Cuba Car Show

cuba-car-showWant to see old US cars? Come to Cuba! You won’t be disappointed. Cars from the 50’s and even earlier are still on the streets, still running thanks to Cuban ingenuity. Some are old, just held together with Bondo and prayer, but others are pristine.

My first car was a two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel Aire, and to see those same cars, running around Cuba is a special treat. These old American cars from the 50s are locally called yank tanks and many are used as cabs. And you will see these great old cars, not all of them freshly painted and restored! It’s estimated there are around 60,000 of these still on the road in Cuba, about 35% of the cars in Cuba. Tourists love to ride in these old cars, especially the convertibles.

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Cuba has two currencies, National Pesos or CUP which is the local currency and worth about four cents per peso, and the currency for tourists, CUC, or “kooks” that are one to one with the US dollar. As a tourist you are required to use CUCs. When you change your money at the government run change bureaus, and almost everything is “government run” so get used to it, you pay a service/change charge. If you are changing US dollars you ALSO you pay a 10% penalty. There is no penalty for changing Canadian dollars, Euros or British Pounds. And nobody accepts US dollars or US-issued credit cards.

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So the guy with the slicked up old US car charges 30 to 40 kooks an hour to drive you around – that’s $30 – $40! This is in a country where the average doctor makes the equivalent of $30 a month!!

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Visiting Cuba sometimes feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. The lady in the square, dressed up and with a big cigar in her mouth gets 1 CUC, the equivalent of $1 US, for a picture – and a good day can make twice what a doctor or teacher makes in an afternoon! Tourism is where the money is in Cuba.

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The poorly prepared, frankly lousy guide on the tour bus, who fills the time with heavily accented worthless chatter but never gives you any of the information you need or expect from a guide, is supposed to be tipped 5 CUC and the driver 3 CUC. The ship can forget changing tour companies since there is only one … you got it, “government run.” Your guide may be inexperienced and without a clue, but have a relative in the government who helped them land a cushy job. Or your guide may be great and have a PhD or MD but can make far more money as a guide. With twenty or so people on the tour bus, a guide can make the equivalent of $100 US in a day in a country where working as a professor or doctor they would only make about $30 a month! And these are all paid in cash.

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Ordinary Cubans can’t buy milk. Milk is reserved for children. You must get government permission to slaughter your cow because beef is only for tourists. These folks live on an island, surrounded by the ocean, but cannot eat shrimp or lobster … those are reserved for tourists. So, when your tour stops for lunch at a Paladar … the privately-owned “house” restaurants operated by enterprising entrepreneurs and permitted by the government during “The Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union when the Cuba was in economic free fall … you sit by the open door, being presented with a beautiful lobster dinner, while the locals look in knowing that they, as ordinary Cubans, will never sit down to a dinner of the lobsters harvested on their coast. Awkward, even if you only have an iota of sensitivity.

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Cuba is a fantastic country, a wonderful place to visit, especially for US Americans who have been denied the opportunity to visit and interact with their Cuban neighbors mostly because of international tit-for-tat games played by successive US governments and the late Fidel Castro, mostly for reasons that have almost been forgotten. But one does get the feeling that maybe the country, as well as the old cars, are held together by Bondo.

Cuba Cruise: Everything You Imagined and More!

The “forbidden” destination for US Americans. The old house down the street about whom the kids shared scary tales. The tiny little island that was supposed to take over the world for Communism, achieving what “Red” China and the Soviet Union combined had been castro-tombunable to accomplish. Tales of Hemingway and “The Old Man and The Sea.” next door about whom the kids shared horrible.  The domain of the US aging enemy, Fidel Castro.  And above all, a treasure trove of old US cars.

And it’s all here… well most of it.

Castro is gone and the Cuba economy limps along thanks to the US Embargo which, really, has accomplished nothing but condemn the warm and wonderful Cuban people to poverty.

Cubans eat dsc_0410chicken, rice and what vegetables they can grow and what they are given, free, from the official government stores in “abundance,” abundance as in 10 eggs per month.  Milk is reserved for children.  Cows, even your own, can not be slaughtered except by official government authorization.  Beef, along with shrimp and lobster, is reserved only for tourists, making even if you are eating in one of the now-allowed, entrepreneurial “Paladars” on the roof of someone’s home.

Copy of DSC_0362.JPGCuba is full of contrasts.  Incredible, stunning old Spanish and Art Deco architecture.  Some of it beautifully preserved or currently being renovated, and others crumbling.  Walking through a “typical” local Havana neighborhood of mostly incredible old buildings filled with locals, we had to squeeze around the huge crane removing the old balconies that had crashed into the street.

To the left is the old Bacardi headquarters, seized by the Revolution when Bacardi fled to Miami and Puerto Rico.

You have old Spanish architecture, French architecture, Art Deco, and even the ugly architecture of the Russians.  You can either take the tour, head guidebook-in-hand to the important plazas around which Havana is built, or just wander Venice-style and see what surprises you find down the next street.dsc_0317

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I’m delighted to be back and lecturing on the small-ship (200 passengers) PEARL MIST of Pearl Seas Cruises.  It’s an all-inclusive ship that attracts a fascinating array of upscale, well-educated and well-traveled, mostly “mature” like me, guests.  Because it’s small I get to meet all these fascinating folks … the guy who flew Air Force One for Regan, a Naval officer whose career was as Captain of US nuclear atttack subs that remained under water as long as 109 days, a former Deputy Secretary in the Regan years, the Merchant Marine Captain who took his ship to Cuba to return the Bay of Pigs prisoners and who told Fidel he couldn’t have Christmas Dinner on board his vessel becasuse Castro as head of a then atheist state, didn’t believe in Christmas!  A high-flying surgeon who ended up marrying into a Mafia family … and got out alive.  I’m not the most “social” person in the world, but a the daily complimentary cocktail hour on PEARL MIST is something you don’t want to miss!  Drinks flow freely and are included, as is everything else – no nickle and diming on Pearl Seas – and at dinner time you can continue the conversation since there are no assigned tables and you eat with whomever you wish.  And the food is great!

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Cuba United States Rapprochement

THE NATION featured an excellent article by Peter Kornbluh about the long overdue rapprochement between the US and Cuba.

As the plane descends to Tocumen International airport in Panama City, passengers look down on dozens of ships anchored at the mouth of the Panama Canal, awaiting their turn to traverse the locks from the Caribbean to the Pacific side. Until President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty in September 1977, ceding eventual control back to the Panamanians, the militarized Canal Zone was the pre-eminent symbol of US imperialist arrogance in the region, and a festering insult to the sovereign dignity and independence of Latin America.

Playing host to the 7th Summit of the Americas last week, Panama became the historic venue for the United States to redress another longstanding affront to Latin America—its half-century-old Cold War policy toward Cuba, which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos referred to as “a blister that was hurting the region.” When the plane carrying President Raúl Castro landed on April 9 for the two-day summit, it marked Cuba’s formal reincorporation into the inter-American system—and the official end of Washington’s self-defeating efforts to isolate Cuba. Two days later, when Castro and Barack Obama shook hands and sat down for the first private meeting between a US and Cuban president since the 1959 revolution, they officially buried the perpetual hostility of the past and opened a new future of civility and dialogue between Washington and Havana.

At their unprecedented bilateral meeting, the two presidents discussed the next steps to achieving the historic goal they had both announced last December 17—restoring diplomatic relations. Their agenda included Cuba’s status on the State Department’s notorious blacklist of countries that support international terrorism. Clearly they made progress; only three days after returning from the summit, Obama notified Congress that Cuba, after 33 years, was not a terrorist state and would be delisted. With that long-awaited and long overdue decision, the United States and Cuba now find themselves on the verge of setting a date to reopen fully functioning embassies in Washington and Havana.

Exactly 54 years since the CIA led a brigade of exiles in a paramilitary assault on the island at the Bahia de Cochinos, the moment of rapprochement and reconciliation between Washington and Havana has finally arrived. Cliché as it was, the summit logo of two colorful doves exchanging an olive branch in flight captured the diplomacy of peace undertaken in Panama.

Setting the Stage

Obama administration officials deserve much credit for the success of the summit. But truth be told, the opportunity to engage Cuba in Panama was foisted on the White House by the rest of Latin America. Three years ago, at the 6th Summit of the Americas, hosted by President Santos in Cartagena, Colombia, the region’s leaders made it clear they would boycott another meeting without Cuba’s inclusion. Last September, Panamanian Foreign Minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado flew to Havana to inform Raúl Castro personally that Cuba would be invited for the first time since the summit meetings began in 1994.

But the White House took full advantage of these circumstances. On April 8, as he left for Jamaica on the first leg of his trip, President Obama personally telephoned Raúl Castro to discuss how their interactions would proceed at the summit. During an interview with the White House press corps in Kingston, Obama set the stage for a positive encounter by announcing that he had received a State Department recommendation to remove Cuba from the terrorism list and suggesting, “I do think we’re going to be in a position to move forward on opening embassies.”

As Air Force One arrived in Panama at 7:35 PM on April 9, Secretary of State John Kerry held a preliminary two-hour meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, on the embassy issue. (Their discussion presumably included Kerry’s reported interest in coming to Havana to hoist an American flag and change the plaque on the US Interest Section building to read “Embassy of the United States” once the two sides had finalized negotiations to inaugurate diplomatic ties.) The next evening, with dozens of Latin American presidents looking on, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at their side, Obama and Castro broke the ice with a long, energetic handshake and a bit of chummy chit-chat at the opening banquet reception.

President Castro also made a contribution to setting a positive tone. Much of his lengthy presentation at Saturday’s plenary session—speakers were allotted eight minutes, but Castro claimed “you owe me forty-eight” because Cuba had been excluded from the first six summits—delved into past episodes of US intervention, going all the way back to the 1898 Spanish-American War and the Platt Amendment of 1901. But with Obama seated three seats down from him, Castro departing from his written remarks: “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this. In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” he noted to the applause of the rest of the Latin American leaders. “I admire his humble origins.”

As other presidents made their presentations, Obama and Castro slipped out of the summit plenary in the cavernous ATLAPA Conference Center and held their highly anticipated bilateral meeting. Members of the White House press pool were permitted in the unadorned room for only a few minutes as the two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. “This is obviously a historic meeting,” President Obama told reporters, as he expressed optimism about the future: “I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship in our two countries.”

For his part, President Castro urged “patience” in the ongoing efforts to negotiate reconciliation. “Our countries have a long and complicated history,” he noted, “but we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described.”

History Lessons

That “long and complicated history” between Cuba and the United States, as well as between the United States and the rest of the region, intruded in many ways during the summit—and at many levels. When official members of the Cuban government’s civil society delegation arrived in Panama, for example, they found Felix Rodriguez—the retired CIA operative whose claim to fame is his role in the October 1967 capture and execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia—participating in the civil society events. The Civil Society Forum—one of several ancillary sets of meetings that included a CEO summit hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, a Youth Summit, and an unofficial grassroots “Cumbre de los Pueblos” (Summit of the People)—became decidedly uncivil as supporters and opponents of the Castro government clashed ideologically, verbally, and physically …

At the presidential level, the discourse was far more diplomatic, but, at times, no less accusatory. In what was billed as his first stop after arriving in Panama City for the summit, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro held a solidarity rally attended by several hundred members of the “Cumbre del Los Pueblos” in Chorrillo—the working-class neighborhood of Panama City bombed by the US military during the December 1989 US invasion to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power. The supposed “surgical operation” killed an estimated 300 civilians; it represents the last use of US “gunboat diplomacy” in the region.

As such, the symbolism of the venue was not lost on Maduro’s supporters at home, or on the crowd in Chorrillo. Many activists had come from Venezuela bringing caps, T-shirts, and banners bearing the slogan “#Obama Repeal the Executive Order”—a reference to the US president’s March 10 decree declaring Venezuela to be a “security threat” to the United States and sanctioning seven intelligence and security officers for human rights violations. The language of Obama’s decree is generic to all emergency orders involving sanctions—even minimal ones banning foreign officials from traveling to the United States and conducting financial transactions. But Maduro cast the decree as US preparations to “defeat my government.” With the audience chanting “Gringo-home! Gringo-home!” Maduro accepted a box of petitions from Panamanian Student Association representatives calling on the US president to rescind the directive. “I have 14 million signatures to give to Obama,” Maduro told the cheering crowd.

Back the summit, diplomatic etiquette and pressure from his fellow presidents prevailed; Maduro avoided a face-to-face confrontation with Obama. In fact, the two met and talked quietly for a few minutes during a break in the speeches the next day. (Neither side has provided any information on their discussion.)

Still, Maduro peppered his plenary remarks with condemnation of US “imperialism” and received at least verbal support from other countries. Besides Maduro, a number of Latin American leaders—among them Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner—excoriated past US interventions in Latin America and warned of the threat of future intervention against Venezuela. “I always get a history lesson,” President Obama responded with humor.

Yet those who listened carefully to the president heard him make a serious effort to break the tether of past transgressions and move the discussion of US–Latin American relations beyond the dark history of Washington’s hegemonic abuses. First, he acknowledged that those abuses were wrong. “I’m confident that the way to lift up the values that we care about is through persuasion,” he told the White House press corps (which included The Nation) in a concluding press conference before returning to Washington. “And so often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive. It backfires. That’s been part of our history….” Repudiating the era of US intervention in Latin America, Obama stated bluntly, “We are not in the business of regime change.”

Anti-US rhetoric, he pointed out, would not solve the pressing problems of the region. Moreover, his administration wanted to move forward, not face backward. Ending more than a half-century of hostilities toward Cuba in favor of a new era of positive engagement would be part of that process.

“The Cold War is over,” Obama emphatically told the press. “The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future.”

Turning Point?

With Washington and Havana now positioned to officially restore normal diplomatic relations, the long-term future of US-Cuban relations appears far brighter. In the short term, the debate over Obama’s dramatic decision to seek a rapprochement with Raúl Castro will play out during the next 45 days—the designated allocation of time for the US Congress to deliberate on Obama’s official determination to remove Cuba from the terrorism list. By June, the legislative strength of those who support a future of engagement versus those who seek to reinstate a policy of hostility toward Cuba will become far more apparent.

Predictably, hard-line Cuban-Americans politicians from Florida have denounced the president’s decision to delist Cuba. The administration has sent “a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer…serious about calling terrorism by its proper name,” Senator (and now presidential candidate) Marco Rubio declared. But in its editorial “Cuba Off the Terror List,” the traditionally conservative Miami Herald reflected a more modern perspective: keeping Cuba on the list was “proving to be a hindrance more than a help in the process of normalization.” Taking Cuba off, however politically unpalatable for conservatives, “is an inevitable bow to reality.”

Beyond its bilateral impact, that new reality in US-Cuban relations will go a long way toward changing perceptions of overall US relations with Latin America. “This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” Obama suggested during the summit in Panama. By “writing a new chapter” in the long and complicated history with Cuba, the president can also begin a new historical narrative in US relations with the hemisphere.