Duke Mag-Beyond Tourism-Jul/Aug 2002

August 1, 2002
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Beyond Tourism • DAA:Changing of the Guard • Honoring Engineering Alumni

Beyond Tourism

Katherine Guckenberger '93 contributes her impressions of a trip to Cuba, sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association under the auspices of Duke Alumni Education & Travel.

Land of incongruities: Cuba's charm and vibrancy emerge amid the poverty
Land of incongruities: Cuba's charm and vibrancy emerge amid the poverty
Land of incongruities: Cuba's charm and vibrancy emerge amid the poverty
Land of incongruities: Cuba's charm and vibrancy emerge amid the poverty
photo courtesy of Katherine Guckenberger

Last March, I joined a group on the Duke Alumni Association's first educational adventure trip to Cuba. We were among a handful of legal American visitors to the country that month; since President John F. Kennedy's famous 1963 ban, open travel to the island has been effectively curtailed. Duke, however, was able to secure a rare license from the Treasury Department's Office of Assets Control for the purpose of conducting educational programs. We entered the country ready to show pages of proper documentation to anyone who demanded them.

Alas, no one asked. The young man sitting in the immigration booth at Havana's airport the night we arrived was no more interested in me and my documents than in the slow, slow fan that turned on the high ceiling of the hangar [in which we found ourselves.] I asked him not to stamp my passport, fearing I'd face retribution if not hassles in the future from inquisitive U.S. immigration agents back in Washington, D.C., where I live. The man nodded, assuming, I'm sure, that I was one of the thousands of Americans who enter Cuba illegally each year and request that their passports not be stamped. I wanted to tell him that we were all entering legally, but I decided that he probably would not believe me, or care.

After our checked luggage was X-rayed, we headed to one of the only five-star hotels in Havana, a mustard-and-maroon-colored monstrosity in the city's center. The Parque Central was, however, a comfortable homebase for our group. Built as a joint venture with a Dutch firm, it had all the amenities of a flashy European hotel, with live Cuban music in the lobby at night and top-notch Cuban coffee worth rising for in the morning. Here we could kick off our shoes after long walking tours, take a refreshing dip in the pool on the roof, check e-mail, or catch up on CNN. We could knock back mojitos in its various bars or just sit and enjoy the burning sweet smell of rich Cuban cigars. But one step outside the Parque Central was enough to remind us that our hotel was an anomaly. The real Cuba lay just beyond our door.

Cuba is often described as a land of incongruities and Havana, a once-beautiful old lady. Havana is still beautiful, but she is gracefully crumbling to the ground. The city's grand old buildings are prohibitively expensive to keep up, which is why they are in such poor shape today. Colorful stuccoed houses of the Plaza Vieja and along the Paseo de Marti promenade have been transformed into crowded tenements, where families, often three generations strong, share kitchens and bathrooms. It is nearly impossible to find a historic residence that does not seem physically encumbered by laundry hanging from windows or balconies.

Any disconsolation a tourist might feel for the dilapidated state of the capital must also come to terms with the more disturbing evidence of Cuba's great social problems and inconsistencies, some wacky and some simply woeful. Cuba has the highest number of physicians per capita in the world but not enough medical supplies to go around. It is a country with a growing number of hustlers and prostitutes, and an increasing AIDS rate; where seemingly well-heeled mothers beg for soap or shampoo to wash themselves and their children; where nineteenth-century apothecaries with rows of porcelain jars are preserved like museums, but modern pharmacies do not stock aspirin; where street children wear hand-me-downs from the U.S. with no idea what the symbols and slogans on their T-shirts--"Wellesley Tennis," "Metamucil"--really mean. It's a place where it's illegal for the few privately owned restaurants to serve lobster or beef, where hotels are strictly off-limits to Cubans, where houses cannot be bought or sold, where food is rationed, and where a lawyer, for the right price, will arrange for a man to marry a dead woman in order to "inherit" her car.

The Cuba one finds today is the result of Fidel Castro's police-state rules and the effects of a debilitating economic crisis that began in 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cuban government dubbed this "the special period" before someone else gave it a more appropriately ominous appellation.

Since the beginning of "the special period," life as Cubans knew it has changed dramatically. Most Americans have little idea of what Cubans have endured. The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of Russian aid and preferential terms of trade, as well as the end of the sugar-for-oil swap. Shortly thereafter, Cuba experienced massive food shortages that forced people to stop eating horsemeat and start eating, of all things, their pet cats.

In an attempt to paint a rosy picture, one of our guides told me, the Cuban government ran cooking shows on television describing how to eat food waste, like the "grapefruit steak," made of normally discarded rind and filled with onions and peppers. Similar television shows explained how to cook the mysterious food found in cans donated from Bulgaria. And the government attempted to persuade a skeptical population that permanent shortages of toiletries and other such luxuries were no big deal; soap and toothpaste were not essential to clean bodies and teeth, the party line went.

Some effects of "the special period" are still evident. Hitchhikers line the highways hoping to get a ride, often waving dollar bills to entice drivers. Men dressed in yellow uniforms, called "yellow men," stop cars and order them to carry passengers traveling in the same direction. The black market for goods, ranging from cigarettes to children's clothing, is thriving.

Castro, for his part, has grudgingly made significant changes in the way the statist economy operates, most obviously the privatization of certain industries, the encouragement of tourism, and the introduction, or allowance, of the U.S. dollar as legal tender. For the first time, he has bought food from the U.S., after a hurricane devastated much of the island last year. According to U.S. law, Cuba must pay for U.S. food in hard currency, a measure overtly designed to restrict Cuba's ability to do business with U.S. firms. But the cash-strapped Cuba managed, somehow, to pay for the food, indicating a strong desire to avoid indebtedness to its dominant neighbor to the north.

Why is it, many of us wondered, that relations between U.S. and Cuba remain so touchy? Current policy, namely the U.S. economic embargo--the longest embargo in our country's history--gave many of us pause. Our lecture at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana (operated under the auspices of the Swiss embassy) should have convinced any red-blooded American that we're doing the right thing by putting pressure on Communist Castro. But it left me cold. By the time our group met with the U.S. diplomats, we'd already been in Havana for four days, and we'd witnessed both the poverty and the kindness of the Cuban people firsthand. I don't think any of us were prepared to defend the Cuban revolution or Castro's regime, but we certainly had questions about the effectiveness of the embargo, which to me had come to look, more and more, petty and punitive.

I left Cuba with the feeling that seeing the country with my own eyes, seeing both the beautiful and bizarre, was a privilege. We are now privy to information most Americans will only read about, and I hope we'll continue to recast our own questions about U.S. policy in Cuba, in order to find better answers. In the meantime, I've got my fingers crossed for our Cuban friends, and I'm looking forward to mixing my own mojitos, and maybe spending some quality time with my cat.

--Guckenberger is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.