After Castro, what’s next?

Our casa particular in Havana formerly was the home of one of Castro’s generals. General Ordaz, who was with Castro “in the mountains,” as they say in Cuba, and who later became head of a psychiatric hospital in Havana.

It is a beautiful home with four or five guest bedrooms on the ground floor, and accommodations for the family and staff upstairs. There is a lovely pool, air-conditioning, 24 hr. staff. The entry hallway is filled with photos of Dr. Ordaz with Fidel, Che and others. The staff brought out the family albums for us to see, and they were filled with great pictures of Dr. Ordaz and his family with the Revolutionary generation, as well as one with the Pope. The home now is operated as a guest house by Dr. Ordaz’ daughter.

Edifice complex: The Russian embassy, and the monument to the Revolution

Located in the Havana neighborhood of Siboney, Casa Ordaz is on graceful, tree-lined streets with well-kept (mostly) homes that look like they were built in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Many embassies are located here.

It prompted a question, which came up over and over and which never was adequately resolved, is why some people seemed to be doing so well and some were living in poverty. Sure, everyone gets free health care and education, and there is an allotment of food every month (quite a modest allotment.)

The official story is that it is a classless society, which equal access to education and health care, etc. And I think that is basically true, but why did some people seem to be living so well? Why was Dr. Ordaz’ daughter still living in this lovely home and renting it out as a guest house on the private market?

Plenty of pictures of Che on the sides of buildings. Followed by Fidel, and then Hugo Chavez.

One answer was that the Cubans who had renovated their houses and seemed to be living well probably were being sent money from relatives in the U.S. Now I don’t speak much Spanish, and so I had few conversations with real Havanese, but clearly in their view, the reason for the poverty and economic stagnation is the U.S. embargo and not the socialist economic system dictated under Castro.

Any conversation about politics was about the U.S. and its impact.

We went to the great Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana – formerly the dictator Batista’s palace. There still are holes in the hallway from rifle shots when students attempted (unsuccessfully) to storm the palace and depose Batista. The theme of the museum, told repeatedly, was about the Cubans’ ability to survive attacks and assaults by the U.S. and particularly the CIA.

Cuban billboard tells what they think of the blockade.

The narrative of modern Cuba is indistinguishable from Cuba v. the U.S. And while one might argue that a little capitalism might have helped their economy, it is difficult to argue that our embargo hasn’t helped impoverish two generations of Cuba, and we are working on the third.

Of course one gift of the embargo is the wonderful collection of 1950’s cars and colonial buildings in old Havana. They would not exist if Hilton and Sheraton had been allowed to come in and erect 20-story hotels in their place. There is a significant amount of restoration going on, despite Cuba’s economic issues, and revenue generated from tourism now is being funneled into further renovations. Our traveling partners Terry and Jane, who were here two years ago, remarked at the amount of work that had been done in just that time. The work we saw in Old Havana was true to the period and design of the original buildings.

Lineup of classic cars for hire.

I walked around old Havana with a retired professor of cultural anthropology from the University of Havana, and it was clear from our discussion that the Cubans treasure the history and want to preserve it. The 50’s-era Chevrolets compete for customers with modern, Chinese-built taxis, but they, too, wouldn’t be there were it not for the embargo. So in a perverse way, we have helped preserve a great heritage — at significant cost to the natives.

Beautiful square in Old Havana.

It was clear when talking to and observing the Cubans, that they are proud of their country and their local culture and wary of what capitalism brings.  Even though we saw poverty, the Cuban people are full of life enjoying music, dancing and . . . rum.

We indulged in mojitos at the grand Hotel National and the floor show at the Tropicana, which began in the 30’s and looks a little like 1950’s Las Vegas. Cuba was mobbed up in the 50’s, and one guidebook said that putting Castro in charge of Havana would be like giving the Amish control of Las Vegas. Despite any puritanism on the part of Fidel, there is enough music and dancing and rum to keep tourism going.

Glad we came when we did.

Just this week, the Cubans are choosing a new President, although Raul Castro, at least for the time being, is retaining the roles as head of the army and of the communist party. Cubans are quite uncertain about what will happen next.  With the possibilities of big changes coming, we were glad we visited when we did


Cuba, not so libre

Our band of travelers. That’s son-in-law/tour guide Alfredo on the right.


What was remarkable to me, on our recent visit to Cuba, was not the number of classic, restored Chevrolets, but the number of horse carts.

Sure, there were plenty of ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevs, along with the occasional Ford or Oldsmobile, and they have become something of a cliche and a major tourist draw in Havana. But the rural areas and smaller towns we visited depended as much on horse power as on horsepower.

New and old means of transport.

There is a similar comparison among buildings – beautifully restored colonial buildings and Art Deco buildings from the 1930’s – next to crumbling structures.

And along with this, the overlay of the period of Soviet influence – essentially between the time of the Revolution (1959) and the fall of the Soviet Union (1991.) Some of the taxis are wired-together Soviet-era Lada’s, and there are ugly concrete apartment blocks that could as easily be on the outskirts of cities in Bulgaria or Croatia.

Now you may be wondering why this is all being written in the past tense.

Colonial church in the Vinales town square.

Avid followers of travelswithpatty  – both of you – will recall that we usually post these blogs as we travel. That wasn’t possible this time, as the Internet is hard to find in Cuba. So this will be an effort, back in the comfort of Seattle, to recreate what we liked most about our trip.

For about a year, we had been planning to go to Cuba with our friends Paul Goldberg and Janie O’Brien, and Jane and Terry Chadsey. We all had traveled together before, so we were pretty confident we could get along with each other. And Jane and Terry have a Cuban-born son-in-law, Alfredo, who offered to lead the tour.

So last summer, Alfredo used part of his annual visit home to Cuba to

Private enterprise in Vinales.

scout out places for us to stay. Rather than hotels, we used casas particulares  — the Cuban version of a bed-and-breakfast. Alfredo also required each of us to write down on 3-by-5 cards what we most wanted to do. (For me, it was to see some historic buildings and museums and to talk politics with real Cubans.)

You will recall that there had been a period of liberalization under Raul Castro, which allowed some additional private businesses, and more travel from the U.S. Since then, Cuba has backed off a little on the privatization – a fear that some people were benefitting much more than others – and new restrictions on U.S. travel imposed by our current president.

The rules now require that travelers from the U.S. be part of a recognized tour group rather than freelancers. We took a chance, marked the box for “people to people” and “education” as the reason for our visit, and went unchallenged.

Government store. Today there were eggs available.


Our first stop, after flying to Cuba via Miami, was Vinales, a small down West of Havana near a major national park. Vinales is an agricultural town, but its proximity to the park means there are a number of casas particulares and some nice restaurants. It was a good, low-key way to introduce ourselves to Cuba. The second day, five of our group rode horses to a tobacco plantation. I stayed in town and had lunch – my first ham-and-cheese sandwich of the trip.

Vinales had some restaurants and a market aimed at the tourist trade, but these were mixed in with the government shops were the residents got their monthly allotment of eggs, rice and other essentials. We did not see a lot of folks from the U.S. although later we met a retired teacher from the Seattle area who had come here for rock-climbing on the limestone.

’56 Chev in the driveway.

The water here is safe enough for Cubans but doesn’t have the right bacteria for Norteamericanos, so we used bottled water and avoided fresh vegetables. There also isn’t much beef. So a lot of places offered ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Or you might get cheese sandwiches, or ham sandwiches, or pork sandwiches. Most dinners came with rice and black beans. If you are lucky, you might get a spicy black-bean soup, which is really good. Or, more often, rice and black beans mixed together in arroz moro.

Every place we stayed came with breakfast, which consisted of juice, coffee, bread, eggs, ham and fresh fruit. We also had some very good seafood. Big lobster tails were a great bargain.


Next stop after Vinales was Trinidad, an old colonial town on the south coast, southeast of Havana. Trinidad was founded in 1514 and is a UNESCO site. It was a slave-trading center and an important part of the sugar production in the 17thand 18thCenturies. It has some beautiful

Colonial buildings.

colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. Many of the buildings house shops featuring embroidery and other crafts, and there is a lively nighttime scene with modern jazz coming from some restaurants and Afrocuban music from others. We also found local pottery and many shops with artwork.


By now – six days into our journey – we had become pretty confident.  Pat, Jane, Paul and Janie actually walked into the center of town from where we were staying (about 3 km,) apparently unfazed by the 80-degree weather. Alfredo was on the lookout for places that had ice made from bottled water, but even when there was no ice for mojitos, our group had become quite fond of Cuban rum taken straight.


Tomorrow: Our stay in Havana.