Cuba & Mexico 1989

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February 19th 1989
Published: February 28th 2010
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This is a continuation (#3) of my putting our old travel journals onto this blog site. See previous ones: Guatemala 1988, which is the first in this series, and Costa Rica 1989 (w/Christmas in Cozumel, Mexico and last days in Guatemala), which is the second. Again, I am relying on photos I happened to have scanned and ones people have sent to me as I do not have access to my original photos. Thank you all who sent me photos - much appreciated! When we return to the states (this is being written in Germany where we are living this year) I'll add/substitute original photos.




(Originally written April 15, 1989 in Argentina)

We have been traveling for ten months now - hard to believe huh? People ask us if we are tired of it yet, and we can honestly say, no. Every new country, city or area is exciting. Bernie and I travel so well together; we are almost always in harmony.

Cuba, February 19 - 26. Companions: Mark & Yolanda Graber of Anchorage; Ron & Alana Bergh of Fairbanks, and Lulu from Mexico City.

Cuba, where Castro may be President, but the dollar is king. In a country with a tightly controlled Marxist society/economy, they not only want, nea they demand, US dollars. All the prices in the tourist stores are in dollars; they accept only US $, no Mexican pesos or yen, etc., only the almighty dollar. I found this really strange, especially since Mexicans are by far the largest group of tourists to Cuba (Canada and eastern block countries are next). Indeed Americans without family ties (or journalists) are not ALLOWED to travel in Cuba (ask me later about how we managed.) There is not a travel restriction as such for Americans, but the US has an 'economic embargo' against Cuba. That means Americans cannot legally spend any money in Cuba. Those who get permission to visit have to be totally 'hosted.' All other tourist must exchange their currency for US dollars.

As in all communist countries, there are well-stocked stores for tourists. In some countries locals can shop in these stores, but they must use hard currency - the local money is not accepted. In Cuba only tourists and diplomats are allowed to buy in these stores, and only US dollars are accepted. The merchandise in Cuba is mostly leather goods, liquor, cigars and designer clothing. This high-quality merchandise is not available in local stores. At any rate, for citizens food and clothing (and many other items) are rationed. Just to give you an idea: one pair of shoes (poor quality) per person per year; one chicken per person per month. Even sugar is rationed, and Cuba is the No. 1 producer of sugar cane in the world!! But, of course, most of the sugar goes to Russia.

We were traveling with some Mexican friends who have friends in Cuba. Lulu, a doctor, was a sports physician assigned to the Olympic Games when they were held in Mexico City in 1968. She met and became friends with some Cuban athletes (track stars) - these were the friends we met in Cuba: Enrique won a silver medal in the 100 meters in Mexico City and once held the world record; Lazaro competed in the 100-meter hurdles; Jorge was a track & field trainer who spoke fluent Polish as he worked and trained in Poland for four years. These men are all doing well by Cuban standards, yet none of them had more than one set of good clothes. We saw them every day and they had on the same clothes (but then again, so did Bernie). Enrique, because he is still considered a national sports hero, has a car.

Cars. A person has to earn the right to buy a car. Excellence at work, in the Party, and time seem to be the key factors necessary to get permission to buy a car. We met a girl (24 years old) whose father, at age 47, had just earned the privilege to buy a car. She was very upset at the thought of having to wait until she is 47 to drive.

The type of car is regulated as well. Only the big-wigs get the mid-sized cars (usually Russian made). The peons get tiny Polski Fiats or Russian Ladas. Even if permission to buy a car is granted, the cost can be prohibitive. I suppose that if a person started saving as soon as he/she started working, in 30 years or so at age 47 they could have saved enough money. How depressing.

We were amazed to see tons of old American cars - 1940 through 1959* - and in great shape. It was somewhat of a time-warp. There are two kinds of cars in Cuba: mid-size and small (nondescript) Russian or Polish, and huge, wonderful old American cars. The American cars are not included in the merit system for ownership, so can be bought and sold privately, and thus they are well-maintained and highly prized.

*The Revolution was in 1959

Speaking of maintenance, I don't think anyone in Cuba has picked up a hammer or a paint brush since the Revolution. The Cuban propaganda says that there are no more slums in Cuba - everyone is equal now. That is partially true, they are equal as it is ALL a slum now. Once beautiful Havana is dreary and depressing; all the buildings are dirty and desperately in need of paint. The streets may be clean of garbage, but boarded up and crumbling houses and buildings abound. It is sad to see big ornate houses of the 1930s gutted and falling apart. Some of these houses are now schools and daycare centers, but many more are in disuse and disrepair.

Housing. Lack of housing is a major problem. There are no rentals; the people have to buy a flat or build or buy a house, or are provided housing through their work. It takes over 5 years to build a house because of the lack of material. A one-bedroom condo/flat costs +/- 12,000 pesos. Considering that the average salary is 180 pesos per month, saving for a house is almost impossible. Most people live in apartment buildings owned by the agency they work for, but even those are over-crowded.

With an average wage of 180 pesos per month, people are barely above poverty level. Fortunately some staples are subsidized and medical care is free. However, an electric fan costs 400 pesos and is considered a luxury - even through Cuba gets VERY hot and muggy. Forget washing machines and the like.

Religion. Cuba has freedom of religion. The people are free to practice their religion, however, they would probably lose their jobs if they did.

Unemployment. In this workers’ paradise unemployment is a problem and getting worse. Many young people cannot find suitable employment in the cities and do not want to work in the sugar cane fields.

Cuban cigars are still big sellers around the world. The cigars are still hand-rolled and we visited one of the factories and watched the rollers at work. They sang songs to keep a rhythm to which they worked. It was really fun to watch them.

Standard of Living. One Cuban was asked by his son why they had made the Revolution; why was life so tough; and why were they always hungry? The father said he wanted to cry because he had no answers for his son except that they had thought they were combating hunger and creating a better world for their children. The son’s next question was: Why don’t you change the system now that it has failed? Why not indeed.

Much of what I am relating is from the Cuban athletes and a young lady who was our tour guide one afternoon - I’ll call her Maria.

Maria started out giving us the usual Party line, but by mid-afternoon felt more comfortable with us and opened up considerably. She was exasperated that a telephone was impossible to obtain; that she wanted to be a practicing Catholic, but could not jeopardize her job by going to church; and she was downright angry when she talked about restrictions on travel: “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to visit friends in Canada or wherever?” She said she got physically ill if she thought about these and other frustrations too much.

Now Maria is a product of Marxist Cuba - she has been indoctrinated since birth and you would expect her to be a good little communist. Even so she knows performance is improved by incentive. She got so angry at the system for creating unmotivated workers; she had to deal with some reluctant workers at a few places we visited. At one restaurant the waitress did not want to let us in (it was near quitting time), but relented when we answered in the affirmative the barked question “Well, do you at least have US dollars!?”

It was evident how closed Cuba is when Maria asked us not to mention our talks because she could get in serious trouble.
Yolanda & Mark Yolanda & Mark Yolanda & Mark

We still see Mark & Yolanda regularly - here they are last summer when we visited them in San Antonio. Unfortunately Lulu is very ill and in a nursing home.
The tour guides are supposed to spout the standard propaganda.

Tourism. Which brings me to the tourism industry of Cuba. In a word, lacking. We were on a 'tour' which provided next to nothing. It was really only a hotel, meal and airport transportation package. It was, however, represented otherwise, and we were disappointed. Had we known we were to be left to our own resources, we would have become more resourceful sooner. As it was, we spent four days in Havana and saw virtually nothing. We went on a 'city tour,' which took us to one place and the guide spoke only Spanish (and that very quickly). Thrilling. Our Mexican friends, Lulu and Yolanda, managed to get us an English-speaking guide one day, and we learned and saw a lot that day. It took us all morning to arrange for the guide, so our time was, unfortunately, limited.

Another day we went on an outing which was billed as a visit to a working farm and then a picnic lunch and horseback riding. In reality it was a trip to a restaurant called The Farm where we had lunch and never saw a single animal or worker.
Alana & Ron BerghAlana & Ron BerghAlana & Ron Bergh

We haven't seen the Berghs in eons, so pulled a photo off one of their many on the web - busy people those Berghs
There was lively music and the food was great, but it was hardly what we had expected.

Havana is not complete without attending a cabaret. We went to a cabaret extravaganza one night and it was like being in a Carmen Miranda movie. The costumes were outrageously elaborate, especially the headwear.

The hotel we stayed at in Havana was once beautiful. Our room was huge, and the view would have been spectacular except we couldn’t see through the incredibly dirty windows. Again, the lack of maintenance was the main problem: wallpaper peeling, mildew in the bathrooms, mirrors rusted, carpet extremely worn and poorly repaired. The service at hotels was almost non-existent, the employees were indifferent and there weren’t even bellboys.

After Havana we spent three days on the beach east of Havana. Well, actually we spent three days in our rooms at a hotel at the beach east of Havana. The weather was the pits (cold and windy) the whole time we were in Cuba, but was even more depressing when we were supposed to be having beach time. It was actually quite a storm we were in. In Havana huge waves were breaking over the seawalls, and the coastal road was closed in places.

The highlight of our beach stay was when Lulu* and her Cuban friends took us to Lenin Park. This park has 1,000 acres of beautiful grounds and is very impressive. We had coffee at a very nice restaurant in the park, but, of course, talking to Enrique and friends was the most informative and fascinating.

After the park we took a local bus back to the hotel - what a riot! The bus was so packed that people were hanging onto the outside, freaking out one of our companions, Alana. Per our guide Maria, bus service is not great, although few people have cars and rely heavily on the buses.

Oh, I almost forgot a very important item: we met TWICE with Fidel Castro! Okay, so we didn’t meet him, but we did see him twice. Okay, we didn’t really see him, we saw his motorcade twice. Well, we weren’t positive it was his motorcade, but our guide said it probably was.

Before leaving Havana we spent the afternoon at one of the tourist stores. Armed with our Cuban friends' and their families' sizes, we bought them all good quality shoes as a thank you for their assistance and good company. Lots of tears - our and theirs - shed before departure, but definitely a feel-good highlight of the trip.

*Unfortunately Lulu is very sick now (Alzheimer's) and in a facility in Mexico near her children, and I don't have access to any of my photos of her.

Guadalajara, Mexico, Feb. 27 - March 2 (80° F and sunny)

Back to Mexico from Cuba, and to a wonderful city. Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico with eight million people (Mexico City has 20 million). It is a lovely city with many well-kept old buildings. We stayed at a great colonial hotel in the heart of the city. We hired a guide for a day and toured many of the beautiful buildings and churches. The rest of the time we just walked - it was a perfect walking city with wonderful plazas and many vehicle-free walking districts. We saw a delightful folkloric dance one evening. The costumes were so colorful and the dancers so energetic, we felt we had never gotten so much entertainment for so little money.

Also in Guadalajara I met with the president of Mexico, President Salinas! Well, actually we only saw him when he came to install the new provincial governor. I’m just sure that if he had known that we had met with Castro twice, he would have wanted to meet us. I think President Bush will want to debrief us when we return to the states.

Mexico City, March 2 - 7 (75° F & Sunny)

Back to Mexico City to prepare for Argentina. While we were in Guadalajara our travel agent was trying to obtain our Argentine visas. We could not get the visas before leaving the US (where they are easy to obtain) because of a 90-day restriction. Our guide book said “no problem” getting a visa for Argentina in Mexico City. Not so. The Argentine Consul General (or more likely a subordinate) in Mexico City wanted notarized letters from our employers and banks indicating (1) we were employed and (2) had money. Our travel agent tried to reason with the Consulate, but to no avail. So we ended up spending more time in Mexico City than we had originally planned.

We decided to make an appeal personally to the Argentine Consul General. Bernie and I put on our best clothes (for Bernie that meant a clean pair of jeans) and headed to the Consulate bright and early on a Friday morning. All we had was an address, so we hailed a taxi, gave him the address and asked how much it would cost. Six thousand pesos was the answer - under $3, so we hopped in the cab, and almost before I got settled in the seat (I was still smoothing out my skirt) we were there. We had gone two blocks - the Argentine Consulate was in the same building where we had breakfast every morning - less than a 5 minute walk. The taxi driver laughed and said “okay, okay, only 3,000 pesos.”

So here go two unemployed people to throw themselves on the mercy of the Argentine Consul General. We took with us all of our cash, travelers checks, and our checkbook showing thousands of dollars. When we got our hearing with the Consul General’s assistant, he was not impressed at all with our money; he kept insisting that he needed "letters." As a last resort Bernie gave him an old business card from his lawyering days. Bonanza! 'Proof' that at least one of us was employed. We kept our mouths shut. The assistant took the card, gave us back our passports, said he would talk to the Consul General, and we should come back Monday.

We weren’t sure that on Monday we would be given visas because the standard time was four days for a visa after submitting passports. Since we still had our passports in hand, it didn’t look too likely. So, as a back-up, we made plane reservations for Uruguay. We figured that we could try to get visas to Argentina in Uruguay if we ultimately failed in Mexico City.

Come Monday morning we walked to the Argentine Consulate and presto - received our visas in five minutes. Why usually four days you may ask - Latino time, Latino time mis amigos.

Within a few days we were on our way to Argentina via Uruguay, which I'll write about in my next installment.


28th February 2010

great story
hi kathy, it's great that you are able to relate these experiences. you certainly lead an interesting life. keep up the journey!

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