April 2006: Cuba is one of the last truly Marxist communist countries in the world and the only one left in the western hemisphere.  It is also an island that I was forbidden to visit by my own government. These reasons were enough for me to want to visit so my friend and I traveled to Cuba for 6 days via Mexico.

Communism and sanctions imposed on Cuba by the United States government had effectively trapped Cuba in the past. This preserved it from modern day mass tourism and commercialism making the experience more authentic. Cuba completely lacks advertisements, and American chain restaurants and shops. Additionally, I wanted to visit Cuba while Fidel Castro was still alive and in charge. At the time of my visit, he was 80 years old, and he would end up ruling Cuba for another 10 years. Fidel Castro was the world’s longest reigning dictator, a bull-headed man, who as the leader of a small Carribean island nation, defied the most powerful country in world history and did so for 5 decades despite multiple attempts to overthrow, and assassinate him as well as embargo Cuba’s economy. It’s not that I favored Castro in any way, I just wanted to experience what Cuba was like while he was in power and hear from the Cuban people themselves what life under Castro’s brand of communism was really like and besides that traveling to a country that I am told I can’t visit just makes me want to visit even more especially since I don’t support the embargo against Cuba.  This is the story of my trip to Cuba.

 

 

 

Yellow line marks my route in Cuba

Cuban and American Relationship

It’s no secret that the relationship between communist Cuba and the USA has been on the rocks for some time. Despite being such a small country, Cuba has had a huge influence on American foreign policy. When Fidel Castro and Che Guevera led a communist revolution to overthrow the dictator Batista, not a fan of communism but I can understand the justification for removing Batista, who ruled a corrupt country where American mafia ruled over Havana, most sugar was in American hands and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land.  Castro implemented communist reforms and land seizures across the island, and most upper-class Cubans fled to Florida, where they continue to maintain a lot of political power that has contributed to a tight noose being kept squarely around the Cuba’s economy since. Cuba has leaned towards communist or socialist allies for life support like the Soviet Union, Venezuela, Nicaragua. The closest the world has been to a nuclear missile crisis was in the 1950’s when Castro agreed to allow the Soviet Union to maintain nuclear missiles on the island. President Kenney was able to avert the crisis with some last-minute negotiations. There have been multiple attempts to assassinate or overthrow Castro and all have failed. The most prominent one was the Bay of Pigs invasion. My own uncle who was a marine at the time was waiting in a submarine for the marching orders to invade Cuba but in the end the Cuban exiles that led the invasion were abandoned by the USA and American reinforcements, including my uncle, were called off leaving the Cuban exiles to a slaughter or capture.

Over the years American foreign policy changed from trying to forcibly remove Castro to try and incite his own people to remove him through economic sanctions. This included a travel ban imposed on Americans. Ironically it wasn’t Cuba that was opposed to Americans visiting. Cuba was happy to receive Americans. It was my government that was against my traveling to Cuba. At the time of my trip there were no planes flying to Cuba from the USA and no American credit cards could be used to purchase a flight and even flying to Cuba on a flight outside of the USA would land me in trouble with the State department. So, to visit Cuba I had to be sneaky, purchase the flights in cash across the border in Tijuana and fly to Cuba from Cancun, Mexico. I also had to ensure that I wasn’t carrying any evidence of my trip like Cuban cigars or a Cuba entry stamp and even an exit stamp from Mexico that pointed suspiciously towards a Cuba visit. For this reason, I slipped a 20USD bill in my passport when I departed Mexico to convince the Mexican immigration officer to avoid stamping my passport out of Mexico.

Entering Cuba was a surreal experience. The flight from Cancun was via a Mexican Airlines and seemed to consist of mostly Mexican and Cuban citizens. Upon arrival in Cuba, the immigration processing room had a very Stalinist feel to it. It was intimidating, unwelcoming and when called to the officer I stood in a small prison cell appearing room of dark colors while the officer asked a few questions about the purpose of my trip. The officer was polite and welcomed me to Cuba and pressed a button opening an automatic sliding door of one side of the room releasing me into the country.

There was no US embassy in Cuba but the US did have an  interests section which was sorrounded by black flags placed around it by the Cuban government. The “Mount of Flags” in “Anti-Imperialism Park” obscuring the US Interest Section’s (now US Embassy’s) electronic billboard

Although I never once felt hostility from any of the Cuban people during my stay, I did witness some anti-American propaganda like the black anti-imperialist flags designed to block the view of the American interest’s section, the DeFacto US Embassy. There were also billboards with anti-American slogans and one of President Bush depicting him as an evil vampire.

Anti-American billboards

Giant Image of Che Guevera-one of the founding revolutionaries of the Cuban revolution 

President Bush was not well liked by the Cuban government

Billboard depicting Bush and Hitler as a Cuban exile who blew up a Cuban plane killing all those on board and is now in an American prison. The Cuban government has requested extradition, but this has been denied. 

Havana Homestay

One of the main reasons I visited Cuba was because I met a Cuban boat guide in Mexico on a whale watching trip who invited me to stay with his parents in Havana if I ever visited Cuba. I figured staying with them would provide a great opportunity to get to know the Cuban people and way of life and I took him up on the offer. At the time in Cuba, foreigners were only allowed to stay in state sanctioned hotels or guesthouses where the majority of the proceeds went to the Cuban government. My goal was to avoid this whenever possible and instead provide money directly to the Cuban people. To avoid getting the family hosting in us in trouble, we had our airport taxi drop us off a few blocks from their apartment building, a communist bloc concrete high rise. The elderly husband then met us and guided us to the high rise, and we went up in the rickety and cramped elevator. Despite the crumbling and decayed exterior of the old Soviet era apartment building, the inside of the hosts apartment was immaculate and well taken care of. It was humble but maintained with pride and from the apartment we had a great view out over the ocean.

We enjoyed spending time with the elderly couple who were extremely hospitable and welcoming. They cooked great meals for us even though we didn’t ask for them to do so and we had great discussions about life in Cuba.  They like many Cubans were against communism but were powerless to do anything about it. One thing I observed that sort of says it all is whenever Castro was discussed, his name was never said out loud out of habit in case someone was to overhear, or a listening bug placed in your home. Instead, they would refer to Castro with the sign language of a long beard. Ironically, in view just outside the window of our hosts house was the distant Spanish era stone fort that was reportedly used by Che Guevera and the Cuban version of the secret police to interrogate and torture political prisoners.

 

Apartments where most Cubans in Havana live and where we stayed with an elderly host couple

Us with our host couple

Dinner time

Spanish era fort in Havana where Che Guevera tortured political prisoners.

When in Havana, we explored the city via bus or hiring a private taxi classic 1950’s era car. Because of the embargo on Cuba and difficulty of getting new modern items such as cars, many of the old vehicles in Cuba are still in use and have been preserved such as classic cars. The classic cars are everywhere and have become one of the travel highlights of Cuba. The old colonia Spanish part of the city, left in an unrestored state of decay is beautiful, and we loved walking down these streets observing how the Cuban people live. I also visited one of the old early prohibition era American mafia run night clubs, the Tropicana which now hosts Flamingo dancing. I popped in long enough to check out the dancing and get solicited by Cuban prostitutes. One of the most memorable things we did was visit a cigar factory and watch how Cubans hand roll some of the most prized cigars in the world.

Old havana

Havana Traffic Jam

Classic cars

Classic cars

Classic cars

Daily scene in old Havana

May Day Celebration

Just by chance we happened to be in Cuba during one of the largest celebrations for communist countries-May Day-a day to celebrate the workers. It seemed everyone was in the streets celebrating, dancing, singing, doing all kinds of activities that continued to surprise us. We even watched a baseball game at the capitol with a group of kids hitting a baseball with sticks. One baseball was sent hurling through a capitol window breaking the glass.

 

Giant people mover monster truck used for public transportation

Giant statue of one of the most respected early leaders of Cuba-Jose Marti who helped lead a revolution to overthrow the Spanish colonia masters.

May Day celebration

May Day celebration

May Day celebration

Caving in the Wild Caves of Vinales

In addition to staying with the parents of a Cuban whale watching guide I met in Mexico, he also put me in touch with his friend who has a PHD in Geology and teachers at a Havana University. His friend Humberto also had visited a cave in Vinales a region known for karst like mountains and caves as well as tobacco fields and offered to take us there. What I didn’t know was that he was last there over ten years ago.

We met Humberto in an old neighborhood of huge but run-down Spanish colonial houses where he lived. The houses once belonged to the wealthy class of Cuba but have now been redistributed among the working class. Humberto even though he taught at a university and had a PHD confessed that he only received about 20 USD per month from the government in addition to basic meals and housing provided. When we tipped him 50USD later he almost started crying in joy.

Together we took a public bus to the western end of the island to Vinales where we would end hiking through a tobacco field and then the jungle until we found an overgrown entrance to a cave in the mountain-Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas en Pinar del Rio. The cave was a huge network of tunnels, the largest in Cuba and the 2nd largest in the Americas that were still being explored. With hard hats I brought from home and flashlights we entered the cave exploring, crawling through mud inside dark and wet tunnels. We explored amazing rooms, some full of crystals, stalactites, stalagmites and a few dolines where the ceiling collapsed creating a small opening to the outside via a collapsed roof of the cave. We saw pigment free insects, whip scorpions and white fish in small cave ponds. We spend all day in the cave before emerging in a random exit to a tobacco field. When we crossed the field, we met some of the farmers with straw hats who welcomed us and were happy to show us around their operation and how they make the tobacco. Afterwards we hitchhiked back to Vinales from the road.

 

Bus stop on a small rural road to Vinales. Since the average person doesnt have a car, public transport is the common way to get around

Hiking to the cave through fields in Vinales

Vinales Mountains

Lake inside the cave

Tobacco field

Tobacco being dried

Tobacco farmer

Daughter of the tobacco farmer

We stayed the night in Vinales in a home stay that was approved by the government. The home was in a typical neighborhood. One of the neighboring houses was holding a large gathering during our stay which Humberto informed me was a neighborhood watch party, a monthly gathering of residents in the neighborhood to discuss ways to improve the neighborhood. Even though the watch party seemed innocent, watch parties were rooted in the communist ideology of keeping an eye on one another and reporting any out of the ordinary activities or behavior to the authorities. They also served as a way to promote government propaganda.

 

Vinales neighborhood street

Snorkeling in Cenotes in the Southern Coast

On our last full day, we hired a taxi in a classic car to take us all the way across the island to the southern mangrove forests to visit a nature reserve known for pristine beaches, coral reef and freshwater cenotes in the mangrove jungles. We snorkeled and swam in both and saw amazing marine life and tropical freshwater fish and huge land crabs and iguanas.

Afterwards we visited the Bay of Pigs where a failed ground assault of Cuban exiles assisted by the CIA attempted to overthrow Castro in the 50s and failed.  Now there is a rundown hotel popular with Europeans with a restaurant that served limited basic food and has bad service, and a museum along with monuments dedicated to those Cubans that fought the invaders.

 

Freshwater cenote

ocean at the nature reserve

Land crab

Iguana

Like all places in Cuba, the Bay of Pigs was undeveloped, shabby and uncommercialized. When we visited the museum and signed in at the visitors log the curator was shocked to see that we were American tourists and made a comment about it.

 

Bay of Pigs Propaganda

Bay of Pigs Beach now a hotel for European tourists

Museum honoring the Cubans who fought the Cuban exiles in the invasion

Post card for sale showing Revolutaniries Che and Castro

Returning to the USA

I made sure to eliminate any evidence of my trip to Cuba. I wish I could have brought back some cigars especially since we visited a cigar factory but i knew this would be a dead giveaway. One the last day we departed Cuba with no issues leaving immigration and flew via Cancun to Tijuana where we crossed back into the USA via a land border. Since we were crossing the land border far from Cuba, there were no suspicions whatsoever and we crossed uneventfully.

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