Friends to Cuba- Actually, Friends to Cubans

Cover.JPGIf loving Cuba is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. What I especially loved about it were it’s normal, everyday, working class people and the families of the slums.

I visited Cuba legally, and hesitated to publish what I learned because of the icy relations of the past that have yet again been drug up to the mat. But I’m publishing in the name of art, in the name of truth, in the name of education, free speech, and almost everything I believe in:  loving others despite their ethnicity, nationality, race, political stance, or religion.


Working neighborhood, Centro Habana

The second story balcony of a colonial casa with iron railings and white kittens dodging each other, as the sun lays an orange gloss over the humid air– a group of teenagers follow a boy with a boombox blaring reggaeton– THAT was Havana upon our meeting. Locals sat out in the street and in their doorways. Fernando, the man ‘a la casa’ passionately flung his arms around to wildly discuss baseball, even though he knew we barely understood. He pointed out the Cubanos playing as the Yankees and Astros squared off in the background. Some of the houses in Centro Habana were in shambles but his was perfect, as if out of a photograph from long ago.



Fernando’s house, Michel’s cooking



My favorite house in Havana, across from ours, where the kittens would play and I would watch neighbors gather as a guitar thrummed


Alain & Fernando, son and dad (our hosts)

We expected to be some of the last Americans to visit legally under visa regulations that required the meticulous keeping of records for the U.S. government. Although I disagree with most of what he did in office, my favorite thing Barack did was begin to normalize relations. Rumors of the U.S. embassy closing fluttered around Cuba. As Americans at home celebrated “freedom” with BBQ, we exercised caution in finding legal loopholes to visit this restricted place that was very open and welcoming to Americans. We stayed at one of the Casa Particulares and had a jam-packed itinerary of educational and historical things planned. Most importantly, we didn’t spend any U.S. cash and we didn’t fraternize or trade with the enemy because we DID NOT stay in a government owned hotel or buy from government vendors.




But in Cuba things are relaxed– or “relashed” as our lovable Cubano family said. The Latin American way meets communism– so relaxed is actually despasido– slow. It teaches you to go with the flow.

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Layers of years past caked on, Basílica San Francisco de Asís, built in the 16th century



Che- but many Cubans love Camilo Cienfugos more, because Camilo wasn’t as violent and Che wasn’t Cuban, he was from Argentina


The Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Cuban People
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Sun that makes you beg for a reprieve of shade amongst the pastel conglomerates–that’s what we discovered with our hostess, Lily, as we toured ‘Habana’– one of the 3 oldest cities in the Americas. Massive Caribbean clouds rolled in like enormous sails of pirates making dock. Her husband, Michel, studied chef, cooked for us each evening. We expressed the desire to eat what typical Cubanos eat daily, which Michel informed us normally consists of white rice and a banana. Nevertheless he insisted on feeding us fancy dishes of lobster in a delicious red sauce. This was Cuban hospitality– unlike anywhere I have seen it in the world. a9999999999999.JPG


Blind musician, earning a living

Cubans take incredible care of their belongings. Cars from the 50s roll around, not just for tourists, but because importing a new car is as impossible as a working man buying a Lamborghini. Keeping the cars running requires unbelievable mechanics.


A Hemmingway Hangout




Our host’s son, Alain, getting a haircut. Alain has a four year old daughter that loves to dance. He took her one of our pink tutu-like skirts from the clothing donation. She likes to shake it. It makes me smile to think of them.

Cubans create an economy where there is none. The dual monetary system works for them. The Convertable Peso (CUC) is what tourists use which is tied to the exact worth of Dollar Bills, 1:1. When going places in Cuba, there is a line for tourists and a line for locals, who pay less for everything. We actually were told we couldn’t go into Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, which was a bit confusing (see below).


Coppelia, ice cream parlor, where we were turned away because we were tourists, and this establishment was reserved for “the Cuban people” only. Our host smooth talked the guard, skipped the line, and the four of us filled our bellies with delicious ice cream sundaes for less than 80 cents in total. In 40 countries, I’ve never been discriminated against for being a tourist like I was in Cuba. It made me think of the Jim Crow lunch counters up until the fifties. My grandfather, a white southerner, protested for equal service at those counters. I felt unwanted at the Cuban counter. It was good for me, I gained a new perspective, and I’ll never forget it. 


But Cubans don’t use CUC’s, they use Pesos Cubanos (CUP) which convert 1:25. The economy is propped up by tourists and the 1.3 million Cubans living in Florida who send money back because they know what it’s like to go without. Cubans have a joke that, due to communism, their #1 hobby is standing in line.  They stand in line for (what to me) looked like empty shelves at supermarkets. High end clothing stores are called “museums” because the working class cannot afford to buy the goods. But Cubanos will respectfully defend their pro-communist views because they are not willing to forfeit their free education and healthcare. (Although I decided that the education is hardly free because they owe the government 5 years of work after attending university).




Ropa Vieja the ‘national’ dish of Cuba (so good at Havana Boulevard Restaurant). Eating at restaurants isn’t a trend yet for Cubans.


A woman picking up her rations



You haven’t truly lived until you’ve drank pressed sugar cane juice (guarapo)



children’s carnival




It Isn’t A Vacation but a Cultural Education


Estudio De Pintura, Martalena- A personal artist’s gallery- filled with cats and paintings of her cats. There was a photo on the wall of the artist and Fidel together when they were young. She let me pose her for ‘my art’ (photography) and watched over my camera bag when I accidentally left it after this session.


Cigar Rolling, Viñales

We did the typical things in Havana, found a trumpet that makes you stop dead in your tracks. We cruised the Malecón. We trailed Hemingway, saw the statue of John Lennon and learned about colonialism, while all along the way visiting schools and school children as our U.S. visa required (of course). We saw peeling billboards promoting the revolution and communism, came across a corner ‘hot spot’ where locals holler over baseball like they are the managers of the teams. I rode an unmanageable, wild stallion through tobacco country and peeved off the vaquero cowboy that owned him. We witnessed the cannons ceremony that has happened every night for centuries– in times past troops enforced a Habana-wide ‘lights out’ policy to avoid being targeted by pirates.  I learned to salsa from a fetching Latina, whom I now call friend. Cubans are glad to host Americans.


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The reason that I will never ride another horse


Oxen used to plow tobacco fields 


Traditional tobacco drying house in the countryside. Rural dwellers usually are more affluent than city dwellers (which I thought was strange). The government heavily taxes farmers. 30% of the Cuban workforce works in agriculture but 80% of the country’s food rations come from imports. Grossly inefficient.


All smiles, because I called him “muy guapo” as an excuse to photograph his portrait. Viñales



Cueva del Indio, Viñales

But what we didn’t expect to learn was about the history– how the U.S. tried to ‘neo-colonize’ Cuba and Venezuela under the table after the Spanish-American war of 1898. In fact the U.S. tried to colonize several tiny countries at the time. Cuban relationships went especially sour with U.S. corruption tied to oil. Source


Cuba achieved formal independence in 1898. But in 1901, the U.S. Congress passed the Platt Amendment. This amendment, which was incorporated into the Cuban constitution until 1934, set conditions for U.S. intervention in Cuba’s domestic affairs. And the U.S. landed marines in Cuba in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920. The amendment also established a U.S. military colony in Cuba—the Guantánamo naval base—that is now used as a detention camp and torture chamber in the U.S.’s war on the world.

By the 1950s, the U.S. controlled 80 percent of Cuban utilities, 90 percent of Cuban mines, close to 100 percent of the country’s oil refineries, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. Cuba also became an investor paradise for U.S. gambling syndicates, real estate operators, hotel owners, and mobsters. The U.S. propped up the repressive and widely hated regime of Fulgencio Batista. This was the backdrop for the Cuban revolution of 1959.


The Cuban revolution was a just and popular rising against U.S. imperialism. The U.S. was not reconciled to its defeat. The U.S. wanted to regain its lost holdings and profits. But of even greater concern, it worried about the example Cuba set for others in Latin America. The U.S. moved along two tracks in the early 1960s: to crush Cuba and stamp out revolutionary movements throughout the region; and to launch the Alliance for Progress—promoted as a free-market solution to poverty but serving only to deepen U.S. economic penetration of Latin America.

In 1961, the U.S. carried out the Bay of Pigs invasion, which the Cuban people defeated. The CIA tried several times to assassinate Castro. The U.S. blocked Cuba’s ability to have normal trade with Western countries.”

Source Credit

And that’s the history they teach in Cuba.

In 1962  under the leadership of JFK, U.S. citizens were forbidden from visiting Cuba and the embargo was expanded to its current state.

Far off from the  story I heard a suburban mom tell her daughter on the bus back in Denver.

Me (speaking to the child): “Did you get to ride an airplane today?! Where did you go? Wisconsin, wow! I have never been there. Me? I went to Cuba”. 

Girl (speaking to mother): “What’s Cuba?”

Mother (to girl): “Oh it’s a place where Americans couldn’t go for a long time but now they can because they had a dictator and he died”.

I should’ve had the heart to correct her. But that’s us– Americans– twisting the story into something simple to place ourselves in the best light. Or maybe, like the girl, we’re too elementary to understand.


I’ve been feeling the guilt that travel sometimes leaves you with, that guilt of selfishness. I’d like to do more travel that makes a difference. My elementary school children did a drive for gently used clothing & shoes  to give to Cuban children. Clothing in Cuba, especially for kids, is expensive and of low quality.  We delivered the clothing partially to Friends to Cuba, a Christian charity for orphans. Some of the clothing went to kids at a park. Some of it went to my host family.  Lily, my hostess said that she didn’t worry as much about having clothes, but “When [her] refrigerator was empty, that’s when she got worried”.


A photo of  a photo from the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, meant to show an example of the sole belongings of some Cubans

But what struck me the most, was going into the slums of Central Havana to give away donations.  That messed me up. Because the thing about Cuba is– you can go down there (at least for now) meet people, experience the culture, fall in love– rave about how it’s untouched & authentic, but the thing about it is, you get to go home. You get to leave. They don’t.



Mis amigos- Anthony and Carlos



notice the rain barrel, Havana slums



A slum where one mother, and her three young daughters live. There’s no door, that’s it. That’s all they have- in this picture. 


All of this combined had me confused. I continue to wrestle with the questions: Is the communist system responsible for keeping these people  poor? Is it the embargo with the strongest capitalist society in the world only 90 miles off the shore that’s keeping them poor? Is it both?

I just wish that our governments could get along as well as my new friends and I did down in Cuba.


  1. Donald Sylvest says:

    I am proud of you


  2. Emeka says:

    The pity you have for the ‘poor’ Cubans is misplaced. The United Nations has certified that there is zero percent childhood malnutrition in Cuba. The UN recognized basic human rights of education and health are guaranteed for all. Their government ensures that all citizens have access to sports, arts, music, and culture. When living conditions of ‘poor’ Cubans are compared with those of peers in developing countries, it is clear that Cubans are in a better place. It may be difficult for you to understand this because you apparently belong to the middle class in the US. However, if you spent time in developing countries such as mine, you will learn that Cuba is paradise in comparison. There is no doubt that the US embargo has undermined development in Cuba. When the embargo was put in place, the policy makers stated their intention to inflict economic pain that triggers an uprising. Without the embargo, sales of Cuban vaccines to the US could earn the island billions of dollars annually. To conclude, pity and charity are often harmful because self-emancipation is the only path to dignity. If you are genuinely concerned about Cubans, it might be best that you support efforts to lift the embargo.


    • I appreciate the argument and like to be introduced to people who think differently than I do.

      First some questions.
      Where do you live?
      What countries have you visited in comparison?
      Have you been to Cuba?
      How can you discount a first hand account in favor of clearly researched Internet statistics?

      Second some explanations:
      The intent of this post was to help you walk the streets there. I documented conversations with locals. I met families who lived on 25 dollars a month. I met children with no shoes and one pair of clothes. That doesn’t mean that other countries aren’t poorer. I visited poor- the slums. I didn’t deem all of Cuba a “slum” because it just isn’t true. There are nice places. There are people who are provided for under the governmemt. Look at Fernando, who I stayed with. But a slum with 3 sides, no roof, no food, no furniture, that’s poor.No UN statistic will change my mind after I’ve stepped foot in there. I’ve shaken that mothers hand, listened to her story, looked in the eyes of her children running about. I applaud those people and choose to do more that just WATCH because they need some extra help. The government isnt serving those people enough.

      Third a correction: since you jump to conclusions, I am not a part of the American middle class by statistics. But mentally I refuse to be labeled socially or politically in any fashion if I have a choice. That’s free thinking, which I defended here by exploring both sides of socialism in Cuba. But apparently you think I could have done a better job– and I’m okay with that.


      • Emeka says:

        I live in the US presently. Before moving to the US last year for a postgraduate degree, I lived for three decades in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. I have never been to Cuba. However, I have vicariously experienced Cuba through the eyes and words of thousands of Cubans, travelers, and journalists. In the search for objectivity, science engages in qualitative and quantitative research. Your first-hand account could fall into the category of very limited qualitative research because you narrated the situation of a few families. In addition to familiarity with UN data, I am aware of literally thousands of first-hand accounts of other visitors and Cubans.

        Like I mentioned earlier, I have lived for decades in Nigeria, a developing country. I have witnessed infants die because their families lacked money to pay hospital bills. I have seen thousands of children begging on the streets during school hours. When Nigerians are diagnosed with conditions such as kidney failure and cancer, they have to beg for funds necessary for medical care in faraway places like India. Conditions are worse in most other African countries because they don’t earn revenue from crude oil as we do in Nigeria. Judging by documentaries and UN data, the plight of Latin Americans is similar to that of Africans.

        In drawing your conclusions, you refer to the average salary of Cubans. However, it is important to recall that Cubans earn pesos, and make purchases in pesos. Food and other basics for Cubans aren’t priced in figures similar to that in the US. Furthermore, while an average worker in the US has to worry about rent, college tuition, health insurance, loan repayments, and various other expenses, Cubans, in general, aren’t burdened by such financial worries. The Cuban children you feel pity for look healthy in the pictures you share. I can tell they aren’t malnourished because I am a medical professional with experience managing exotic nutritional diseases such as kwashiorkor. Judging by my own experience, growing up in a home without money for shoes may not be necessarily bad. Such experiences produce resilient adults who value the success they achieve later in life.

        On a final note, I wish to thank you for being open-minded and willing to debate a stranger. I apologize for drawing the wrong conclusion about your background. I read your blog because I have been very interested in Cuba for years. Do you know that Cuba has educated thousands of Africans and Latin Americans for free? Someone I schooled with completed neurosurgery specialization in Spain after his initial Cuban medical training. A New York based ER physician I follow on Instagram escaped poverty because Cuba offered her a scholarship. Chile’s current minister of health got her medical education in Cuba for free. The Vice President of Uruguay studied genetics in Cuba. The scale of help extended by Cuba to developing countries is breathtaking and underreported. I am convinced that the decades-old embargo has directly contributed to the slums and other economic challenges faced by Cuban. If you have a different perspective, please share it.


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