we were only tourists, most with few or no Spanish skills and with little access to the opinions of the average Cuban resident, no matter how much we learned from our tour guide, our eyes and our shared observations.
One such observation came from a physician in our group, trying to explain why our group members were almost all over 50. For us baby-boomers, Cuba was a crucial hot spot, with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of a Communist nation sitting just 93 miles south of Florida during the tense Cold War.
To younger generations, Cuba remains almost irrelevant, nothing but a page from recent U.S. history.
There were many breathtaking, poignant and memorable moments from our trip:
• The visit to a Jewish cemetery, with its memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The inscription, in Spanish, is haunting, claiming that the site contains bars of soap made from the fat of some Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
“Let us say Kaddish [the Jewish mourners’ prayer] for those who have no one to say it for them,” said Michael Wise, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo.
• A professional baseball game, between the Havana Industriales and Pinar del Rio. Roughly 25,000 people inside Estadio Latinos Americanos cheered wildly, against a backdrop that sounded similar to the annoying vuvuzela-horn din echoing through a South American soccer game.
Each time Havana scored, during a slickly played 3-0 win, its dugout emptied, for an impromptu reception line. Also noteworthy was the lower-minor-league feel of the game. There were no scorecards, no players’ names on the uniforms, and the antique scoreboard showed no photos or names of any players.
Like so much else in Cuba, the game had the feel of a 1950s game in the States.
• A bus ride to El Morro, the historical fortress that sits across the bay from downtown Havana. This offers a gorgeous view of the Havana skyline, without all the nicks, cuts and crumbling facades.
• A night at the Tropicana nightclub, a spectacular two-hour, outdoor, three-level show featuring singing, dancing, elaborate costumes and plenty of rum. In truth, the entertainment didn’t match that of a Las Vegas show, except for the tall female contortionist whose pretzel-like twists left us all in awe, especially after a few rum-and-Cokes.
• A lack of daily newspapers. Not once in five days did we see anyone reading a newspaper, one group member noted. A request for a newspaper at our hotel front desk brought a copy of Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to sense the anti-American tone of this newspaper. Two of the five front-page stories dealt with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords visiting the Sandy Hook families and criticism of President Obama for not closing Guantanamo.
• The visual image, which may outlive all others on this trip, of the parents of some preteenage Jewish kids dancing the Rikudim, a Jewish folk dance, in Patronato on the Sabbath.
These Cuban Jews, sitting in chairs proudly watching their daughters and sons dance, looked like a cross-section of any population, with white, black and mixed-race faces beaming with pride. It looked more like a group of adults standing outside the Tops store on Niagara Street.
Jews, we learned, come in many different complexions.
The trip, led by mission leaders Janet and David Desmon, left us with mixed impressions. We were startled by the gorgeous structures on this idyllic island, saddened by what has become of them. We marveled at the spirit of the small Jewish community, but were saddened by the nation’s poverty and lack of modern conveniences.
And while most, if not all, of us seemed to favor the lifting of the crippling U.S. embargo against Cuba, we were reminded firsthand of the political reality that may prevent that: the strong voting bloc of avidly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida.
As we went through customs in the Miami airport, one worker, learning we had come from Cuba, said he had a brother living there and starving, and he had the photos to prove it.
“It’s like living in a concentration camp,” he said of Cuba.
There are no easy answers.