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Club Red: Traveling Along the Edge of Post-Fidel Cuba

March 20, 2014
by Wendy Miller
a mural of Che Guevara

We are wrapped in sweaters and sitting in an air-conditioned Chinese-made bus as it glides quietly, frigidly through the Cuban countryside. Outside, it’s about 80 degrees and humid, and people walk past the bus or congregate on corners, dressed in shorts and tank tops.

Cuban flag

The bus passes some farmers drying rice on the highway. Then comes a sudden stop, which means there is broken-down car ahead. We get around it and soon pass a guy selling peanuts by the side of the road. Then we come to a wild, wooded area in the middle of which is a moldering mid-20th-century community building. On a stretch of beach, lovely white bungalows line the water, which is presently cobalt and at other times will be azure, teal, aquamarine, or turquoise. Across the highway looms a boxed set of brutalist Soviet-era apartment buildings—painted, unsettlingly, in tropical shades that bring to mind the 1980s television show Miami Vice.

At moments like this the idea of a socialist beach resort makes visual sense, though a beach vacation—of the socialist or capitalist persuasion—will not be on the agenda today or any other day of this vacation.

We are on day three of an eight-day excursion that 28 companions and I are taking in late November. This is a people-to-people tour organized by Cal Discoveries Travel (a subsidiary of the Cal Alumni Association, the same nonprofit that publishes California), which has been offering travelers the opportunity to take tours to Cuba since February of 2012. It is a jam-packed week that covers three cities and includes myriad cultural and educational events and interactions, among them three lectures and visits to medical facilities, religious communities, museums, dance and music schools, two hotels, and many restaurants.

The tour, like all legally sanctioned visits to the island, must abide by U.S. restrictions. This means that all that blue water—whether azure, teal, aquamarine, or turquoise—will be appreciated from a distance. On these tours, Americans will not be hanging out at the beach drinking mojitos.

Many in our group assumed the restrictions were mandated by Cuba. On day one, as we prepared to disembark the plane in Cienfuegos, one of my travel companions leaned across the aisle and said, “This itinerary is really full and doesn’t give us much time to ourselves. I guess the Cuban government wants to keep track of us.” “No,” I replied, “I think that would be our own government.”

The Treasury Department website posts the guidelines, which are clear on this point. Tourists “will have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Editors’ note: Less than two years later, on Friday Aug. 14, 2015, U.S Marines would raise the American flag at the embassy in Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century, marking the renewing of diplomatic relations between the former foes of the Cold War. President Obama would say in re-establishing the relationship that the old approach “has not worked.”

Our first meaningful interaction occurs the first day, when we meet our Cuban guide, Yaritza, a lovely young woman whose slightly officious manner is softened by a disarmingly warm smile. Yaritza speaks four languages, including Spanish and a heavily accented English that features curiously ornate structures and colloquialisms she has picked up from visitors from across the English-speaking world. She also possesses a vast knowledge of Cuban history, social structure, economics, and culture, which she imparts during the eight to ten hours a day she spends lecturing at us, translating for us, and kibitzing with us.

Building in Cuba

Like most Cubans, she works for the government, and though it would hardly strike most Americans as a glamour job, being a guide is in fact a plum assignment—maybe not as prestigious as teaching, Yaritza’s former career, but much more lucrative. That’s because as a guide, Yaritza receives tips, which are paid in CUCs, the convertible currency used by tourists. CUCs are pegged to the dollar and 25 times more valuable than the peso, the currency of government salaries.

So one fact we will realize about Yaritza, our steadfast people-to-people person, is that she is one of the lucky ones. In addition, she will reveal herself to be a proud beneficiary of a socialist system, a feminist, a homeowner, a champion of economic reform, sympathetic to small business ownership, and a patron of the arts. And judging by the fact that she calls home to check up on her son every chance she gets, a harried working mother.


Cuba is not very big: nearly the size of Pennsylvania, with a population of around 11 million. But it has a huge presence in the world, a fact perhaps best explained by its place on the map. For more than 500 years the island nation was an accidental destination, both beneficiary and victim of geography, yoked to one imperial power or another, vulnerable to colonial misrule and economic pillage.

“With the Florida Straits a natural gateway to Spanish colonial possessions (and their vast mineral riches) in the rest of the hemisphere, Cuba became a key stopping-off point for commerce between the new world and the old,” Julia Sweig asserts in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Havana boomed as a port and a business center, and the country became a major producer of tobacco and sugar.

But what attracted Spain to the area also attracted pirates eager to plunder ships, and lured other imperialist nations. Britain, which occupied Havana for less than a year in 1762, stuck around long enough to open it to trade with its neighbors. With American independence and Spanish imperial implosion, commerce between the United States and Cuba increased. But that relationship would soon grow strained over issues of slavery, investment, and Cuban sovereignty.

As early as 1820 Thomas Jefferson was declaring his intentions to annex Cuba.

America did not annex Cuba. But after the Spanish-American War it occupied the island for a time. When the occupation ended, Cuban independence was still highly dependent: The treaty that liberated Cuba gave the U.S. a permanent naval presence, as well as control over Cuba’s political affairs and much of its economy.

And while the relatively puny Cuba profoundly influenced the culture of its large neighbor to the north, particularly its music and dance, America, with its political, cultural, and economic muscle, Sweig writes, until 1959 “exercised an undue degree of influence over Cuban society.”

Mural of Che Guevara

With the revolution, Cuba traded dependence on one superpower for dependence on another. It got itself a sugar daddy in the U.S.S.R., which bought up half of Cuba’s sugar crop at inflated prices. This helped the new revolutionary government sever ties with the United States, nationalize all land and business (a great deal of it owned by U.S. investors), and support its revolutionary goals of providing health care, education, housing, and food to its citizenry. The Soviets, for their part, got a strategic foothold in North America.

In the early 1990s, the Soviet bloc collapsed. “This is when Cuba’s Special Period starts,” architect and urban planner Miguel Coyula tells us during a lecture on day four of the trip. If by “special” he means that sugar privileges ended and oil imports plummeted, thus wiping out most of the country’s energy and distribution systems, public transportation, and half of its food production—then it was a very special time indeed. Eighty percent of the economy was gone.

“Cuba was then forced to retool its entire system of economic relations,” lecturer and economist Jorge Mario Sánchez Egozcue said during a lecture a night later, “beginning at the bottom. And it did so in a context aggravated by a tightening of the U.S. trade embargo.”

These days, the Cuban Communist Party holds the fraying socialist safety net together by weaving an economy from disparate threads, most important among them tourism, foreign remittances, and international trade.

“If you want to start a con­ver­sa­tion with a Cuban tell him you love base­ball.”

Interestingly, a primary export is the Cuban doctor, a byproduct of the country’s impressive educational system. More than 40,000 Cuban physicians and other medical professionals are practicing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

At the center of this tenuous economic arrangement is the eccentric dual currency. The CUCs are the currency of foreign trade as well as going to Yaritza and all those waiters, bartenders, housekeepers, musicians, and lecturers who transact with foreigners at home or abroad whether through tips or by selling goods and services abroad. The peso (CUP) is solely for domestic use. The average Cubans (including the aforementioned doctors) are remunerated in pesos, and the average wage is the equivalent of US$20 to US$25 a month.

Remittances, like CUCs, offer some people opportunities to get ahead. People lucky enough to have relatives in places like Miami who send money can use the funds to start a small business or buy and maybe renovate a house. Not so for peso-earning neighbors.

Other holes in the net come from the debt burden from foreign imports and state-subsidized labor, healthcare, and education. The state itself has little in the way of savings and is unable to invest in industry or development. All of this poses considerable challenges for the centralized government, now headed by Raúl Castro, the 83-year-old president and younger brother of Fidel, the Cuban dictator who was the face of Cuba for five decades. Under Raúl Castro, says Sánchez Egozcue, the government is seeking “socio-economic change while maintaining the existing government model.” On the agenda: expanding the private sector and opportunities for the young educated class, shifting people off the government payroll, implementing a progressive tax, phasing out the two-currency system, and attracting foreign investors. (Recently, Castro and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated phase one of the Mariel Port renovation. Undertaken with the help of Brazilian investors, this is intended to bring in foreign investment, increase trade, and create jobs.)

From a tourist’s point of view these economic realities translate into startling physical images: a horse-drawn cart atop car tires wheeling down the highway; a meticulously restored Colonial-era house sandwiched between two other houses that are literally falling down; a line of people in front of a government food dispensary who nonetheless appear nourished and kempt if not full and fashionable; medical clinics in every small village; beautiful studios where internationally known artists live and work; make-shift studios where dance collectives struggle to survive. Dilapidated old American cars. Our new Chinese tourist bus.

And the image that seemed to best capture the Cuba of today: The vendor selling shirts, hats, even onesies, with the likeness of national revolutionary hero Che Guevara—for CUCs.


On our first evening in Cuba, we walk around Cienfuegos, taking in the splendid Gallic-inspired architecture, before visiting a cultural center, where young aspiring performers dance in a style that marries hip-swiveling reggaeton to Socialist realist purposefulness.

Arial view

“José Martí is a national hero, a 19th-century great-ideas man,” Yaritza tells us on our first walk through downtown Cienfuegos. She is talking about the poet, essayist, activist, and founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, whose ideas on American imperialism, Cuban independence, and social equity inspired the revolution that followed.

“At least three times a day, every day, you will hear the name José Martí. Everywhere we go there will be a building or a town square named for him. He offers great value for the Cuban people.” 

And, as she points out, it is Martí’s visage and that of Ernesto “Che” Guevara which appear all over Cuba, and not that of Fidel Castro. Why?

“Because Martí and Che are dead. And Fidel is still very much alive.”

The next day we tour the restored colonial city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After that, we visit a Santeria temple, the restored home of artist Carlos Mata Pich, and a shop where Cubans use ration cards to buy half their monthly food staples. The government, says Yaritza, can no longer afford to pay the entire month’s allotment.

We have by now seen two cities and about 120 miles of countryside. It is day three and a few things are already obvious to us—some by their absence. With all that water it seems odd that there are very few boats, but then motorboats have been known to take people to Florida or Mexico. There is also no graffiti (though there is propaganda) and virtually no litter. Even the poorest, most decaying neighborhoods have clean streets. And the only beggars we’ve encountered have politely asked us for soap (consumer goods are expensive for ordinary peso-paying Cubans, who must use most of their salary for food).

And there are the tangible things: the Che Ts; the mojitos, daquiris, Cuba libres, and any other rum drink you can conjure (not to mention the sugar cane fields whence the rum comes); and the José Martí statues, parks, and squares. And there is baseball.

Scenes from Cuba

“Baseball is the national pastime,” Yaritza says as the bus passes our second— or maybe it’s the third stadium we’ve seen in what seems to be a sparsely populated area. “When you see people congregating, often they are talking about baseball. If you want to start a conversation with a Cuban tell him you love baseball.”

Yaritza has already described the health and education systems in great detail, down to the color of school uniforms (from pre- through secondary) and doctor-to-patient ratios in each rural clinic. On this day, having made it perfectly clear that she and other Cubans are very proud of these legacies of the revolution, she is ready to speak frankly about some of the nation’s failures.

“In Cuba you hear a lot about education and the medical system,” she says. “But not about public transportation and housing. Both are terrible. There are not enough buses, they are very crowded, and when they break down it can take some time before they are fixed. Everyone is guaranteed a place to live, but there isn’t enough housing for everyone, so it is not unusual to have many families living under the same roof.”

This is not the first time we will hear people openly criticize the Cuban economy or political system, though the criticism is often leveled at “the government” not “the Castros.” (There is no way to know if this is because Raúl and Fidel are still the elephant in the room—or, as my husband would later say “the elephant that left the room.”)

The bus once again slows down for a stalled car. Yaritza notices sugar cane fields out the window and she launches into a discussion of the Cuban rum industry. She explains to us that in the early 1960s the plantations and business holdings of the rum-producing Bacardi family were nationalized, so the family took its formulas and its name and left the country. “The Cuban government, which now owns those lands and distilleries, cannot use the Bacardi name. The rum is now called Caney.”

“In Cuba today we don’t like the word expropriation,” she adds. “We prefer nationalization.”

Our last stop before heading to Havana, where we will spend the next five days, is Playa Girón, better known to Americans as the Bay of Pigs, where a CIA-backed counter-revolutionary force attempted but failed to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro in 1961. It took Castro’s forces three days to defeat them, which humiliated the U.S. government, solidified Castro’s power, and strengthened both his socialist resolve and his relationship with the Soviet Union. 

“At Playa Girón,” Yaritza tells us after our amble through the tiny two-room museum, “it took 72 hours for militia made up primarily of farmers to beat exiled Cubans.” As we drive through the forested land surrounding the museum she tells us of the plan to build resorts along the beach.

“It would be consistent with revolutionary principals,” she says, “to turn the area into a place for eco-tourism.”


Most of our time in Cuba is spent in the capital, Havana, a city so big, diverse, vibrant, and multi-hued that my first reaction is to feel inadequate, as though I need at least three more senses to fully absorb the place.


The architecture alone—from colonial and baroque and neoclassical to art deco, mid-century mafia modern, and Soviet constructivist—could keep even an amateur historian overwhelmed for a month. In Havana Vieja, another UNESCO World Heritage site, restored buildings are so colorful they seem alive. The sensation is intensified by the constant stream of vividly dressed people and infectious music emanating from restaurants, bars, and the musicians playing every block or two.

Havana seduces and confounds at the same time. It is immaculately clean, yet much of its infrastructure is crumbling. Old neighborhoods with massive colonial or neo-classical mansions attest to periods of enormous prosperity for some, while concrete apartments, and Socialist realist posters are reminders of Soviet ties that still bind. And in beautifully restored public buildings, long lines snake through the lobby to the one working toilet or elevator, indicating that government money is tight and access to parts is restricted. Yet tourists are everywhere. According to government statistics, there were more than 2.7 million visitors to the island in 2011.

Woman dancing

It is no small irony that tourism is being promoted by the same government that overthrew Batista, a dictator who helped turn Havana into an adult theme park of hotels, casinos, and brothels when he “opened the door to the mafia,” as architect Miguel Coyula put it. Casinos may now be illegal, but all the symbols of the era, from the classic cars to the nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels, are being spiffed up for a new generation that is rockin’ the Rat Pack look, if not the mob affiliations. Coyula worries that too much of Havana will once again “get bulldozed to build high rises.”

And because tourism is driving the economy of this city like nowhere else, the class system based on two currencies is evident. Affluent foreigners fill well-appointed high-rise hotels that have been renovated through partnerships with foreign investors while the state-owned ones nearby are shabbier and have plenty of vacancies. It’s also not uncommon to find your mojito made by a professor moonlighting as a mixologist.

High-end restaurants, and the few shops that carry the global brands foreigners demand wherever they go, attract only the locals who have acquired CUCs. And there are fewer of them than you might expect, partly, as economist Sánchez Egozcue explains, because “consumption patterns” of tourists like us (who like our Cheerios and Coke) mean that “80 percent of the tourist dollars go back to the U.S.”

Men playing guitars

Meanwhile, people are leaving Havana, largely young, educated professionals who hope to find better prospects elsewhere. Those migrating to the city, says Coyula, are less educated and lack work prospects. As a result, he says, “Shantytowns are back.”

“The human being,” he adds, translating a Spanish proverb, “is the only animal that stumbles on the same stone twice.”

If there is a tourism future for Cuba it has both a present and a 50-year-old past in Las Terrazas, where the Cal Discoveries tour group spends its seventh day.

A building

The village is located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Once a vast deforested area less than 50 miles from Havana, Las Terrazas is a small, well-appointed lakeside town of 1,400 whose citizens tend the surrounding 8 million trees. Original members came in the late 1960s from impoverished villages to terrace, plant, and build. The community now has schools, a senior center, a medical clinic, organic gardens, gift shops, and a growing reputation for eco-tourism. There is a hotel and El Romero, an organic, vegetarian restaurant. Terrazas comfortably combines elements of communitarianism, small-business ownership, and innovation.

It is the favorite destination of most of the people on our tour and likely the favorite of any traveler interested in combining relaxation and comfort with healthy eating and social and environmental responsibility—values near and dear to many Californians.

On our way back to the bus, I chat with Tito Núñez Gudás, the chef of the eco-restaurant where we’d just had lunch, who will ride with us back to Havana. I mention that Alice Waters, whose work he probably knows, is an alumna of Berkeley. “Oh yes, he says, “I’ve met her. And Michael Pollan. We are all part of the Slow Food Movement.” 

Out of the damp heat and back on the air-conditioned Chinese bus, I curl up inside a jacket to keep warm on the drive back to Havana. Tomorrow we will head home at around noon, and I haven’t even bought gifts to take back with me. I ask Yaritza if there will be Che T-shirts for sale at the airport. Very likely, she says, though she can’t be certain. They are, it turns out, and can be purchased for CUCs, dollars, and euros.

Wendy Miller, Editor of California, avoids mojitos but is an avid salsera.

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