After four days in the posh Nacional with its broad verandas and Cuban music, its view of El Morro across the bay, overlooking the Malecón and around the corner from the Coppelia Ice Cream Park, we loaded up Coach #425 and headed east to Matanzas and Varadero for a look at not-Havana.
A neat little city, Matanzas was still sparkling from a morning rain shower, and instantly the pace and the temperature notched down several degrees from Havana. At the baseball park, retired outfielder Rigoberto Rosique, a hall-of-famer from the Cuban League, gave us a history and showed us around the small museum. Among the photos I recognized Tony Oliva, a Cuban ballplayer who played for the Minnesota Twins in my day. A batch of kids about nine years old, came in with their mitts for a lesson (the girls’ mitts were bright pink). Vivian said it was part of their schooling. I summoned the courage to try my rudimentary Spanish and asked one boy if he liked “beisbol.” He looked puzzled and said, “Huh?” I guess my Spanish needs more work. One of the great pictures of the trip that I did NOT get was all the kids riding back to school in a horse drawn wagon.
Then we were off to Coincidence Farm, a seventeen acre organic farm, one of several run as private enterprises. Most of the farms in Cuba are de facto organic because herbicides and and fertilizer are not available. Our lunch was a savory mix of produce from the farm served on the patio decorated with murals and inspirational quotes from Jose Marti and Walt Whitman among others.
Our last day and a half we spent at the snazzy Meliá Varadero resort with its indoor gardens, glass elevators, seven restaurants and a sandy beach on the aqua blue Caribbean Sea. It could have been a Sandals commercial. It was built by a company from Spain and run with the Cubans. It’s a favorite of Canadian tourists. Cuba requires that no foreign country own more than forty-nine percent of any property. Somehow I preferred The Nacional in spite of the glass elevators.
There was more, of course, much more: The company that performed a dance of the traditional Santeria Afro-Cuban culture, The Buena Vista Society show featuring Cuban music of the 40’s, the Salsa dance lesson, the cleanliness of the streets and the manifest happiness of the people. How did a week go by and I never walked the Malecón or got ice cream at Coppelia Park? Why did I never see a newspaper?
There are signs around still fanning the fires of The Revolution. The book stalls in every public plaza still feature titles by Fidel and Che Guevara, but the covers are faded and dog-eared. Che Guevara is still the face of The Revolution: (1) He’s cuter than Fidel, (2) His photo digitizes better for posters and t-shirts and (3) he’s dead. The Revolution feels old and out of touch with the times. Fidel is old and frail and out of sight. Julia Sweig in her book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, relates how the American journalist Jeff Goldberg asked Fidel if he was still trying to export his Cuban model of socialism to the rest of Latin America. Fidel replied, “The Cuban model? It doesn’t even work for us anymore.” Still he has established a legacy for his people: A free education system that has produced a literacy rate of 97 percent; universal health care that has produced a lower infant mortality rate and higher vaccination rate than the U.S. plus a longer life expectancy. And, unhappily, an economy that doesn’t work and never has.
Fidel’s brother Raul took over the helm in 2008 and quietly, and for the most part out of sight, has been making changes “sin prisa, pero sin pausa” (not in a hurry, but without delay).* Now with the new opening on the horizon, the new generation of Cubans is clamoring for internet, smart phones and more Stuff and American business is more than poised to bring it to them. But Fidel and Raul and I are old. Old enough to remember how it was the last time the door to Cuba was open to the U.S. So we look at this new opportunity with hope mixed with trepidation.
Coach #425 made our last trip from Varadero to the Jose Marti Airport in Havana. Sure enough, a throng of young Cubans were gathered behind the barricades to bid us goodbye. The ladies in lace hose and khaki put us through our exit paces, and we settled in to await our flight K8432. The board said it would leave at 3:00 and it was “on time.” But 3:00 o’clock came and went with no plane in sight. And then 3:30 and 4:00 and 4:30. The board still promised that flight K8432 would leave at 3:00 and was “on time.” At 4:45 our World Atlantic plane appeared, loaded, lifted off and before the safety instruction were dutifully recited we were back in Miami. It felt like another planet. Unlike the 150 or so travelers dozing in the Havana airport there were THOUSANDS, all rushing through efficient automated passport machines, through customs, security and inspections and finally to the luggage carousels and on to mazes of lines to dozens of airlines, hundreds of gates. Our tight little group of twenty-two scattered. Everyone was frantic to make their connections. Everyone but me seemed to know exactly where they were going and how to get there. Last minute changes blared on the public communication system. Multi-media advertising assaulted every one of my senses.
I missed Cuba already.
*Again from Julia Sweig.
Rosemary Rawson is the author of Coming of Age (SRP, 2014).