So we were reminded time and again as a band of Lawrence alumni spent seven days in March traversing Cuba, a tattered, Cold War relic recently yanked back from the precipice of a promising future by yet another twist in American foreign policy.
After arriving at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, we headed out for some typical tourism, including photo ops at the gaping concrete of the Plaza de la Revolution and a visit to Finca Vigia, the one-time home of Ernest Hemingway. The author fished the local waters for the inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea, but abandoned Cuba soon after the victory of Fidel Castro’s revolution on New Year’s Day 1959.
The date 1/1/59 is deeply ingrained in Cuba. Everything is measured before or after that day nearly 60 years ago, including the frozen-in-time fleet of ‘50s American automobiles that ply the streets with nary a smog control device. We were fortunate to board some convertible examples for a cruise down the oceanfront Malecon Avenue. Our driver was happy to note the American Mafia roots of each of Havana’s pre-revolution hotels.
Cuba’s complications have many roots, including a cruel Spanish colonial rule that lasted for nearly four centuries and did not abolish African slavery until 1886. After winning their independence with American help in the Spanish-American War, Cubans had to endure a series of armed U.S. interventions in their internal affairs. The U.S. also soured on Castro early on as it gave refuge to Cubans fleeing his new brand of tyranny.
Cuba then became a Cold War pawn of the Soviet Union until that entity collapsed in 1991, leaving Cuba’s people and economy hanging high and dry.
Cubans endured another jilting in 2017, when the Trump administration put a chill on the minor thaw in relations enacted in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Cubans now speak wistfully about Obama’s 2016 visit to their country. The Trump reversals currently limit Americans’ access to Cuba to educational and cultural exchanges like ours. Cynical Cubans are quick to note that an exception is made for Americans visiting on cruise ships. They credit that loophole to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), an enthusiastic embargo advocate who has received campaign contributions from the cruise ship industry.
Today’s Cuba is a crazy quilt of relics. Russian Lada automobiles share the streets with the American antiques. A centrally planned communist economy still holds sway amidst a small and growing free enterprise sector that is heavily taxed and regulated by the government. Education is free from kindergarten through college and the literacy rate is near 100 percent, but study choices and job options are tightly controlled by the government.
Music was woven throughout our trip thanks to fellow alum and percussionist Eli Adelman, who has a passion forCuban rhythms and has studied extensively on the island. He guided us to a rooftop concert at Havana’s Lincoln Hotel, where Eli was invited to sit in for a set with some of his Cuban mentors. He would continue to share his expertise as we took in a performance by the Guitar Orchestra de Cienfuegos and enjoyed a dinner concert at the legendary Buena Vista Social Club in Havana.
Other highlights included shopping visits to art and crafts galleries and walking tours through the old sections of Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Baseball fans in our group got up close and personal with Jorge “Pepito” Estrada, newest inductee to the Cuba Baseball Hall of Fame in Matanzas. We even got to take the field with Estrada for some batting practice.
The old and new Cuba collided during a visit to Varadero, a beachfront enclave filled with all-inclusive resorts and foreign visitors. Varadero has its roots in Xanadu, a mansion built in the 1920s by American billionaire Irénée du Pont. He owned most of the acreage in Varadero, which became a sinful playground for his wealthy pals. That party ended on - you guessed it - New Year’s Day 1959 and Xanadu is now open to the public as a restaurant.
Our crisscross through Cuba’s quilt revealed a proud but needy populace that waits in long queues for public transit (horse carts are popular in rural areas), relies on rationed food staples and resides in structures that are in dire need of stucco and paint. Our Cuban guide freely admitted her country’s shortcomings, but she also expressed pride in what has been accomplished amid a tottering experiment in communism, the ongoing U.S. embargo and abandonment by Cuba’s former Soviet ally.
As we stood in Havana’s former presidential palace, now home to the Museum of the Revolution, our guide pointed out numerous artifacts and photos from the heady days when the late Fidel Castro and his handsome colleague, Che Guevara, proclaimed a new era for Cubans. Asked to evaluate where things stand as Cuba prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of that revolution, our guide replied, “it’s complicated.”
SPECIAL NOTE: Our Cuban adventure would not have possible without the efforts of Lawrence organizers and chaperones Beth Zinsli and Mark Breseman. It was also a pleasure to travel in the company of Lawrence grads and friends from a variety of walks of life and eras. Shared college memories and intellectual curiosity greatly enhanced the experience.