The Real Cuba
Cuba: Paradise or Paradise Lost
For those of you that grew up in the sixties like myself, you couldn't help but hear about the Cuban Missile Crises and the potential threat of a Third World War.
It was all over the TV, radio & newspapers. Even though as kids we did not fully understand the full scope of the situation but I could tell by watching my parents that something serious was going on
I remember watching President John F. Kennedy on TV making his Speech to the Nation trying explain to a world audience exactly what was going on.
Russia was planting Missiles in Cuba, roughly 90 miles off the US coastline, which was a real and present threat to US security at that time so obviously something had to be done about it.
Luckily a war was diverted and to make a long and complex story short, life went on for all of us but since around that time, as everyone is well aware of, the US has put an embargo on Cuba stopping all trade between those two nations.
For those of you who have not visited Cuba, it is like traveling back in time to the 1950's. All of the vehicles with the exception of a few new European models the resorts and car rental locations offer, are all 1950's and earlier as well as their railway and industrial equipment.
These are all facts that you can read about anywhere but what i want to talk about is the huge misconception that a lot of the world has about Cuba, it's people and their leader, Fidel Castro.
If you listened to our Government's Propaganda Machine, you would think Castro was the tyrannical head of an evil empire but anything could be further from the truth.
I know from all accounts that while taking power, there were many horrible acts taken place on all sides of the conflict, as there is in any war/revolution around the world but I am only speaking to you as a Canadian tourist who has traveled extensively from one end of the 1200 kilometer long island, to the other and not as one of it's citizens.
I am not about to tell you that I have any idea of what it's like living under a communist rule and I would be a fool to even pretend that I did know. All I want to achieve by writing this article is to let people know another side of Cuba and it's citizens. A side that very few people know or hear about unless you spent a lot of time traveling through the country yourself.
To begin, it is one of the few third world countries in the world that I've been to that I have absolutely no problem hiking or driving through any part of the country by myself or with my family and feel completely safe. The Cuban's are one of the most loving, compassionate and caring people I've every met.
Their main language is obviously Spanish but with a few hand gestures and a combination of broken English and Spanish thrown into the mix, you will get by fairly easily anywhere you travel on the island. Most of the time I had very little idea of what they were saying to me but whatever it was, it must have been funny because they are always laughing and smiling.
Another piece of information we heard about on that first trip is that if any Cuban citizen is caught intentionally harming a tourist in any way, they receive an automatic 88 years jail sentence. Castro and all his people definitely understand the importance of protecting their country's largest revenue source and the price paid for not obeying it's laws.
On our first trip to Cuba, my wife and I stayed at a resort in Varadero which is popular vacation spot for shopping and other tourists attractions. While standing in line at the resort waiting to buy some Cuban Pesos, we met some other Canadians who mentioned that Fidel Castro was making his annual Address to the Nation in Revolution Square in Havana the next day and they wanted to go because we all knew he was getting old and this might be his last public appearance.
We all felt history was in the making and we wanted to be a part of it, so we got together that night at one of the resort's restaurants, secured a rented private van, which was owned and operated by a beautiful Cuban married couple and early the next morning we headed for Havana, about a 3 hour drive away
Javier & Ariana, our guides, were wonderful.
We stopped halfway to Havana on top of a mountain at a little tourist restaurant/cafe that is renown as making the best Pina Coladas in the world and that reputation was well deserved. Fresh coconut milk chilled to perfection and that great Cuban Rum. Absolutely delicious and believe me, the Cubans make great rum.
Ariana spoke 7 languages and was educated in Russia. You couldn't ask for a better tour guide of Havana. She new the story behind every government office, business, home and family in the entire city. We would be driving around Old Havana and one of us would point out a home or building and she would give us a complete history lesson on the family or the building. She was remarkable.
They took us to a home that was run by the wife of the former head of the largest automobile & motorcycle manufacturer in Cuba. During the revolution, her husband was exiled to Florida but she had to stay back with her family.
To make a living, like most others, she turned her home into a beautiful restaurant. We found it kind of funny in that as soon as we entered the compound of her home, they lock the gates behind us. We assumed it was to make sure we didn't skip out on the bill but it was just a security measure during El Presendente's Speech. Over 2 million people attended the festivities so security was tight everywhere, just like any other Presidential public address.
While the six of us were sitting down in the restaurant getting ready to order our authentic Cuban meal, I noticed that Javier and Ariana were sitting in another room waiting for us.
I walked over to ask them why they were not joining us for lunch and they said that it was not a proper thing to do. I immediately told them that we are from Canada and everyone sits down together at meal time and insisted they join us. The fact that Ariana was 9 months pregnant and hadn't eaten all day was also another reason to insist they join us. I knew money was an issue for them being a young, married couple expecting their first baby so it was time to play a little game
They looked so humble while at the dinner table and i was obvious they were very uncomfortable sitting with us so making them relax was now my top priority.
I asked them what was their favorite foods to eat on the menu and they recommended just about everything so we ordered just about everything and proceeded to have a feast.
At first, they were just picking away at some potatoes, still not quite sure how this was all going to unfold but it didn't take us long to grab their plates, load them up with as much food as we could get on there and let them know that they are our guests so just relax and eat as much as you can. I thought they were both going to cry they were so thankful. Absolutely beautiful people.
To their living standards, this was a very expensive restaurant but the final bill for 8 people came to less than $20.00 per person plus the tip and the food was out of this world.That also included wine and beers.
Did you know that the Cubans do not use any chemicals when growing their food. I never really knew what food was suppose to taste like until I ate Cuban food. Shrimp the size of lobster tails and the meat, fruit and vegetables were absolutely delicious. Their chocolate deserts would just melt in your mouth. What a feast. We all ate like kings so for us, it was a great deal.
What a beautiful experience that alone turned out to be. Ariana and Javier said they have never been treated with such kindness before and we all knew that we just made some life long friends. It made me realize how lucky we are to be living in such a wealthy society and taking something like a simple meal for granted. A very humbling experience for all of us.
The biggest surprise that we discovered from our tour guides is that the people of Cuba loved their leader. From all the stories we heard about Fidel Castro growing up, we assumed he was hated and feared but the truth was just the opposite, although I'm sure he is feared by anyone who opposes his power. He is definitely The Man and has been for over 50 Years. The longest reigning Dictator in history.
When you look at what they've accomplished as a country on their own with a population of over 30 million to take care of, it is amazing to see their infrastructure at work considering how poor Cuba is financially. Especially after the cold war ended and the Russians stopped supplying their 3 billion dollar a year money train to Fidel's treasure chest.
Now Cuba had to learn how to survive on their own and that's exactly what they did. The 90's were a very tough decade for their citizens but they slowly overcame many economical hurtles by putting a huge emphasis on the tourism industry and opening up their borders to foreign tourists, mostly from Canada and Europe, by offering spectacular beaches, all inclusive resorts, very cool culture and that great rum. Oh yea, I almost forget about those Cuban cigars. Best in the world.
Although the Government controls everything, no citizen has to pay for anything. They are all supplied with housing, food, medicine and were paid a fair living expense by Cuban standards. They also have a zero unemployment rate.
The tourist business is a huge income for any citizen working in that industry. Tips are a large part of their income and greatly appreciated.
The British in general don't believe they should tip in an all-inclusive resort but Canadians are known to be big tippers which infuriates the British tourists because if you mention you are from Canada, the locals will practically jump over tables to try and serve you first. The Cubans work very hard for their money, like we all do so in my opinion, why shouldn't tipping someone for their great service be any different in Cuba then it is back home.
If you are from Canada and looking for some fellow Canadians to hang out with, just go to any pool bar. They are the ones partying like there is no tomorrow with Canadian flags printed on every piece of beach clothing they can wear. As a matter of fact, that rule of thumb goes for just about any other resort I've ever been to as well
On our first tour, we couldn't help but notice that almost all of the houses looked like run down shacks by our standards but then again, if you have a sound roof over your head, enough food to feed you and your family, steady employment offering a fair days wages, free medicine if anyone ever gets sick and an amazing education system that anyone can take advantage of, all supplied by the Government, what else do you really need in life?
Another misconception is that if you are a trained professional, you are allowed to travel abroad but only if you are sponsored by a foreign company. On one of the excursions we went on, our tour guide was also a commercial scuba diver and travelled to the Netherlands often on work visas several times a year. He made a lot of money while oversees and brought it all back home to invest in his family businesses.
It was even stranger to notice that in each village you would see a beautiful home stuck in the middle of nowhere which we came to find out were homes occupied by seasonal foreigners who were somehow doing business with the Government in order to own a home there.
As I right this, no foreigners can own property in Cuba unless working directly with the Government but rumor has it that soon it is all going to slowly change and open up to foreign investors and when it does, I'll be one of the first ones buying property there.
I'm not sure if that is a good thing or bad thing. I'm sure it would mean some great economical benefits to a poor country but it is sad to think of all that raw, natural beauty being commercialized by McDonald's restaurants popping up every where. I'm sure as long as the old man (Fidel) is still around, you won't see it but he is getting up there in years and once he goes, I'm believe capitalism will spread like wildfire. It's just too close and too beautiful not be developed.
Even doing business there is a challenge but well worth the effort if you can put something together with the Government but that is the only way to work your way in.
The people all seemed very happy but I have to admit, on that first trip, we were still a little leery thinking they were hiding some terrible secret or painting on a smile for the tourists in fear of Government reprimand.
We could not have been more wrong in our uniformed way of thinking, which was all about to change as we came to learn a lot more about our gracious hosts.
During that first trip, Castro provided every home in the country, several million, with brand new appliances. New fridges, stoves, washers, dryers & microwaves, etc. because he also just introduced 24 hour a day electricity for every home, which was a big improvement from the previous 8 hours a day.
Cuba also has one of the best medical systems in the world. There is a mini hospital and pharmacy on just about every street corner and prescription drugs, that you would pay a fortune for in any North American drug store, were pennies on the dollar.
If you were an expecting mother, you had a private nurse visit you at home everyday and all major surgeries, including plastic and open heart, were all free. They also have the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. An absolutely amazing heath care system even compared to our Canadian standards.
Fidel brings in medical and engineering students from other poor countries and pays for all of their educational expenses including food, lodgings, books and classes.
Whenever there is a major natural disaster anywhere in the world, Castro also sends out thousands of trained doctors, nurses and engineer volunteers to help out the victims. During that first visit, there was a major earthquake in China were thousands of people died and 10's of thousands were injured and left homeless so Cuba sent over 10,000 trained professionals to help with the relief operation.
Did you know that when several Canadian & American journalists were captured in Iran, Castro sent an emissary to talk to the Iranian President and negotiated their release. How come you never heard that on the news?
These were just a few of the facts that you never hear about on TV or any other media source.
Since that first eye opening trip to Cuba, I've been back many times and plan on buying a second home there as soon as the country opens up to more foreign investment. In my opinion, it is the safest place in the Caribbean to live or visit and full of exciting culture and interesting history.
You will never see a more loving and content population anywhere else in the world and I highly recommend it so if you are one of these vacationers who like to get off the resorts and go into the countryside to see the real story of what the country is all about and how the people really live, Cuba is the place to go.
I could share countless stories of the towns and villages I've visited and the life long friendships I've built all over the Island so please do not listened to any horror stories you might have heard about Cuba because I guarantee you, they are coming from a source that has either never been there or have some kind of a hidden agenda. Go check it out for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
I also highly recommend the Old Cigar Factory in Old Havana whether you smoke or not. It is kind of cool to be sitting in the same giant, leather chairs that Al Capone and Lucky Luciano once sat in, drinking the same rum and smoking the same cigars that they enjoyed. If only those chairs and walls could talk. I'm sure they've listened to some very interesting conversations over the years.
Around the block is also the small motel where Earnest Hemingway wrote some of his most popular works and once you are there, you can understand why.
Havana has this amazing combined atmosphere of both mystery and excitement that is hard to describe. You can be anyone you want to be in Havana.
Tip: For those of you reading this article and thinking about going to Cuba, I suggest that you do not exchange your money at the Cuban Airport or the currency exchange office in your resort. If your resort has a casino on it, then exchange your money there because they will either exchange it at par or maybe charge you 5% compared to the 25% to 30% at those other locations. Even if the resort has a little retail store you can buy all of your cigarettes, cigars liquor, souvenirs, etc. at par.
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