I should have known better than to take my first trip to Cuba with a bunch of retired guys from Philly. It wasn’t just the east coast abrasiveness (which I myself have been accused of), their lack of mobility, or their rather narrow worldviews. It was also the cigars. Nothing to me is harder to be around than a bunch of men with large edifices in their mouths, puffing away. Unless its Fidel or Che. Then it’s cool.
Still, I was tantalized by the tour offering, which was focused on the four-day Havana Jazz Festival, and was honored to be invited by a fellow jazz aficionado. I thought what could be more amazing then a dip of the toe into Cuban culture, with the wonderful Afro-Cuban jazz music scene as the centerpiece.
So off I went on the newly reborn Eastern Airlines flight from Miami, a short 90-mile jaunt where I looked down and imagined how much easier this crossing was than on a rickety boat.
We were met by our bilingual tour guide, Claudia, a spry 24-year-old who had completed a five-year degree in English at Havana University. No student loans for her. College is free in Cuba. Her English was flawless, with grammar better than most American kids. As we entered Havana we immediately saw the tattered condition of the buildings. One guy kept telling Claudia that all of this was soon to change for the better, what with the new diplomatic relations with America. He was sure of it. She wasn’t. In fact, she didn’t think things were all that bad to begin with.
Our hotel was new and modern, built by a Spanish company. It sat next to the ageing Riviera, a 50’s classic built by mob money in sore need of an update, but with some of the best mid-century décor I have ever seen. At the breakfast buffet I saw embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and introduced myself, saying I was a college classmate of his older brother Ezekiel, the former head of the National Institute of Health. He was on vacation with his family, escaping the calls for his head for withholding a video of a police shooting until he was re-elected mayor. Cuba was a good pick, with scant cell and Internet service.
That night we attended the opening ceremonies of the jazz festival, and here I experienced what I came for: the rich gumbo of musical talent that blends African, Latin and New Orleans jazz traditions. It was an open-air venue and art gallery, with chicken barbecue and $1 Cuban beers. The crowd was young and hip. They were a rapt and appreciative audience. It was cool. And we got to do it the next three nights, with visits to the after-hour clubs for late-night jams.
The next morning we toured a cigar factory. For my group this was Valhalla. I was amazed to see that cigars are still rolled by hand, with the same equipment used for hundreds of years. A worker can roll 100-140 cigars a day. He or she gets paid $40 a month, plus 20 cigars. On the low end that’s 2,000 cigars a month that are sold at a price controlled $10 each. So the state makes $20,000 a month per worker, and pays them $40 (plus the cost of the tobacco production). No wonder this is such an important export for Cuba. Their rum sells for $3 a bottle and their sugar industry is dead, so cigars are really the only export for this impoverished country.
I managed to get out onto the streets during our free time, and this is where I experienced the real Cuba. Havana is the jewel of the Caribbean, with classic European architecture, a mix of Beau Arts, Spanish Colonial, and Art Deco. Many in pastel colors and clearly in decay, not just because of the 56-year embargo with America, a lack of capital and resources, but also because of the salty and humid air.
The people for the most part are happy, despite the long lines for services and general lack of goods. And despite impoverished salaries, there was no begging in the streets, no homelessness, no alcoholism or drug addiction. They have free education, healthcare, and nobody goes hungry. Above all, they have art and music. Everywhere. Street troubadours play and strangers come to join in song and dance. A testament to what the arts do for the human spirit.
Is Cuba destined to lose its core DNA with the opening of its borders to American tourism and development – especially when the Castros die? I doubt it. Cuba will still compete with other Caribbean destinations for its beaches. It will take billions in investment to reverse the decay, and while many Cubans would like more money and choices in consumer goods, I’m not sure that Internet access and mobile devices will improve their overall quality of life. They are still fiercely proud people who have beauty, art, music, and great healthcare. Their weather is balmy, their beaches sublime. And they have the best classic American cars on the planet. Roll down the oceanfront Malecon in a turquoise ‘57 Chevy convertible, Cuban music blasting on the radio, pass an eclectic mix of Spanish Colonial, American mid-century, and even Russian Brutalist architecture, and you’ll think life doesn’t get much better.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]