I am at the end of a legal trip to Cuba.
I went as part of a ministry to take needed items for the Cuban people, things that are really needed, things we take for granted, such as lotions, soap, OTC medication and medical supplies. To do this we bring items personally in suitcases and deliver them the churches and to temples and to social institutions.
This is the fourth time I have been legally to Cuba since 2003.
Some things have changed and some have remained the same. The economy has improved due to Cuban Americans being able to return more often than in previous years. They bring money and other goods. This helps where the average salary for a doctor, lawyer and accountant is about $7-10 US per day, and where those who are not as educated make less, much less.
Some quick memories of this trip:
Stepping out of the Cathedral in Trinidad de Cuba and talking with a Cuban artist sketching the plaza. He looked up from where he was sitting and asked if I thought the travel and trade embargo would end soon. I shrugged. What is soon when it comes to politics? We both hoped for soon.
Having a meal at a wonderful private restaurant called a "Paladar". The chef and owner very gracious and the food delicious. Private restaurants of his type are growing in number in Cuba, especially under the rule of Raul Castro. The other choices for food are the state run restaurants and small fast food places, also private and usually occupying the front of a persons house.
The old American cars from the 1940's and 1950's, which were left behind when the Castro Revolution took over in 1959. Because of the improving economy, many more of these cars are on the road and being restored in a fine way. Just like in the US, the country-side is being scoured for the old relics hidden in old barns and behind houses.
Central Havana -- a contrast of worlds between the horrible cheap Soviet highrise apartments built with no elevators and no air conditioning, which make the old Chicago Cabrini Green projects look like paradise and the older housing pre-revolution homes, which are usually divided for a number of families.
A friend telling me that very few people her age (33) can afford their own residences, because of the scarcity and cost and typically low salaries.
Stopping at a rural church to leave some supplies and the very desperate people who rushed up to us for money. However, they were not begging but had produced beautiful craft and textile items which they were literally selling for pennies and that would command a very high price in the US. Note: it is illegal to bring back anything from Cuba but books and CD's. Also, US credit cards and phones do not work in Cuba. Any legal trip to Cuba must include pre-payment of all your necessities. This is US law.
The heavy-handiness of the Cuban government. In Cuba, the government is still the be all and end all, though some -- some-- Cubans feel freer to speak out about the control than ten years ago. A reminder of the presence of the government in daily affairs are the CDR locations. CDR means "Committee for the defense of the Revolution", and, in my opinion, are the professional snitches for the government and the party, the Communist Party.
A friend's father is in the hospital in Cuba, a major medical center, and, because only one elevator is working in the high rise, there is a que that runs around the hospital for people wanting to get to the top floors. It took two weeks to diagnose him, where in the US and West it would have taken hours.
The endurance and smiles of the Cuban people as they toil under the hot sun and under a still repressive regime.
Cuba is a love affair; it is not a destination. As with any love affair, there are thrills and momentary heartbreak. And like love affairs you hear about from others, especially the media and US celebrities, you cannot believe all of it at face value, bad and good.
A word of caution, too, for those US citizens and foreign nationals living in the US: travel to Cuba is extremely restricted, and all travel is overseen by the US Treasury Department, due to the travel and trade embargo enacted some 50 years ago. Many US citizens sneak in through third countries, and thus become felons. Fines can be up to $250,000 dollars; you can lose your passport and even end up in jail. Why? Because, technically, Cuba is a enemy country, and it is illegal to consort with an enemy of the United States.
That is the politics and the reality of it all.
But you are not thinking that as you take a walk at night along the Malacone, the long roadway that surrounds Havana Bay. You are only thinking of the people and the music and waves.