Releasing Cuba

April 23rd, 2016  |  Published in April 2016

From March 3 to 9, 2016, I traveled to Cuba, one in a group of 21 Americans and two Canadians.  This immersion in a different culture, landscape, and climate was an intense experience for me.  Cuba, for all its differences, is so close to the U.S. that I never left the time zone where I live in Kentucky.  We had a U.S. facilitator, Rose, a Cuban guide, Suzanna, and a friendly bus driver, Onai.  We had to adhere to U.S. laws governing legal travel to Cuba by Americans.  We were not tourists; we were taking part in planned educational activities that enabled us to interact with Cubans.  We had free time, but it was limited mostly to evenings.

Much of our people-to-people contact was staged to give us a positive view of how various social programs provide for the welfare of Cuban people, young and old.  We visited community projects designed to teach painting and dance to young people.  We heard traditional Cuban music played on antique instruments, and some members of our group danced with very fit octogenarians at a project designed to preserve Cuban dance forms.  These programs appear admirable, but they do not seem practical on a large scale.  I had to wonder how many Cubans were fortunate enough to take part in such activities.  We also had a very informative talk on the Cuban economy by a professor from the University of Havana.  The professor made sure we knew where to find source documents about the complex economic and political policies of the U.S. toward Cuba.  And, as in all countries, we were alone with cab drivers, sometimes in vintage American cars, who gave us their unscripted perspectives on life in Cuba.  These young Cubans are frustrated by their modest standard of living and limited career opportunities.  What follows are brief descriptions of the parts of the trip that had the most impact on me.


This was our first stop after we arrived by air in Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba, on a Friday.  This, along with the visit to Hemingway’s house outside Havana, was the most moving experience I had on the trip.  The memorial is not beautiful, but it is also not ugly.  It was built in 1989, 30 years after the “Triumph of the Revolution,” an expression used consistently by our local guide, a time when the Soviet Union was still supporting the Cuban economy.  The buildings show the influence of Soviet monumental architecture.  On a raised terrace there are three sandstone structures, the windowless museum, a tall tower with a large statue of Che as a guerrilla warrior on top, and a smaller block with inscriptions on one side.  The sandstone, which came from the sea and is filled with sea shells, darkens and crumbles with age and the memorial shows signs of disrepair.  This humanizes the box like structures; the surrounding vegetation makes them look almost organic.

Clearly the Cuban people love Che Guevara.  He was born in Argentina and earned a medical degree before becoming a Marxist revolutionary.  Che taught Fidel Castro the techniques of guerilla warfare, and this was how the Revolution was won.  The museum, which is dimly lit and so small the number of people allowed inside must be limited, contains a wall of plaques with the faces of the heroes of the Revolution in relief.  Display cases hold small artifacts belonging to the men and women who hid in the mountains and launched attacks against Batista’s army:  guns, books, a man’s pipe, Che’s microscope.  In their everyday simplicity, these artifacts resemble holy relics.  The walls are covered with photographs of the revolutionaries.  Che, who was a remarkably handsome man, is instantly recognizable.  Visiting this museum and memorial gave me a powerful sense of the bravery of these young people who fought to free their country from a dictator.  The faces in the photographs reminded me of the faces of young GI’s in photographs from World War II.  What I feel for them, Cubans must feel for these heroes of their Revolution.


On Saturday we rode our bus from the seaside resort where we were staying to Caibarien, another town in the central part of Cuba.  For me, the most memorable part of this day was our visit to the beekeeper’s house.  We were greeted by a young man, maybe 11 or 12, who tried out his English by introducing us to the local people present, including a little boy and little girl in bee costumes.  The little girl seemed happier to wear the costume than the little boy.  The house was a single story wooden structure with covered porches on at least three sides.  Some of the wood trim had been cut into fanciful ornamental shapes.  We were told the house was in the “California Style,” although I do not know what that means to Cubans.  It was charming, even though in need of repair.  The yard was lush with vegetation and there were potted plants everywhere.  In a rear courtyard the beekeeper, who lives in the house with his family, gave us a thorough description of beekeeping by speaking through our guide Suzanna.  He was a short, good-natured man, who liked to make jokes and obviously loved working with bees.  We were offered a bit of honeycomb so we could suck out the honey.  After the talk, we were invited inside the house.  The house was decorated to be an aesthetically pleasing space.  There were old wooden tables and chairs, china vases and dishes on display, photographs of the children hanging on the walls.  We saw the bedrooms, the kitchen, and in one room a personal computer covered by a white doily.  The first impulse of an American would be to fix up this rustic house, yet its charm was the result of its less-than-perfect condition.  I suspect the beekeeper was subsidized by the state so his house would make a good impression on visitors.

The proceeds from the bee hives were used to fund a nearby community art center, whose Spanish name means “The Color of Honey,” where children learn to paint and dance.  Five young children in colorful costumes enacted figures from Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion in which Christian saints are blended with African deities, doing a combination of dance and mime in their bare feet.  Watercolors painted by children in the art program hung on the walls, a few of them displaying the special vision children have of the world that can never be duplicated by adults.  I get the impression painting is important to Cubans, not as a commodity to be sold (most Cubans hardly have the money to buy much art), but as a creative activity that can be shared with others.


Before lunch on Saturday we visited the Sugar Mill Museum in Caibarien.  Imagine a Detroit automobile assembly line from the 1940’s with all the equipment still in place.  This huge, mostly outdoor sugar mill, that dated from at least the 19th century, was still functioning until the early 1990’s.  When it closed, it was kept intact as a museum to an industry that played an important role in Cuban history.  Displays were created to show how sugar was produced through the centuries.  Sugar was to Cuba as cotton was the American south.  Thousands of slaves were exploited so that a few might enjoy great wealth.  Although the production of sugar became less brutal with the advent of machines to harvest and process the cane, Cuba remained in thrall to the foreign companies who owned the factories and the railroads that carried the cane to the mills and the sugar to ports for shipping.  I did not know what to expect from a Sugar Mill Museum.  If you were interested in old steam engines, many were on display.  If you wanted to see a huge machine made in the U.S. in the 1940’s that extracted sugar from the cane, one sat in the center of the factory.  After spending time here, I understood that for Cubans, sugar is a symbol of their past exploitation, much of it by the United States.  The Sugar Mill Museum does not over-emphasize this point, but it becomes inescapable when you stand next to massive black machines that seem out of place in the agrarian landscape of Cuba.


After lunch on Saturday we travelled to a nearby town, Remedios, which has a town square surrounded by beautifully restored 19th century buildings.  The large church in Remedios, San Juan Bautista, is one of the most beautiful in Cuba.  Inside, the local historian told us the story of the church in Spanish which was translated for us by Suzanna.  It was hard to understand the exact chronology, but the church is old, at least from the 17th century, with white walls, a beautiful cedar ceiling and a carved wooden altar painted with gold leaf.  The stark white walls keep the altar and ceiling from appearing overly ornate.  The church was restored between 1944 and 1954 with funds from a wealthy Cuban.  It is an active church, purple banners indicating the season of Lent.  Because it was Saturday, the square in Remedios was filled with people.  There was a long line for an ice cream vendor.  I noticed almost everyone purchased two ice cream cones.  I visited an art gallery on the square that had a show of portraits of Afro-Cuban women.  They were very good.  In the short time I was there I could not determine if this was an exhibit or if the paintings were offered for sale.


On Sunday morning the sun came out for the first time since our arrival.  When traveling I lose track of the days of the week, but for some reason this day felt like Sunday, maybe because the Cubans were off work and enjoying themselves.  The bus took us back to Caibarien, the beekeeper’s town, for a visit to the House of the Traditions.  Unlike Remedios, Caibarien has seen little restoration of its buildings.  We found the House of the Traditions after our bus driver asked a local woman for directions.  Maneuvering a large bus on very old city streets is not easy.  Our destination turned out to be a beautiful colonial residence in the heart of the city.  We were there to learn about the Parrandas, a festival held every year in December.  Two neighborhoods, one red and one blue, one representing the sea and one representing the hills, compete in the creation of an elaborate display of costumes worn in a fanciful setting.  Parrandas are like a Mardi Gras float that does not move.  Although they do not look it, the costumes are made on a limited budget, using everyday materials such as candy wrappers and lots of Styrofoam.  Each year the theme is different, derived from history and literature as well as popular culture.  The theme for the previous year was French porcelain dolls, so we saw elaborate costumes for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI on display in the museum.  A recent Parrandas was based on The Phantom of the Opera, demonstrating the unlimited reach of that musical.

In a courtyard of the house young dancers, two boys and two girls, all very attractive and all good dancers, performed traditional dances, again in their bare feet.  The younger girl was only eight.  The dancers were dressed in costumes representing Mark Antony and Cleopatra.  After the performance, members of our group were invited to join in the dancing and to pose for pictures with the dancers.  I was struck by the beauty of the very intact old house that is now a museum.  The ceilings must have been 20 feet high.  The rooms were small but arranged so that a breeze flowed through the large windows from one side of the house to the other.  Tile covered the floor and the walls.  This was an urban house designed for the climate of Cuba before electricity, before air-conditioning, and clearly a house owned by a well-off family.


We spent Monday exploring Havana.  My most memorable experience in Havana took place in the bar where Hemingway drank during his twenty years of residence in Cuba, La Floridita.  We had the afternoon to ourselves, so several of us walked along the Havana harbor to a large artists’ co-operative located in an old pier.  By late afternoon my energy was fading, but my brother and sister-in-law were determined to get me to the bar of my literary idol so we squeezed into a little motorized cab for three and were there in a few minutes.  As expected, the bar was crowded with tourists, to whom we felt superior as participants in an educational and cultural exchange.  My sister-in-law spotted a table that was about to be available and soon enough we had a round of drinks.  Hemingway had a favorite stool at one end of the bar.  A life-size bronze statue of him now watches over that stool.  My brother told me to go stand next to the statue for a photograph.  Some patrons of the bar kindly moved out of the way so Hemingway and I could stand side by side.  While sitting at the table in La Floridita, I could see old framed photographs on the walls.  In all of them, the men wore suits and ties and the women dresses.  I wondered why La Floridita, which is pretty much unchanged from the days when Hemingway was a regular, seems to have lost some of its glamor.  The answer, of course, is the very casual attire of the present day patrons.  A photograph above out table showed Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and others in the bar on New Year’s eve, 1951.  In 1943, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman starred in the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Selling the rights to the movie enabled Hemingway to buy his house in Cuba.


On Tuesday, our final full day in Cuba, we took the ferry across Havana’s port to the La Cabana Fortress.  From there we traveled by bus to a small seaside village, Cojimar, the home of Gregorio Fuentes, the Cuban fisherman who worked as the first mate on Hemingway’s boat, Pilar.  To the best of my knowledge, Gregorio is not the model for the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, as we were told by Suzanna, but he was a friend of Hemingway for many years and the two occasionally had lunch in a restaurant in Cojimar called La Terraza, where we had pre-lunch daiquiris.  The current owners have identified the table where the two friends liked to sit, the best seat in the restaurant for its view of the sea, and placed a statue nearby.  There is a simple monument to Hemingway in the seaside park of Cojimar, a small round Greek temple-like structure with a bust of Hemingway in the center.  The monument was put up by the local fishermen after Hemingway’s death.  The birthdate for Hemingway on the base of the statue is off by a year.  Our guide explained that this was done deliberately by the fishermen because 1898 is the year Gregorio Fuentes was born and they wanted to show the connection between their native son and the American writer.

It was a short bus ride from Cojimar to Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia.  “Finca”” means a farm or estate.  Having gone to college and graduate school in the 1970’s, I studied the works of Ernest Hemingway in many classes.  Time and experience have shown me the limitations of this author, but I have never lost my deep affection for some of his books, especially the ones from the 1920’s.  Hemingway purchased Finca Vigia after renting it for a year in 1939 and he lived there until 1959.  When Hemingway and his wife left Cuba in 1959, no arrangements were made to move any of the contents of Finca Vigia, so the house remains virtually as it was when Hemingway departed.  It is filled with his furniture, his books, his art (in some cases, reproductions of famous paintings now placed in museums), even his liquor bottles.  Even though visitors cannot enter the house, we get a good look through the open front door and windows on three sides. The house contains big, comfortable American furniture and pottery vases from the 1940’s.  In the bathroom you can see where Hemingway charted his changing weight on the wall near the scale.  In a closet you can see an American Army uniform, probably worn when he was a war reporter in Europe near the end of World War II.  A ceramic plate with a drawing of a bull made by Picasso hangs on one wall.

Finca Vigia was built by a French family and is not a typical Cuban house.  It is a beautiful, spacious one-story villa with large rooms and lots of windows.  There are two large terraces and a big swimming pool.  Hemingway added a tower with a room for writing on the top and space for storing his fishing equipment on the bottom.  His fishing boat, Pilar, is kept in an open structure with a roof.  Visitors can walk around the boat on a narrow boardwalk.  Like many things in Cuba, Pilar needs to be restored.  Hemingway added a second steering wheel on the flying bridge of the boat.  You can see the cup holder for his drinks underneath.  Near the main house is a garage and guest house.

I have read about this house many times.  Seeing it made me realize that Hemingway had all the trappings of a good life.  He had beautiful homes in Key West and Cuba, the best tables in bars and restaurants, and, after his early years in Paris, more than enough money.  And he wrote a number of great books.  But none of this was enough to keep him from his long decline in the 1940’s and 1950’s and eventually his death by his own hand.  I was very happy to visit Finca Vigia but I came away with a feeling of sadness for a man who lived life with gusto but knew much suffering.


I am no stranger to a 1955 Chevy, a 1958 Buick convertible, a 1958 Ford station wagon.  These are the cars I grew up admiring, and I knew I was going to see a lot of them in Cuba.  But I was not prepared for how many vintage American cars are still on the road all over Cuba.  I have seen 1959 Edsels, I have seen 1957 Desoto’s, but growing up in Montana I never saw Edsel and DeSoto convertibles.  Half the convertibles produced in Detroit in the 1950’s must have been shipped to Cuba.  True, many of the vintage cars are in pretty bad shape, missing hood ornaments, patched up with putty, and painted inauthentic colors.  Most now have smelly diesel engines to save on fuel costs.  Still, they are moving, and from a distance they look pretty good.  A few of these cars are in mint condition.  We rode in two vintage Chevy taxis, the second one a part of a fleet of very well-preserved cars that can be rented to impress American visitors.    Visiting Cuba and seeing these cars is like going back in time.  The cars form a connection between the U.S. and Cuba that the embargo and the political squabbles will never obliterate.  The Cubans know how much Americans of a certain age love these cars.  By the way, the vintage cars were preserved not because Cubans could not purchase new cars but because they could not sell old ones, except to the state, as a result of a law Castro enacted after the Revolution.  People simply kept their cars and kept them running.


Imagine a country where no one is rich and no one is poor, where everyone has enough to eat, where everyone is literate, where everyone has access to health care, no one is homeless.  That is Cuba.  But Cuba is also a poor country, lacking the resources to take care of its houses, its roads, even its government buildings.  Cubans cannot afford to buy many things beyond the necessities of life.  According to our guide Suzanna, almost every Cuban has a relative in Miami, so they know there is a big glittering world beyond the island.  After our next presidential election, after Fidel and Raul Castro are gone, the unpredictable future of Cuba will be in play.


While in Cuba we learned who invented the Cuba Libre (an American military officer around the time of the Spanish-American War), who made the daiquiri famous (Hemingway), and the role of sugar cane in the mojito.  These are all sweet rum-based drinks.  Since I do not care all that much for rum, I felt it was my duty to introduce the martini to Cuba and I endeavored to do this each time I had access to a bartender.  If the martini does not catch on, I will just have to return to Cuba and keep trying.

–Daniel Burr

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