I finally made it to Cuba -- nearly 60 years after first trying. It was Christmas Vacation during my senior year at Brooklyn College. Five members of Knight House – the poor folks version of a live at home fraternity at my commuter college –decided to visit Havana. Our motives were not entirely pure. Yes, we wanted to see the old City of Havana and its cultural gems. But we had also wanted to participate in its notorious nightlife. We were 20 years old and seeking post-adolescent adventures of the sort we couldn't experience back in Brooklyn.
We never made it. When we got to the Miami airport for the half-hour, $50 flight, we were greeted by a State Department Travel advisory. It seems like another young man – just a dozen years older than we were – was also trying to get to Havana. He had been trying for several years and finally – on the very day we were departing Miami for Havana -- Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army were at the outskirts of the city
Disappointed, we returned to Miami Beach where we had to be satisfied with Jai Alai and crowded beaches. Years later I learned that members of a rival house plan, undeterred by a mere "advisory," had taken the flight to Havana and partaken of its vices – vices which were soon to end, or be driven underground by Castro's revolution.
The disappointed young man who didn't make it to Cuba in 1958 is now an old man, with different tastes and tamer vices, such as an occasional cigar and a Cuba Libra drink. Among my passions now are art and music, and Cuba excels at both. So my wife and I, with three other couples, set out on an age-appropriate adventure as part of a "people-to-people" cultural group. Travelers still need an acceptable "justification" to visit the long-boycotted destination. Mere tourism or the love of beaches won't do. It has to be cultural, religious, educational or some other broad category of virtuous pursuit. You still can't go there for the reasons we had in mind back when Castro had kept us involuntarily virtuous.
So we went to visit the studios and houses of Cuban artists -- some established, others young and on the way to achieving international recognition. The visits were fascinating, as the artist regaled us with stories of their own experiences with increasing artistic freedom, as Cuban Artists became part of the international art market. This made some of them quite rich, at least as compared with average wages for other occupations including lawyers and doctors.
The artists also told us of the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, which had been criminalized and repressed by Fidel Castro. (Interestingly, even during the worst periods of anti-gay repression, the American hard left rarely criticized Castro because he, too, was hard left.) Now, Raul Castro's daughter is leading a movement for equal rights for gay Cubans.
Other positive changes were also visible. Tourism is thriving, and tour guides are among the growing middle class, along with home-owners who rent out apartments to tourists. With tourism comes increasing capitalism and freedom of communication. We heard a diversity of views, including some critical ones, from Cubans we encountered. But we sensed some remaining constraints on full freedom of expression.
On Friday night some of us attended a beautiful Shabbat service at the local Synagogue. There was no Rabbi, so the service was led by a group of teenage visitors from Argentina. The dining room table was set for 80 expected guests, who would feast on chicken and other delicacies not easily available to most locals. The woman who heads the Jewish Community proudly described a recent visit to the synagogue by Raul Castro, who she said had a warm spot in his heart for Jews, if not for Israel, with which Cuba has no formal relations.
Tourist resorts and restaurants are filled, and the food – mostly continental with a Cuban influence – is quite good. Prices are reasonable, compared to large U.S. cities, but unaffordable to all but a select few locals.
The night life is vibrant, with Las Vegas-type spectacles at the old Flamingo, as well as jazz at bars. The 1950's mafia controlled hotels – The National, and others like it – have been refurbished and made ready for the anticipated influx of American tourists, as travel restrictions are lifted.
On the negative side, the effects of the failed Communist economy were evident. Beautiful old buildings – many of them architectural gems – were in disrepair, some of them crumbling.
The Cuban people suffered from the excesses of exploitive mafia influenced authoritarianism under Fulgencio Batista, and then from the excesses of tyrannical Communism under Fidel Castro. What the future holds is uncertain, but to this American visitor, it feels like the Cuban people may be somewhat better off today than they were under either extreme. They still have a long way to go.