More from Gay's trip to Cuba
Though the door to Cuba is opening very slowly, it is most certainly ajar.
I know. I stepped through that door two weeks ago to discover a number of changes — some subtle, others startling — that had taken place since my two earlier brief visits in 1998 and 2003.
This time around, I was a tourist, albeit armed with a spiral notebook, a press visa issued by the Cuban Special Interests Section in Washington and a laminated card from the International Press Center in Havana approving my assignment.
I was a guest of Insight Cuba, one of the dozen or so U.S. companies licensed and authorized to operate people-to-people cultural visits to Cuba, a movement that began in 2000, was quashed by the Bush administration in 2003 and restored by the Obama administration on Jan. 28, 2011, after an eight-year hiatus.
Insight wasted no time in reapplying for its license, becoming the first organization to send Americans to Cuba legally under the new people-to-people regulations in August 2011.
The company received its sixth license, good for two years, on June 30.
My first visits to Cuba, while legal, were brief, industry-oriented forays that offered few opportunities to meet and engage with the Cuban people.
Back then, I didn’t interact with the Cuban man on the donkey selling mani molido (small bags of ground peanuts), or the students gathered along the Malecon esplanade and seawall at dusk, or the kids with their crayons at an after-school community arts center.
On this trip, I did interact, in spades, with Cubans across a spectrum of professions, ages, jobs and venues.
This was a different kind of trip, which enabled me to see for myself that some things have changed for the better for the Cuban people.
Several of the graciously deteriorating solares (mansions) in Old Havana are surrounded with scaffolds. Craftsmen are restoring the facades and interiors in a state-funded effort to bring back the beauty these homes represent.
The pace is slow, and so far, only a third of the mansions have been restored, according to Isabel Rigol, a retired professor at the School of Architecture.
Meanwhile, the restorations are pushing out many residents who live in subdivided tenements in the crumbling structures.
There’s an acute housing shortage in Havana, and few can afford to buy even the smallest house, prices at about the U.S. equivalent of $10,000.
“We double up in apartments,” one student told me. “We stay where we are. We share with grandparents and parents.”
Cuba does appear to be relaxing some of its economic policies under the less-rigid strictures of Raul Castro, who in 2008 assumed the reins from his brother, Fidel, now in poor health.
The 87-year-old former revolutionary and longtime dictator, while still revered by most Cubans, remains pretty much in the shadows these days.
Cuban law dictates that images of its leaders cannot adorn T-shirts or monuments until they have died, so while Che Guevara dominates key chains, posters, and powdered milk containers, El Jefe’s countenance with his signature beret, beard and cigar is seen mostly in faded black-and-white photographs in hotel lobbies, state-run businesses and even pinned to the visors of sputtering 1950s Cadillac clunkers that roam the streets of Havana.
To generate new jobs, or “nonstate activities” as the government terms the island’s fledgling private sector, 18 new categories of employment were approved for Cubans on Sept. 26, bringing the types of private economic activities now allowed to 201.
Cubans can now work as real estate agents, make and sell soap, ply their trade as handymen, book rooms for visitors in private homes and repair cellphones, in addition to trimming palm trees, opening kiosks to sell street food and wholesaling farm produce, among other private-sector activities.
Tailors and seamstresses, however, cannot sell clothing that has been imported, nor may they resell items purchased in state stores.
“The goal is to continue developing nonstate activities and further develop a climate of trust and legality as Cuba transitions to an economy where private enterprise not only is tolerated but also actively encouraged,” reported Granma, the official state newspaper.
There’s been a growth spurt in the expansion of the small family-run restaurants known as paladares, usually in a converted part of a home.
Cubans don’t frequent these restaurants due to their cost, but tourists do, and it’s generating new sources of income for busboys, waiters and managers.
Private cab drivers now can now acquire licenses, which has helped the transportation system in Cuba, especially in Havana, where there aren’t enough public buses and they often break down. The cabs pick up the slack, often packing entire families into old Russian Lazdas or pimped-out turquoise ’57 Chevys.
Tourists can opt for the rickshaw-like bici cabs or the bright yellow coco cabs, which are shaped like coconuts.
Marlon Diaz Pino, the local guide who shepherded our group of nine Insight travelers during our stay, tried to explain the system to us.
“Cubans who are doctors, engineers and teachers cannot work on their own,” he said. “They’re employed by the state. The average salary for Cubans in most state jobs is set at approximately $13 to $20 a month, although athletes and artists get more.”
He used his only family as an example.
“I am a university graduate,” Diaz Pino said. “I have a family. My wife works in a clinic. I was an English teacher, but we couldn’t make it on our joint salaries, so I quit to become a tour guide for Havantur, the state-owned touring company.”
He has now been a guide for 12 years, and he is a master of his craft. No question went unanswered, no request unheeded. Plus, he knew his facts and history.
That job, and the tips (optional, but everyone in my group gave him a generous one at the end of the trip) enable him and his family to enjoy a decent standard of living.
As Lisette Poole, our Insight Cuba guide, told us in a briefing session upon arrival, “In Cuba, it is not rude to tip.”
She also advised us to visit a bar or a club during our free time in the evenings.
“It’s part of the Cuba experience,” Poole said.
All medical services and education through the university level are free to all Cubans. Even funerals are free.
Cubans can travel abroad much more easily since a migratory reform law that took effect earlier this year eliminated the costly exit visa and the letter of invitation that had been required for years of all Cubans.
More than 183,000 have traveled overseas since January, but not many have visited the U.S., which requires a visa tied to a cumbersome set of conditions.
Miguel, a self-employed graphic designer, said he has been waiting “a long time” for his U.S. visa.
“I want to hang-glide over the Grand Canyon, and I think that will happen,” he said. “Cuba is my country, my homeland. I want to see other places, but Cuba will always be home.”
It’s also home to 11 million other Cubans, who seem to view the recent changes in their government and lives with a mixture of hope and skepticism.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.