This will be an interesting week for Cuba.

April 18, 2018 – Let me just add, you want to read a well-balanced, informative op ed piece in the New York Times by Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans, entitled “We Shouldn’t Ignore Cuba.”

Raul Castro is expected to step down as President of Cuba and for the first time there will no longer be a Castro at the helm.  But not to fear, Raul Castro will remain the head of the Communist Party in Cuba which runs everything anyway.  But there will be a new face at the helm, a man who wasn’t even born when, as the Cubans always say, “the triumph of the Revolution” occured.  It will be interesting.

Castro Diaz CanelRaul when on the international, diplomatic stage, always dressed in a business suit, but when addressing the Cuban people he appeared in his military uniform.  Cuba is, after all, a military dictatorship.  The likely successor is  Miguel Diaz-Canel,  57, trained as an electronics engineer, but like many Cubans did something totally different than that for which he was trained.  He spent 30 years working his way up through the party to be the number-two man, in effect Raul Castro’s vice president and the second in command of the military, although he never appears in a military uniform, unlike his boss.  Sometimes when Raul was challenged by the Revolutionary elite he would say, “I am not my brother.”  In the case of the rapprochement with the U.S., Fidel had made clear that it was not his idea.  So maybe the fact that Diaz-Canel never appears in a uniform is a way of stating hat he is not Raul.

DSC_0227My sense is that while younger Cubans have great respect for “the triumph of the Revolution,” and the Castros, and the good things that have resulted from the Revolution, and face it, there have been some good things, younger Cubans are ready to turn the page and move on.  Make no mistake about it: Cubans are in love with Americans.  Maybe not the U.S. government, and certainly not with Donald Trump, but with ordinary Americans, the neigbhors next door, ordinary Cubans are in love with US.  Sure, they’d all like to hop on a plane and visit the U.S., maybe not to stay, but to take home as much of the culture, and commercial junk as they can.  Of course with China on the verge of stepping into the vacuum, they may get more commercial junk from China than they can possibly imagine!

My take is that there is a great vacuum in Cuba and someone is going to step in and fill that vacuum. The likely suspects are the Russia (yet again), China, or the U.S. neighbors next door.  The choice is ours.

PEARL MIST was the second ship to go to Cuba from the U.S. after Obama opened the door, and I have been on every trip except the first.  I think something like 15 trips, and in that time, about two years, there have been some interesting changes.

First, Cuba has just introduced ATM machines.  They only work for Cuban banks.  Due to the two hundred plus prohibitions of the U.S. Embargo there can be no financial interactions.  So the ATMs are new and Cubans are literally struggling to figure them out.

DSC_0238Second, there is a lot more begging for money, hand lotion, soap (they figured out this stuff is pretty easy for cruise passengers to come by), and a lot of this has been encouraged by well-meaninging U.S. Americans, some of whom genuinely want to share, and others of whom just like to strutt their stuff and get a kind of kick out of throwing what they don’t want to people in real need.  It’s a tough line to walk, and I keep urging the cruise line to come up with a way that folks can help in a way that is genuine and still respectful of the Cuban people and culture.

Third, and I’m sorry, but this is really sad.  One of the great things Obama did was to get Raul to open up Cuba to the Internet.  Now don’t think that everyone has Internet.  Less than 5% of Cuban homes have Internet.  No Mc Donald’s or Starbucks with free wi-fi.  But there ARE hot spots in the plazas, along Havana’s famed Malecon, some of the pedestrian streets in Santiago de Cuba.  These aren’t free.  You buy an Internet card with the tourist money. [There are two currencies in Cuba.  The local currency of the people, the CUP, each worth roughly the equivalent of 4 U.S. cents, and the tourist currency called the CUC which although it actually costs U.S. tourists 87 cents for one CUC, is roughly the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.]  So one hour of Internet access costs 1 CUC or the equivalent value of 1 U.S. dollar.  In a country where the average Cuban only makes the equivalent of U.S. $24 a month, Internet access is no bargain!  Yet Cubans are addicted already!

DSC_0226Wherein the past, in the cool of the evening, folks would gather along Havana’s famed Malecon seawall, known fondly as “the world’s largest sofa,” singing, socializing, drinking, sharing with friends, they now sit with their faces glued to their smart phones!  Same story in the cities great plazas.  Everyone under 50 sitting staring at their phones.  Texting is replacing talking.

So now what?  It will be an interesting week.  There’s a great article in THE TELEGRAPH, “Cuba prepares for life after the Castros.” And if you are thinking of seeing Cuba, now is the time to go!  And by the way, going on a monster ship that spends a few hours in Havana is NOT seeing Cuba.  No way  Jose!

Colorful, Welcoming, Safe Cuba

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Just back from over two months in Cuba …

Unfortunately, the US detente with Cuba got swallowed up in the US political craziness last November when President Trump put a crimp in the Obama Presidential Order permitting US citizens to travel to Cuba, the name of which, going down the list, was changed to the “Trump Presidential Order” but pretty much left unchanged … until last November when Trump tightened the screws.  Conveniently, about the same time, mysterious ailments began to be noticed in US Embassy employees in the recently reopened Embassy complex in Havana.  Whether this was due to the stress and uncertainty that plagued the State Department at the time, and probably still does even after the old Secretary of State was fired, or by some hitherto unknown sonic weapon from outer space, of which no evidence could be found by either the Cuba intelligence department or the CIA, or just by newly stationed Embassy employees enjoying too much Cuban “Vitamin R” … that delicious, authentic, Cuban rum! … no one will ever know.  Maybe it was just another Washington ruse.

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At any rate, Cuba right now is an amazing and wonderful destination, particularly on a small ship like PEARL MIST, that goes all the way around the island, and just doesn’t pop into Havana for 5 hours.  Cuba is extremely safe!  Walk around anywhere at night … people are delighted to welcome their US neighbors!  Yes, they understand that governments continue to play tit-for-tat pissing games with one another, but the people can see beyond the bullshit, and people-to-people they are warm and welcoming.  And if there is anything positive to say for living in a police state, it is that there are no guns, no mass shootings, and virtually no street crime.  It is safe … very safe.  Just don’t drink too many mojitos!

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My Cuba book was a hit onboard!  I sold out of every copy I had, but you can still get it on Amazon.

Just like in the 60s in the US, young people wore Che T-shirts as a way of giving the finger to the political establishment, the hot fashion item in Cuba for young people isn’t Tommy Hilfiger, or Calvin Klein but US flag apparel.

The time to visit Cuba is now, before it is overrun by giant cruise ships dumping thousands of $495-special-passengers in downtown Havana.  Hell, Royal Caribbean’s new ship, what’s it called, MONSTER OF THE SEAS or something-or-another of the seas, holds 9,000 people!  Imagine!  9,000 people, about 2,000 crew and 7,000 passengers.  Much as I love cruising and have enjoyed the industry, unfortunately, what the cruise industry loves it ultimately destroys.

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Come join me this fall on the 200 passenger PEARL MIST that can dock right in town, including in tiny places like Casilda, just a 10-minute drive from the charming UNESCO World Heritage Site town of Trinidad.  And in the meantime, get my CUBA book!

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Cruising to Cuba

dsc_0334Thanks to President Obama US citizens can visit Cuba on cruises offering a people-to-people educational itinerary.  Hopefully as President Trump works down the list, attempting apparently to undo everything Obama accomplished, he will see the wisdom and economic potential, for the Trump brand and everyone else, of expanding our relations with our nearest neighbors and lift the Embargo completely.

Pearl Cruises little 210 passenger ship PEARL MIST was the second US cruise ship to go to Cuba and I was privileged to be the Destination Lecturer on the third and fourth voyages.

Little PEARL MIST is the ideal ship with which to visit Cuba.  All the big boys, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, are busy making plans to overwhelm the limited port facilities of Havana, but are too large to visit some of the really fantastic ports that we visited.  We enjoyed Havana, but also beautiful Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

dsc_0349MSC, a European line with mostly non-North American passengers, was already overwhelming Havana dumping hordes of passengers into the tiny terminal, a grim foretaste of cruise lines turning Havana into just another Nassau, St Thomas, or St Martin.  Fortunately Pearl’s small ship was able to get into Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and experience more of Cuba than just the big, yet fascinating, capital city of Havana.

My advice is GO NOW!  See Cuba before it is overrun with mega ships disgorging thousands of passengersdsc_0291.  Yes, there are some hassles.  Is Cuba ready for prime time?  No.  But if you want to experience Cuba, now is the time to go.  There is one tour operator in Cuba: run by the government.  The guides work for the government, so some are great and some of them must have a relative with “connections.”  The tour buses are all made in China, brand new, spotless, with working rest rooms, probably the best tour buses anywhere in the Caribbean and Central America.

But working with the government is a challenge.  You quickly realize that your are not in Kansas anymore.  There are last minute changes and adjustments. Long lines in Havana, mostly   because of the huge MSC ship dumping its guests, to get to rather grim and sometimes surly immigration folks.  Sometimes in the other ports there weren’t even immigration and custom officials on duty, and those who were seemed to enjoy their jobs.  Maybe it’s just a big-city boredom thing.  But poor Pearl Seas Cruises had to seemingly constantly adjust because you go where, and when, the government permits.

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The crew on Pearl Mist is incredible. And this crew, unlike on the big ships, is a team that has worked together for years, seems to really love their jobs and enjoy the guests and taking care of them.  On big ships crew members are constantly coming and going, so it’s harder to create and maintain a team.  The food is very good, open seating, dine with whomever you wish.  The staterooms are good-sized and all with private balconies.  The stateroom rest rooms are the best I’ve encountered.  No nickle and diming here.  Drinks are all included.  Wine, beer, premium spirits, shore excursions.  No paying $3.50 plus gratuity every time you want a bottle of water. No casino, art auctions, Botox, shops, junk sales, teeth-whitening, bumper cars, water slides, climbing walls, ice skating rinks, Broadway wantabe shows, kids or lines!

At cse fares starting at $700 per person per day guests are more affluent, mostly well-educated, well-traveled, mature people who have had fascinating lives and are interesting to get to know.

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The Cuban people seem very positive about the new relationships with the US.  A hot clothing item seemed to be stars and stripes outfits.  Cubans have endured great hardships many of which have been as a direct result of the US Embargo, but there is no anti-US attitude.  Yes, some folks saw an old revolutionary sign, flaking paint on a wall with a fist marked “revolution” smashing into the US … frankly the same type of thing you might find on the wall of any run-down, impoverished US inner city where people feel forgotten by their government.  Sure, if you look hard enough and are predisposed to find something, you’ll find it.  There was discussion of a girl with a US flag as a shawl.  Some saw it as a way of “cuddling” and embracing a new US/Cuba relationship, while a few saw it offensive because it violated the official US flag display protocol which I’m sure this gal neglected to read or access on the mostly non-existent Internet since she didn’t have an iPad.

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There were those who were offended by trash and decaying buildings. “Can’t they afford paint?” ignoring the fact that folks are struggling to live on meager salaries.  The average Cuban doctor or teacher makes the equivalent of thirty US dollars a month.  Unfortunately those folks ignored all of the renovation projects underway in a country with great fiscal challenges that struggles to get rebar and cement.  I continue to struggle to accept the North American/European fixation with trash.  Take a group to the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids and what do they come back to the ship and talk about?  Trash.

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But go to Cuba now.  It’s a work in progress, but now is the time to experience it before it is forever changed, maybe for the better and maybe not.