An Immigrant's Return to Cuba: A Heartbreaking Story of Survival, Poverty, and Hope
By George Vilahu; edited by Fernando Paez
December, 2000: The Flight to Cuba
Below are thoughts that I wrote down as soon as I arrived back from our trip to Cuba.
Please excuse the format and grammar. I just wanted to get it all on paper before I forgot.
This is through MY eyes, not my father's. We differed on how things are, to some extent. (Since the writing of this, my father passed away in 2006).
The flight to Miami from Sacramento started out bad. Delta was having pilot troubles and they canceled our flight that Thursday night and put us on American. It was a terrible flight.
We arrived there and stayed at friends of my fathers, Ricardo and Roxanna in Miami, both very nice folks and super accommodating. Friday we hung out there and slept so that we could arrive at the airport at the required time: 3 am……… for an 8 am flight!
We arrived at Miami airport at 2:30 am and there were already folks in line, near a small brown fold up table near the ticket counter. At about 3 am, a lady showed up and checked to make sure that everyone in line had name tags on their luggage. A short time later, she yelled out that everyone who had their paperwork filled out could proceed to the desk I mentioned.
We waited a short time and then they moved us forward to where they had a counter and scale set up to collect the money for the excess weight and the $50 per person “exit fee”.
We finally got on the plane and I noticed that there were a LOT of older Cuban Americans on that flight. I’d say that approx 80% of the passengers were over 65. I think I counted 9 wheelchairs. They were all loaded down way over what they should have carried, based on their age.
The gate: Another line. This time, they checked your passport AGAIN and then do an explosives check on your baggage. Before they opened that line up, there was a dog sniffing the entire area out (and this was before 9/11)
We finally got on the plane, a 777, which was very comfortable. It was packed!
It struck me kind of funny to see more than a handful of people on this flight, with lots of jewelry on. What are they thinking? Showing off? As it turns out, they were probably taking it to their relatives in Cuba as gifts.
It was a fairly short flight, about 50 minute’s total. It was cloudy and you really could not see much as we made the uneventful landing. Folks clapped and cheered on touch down. My dad and I just looked at each other, wondering why they were so happy.
We pulled up to Terminal #2 at Jose Marti Intl Airport in Havana, Cuba. They brought up portable stairs to deplane with in the front. The weather was hot and muggy. About 80 degrees Farenheit.
I walked towards the entrance and saw a person with a card reading “Vilahu”. He led us into the lobby where he took us to the front of a line marked “VIP”. This is a service, which I had purchased via the Internet but that can be purchased there on arrival. Only difference is you go in and get to the end of the VIP line. $35 vs. $20 but you save a lot of time and hassle.
I put my cameras and passport carrying case (which also had my cash) on the x-ray belt. The young man at the other end, asked me what was inside of a small leather sheath that I had also attached to this belt (which had my cameras on it) along with a small clip on flashlight. I explained that it was a “Leatherman Tool” with a knife, screwdriver, etc.
At this point, the VIP person came and we followed him to a lounge. There we sat and I had a soda, my dad a Cuban beer. We waited for our luggage, which they were looking for. It took a long time but we finally got them.
In the meantime, they made sure we had our Cuban customs card filled out properly and then took two of us at a time, to pay for the amount that the “GIFTS” we had declared on the form were valued at. We had estimated $40 each, so we had to pay $40 + $2 for processing, for a total of $42 each, or $84 for both of us. I paid with $90 and she did not give me back any change. I stood there and asked her for my change and she hands me a one-dollar bill, instead of the $6 she owed me. I thought for a second and then just smiled at her like saying, “OK, you win” and said thanks.
I figured that they could just as easily questioned the “$40” declared and searched my stuff, especially with all the goodies that my Aunt Berta had given me to take.
This done, I went back to the lounge and waited some more, until I got tired and went out and found my own bags.
I pointed them out to the VIP person and he put them on a cart and took us towards the exit, where yet another person sat waiting to look over our bag stubs and ask to look inside if they wanted to. This line was full and there was another empty, whose attendant came over to take us over there. Our VIP person was very insistent with him that we stay in the line we were in. Their friend maybe?
We went through with out any trouble and he took us out front and pointed out the tour person for me.
That’s because I had made a one-night reservation at an out of the way hotel on the Internet along with the VIP service. I did this in case the family from Mariel had trouble coming to get us and to ensure the VIP service, which I thought was only available through the Internet (Live and Learn).
I shook the young man's hand and spoke briefly with him. He was extremely friendly and professional. I explained that I would probably not need that night after all and why, but that he could do whatever he wanted to with that room. He said no way, that it was ours and that he would personally refund the money, etc. He really wanted me to go by and check it out. I told him I would try but failed miserably at the attempt (not enough time).
I then went to meet my dads’ cousin, who was standing there with a sign that read “Vilahu”. We were getting aquatinted and her son-in-law Fidel asks me if I knew that young man. I said no and explained who he was and asked him why he was curious.
He asked if I had not noticed the tattoo on his forearm. I said no and asked what was special about it. He called it ?... some name and explained that it is a tattoo that is given to anyone who tests HIV positive, whether they agree to it or not.
We go to the car that they had arranged for me to rent along with its driver. It is a 51 Chevy with a nicely re-upholstered interior but the windows were cracked and somewhat difficult to see out of at times. It ran fairly well most of our trip. We ran out of gas twice while we were there but he always kept plastic jugs in the trunk. One day they leaked out and the fumes were slightly more than on the other days.
All in all, the pollution there is terrible. A lot of diesel trucks that spew out clouds of black smoke and the older cars (which makes up the majority of vehicles) would not in their wildest dreams pass even the most lax of US regulations.
As we first headed out of the airport, I pulled out this list that me and my mom had come up with, and headed to “Fontanar”. This is a neighborhood that we had lived in for a while before leaving Cuba. Her mom and dad had lived there. I had a very small memory of what that house was like.
We could not find it. On our second attempt to locate it (we had the address) we were told that about 10-12 years ago, Castro had decided to change all of the street numbers/names. Why, no one could tell us.
We then headed off towards our cousins home in Mariel. I could have kept going until dark, but my dad was stressed out and tired from the trip and wanted some rest. We headed in the direction of Mariel, via the back road.
I saw a lot of countryside and LOTS of people just standing on the sides of the roads waiting and hoping that a bus, truck, tractor or car would stop and give them a lift.
During my one week in Cuba, I would have to say that “waiting for a ride” is what I think people in Cuba spend the majority of their day doing.
A Family Visit in Mariel, Cuba
We arrived in Mariel around 3 p.m. and pulled up to the house with the freshest coat of paint that I saw in that town, you could tell Mabel , the cousins’ daughter was not expecting us that early.
We were welcomed with hugs and kisses and immediately the cooking started.
They had received a package the previous week that I had sent through Antillas Express in Canada, so they had stuff to cook with. The only thing they were shorted was the 6 packs of rice that was part of the deal. When I left, they had still not received them.
Update: they received the rice on the 31st of December.
As a note; the package was ok but in retrospect, the money would have gone further in Cuba, than buying it through Canada.
We visited and soon, it was dinnertime. We were called into the dinning room where they had served two plates up, one for me and one for my dad. No one else was going to eat until we were finished. A friend of ours that visited Cuba had already warned me about that. Apparently they feel awkward and want the visitors to eat all they want before they sit and have what’s left. No way! I told them that since there was room for at least two more folks, I insisted they sit and eat with us.
Maria the cousin and her granddaughter Yinet sat and ate with us. We had leg of pork, rice, black beans and salad (tomatoes with vinegar). We spent the rest of the evening talking.
Let me tell you about the house. It is narrow, built of block construction with a tile roof that does not appear in very good shape.
You enter the living room and to your left there is a bedroom that is normally shared by the daughter and the son. She is 12 years old and a character. Very charming and sharper than many 12 year olds her age in the states. She lives for her Saturday night dance. She walks a good mile to school every day and comes home for lunch (running that is). I asked her about the days it rains. She told me that normally, they cancel school those days because it rains more in the classroom than it does outdoors. If it looks like rain, they wear other clothes underneath, so that they can take off their uniform and slide around the wet tile floors when it rains and they call off class.
The son just turned 17 and every male at turning 17 has to serve a mandatory 1-year in “his” wonderful army. He turns out to have a bad knee that has had surgery already, so his service consists of walking up a large hill every day to sit guard behind a desk all day and keep folks from coming into the castle you see in the picture. He says it is literally falling apart, but also, there is a military something or other on the backside of that castle. He is your typical 17 year old, strong young man who struts around. He is however, very polite and respectful of his elders. He hates being in service and is enrolled in school that starts on his dismissal from the service. I think he said he wants to study Economy.
Next on the living room side, is the dining room. It has a table with four iron chairs that used to be wicker. They now have a piece of plywood as its seat. A piece of furniture on the right, where they store food in and a refrigerator that, at best, keeps things lukewarm. It rained one day and since all the cables are so old, it shorted some out the corner pole and power went out for about 4 hours. The refrigerator defrosted rapidly and never really came back up to snuff. I would put a small plastic cola bottle under the freezer part and 4 hours later, it was barely cold. They told me we scared it to death! It had never seen so much food at one time inside its walls!
It is a Russian-made unit about twenty years old. The one at the other cousin's home is fifty-one years old and still has the same motor, although it also has the same problems.
On the left side of the house, is the bathroom. He had just recently laid a new tile floor in it. The floor looks nice. The sink had one faucet…. Cold water only. The shower was also tiled and it had both cold and hot water handles. However, there is no running hot water in the entire house. They heat the water outside ( see picture ) and then bring it in a bucket so that you can shower using a large cup/jar.
The toilet mechanism does not close properly, so you either take the lid on and off as needed to fill the tank or you use a bucket full of water to “flush”. No bleach at the house, so the smell was not so good. I could not find any to buy, but I did find a pine Sol type liquid, dish washing liquid and laundry detergent.
The kitchen is also on the right side past the dining area.
To clean dishes, she told me that they had bought some “Fab” for us. I did not have the heart to ask what they had used before we arrived. The Fab was in a small plastic cup, which you dipped your wet fingers into to do the dishes. The towels in the kitchen were very dirty but mostly just too old to get the stains out of, so I made a mental note to buy some. The stove is propane powered and two of the burners do not work. It is like a camping stove, top only, no oven.
Their version of roasted pig is by cooking it in a pot and adding water so that it does not burn. The frying pan that they used to cook some steaks I bought the following day was 38+ years old. It was a gift to her mom on her wedding day, as I assumed were all of the miscellaneous knives, forks, spoons, etc. It was so small, that we could only fry one small steak at a time.
No steak knifes by the way. Had to use an old butter knife. Needless to say, I went out and tried to purchase a frying pan and knives on our next outing. It was hard to find either. I found the steak knives, but of poor quality. They were $1 each. I brought them home that following day and when I noticed them again, they had opened up one pack up and the other three where hanging on their kitchen wall. They were still like that when I left.
No idea how long they’ll last and as for the frying pan, I found a decent one but it was too large for their small stove. I ended up settling for a 3-pack, “As seen on TV” brand that was too cheap and lightweight. Then I never was able to find ANY plastic spatula or plastic anything for that matter! I told them not to use it until I could mail them some.
The gas for the stove is given out as a “rationed” item, delivered quarterly. The last time, the delivery guy was 2 months late and she had to threaten to turn him in. You can see it happens often. In one of the pictures, you can see a stove that Fidel, Mabel’s husband, made that accepts any type of fuel.
Finally, the last room on the left side of the home is Maria's. By the way, just outside of her window, are two small pig pens that they have manufactured for the times when food is plentiful and they can afford to raise a couple of piglets. I offered to buy 2 but he said food was not available for that right now.
I guess Maria is probably not too keen on the idea, being so close to her room and all.
Note: the weather was hot and muggy, around 80 degrees and flies everywhere. That was definitely something that we were not accustomed to. Both my dad and I can handle the heat but flies drive him nuts and they got on my nerves after a while. No screens on any door or window, so it was just as bad if not worse, inside the house. I asked them to get me measurements of all the windows and doors before I left but they did not. I think they were feeling bad about me buying them any more things and probably could not see that as a “worthwhile” use of my money.
Sunday, our second day there, we hit some more of the homes on our list. We went to some of the neighborhoods where my dad had grown up. They were pretty bad. It was an amazing thing for me to see what effect, the lack of something as simple as paint can have on a building in that climate for over 40 years. The stucco was literally falling off of them. You could see the bricks and blocks that lay underneath, waiting for their turn to crumble.
We also had the pleasure of visiting a friend of my aunts, Angelina and her sister Jorgina.
What darling ladies. Both in their 80’s but very much alert and very well spoken. I know Angelina was a teacher and I think her sister was also. They offered us coffee, which we accepted. I hated to, because I know how hard it is for them to get it. She asked our pardon for its quality. You see, they have to mix it with garbanzo beans (I think that’s the type of bean) in order to stretch it out. They asked us to tell them as much as we could about my aunt and uncle.
Their house was very neat and well kept. She argued a bit with me about the photo but I told her Berta would never forgive me if I came back without one. She agreed. She told us of their difficulties in trying to purchase enough concrete or cement in order to fix the walls and ceiling. You could see where they had recently done some repairs, or maybe it just looked recent, since paint is expensive and has to be purchased with dollars. She spoke about Cuba and said that her greatest regret was that he had turned all of the Cuban people into beggars, for without this, they could not survive.
She still gave had a very proud sense, if you will, about her. A very dignified person.
The two family members that were with us commented on how they so enjoyed hearing them (the sisters) speak.
We continued on, visiting more addresses’ on our list. Towards the end of the day on our way home, I asked them to take me to a large super market. They took me to the one on 70th Street.
We drove up and the parking lot was full, but not packed. We parked and our driver stayed with the vehicle. All of us entered, and you could see their eyes open wide. It was very crowded inside. I guess Sundays is when most of the workers that buy with dollars in Habana shop. A lot of diplomats also could be found there. I could tell, because there was a line exclusively for them and no one else. I must have stood out like a sore thumb, because while waiting in a “regular” line, there was a lull in the diplomat line and the cashier point to me to come over. Maybe it was the cart overflowing with items?
Anyway, when I entered the Mercado, I toured the isles, trying to soak in as much of the prices and types of items as possible. Not an easy task for someone who hates shopping and does not usually shop at home. I could tell that they were taken back by all that was available there, especially Mabel and her daughter, Yinet (sorry, spelled it wrong in the pictures). I overheard Mabel tell her to stop commenting on things. I guess she did not want me to feel pressured into buying those items.
We walked and I put stuff into the cart. I bought soda, beer, cookies, and noodles for spaghetti, bread, hamburger, meat, powdered chocolate for milk, etc. With the exception of a small bottle of vanilla, they did not ask for anything while shopping. Now, as we came to the very last isle, the one with the cheeses’ eggs, etc., Mabel and her daughter stopped and turned on a dime. It surprised the hell out of me! I asked what was wrong. What had happened? She just held her daughter and told me over and over “ No, we can’t go down that isle!”
I then realized that the poor things were stricken with emotion, at seeing, for probably the first time, such a thing. And knowing that they could not afford those things, did not want to expose themselves to it. I quickly said nonsense and forced them through. I told them to come along, we had to buy some cheese.
In that same area, there were apples. Mind you, not real nice but they were not rotten and looked edible. They were packed by 4’s and cost $4 per pack ($1 each). I asked Yinet if she liked them and she said that she did not know, she’d never had one.
We bought apples.
Back to the check out:
When they were done ringing us up, I handed the cashier the money and had to show her my passport, which she logged along with the serial numbers of the bills. All 50’s and 100’s have to be logged, in case you give them phonies, they can keep you in Cuba.
Later, Fidel mentioned that we had screwed up at the market. He explained, that we should have written the serial numbers down ourselves. It appears that sometimes the scam is to replace your good bill with a bad one and……. well, you get the picture.
Average Monthly Income: $15!
We headed home to fix dinner and relax.
That night, we had steak for dinner. The meat was not all that good, considering we paid premium prices for it. That and having to cut it with a 38 year old butter knife probably took a little out of it (that was before I bought the steak knives).
We stayed up late every night talking and joking. My dad had a great time.
The following two days, we saw a lot. All in Havana, the old places where my family lived, where my parents got married, my mom's grandfathers house, etc.
It was so apparent to me cruising the streets of Havana, which families had either families living in the U.S. or had jobs where they had access to good old U.S. DOLLARS.
A good example is the picture of my grandparents’ house in Rosario vs. the house right next door. My aunt and uncle by the way lived in this house in Cuba before they came to the U.S.
Speaking of $$ dollars, Mabel's husband Fidel, works for a cement manufacturing plant (Mexican-owned) as a welder. He is pretty good from what I saw of his handy work. He has to take a test periodically in order to keep his job and has gone to company sponsored schools in Cuba.
He works 12 to 14 hour days and makes approximately $15 U.S. dollars a month. He can work more but never makes more than $17-18 a month.
Keep in mind that is about 50 cents a day wages. By the way, that is the price for toilet tissue. Guess what, they do not buy toilet tissue. They either use newspaper or a wash cloth.
Milk, powdered, is rationed to children up to the age of 7 years old. It then resumes at 65 years of age. A pack of powdered milk at the dollar store was about $3.80 for a bag that was approx. the same size as a milk carton here in the states.
A small plastic bottle of cola (Cuban brand) is 40 cents and a Cuban beer is 50 or 60 cents, depending on the brand. More than a day’s wage!
I bought a lot of beer and soda. No one got drunk but they drank like fish. When you can’t afford it, well, I guess you drink like you might never get it again when the opportunity arises.
By the way, all the food I bought at the grocery store, they would not open or eat any of it unless my dad or me opened it. The cookies, cans, and most of the stuff we bought remained unopened on our departure. The only items they took freely, were the sodas and beer.
The gasoline, was about 90 cents per liter and around 65 on the black market. I paid our driver for the fuel we had consumed at the end of each day and then the price of his labor at the end of our trip ($10 per day). I would not have wanted to drive there and I consider myself a very good driver. There were people and bicycles everywhere and no one stayed in their lanes. It was simply insane. I could just see myself in prison having to come up with money I don’t have to pay someone’s family for the loss of the person I had just hit!
Also, on the way back and forth from Mariel, there were always plenty of motorcycle cops on the sides of the road pulling folks over. We got stopped three times but he only got ticketed once. The reason given was for driving with only one hand on the steering wheel. Amazing eyesight that cop had. No way could he have seen that when he waved us down a quarter mile before we got to him. Guess they have quotas over there also.
The Failed Embargo
That Tuesday, we also had to go by and check to make sure we were confirmed on Saturday's return trip. We stopped by the Habana Libre Hotel, where we were told we could confirm (wrong). So we ended up going to the Sierra Madre Hotel, where there was an office to confirm at.
Maria & Olga's brother, Edwardo, had requested to see my dad. He is a retired Lt. Col. in Castros army. He was or is a big time believer in the “revolution”. My dad had mixed feelings when told his presence was requested but he decided he would go and see him. He was in the Habana Cardiovascular Center. We found it after some looking. It was a three story white building amongst regular homes.
My father, Mabel, Fidel, Roberto and I entered the lobby. The ceiling seemed too low for some weird reason. It appeared to be built in the 50’s. We approached the desk where this nurse sat with nothing but a phone. Fidel asked about going up to visit but was told that it was restricted to only one family member. He then had Mabel his wife call upstairs to speak with his wife.
A few moments later, Orlandito came downstairs to meet us (Mabel's brother and Edwardo's nephew). He greeted us and then went over by himself and spent about 5 minutes speaking with the nurse. He then pointed over to us and signaled us to go up. We entered the elevator, who by the way had an attendant operating it.
We went up to the third floor and the doors opened. My first impression was not good. It smelled really bad. A mixture of some type of disinfectant and urine. The urine was winning.
When we entered the room, it was hot and bright. Edwardo was seated in a very low chair between two beds. He looked very weak and I could barely hear him greet me when we shook hands. We were also greeted by his wife and his oldest son. I then stepped aside and let my dad visit and speak with him.
I could sense that this man was in no condition to have visitors. He had a large pad dead center on his chest. I leaned against the table that they had for him and got my hand dirty from who knows what. I asked to use the bathroom. Not a good choice. It had no soap and the water was in a bottle and no towel.
As we were leaving, I asked about his condition. I was told that he had just had open-heart surgery that Friday! Here it was Tuesday and there should not have been anyone visiting him. I am not sure, but I do not think that it would be allowed in the US. Remember I said the room was bright, well the sun was unbearable in it. There was a fan, which was pointed at him trying to cool him.
The room was on the side where the sun hit and the two mini blinds that were covering the window, missed about a third of it. Of course, the one third was just right for letting it come right in. I actually checked to see if I had brought along my leatherman tool to see if I could climb up and move them over. I had not brought it with me. On leaving, I asked them to please wash his hands after we left. At least to try and get some germs off of his hands, which we had shook. Heard he was back in ICU two days later. At least he has AC in ICU.
We also went to visit Marias son, Orlando later that day. He has an apartment at the Foxa (at least that’s the way it sounds) that his grandfather has. His lover, a rich Cuban lady that has since passed, willed it to him. It will be Orlando’s when his grandfather dies.
The building looks in need of repair (surprised?). In fact, two weeks before our visit, one of the six elevators went crashing down from the 14th floor and killed one of the passengers. They were still working on them when we visited.
The apartment inside looks nice by current Cuban standards. You can tell it must have been awesome during the 50’s when it was built. The library was very nice. They commented that it was too bad that we had not been there just one week earlier. It so happens that they had just sold off almost all of the very old books that once filled its shelves. They knew that my dad had been asking around at the Malecons open air book stands, about a book that he had seen years before. It had his grandfather on horseback. A picture of him from the Spanish Wars in Cuba.
The view form the apartment was stupendous, in spite of the dirty windows. In the hallway, the view was much better. The windows had been stolen.
The Dismal Goods at the Dollar Stores
We were in a hurry, so I did not get a chance to take pictures. We wanted to go to a store that was closing soon. We stopped at a more modern mall on the way back. Called Carlos something or other. It is a three-story building with a winding interior ramp to walk up between floors.
It also had a grocery store (another govt. owned institution) and some household type stores. I picked up some items that we needed and headed home.
We had discovered on our arrival to Cuba, that Olga had been hospitalized. She is one of the cousins, Maria's sister. She has high blood pressure and the doctor thought that she might have had some heart complications to go along wit it. We waited to visit her until today, because we wanted to let her get used to the idea we were there, to make her initial meeting less of a “shock”.
This hospital is in Mariel and I would not want to stay there very long either. It looked old and used. The halls were dark ( dim lighting ). The room in the ward she was in had 5 beds I believe. All were empty but hers. They had just dismissed the other patients that morning. The beds looked to be about 20 years old with mattress’ to match. The windows were open, with no screens. Olga complained that she wanted to go home, because the mosquitoes were eating her alive at night. I told her that I’d give her son Alxis a spare bottle of mosquito dope that I had brought along.
Can’t figure out why he did not give the one that I had given them when I arrived that was in all the meds I gave each family. Never did get that bottle back from them. In fact, Mabel had to send her son up to Alexis’ apartment to retrieve the bag (which I had borrowed) that he had used to take home the stuff we brought for them.
Not long after our arrival, I kind of got the feeling that once anyone there got his or her hands on anything, it was not to be seen again. That is one of the many unsavory traits that the people of Cuba have acquired, in order to survive Castros revolution.
By the time we got to the house Tuesday night, I could tell that my dad was not doing well with his legs. I told him that the rest of the week was for him to stay and visit with the cousins and their friends. He offered no resistance to the idea. That night, he came down with chills and went to bed early. He awoke feeling all right but achy.
That morning, we stayed in Mariel until noon. I wanted to see the city at night and walk the Malecon. Roberto, our driver and me drove to Havana with Mabel, Fidel and Reynier their son. We went to some more places on the list of homes. We took a moment to stop by Rosario’s house one more time. My dad had a note he wanted me to give her. He had forgotten to give it to her on our previous visit during the week. We met her daughter and her two gorgeous granddaughters.
We also spent some time walking around the Cathedral area and looking in some of the shops. There are some neat “touristy” street markets at the Malecon and at the Cathedral. We picked up some T-shirts that my dad wanted to take back to his granddaughter’s.
It also had a grocery store (another govt. owned institution) and some household type stores (also govt. owned…hell, everything is govt. owned). Which reminds me, 99 out of 100 folks you do business with at theses places do NOT know how to say thanks. Most will respond if you thank them first. I picked up some items that we needed. That night was great. The salty air at the Malecon felt wonderful. For a few moments, you could almost forget the destruction you saw around you. Almost.
We walked up the “Rampa” towards the Theater Radio Central and tried to get ice cream at a very popular place across the street from it but it was way too packed.
The city at night, for obvious reasons, does not look near as bad. The disco-tecs on the way up "“La Rampa" sounded full and music blared out their doors. We did not venture inside their doors.
On the way home that night, we stopped at an apartment near the town, which belongs to Fidel. The cement factory at which he works, gives all their employees an apartment as part of their pay. He does not use it but has a refrigerator, a small table and bed there. He had to stop and make sure that it had not been broken in to. What stuck out at me, was all the dust on the front of the building and on the banister from the factory.
No EPA regulations apply over there. This factory is owned 50-50 the Mexican government and the Cubans. They pay Cuba $25 per day per worker. They, the workers, in turn receive .50 a day. Killer deal.
Just a comment on the “irrationality” that occurs over there. I.E. The other cousins’ son works at that factory also. His wife and me were speaking about it and about the car he was driving one day. She commented that they had a real nice looking Peugeot that was sitting at the factory because of a nut that it was missing. Now mind you, this is a vehicle that they just spent $7000 US dollars on to simply bring in an engine for it from Canada.
Thursday, I stayed around Mariel. I took a walking tour with Fidel into Mariel. We walked past some smaller stores (all govt. owned), a fruit/vegetable stand (privately owned), in fact, by our drivers brother. You can see him (Miguel) and his kids on the picture page. They can sell some of the stuff they grow, but they have to pay the govt. a certain percentage. I think we caught most of the products, towards the end of the season. They did not look bad but not all that great.
We walked past the government “peso” store, which was bare. I mean just empty shelves.
Then past yet another store, where they had a few miscellaneous items. Nothing that caught our interest. The most interesting store, was one that had a lot of old or rather used clothes hanging on its racks. They are sold in “pesos” and I was told that these are clothes that are donated by other countries, which he then sells to the public.
My wife was outraged by this and thought that we should report this to different agencies.
I can understand why she’d think this but, just think about it.
What would change? He would not get the measly pesos that he now gets for them.
However, the poor folks ( and it was crowded ) that can afford nothing else, would have even less choices. If they do not get dollars from family outside, they would really be hurting for clothes.
We hit the “dollar store” in town. It was much like the others that I saw. Overpriced and stocked with poor quality items. Our next stop was at the City Park. Simple but clean.
I saw where Yinet comes to dance Saturday nights, with her cousin Jinell.
I took some pictures of the bay but was saddened but not surprised, to learn that the city’s sewer dumps right out into the water right by the park. Surprisingly, the smell was not as I expected. It then made sense to me. The reason why they had mentioned that every summer, when the kids go swimming, Jinet breaks out with a horrible rash. Now mind you, the beach they swim in is not right in town but a few small bays over. However, I’d be willing to bet that some of this, along with the crap the cement factory undoubtedly dumps, must be the reason for her rash. I tried to explain this to them but they did not seem too concerned about it.
Our last stop on our walking tour, was at a bar and restaurant called “ The boat “. It looks like a tugboat and is right at the end of an arm of land that extends out towards the bay. There is a hotel that was being repaired right next door to it. It had a nice size pool that was currently empty.
Later that afternoon, we went up to Miguel's farm. Roberto, his brother and our driver, really wanted dad to see it and meet his brother. They are very friendly people and invited us back. Roberto told us that on our next visit, he promises us a roasted pork with all the trimmings up at the farm.
He showed us around and we sat and talk for a long time. He pointed out the land next door, which once belonged to his father. His father had to lease it back to the government years ago and when he died, they kept control of it. It has not been farmed in years but they can not get it back.
They also told us, that they have to raise or grow whatever the state tells them. For example, if you raise cattle, they log and tattoo them. An inspector comes periodically and counts the cattle and checks to see if any are pregnant, sick, etc. If you get one stolen from you or it dies from whatever, you get to pay the state the price of the cow. A virtual life sentence for a Cuban who makes .50 a day! It is not uncommon for folks who have cattle or horses, to bring them into their homes in order to safeguard them.
If a Cuban is caught with meat and no receipt of their purchase at a government store, it is immediate prison.
We headed back into town and later that day, my dad, me and Maria walked down to the other cousins home, about 4 blocks away.
Her house was somewhat like Maria's house. The furniture looked much nicer, but when you sat in it you had to be careful. It felt as if it was ready to fall out from under you. It had to be at least 50 years old and very much used. The house was hot and muggy. The family next door, looked much worse off than they did. It was a single black lady with 2 young little girls who wore tattered clothes. Very sad indeed. You wished you could have helped everyone you ran into. I did not see any “black” or “white” neighborhoods there in Mariel.
You can see the construction that Olga's youngest son is attempting to build above his mothers’ home. I think he has been at it for almost two years. He has managed to get the bedroom and bathroom partially done but needs much more to finish. The factory does sell cement to its workers but everything else costs much more and is difficult to find.
By the way, while in Miami staying at our friends home he mentioned that he had an entire floor above his sisters built for around $1500.
Friday, I went to Havana one last time. I still had places that remained on the list.
It was not a very long day and although I had been to Havana almost every day I was there, I still had an urge to go. I could just imagine what a magical city that must have been during its prosperous times. It still has some of that magic left in it.
Saturday morning, we had to get up early. We had to leave by 6:15 and be at the airport by 7:30 that morning. The car acted up a little on the way but we made it without any trouble. Neither Maria or Olga went to see us off. Maria does not like good-byes and Olgas’ illness would not tolerate it. Mabel, Fidel and Alexis (Olga's oldest son) made the trip with us.
The flight seemed much shorter on this return portion. The weather was clear and you could see the coast of Cuba clearly one minute and then before you realized it, you were looking at the keys of Florida below you.
People cheered as we landed and they announced “Welcome to the US”. Dad and I looked at each other kind of surprised. I guess in retrospect, it was probably started by those leaving for the first time. Maybe.
I hope to return and this time, travel the island more. I hope that God will allow it.
I hope the government will allow Cuban citizens to travel over here and get a taste of freedom.
I hope that whomever takes Fidel's place is greedy in a different way. A way that will allow this great country to get rid of the embargo.
I hope that this country stops bowing to the political pressures of Cubans in Miami. Cubans that don’t have the guts to go and see what life is all about over there. To see that this method that we’ve been trying for 40 years to oust Fidel and his minions is not and has not worked.
I hope hat those folks in Miami give it some thought. That they realize that by “invading” Cuba with American tourists, we stand a better chance of defeating Fidel than by what we’ve been doing. This idea of an embargo is as old as the ones backing it. I wish that all Cubans of every age could see first hand how they live over there. Our children especially. It would open their eyes up considerably.
Disagree if you’d like with my editorial, but it’s my letter so I can say what I want.
Below, are some I saw and experienced, but that I can’t remember the time line.
- Can’t remember which day it was: A lady who had been in the hospital in Mariel had died while Olga was there. I think it was cancer of some type. She happened to be the mother of one of Alexis’ friends. He was speaking with Fidel on how to best convince his friend to hurry up and bury his mom. I must have looked puzzled about the hurry and was told that it was because the caskets that are available are very thin. They said that it would not be a good thing for this lady to fall through the casket, considering what her condition had been on her death. I was told of another incident of a rather large man whom this had happened to, not long ago.
- On a couple of our trips back towards Mariel from Havana, we stopped at a “Rapido” restaurant. I had pizza the first time. The choices were limited. Cheese, Tomatoes, or Chorizo & Cheese were it. I opted for chorizo. It was so-so at best. I did not finish it.
- Second time I had fried chicken with fried potato chips and rice, for $2.25 or $2.50.
It was pretty good but the quality of the chicken is not what we’re used to here. Trust me. After we were done, I noticed that Fidel pulled out a plastic bag ( like the one you get when you go to the grocery store ). I asked him what for and he said he was taking the bones back for “Nina”. She is a dog that lives across the street from them but is always outside and not fed often. “She’ll eat good for a couple of days” he boasted. Bones mind you. They sure didn’t leave any meat on them. My wife would die before she risked feeding our dogs chicken bones.
- A bag of Qt. Size ziplock bags was $6 a box! I opted not to buy them. What’s that, 12 days wages?
- I’ll have to see if next visit, I can get into this store before we leave the airport on our arrival. It is the one in the departure lounge that sells ashtrays, dolls, etc. But it also had housedresses, the kind they love to wear there and for about $7 each.
- A fan there costs around $19. That is a 12” 3 speed fan like you see at Wal-Mart.
- The way the cut the grass on the road medians, is with machetes. Men bent over in that heat cutting away, bent over all day.
- On the way to Rancho Boyero, we passed a dump on the right side of the road. Fidel and his wife commented that there weren’t very many folks out there today. There are normally a lot of folks out there picking through it for usable items.
- Plastic bags. Like the kind they give you when you buy groceries. They are invaluable over there. Most of the time, even the local dollar store near their house doesn’t have any. You bring your own. When you go to get your rationed bread, etc.
- Hot running water in a home is rare. In fact, only “diplomats” can purchase hot water showerheads. Of course, they can be purchased for double what they get in the store.
$30 a piece.
- I purchased a RX antihistamine at a pharmacy in Marina Hemingway that was suppose to be similar to Benadryl for $21 for 20 tablets. I thought that was bad but after some research here, I see that it is about ½ of what a US pharmacy would charge you. No rx needed by the way.
- At the dollar stores, they only let a few folks in at a time. They have a very big problem with theft. In one I went to in Boca, a small town near Mariel, I entered with my camera case. The guy at the door asked what it was and then told me he’d have to search it on me leaving. I said fine and entered. On leaving, I asked him to wait a moment so that I could set my stuff down and give him my camera case. He said not to worry to pass. I asked him what had changed since I entered that now I didn’t need to be searched? He told me that he had to say that because he had told the lady in front of me on entering, that she had to leave her purse outside. That they would steal but he knew I’d pay. How sad. This occurred at every place we went. They always checked your receipt.
- Nail polish, don’t know the name or quality, was .95 cents for a small bottle. Bought it for the girls. Next day, not only the girls but all of the women had this on.
- Clothes. We left most of the clothes that we took with us. It had been purchased new for our trip. It so happens, that the underwear that I had bought for the men, were boxers. I was informed that those are not worn as underwear in Cuba. That they are called “ mata pasion “ or “ passion killer ”. I laughed and then said, “oh well, guess I’ll take mine back with me”. They said no, to please leave them, that they’ll just sew the fronts shut and use them as shorts. I told them not to feel bad about doing whatever they wanted with the clothes we left ( ours ). To trade or give it to someone whom could fit them. She told me that her friend is a seamstress and could take anything she couldn’t do.
- We visited a store that was on the route to/from Mariel and Habana to look for some shoes for Jinet. No luck with the right size for the one she liked. We ended up buying Alexis’ wife’s’ daughters a little outfit.
- Also had a hardware store in the same strip mall. The quality of the tools were crap. They all looked like they were made in China and sold for US quality prices. They were out of electrical tape and would not sell me the one on display. It was lashed onto a board behind a counter. The only thing you could actually touch without having to ask an attendant for it, were cans of paint. Cheapest was $7 a gallon. We could also not find any cable. They only had one size and not what we needed.
People waiting forever and as you can expect, the employees were in no hurry and could care less if you were happy or not. I guess I can’t blame them seeing how they work for the government. Everything belongs to the governments.
- We also stopped by to visit Margot. My fathers cousin. A very sad visit. She is blind now and her house is terrible. Looks like it will fall down on you any moment.
- The fair by the Malecon is about a square block and has all the usual tourist stuff, which I bought of course. I did hold back though. I wanted to leave them as much of the cash as possible.
- The one by the Cathedral has more “artist paintings” etc. More or less the same pricing.
- The open-air book sales near the Cathedral are neat. Lots of books but I did not have enough time to look. The “guides” hit you up right away, wanting to be yours for your visit.
- The art inside the one fortress there was weird. Very “impressionistic” Not to my liking. I guess the Canadians, Europeans like it enough. Some good music playing on the second story of the building. Drinks were expensive. $1 each for beer and soda.
It almost killed Fidel and Mabel that I was willing to pay that for their drinks.
The band that was right in front of the Cathedral was great. I would have liked to sit and drink and listen.
- A lot of small shops and restaurants around the Cathedral area. Lots of tourist.
- The air on the Malecon is amazingly salty. It coated my glasses big time. Smelled great.
- CubaPak is the place we stopped to check on the rice that was promised but not delivered with the other food. It is located in what looked like a very nice older mansion. We asked at the office. They checked with the warehouse and said that it was not in. By the end of the year. Man, were they right. December 31st it got delivered. Then we went into the shop area. It had a lot of refrigerators and television sets. Some boom boxes, stoves and washing machines. Prices are similar to what you see on Antillas Express in Canada. TV’s are about the same as here. Same with refrigerators. The boom boxes are kind of expensive though.
- We visited another store, the one where the consulate folks buy the electrical items. It had again the same type of items but it also had computers, microwaves, lamps, etc. The microwaves and computers are sold only to them. Sorry, no Cubans need try.
- I was also told that even if a Cuban had $20,000 cash with which to by a brand new car , that they would not be allowed. Period. No exceptions. Only foreigners need apply.
- I saw a few buildings around the Malecon that had scaffolding up around them, but in the week that we were there and drove by them everyday, I did not see one single person working on them. It did appear that they’ve repaired some of the sea wall, as you can see on the web photos. I did also see some that are still in direr need of repair. The Cathedral area was also well taken care of. That and the homes and mansions that line some of 5th Ave. mostly consulates and Embassies.
- The streets in Old Havana are horrible. It is amazing that people can live in those homes or should I say buildings. We were ushered out of one area by our family when we started walking down them. It was not a pleasant feeling. Hard to describe but you could feel the “ what the hell are you doing here?” in the air.
- Do not recall seeing any army men hanging around with machine guns around their necks ( unlike some other Latin American countries ). We did see a lot of police, both on motorcycles and cars all around town but mostly on the road. All had guns on their belts and I’m sure they had more in their vehicles.
- Like I said previously, TP is not an option at 50 cent a day wages. So, they do not flush newspaper which would most likely clog the pipes. Hence, a small container in the bathroom to deposit the used stuff. You can not get the smell to go away.
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