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!

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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