This is the 2nd post in a series of posts on Cuba. The first is here.
A few months ago I got one of those emails that you just have to say yes to. The deal was an opportunity to travel to Cuba (legally) on a US State Department visa for a “people to people cultural exchange”. We would be representing the United States of America to the people of Cuba and experiencing both Cuban culture and getting to know the people there through the context of photography. Santa Fe Workshops helped coordinate the operation, taking care of hotel accommodations as well as organizing local Cuban and US handlers and fixers and they did a fantastic job. My other goal for this trip was to initiate contact for a research project with the Moran Eye Center to perform genetic research and despite a bump or two, it looks like that might proceed with Meg DeAngelis‘ lab heading that up.
As luck would have it, David Hobby was chosen to select participants for this unusual trip and he ended up curating an eclectic group of some of the most interesting people around who also turn out to be *excellent* photographers. Not everyone knew one another, but Hobby did an excellent job and we all made fast friends. More on that in a later post.
Fortunately, because of the official visa, we were able to meet in Miami, Florida and fly direct to Havana, Cuba. The trick to getting to Cuba as an American citizen, subject to current US embargo restrictions, is to go on a specific visa granted by the State Department. Entering Cuba is fairly typical of a modern country and certainly much easier than the last Communist State I got to see, North Korea. That is not to say that Americans do not get into Cuba via other means via Mexico or Canada or as we found out, fairly extensively through the Bahamas. The problem with going to Cuba illegally is that you are there without official permission or sanction and for some individuals in certain lines of work, that could prove problematic. It also means that if you get into any trouble through accident or happenstance, you are on your own.
The downside of going legally right now at least, is that we could not bring back *anything* except art or music. This means no rum, no cigars and nothing of commercial or political nature. Its OK though, because we sampled said rum and cigars through some of the finest opportunities one might be able to experience. More on that later as well.
There are other ways for American citizens to go to Cuba with official blessing which includes journalism, educational or research purposes or increasingly, for Americans who have family still in Cuba. While Americans in Cuba are a rarity, especially in some of the places we were going to, it is becoming more common in the tourist areas to find American citizens. We ran into Americans from Colorado, New York, California and elsewhere.
Flying to Cuba from Miami used to be quite common before the Communist Revolution in Cuba and with modern travel, it is a trivially easy affair that takes all of 45 minutes. Duncan brought a GoPro camera and captured some excellent time-lapse video of the trip over and back. Hopefully he’ll have that up on his blog at some point in the near future.
The travel restrictions do strike one as parochial, but as the last vestiges of the Cold War disappear, it seems especially absurd that one cannot travel from country to country because of conflicted governmental relations. Every US President since Eisenhower has kept the same policy towards Cuba, but its time things change. The world is getting ever smaller and smaller and the divide between Cuba and the USA is slowly shrinking as the Obama administration is slowly relaxing travel restrictions.
Cuba too realizes that tourist dollars are increasingly going to be the way forward for a country that has seen things change dramatically over the past few years. The Capitol building in Havana seen above during sunrise is one such example that is being extensively refurbished to function as a museum, not just for cuban citizens, but also for visitors/tourists to Cuba.
The reality is, the rest of the world is coming to Cuba and there are opportunities for both the Cuban people and Americans. There will be problems and we certainly saw immediate evidence of that, but the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship is there and is, I believe inevitable. Cubans are increasingly aware of the outside world with its products and services and there is a demand. We even saw a number of Cubans with Apple iPhones, though Duncan claims that most of them were without data plans.
There are extensive opportunities for eco-tourism if Cubans can be good stewards of their unique environment. There are opportunities for collectors of automobiles to visit Cuba, more on that in a later post as well. There are opportunities for trade in organically produced fruits and vegetables from Cuba if Cubans can get back on the farming way of life and many other opportunities. I’ll have more to say on this later as well following our visit to a couple of farms in the mountains of Cuba.
The history of Cuba’s economy is interesting. After the pullout of Russia, Cuba’s economy has been essentially dependent upon its relationship with Venezuela, but with recent elections there, it will be interesting to see what happens with that relationship. Cuba is moving forward however, and investing itself into more and more tourism as other European countries are starting to invest. Cuba has realized that they must change and are now starting to allow foreign investment with the Cuban government maintaining a 51% controlling interest in foreign run/managed operations. The hotel we stayed in for instance, the Hotel Parque Central is operated by a Spanish company, Iberostar.
Other hotels in Havana, Cuba are being renovated on aggressive schedules to take advantage of tourist dollars like the hotel on the left here seen from our hotel room window. Cuba has realized that much of what makes Havana special is the architecture of the buildings and hotels. As such, preservation and development of these buildings and neighborhoods has become a central mission of the Oficina del Historiador de la Cuidad de la Habana. This effort has resulted in the center of Havana becoming a UNESCO site and the hopes are that continued investment and revitalization will help with rebuilding a city that has become deteriorated through lack of infrastructure and resources for the past 60 years.
Along with the hotels will come cuisine. There are some rather exceptional opportunities for cuisine in Cuba, but most restaurants are still figuring out the formula for operating on a truly international stage. Even some of the higher end restaurants are lacking that certain finesse needed to compete, but things…are…*rapidly* changing.
Everyone we spoke to is excited, hopeful and perhaps a little worried about what may happen with Cuba. Taxi drivers, professionals, construction workers, shop workers and people on the street are all hopeful that the current Raúl Castro led government will lead them, slowly perhaps into the next phase for Cuba.