Cuba: Every street a garden

Vintage American cars are a common sight on the streets of Havana.

Editor's note: This article was written by Joan Straumanis of Oakland, Calif., a retired college professor who toured Cuba on a Road Scholar adventure trip. Also a member of the group was Lynne Kirklin of Rochester, who submitted the article to the Post-Bulletin.

You expect to see old American cars in Cuba. Every article you read mentions them, every photo shows one or two. What is wholly unexpected is the resulting spectacular display of color: pinks, blues, greens, yellows, fuchsias — every street like a garden.

Yes, cars in the U.S. are now more compact, more efficient than those big-finned ones we used to drive in the 1950s, but how did we let them become so dull? Our own streets are now mostly 50 shades of gray.

We are a group of 17 travelers from the U.S., mostly retired professionals, traveling in February under a "People-to-People" license with Road Scholar, a nonprofit educational travel company. Our license is to study the arts: music, dance, painting, graphics, architecture.

Such limited licenses will very soon become unnecessary. As soon as U.S. air carriers establish service to Cuba, Americans will easily travel without licenses, but will still need visas, and will have to check off one of 12 "purposes" for their travel. The list is broad and surely would include everyone: education, culture, sports, religion, family, etc. These are U.S., not Cuban, restrictions, so there's no enforcement; if you spend all your time on the beach, the Cubans won't care and the Americans aren't there. Canadians, Russians and others have long visited Cuba as tourists, without restrictions.


Russian engines

Our Cuban guide, named Israel, tells us what's inside those beautiful old American cars: Russian Lada engines! That's the secret to their longevity — aided, of course, by genius Cuban mechanics. The Lada engines are strong and do-it-yourself simple.

Israel tells us that only 5 percent of Cubans today are rich. His definition of "rich": to own a microwave, a flat-screen TV, a car (not a new one of course) and "to afford mayonnaise." Israel doesn't count himself in that category — no car.

Cuba today has a bizarre two-level monetary system, the CUCs and the CUPs (pronounced "kooks" and "coops"); one CUC — the official name is "convertible peso" — is worth 24 CUPs. The CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar, $1 equals 1 CUC, except that if you exchange dollars for CUCS, you have to pay an extra 13 percent in taxes and fees. (For that reason I carried Canadian dollars to Cuba.)

Only that rich 5 percent are what Israel calls "CUC families" — paid in convertible currency. They're likely to work in tourism, for foreign companies, or as successful entrepreneurs, mostly operating restaurants — "paladars" — in their own homes. Everyone else is poor, paid in CUPs, and living on government-subsidized rations (no mayonnaise, no toilet paper).

We are taken to a market where people can receive ration cards for subsidized products. With the cards on that day, you could buy limited amounts of subsidized rice, red beans, sugar, cooking oil, coffee, and milk for children under 7 years old — the necessities of life, says Israel. Cigarettes and cigars were on the cards until recently, but no more. (But many adults still smoke.)

Splendid art

Our days are packed with interactions with Cubans, mostly artists. The quality of the art is splendid, and the prices are low — but all transactions are in cash. We visit a print-making cooperative where the 200-year-old printing press was originally used to make cigar bands and cigar-box labels. We call upon an 88-year-old graphic artist in his home and hear that he hasn't seen his children (now in the U.S.) for over 50 years. A sculptor we visit makes wooden "computers" operated by hand-cranks, a wry comment about the lack of access to technology in Cuba.


We go to a concert by the famous Buena Vista Social Club, still playing after all these years. We see performances by two different dance companies, one presenting Afro-Cuban folkloric work and the other acrobatic modern dance. We socialize with the dancers afterwards.

These troupes are supported by the government; the dancers tell us they earn 20-30 CUCs per month — about average for a Cuban worker. We spend an evening at a grassroots community arts education center, El Tanque, in a huge converted water tank. In the modest Havana suburb of Jaimanitas, we encounter a wonder: An entire neighborhood whimsically encrusted with ceramic tile. Are we in Barcelona? No, the artist is Jose Fuster, but the guiding spirit is clearly Gaudi.

We have a delicious lunch at a family-owned organic farm near Matanzas where the earth is the source of both food and clay for their ceramic sculptures. Most amazingly, at the Fine Arts Museum in Havana we see the work of previously banned painters whose sexually explicit work is surprising, even shocking. The museum's charming guide, who learned English by listening to Miami radio stations, explains that sex is being used here to express political protest: The revolution is like a miscarriage, the government has raped the people.

Revolution trade-offs

In general we sense no reluctance by Cubans to talk politics — at least in English, at least with us. Everyone credits the revolution's successes — universal education and literacy (only about one-third of the people could read before the revolution), free quality health care, rising longevity. Apparently there's no homelessness, no starvation.

But beyond these benefits, the economic policies have been a disaster, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had artificially sustained the economy. That collapse launched what they call the "special period," a crisis of severe shortage when free enterprise was forbidden along with any commerce in U.S. dollars. All business was nationalized; everyone was a low-paid government employee. There was virtually no manufacturing, no economic growth.

Now, finally, thanks to more liberal policies under Raul Castro, one can see improvements: roadside stands, farmers' markets, paladar restaurants, rooms-for-rent in private homes, and a few joint ventures with foreign investors — Spain, China, Canada. And U.S. residents can send dollars to their Cuban relatives, even more now under the new agreements announced by President Obama in December.

This is exactly the right moment to travel to Cuba, before the hordes of U.S. tourists and the big cruise ships arrive. It is still a cash economy; credit and debit cards are useless (as are cell phones and computers). Although some U.S. companies (Visa, Mastercard) said they intended to set up operations this spring, there's not much infrastructure to support that. So if you go, bring plenty of currency (dollars, euros, pounds).


Wish I had brought more:

(1) cash to buy art

(2) postcards of San Francisco and California — thrilling gifts for the locked-in Cubans.

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