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An Open Night - Coat and Tie for Gentlemen
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June 14, 2018

A Night Open to All!

Robert Quist

Cuba 2010 and Again 2017

In February of 2017 I took my second trip to Cuba.

“When first in the dim light of early morning I saw the shores of Cuba rise and define themselves from the dark-blue horizons, I felt as if I sailed with Long John Silver and first gazed on Treasure Island. Here is a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here I might leave my bones … Cuba is a lovely island,” wrote Winston Churchill upon first arriving at Habana Harbor in 1895 as a 20 year old English Subaltern cavalry officer observing the Spanish fighting the Cuban insurrection for Independence.

Winston was right,
Cuba is a lovely island full of natural beauty, a bountiful history, the last functioning communist regime & a rich culture. The people are intelligent, well educated, healthy and they love to dance. Cuba is also one of the safest countries I have ever visited. In the last seven years many things have changed but for the most part it is the same and easier for travelers. Americans can now take a 4.5 hour flight non-stop from LAX to Habana daily. Ten years ago I had to illegally fly from Nassau to Habana on an ancient Russian made DC-3 then made sure the Cubans did not stamp my passport as I was violating the Trading with the Enemies Act by entering the country.

In the last seven years nice hotel rooms, like the Hotel Nacional, have more than doubled to more than $400 a night as the Cuban government moves in for the financial kill on all these rich capitalist tourists. Remember, this is a communist country and the government owns everything, all the hotels, restaurants, car rentals, gas stations, everything.

However since Raul Castro became president small mama papa businesses are starting to emerge, especially rooms for rent. Therefore I stayed exclusively in rooms in private homes for about $35. In this communist country the average worker makes about $20 a month and buys everything at the government store. So a $35 room fee is like gold to them. American credit cards are useless and if you exchange US $ for Cuban pesos you pay a 10% penalty. This can be avoided by traveling with another currency such as the euro. Cuba is basically a cash economy however if you have a non US credit card or ATM you can use them in the big cities.

I would be in Cuba for 17 days with no set itinerary and no reservations at the best time of year. During the last trip I had taken public buses all the way to Santiago de Cuba just south of Guantanamo Bay at the far eastern shore near Haiti. Ten years ago Russian was the 2nd language of Cuba. If you are not in Habana or Veradero (the Miami Beach of Cuba) where most of the visitors go, not many people speak English. I’m sure many educated Cubans speak some English, but since I am fairly fluent in Spanish, they let me make the mistakes to their amusement. You can get by with mediocre Spanish, but first must say, “Habla mas despacio, por favor” (please speak slower) as Cubans arguably speak the fastest Spanish in the world.   

After staying the first 4 days in Habana vieja I rented a two year old Peugeot with no shocks (the roads are horrendous) for $110 a day from, who else, the government car rental company. Drove west to Pinar del Rios which is where all the tobacco for Cuban Cigars is grown. After a few days in Vinales, off to Motanza an old colonial city north east of Habana. After that further east to Spiritu Santus, Trinedad and Cienfuegos. For the most part it is a very clean country as the people are so poor that nothing goes to waste or is thrown out. Most of the beautiful remote beaches are empty since the Cubans cannot afford the cost of transportation to get there. With few visitors and little industry the water is pristine and the diving spectacular.

The island has a very rich history. Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492 when it was inhabited by the Taino and Chiboney Indians who are mostly extinct now as they met the fate of so many indigenes people with the introduction of slavery and European diseases. Cuba became the seat of the Spanish government in the Americas and Cortez launched his conquest of Mexico from Trinidad, Cuba in 1517. After a sugar boom, slavery and 500 years of Spanish rule the fight for Cuban independence started in 1850. Observing this war first hand on his 21st birthday, November 30, 1895 Winston Churchill wrote that, “Nothing in life is more exhilarating than being shot at without result.” America came to the “rescue” of the Cuba revolutionaries during the Spanish American War when Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan hill at Santiago de Cuba in 1898. As a result of losing the war Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States.

The US gave Cuba its full independence back in 1916 which just led to the sugar barons installing various corrupt governments which lead to coups and more corruption for the next 46 years. Since the mid 1950’s the American Mafia had been controlling the government and paying them 35% of their gambling earnings. Fidel Castro and his band of scruffy warriors overthrew the last dictator, Batista, on January 1, 1959. Castro threw out the Mob, improved education and health care and Nationalized most industries after he declared that he was a communist. Cuba has been a totalitarian state for the last 60 years with little or no political, intellectual or religious freedom. I’m sure George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are banned books. The question is, after more than 600 years of dictatorial rule can the Cuban people run their own government? Only time will tell.

If you are at all interested in traveling to Cuba, GO NOW. The United States is making noises about tightening travel restrictions and they may. If the country becomes too developed and sophisticated it will lose much of its charm. The food is OK but not great as there is little competition when “Big Brother” owns virtually all of the restaurants. The architecture is spectacular. They have not ripped much down because they don’t have the money to do so and are very proud of their heritage. 

Most of the old 15th, 16th & 17th century buildings are deteriorating but still intact although in great need of restoration. Churches, plantations, government buildings and private homes are just waiting to be brought back to their original splendor. No wonder the Spanish dubbed Cuba the “Pear of the Antilles.” If they need some space for new development they could start by ripping down some of the Russian built atrocious square apartment buildings that dot the island.

And then there are the cars!!!
DeSotos, Hudsons , Nashes, Mercuries, Willy’s, Packards……the island is like a giant automotive time capsule from 1959. Since most of the cars are owned by the government they are in terrible shape like the roads and the buildings. However the Cuban people are a very creative lot and who, with no money or parts, manage to keep them rolling.

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