It’s time both countries realize what their own citizens see — that closer ties benefit both sides.

DSC_1041Preparing to take a luxury yacht through the Panama Canal, then onward around Cuba, the end of this month, and then later this year rejoin PEARL MIST lecturing on board for our cruises around Cuba, round trip from Ft. Lauderdale, I’m particularly interested in following news from and about our next-door neighbor.

Trump, who couldn’t wait to reverse Obama’s policy of prying open the door to Cuba, has announced that the US Embargo on Cuba will continue.  The Cuban government claims the Embargo damages Cuba to the tune of $4 billion US a year.  But the Embargo, which hasn’t worked for over 50 years, continues to hurt only the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.

It now appears that the mystery illness targeting US Embassy workers in Cuba and China is as some of my Cuban friends suggested, the work of Russia, not Cuba, China, or some new CIA security system installed in the reopened US Embassy in Havana that had unforseen human consequences. [As with agent orange in Viet Nam, the US sometimes rushes ahead with new, unproven military-type “technolgy” without understanding the long-term consequences, or else just not telling anyone about the potential reisks.]  If it is the nefarious actions of Russia, one might ask just what benefit the US is getting from Trump’s cozy relationship with the former KGB agent, Putin.

At any rate, I found this editorial in the TAMPA BAY TIMES to be interestsing …

fter an encouraging start, the breakdown in America’s reset with Cuba is a loss for both sides and for the state of democracy across the region. Havana and Washington are both to blame, but the Trump administration’s hard line with Cuba is out of sync with the times and damaging to the interests of Florida.

DSC_0228The Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo chronicled the latest development in the relationship this week. Tampa-based Florida Produce once symbolized the potential of new U.S. trade with Cuba. In 2015, as nearly a half-century of enmity began to thaw, the company asked Cuba for permission to open a 100,000-square-foot facility in Havana to house and sell American goods. Cuban leaders seemed inclined, the Obama administration was eager for new ties and exporters were interested. But today the project is in limbo, and Florida Produce symbolizes something else: a lost opportunity for the two countries to capitalize on a new era in relations.

Business leaders once saw a flurry of excitement over Cuba. The Trump administration’s harder approach, mixed signals from Cuba’s leaders and fresh concerns over the treatment of U.S. personnel in Cuba have all combined to stall this budding relationship. Trump erected new hurdles to doing business with Cuba by banning U.S. companies from partnering with entities that have links to Cuba’s military. Last year, he tightened rules on travel between the two countries, and more recently, suspended consular services at the recently reopened U.S. embassy in Cuba’s capital after a mysterious attack that left American diplomats complaining of hearing loss, concussion-like symptoms and other ailments. Though the cause of that episode remains unexplained, experts are now examining whether microwave strikes were weaponized to harm dozens of U.S. diplomats and their family members.

The Trump administration’s hard line and the continuing resistance by Cuba’s communist government to improve human rights and liberalize conditions on the island nation virtually guarantee a freeze on relations for the foreseeable future. Still, travel between Tampa Bay and Havana is on the upswing (71,376 passengers flew between Tampa and Havana through April of this fiscal year, reports show, up from 53,512 during the same period in 2017). Cruise ships are sailing more often to Havana. And even officials with Florida Produce have not given up on the warehouse project.

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President Barack Obama showed the value of presidential leadership in forging a new state of relations between Washington and Havana. Yet Obama could have gone further to promote bi-lateral trade. Cuban Americans in Florida and elsewhere played a vital role in helping re-establish some semblance of economic and diplomatic ties.

The person-to-person contacts between Cubans and Americans and the continued lobbying for stronger economic and political ties will help counter the impact of Trump’s change in course. Still, the loss of momentum denies the U.S. an opportunity to expand the ideal of American democracy across the region. And it denies Florida the fullest potential of a new and emerging market only 90 miles from its shore. It’s time both countries realize what their own citizens see — that closer ties benefit both sides.

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.