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The 'reality tour' of Cuba

Laundry hangs outside a run-down Havana home
[Photos: Tamara Lush]
Clothes hang on a line on a balcony in Old Havana. Residents of such run-down buildings are moved from their homes if the government decides to restore the buildings for use as offices or diplomatic residences. The former tenants are moved to housing projects in the suburbs.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN with contributions from TAMARA LUSH
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Beyond the pretty beaches and bland resorts, the tourist trade bypasses the lives of most Cubans, who struggle to buy basic goods.

HAVANA -- In the Museum of the Revolution, a few floors below the balcony where a young Fidel Castro triumphantly greeted the masses 43 years ago, a museum employee sat slumped in a chair.

"My job is boring," she said, flatly.

The marbled walls around her held relics of a guerrilla war long since won -- Fidel Castro's pistol, a field map of the jungle, Che Guevara's dirty socks. But the museum guard was hardly a model of revolutionary fervor.

"Do you have any Chiclets?" she asked in Spanish. She said she wanted the gum for her 5-year-old daughter. The guard asked about my shoes.

"Did you bring another pair with you to Cuba?"

As I looked around, nervous on the woman's behalf lest a zealous Communist museum staffer descend, she told me that the worn black heels on her feet were the only shoes she owned. She said she makes the equivalent of $10 a month.

That's barely enough to feed and clothe herself and her child. Most things are sold for dollars, she said. She gets paid in pesos.

Do you have any extra outfits?

"I don't have many clothes," the woman said with an embarrassed laugh.

A 'tourism apartheid'

Cuban boy in front of a dilapidated building
A schoolboy stands in front of a dilapidated building in central Havana. Cuba has a literacy rate of nearly 96 percent; school attendance is mandatory until the age of 15.
My St. Petersburg Times colleague, Tamara Lush and I have long had a burning interest to see Cuba. We flew there in March from Miami, as part of a cultural tour group. This is a legal way to visit Cuba and to spend money there. The U.S. nonprofit group that organized the trip and other groups like it call them "people-to-people exchanges" and "reality tours."

These packaged trips are growing in popularity at a time when the Bush administration is cracking down on U.S. travelers visiting Cuba in violation of the embargo, now four decades old.

More than 60,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Cuba illegally last year, according to the Treasury Department. About 700 got letters saying they would be fined, up from 188 in the last year of President Bill Clinton's administration.

Last year, another 140,000 Americans visited Cuba legally.

These group trips allow U.S. citizens to thwart the embargo by taking advantage of an educational-research clause in U.S. law that allows journalists, researchers and students to spend American dollars in Cuba.

The law also allows diplomats and humanitarian aid workers, such as former President Jimmy Carter, to legally travel to the island without repercussions. Carter arrives in Cuba today to meet with Fidel Castro.

For average Americans, these educational tours provide exposure to a broad range of music and cultural experiences.

But it was only when we broke away from the "reality tour" -- as in the museum -- that we got a glimpse of how the average Cuban lives.

The Cuban government attempts to separate foreigners from its citizens by prohibiting Cubans from entering hotels and going on certain beaches. A growing class system based on dollars means some Cubans who work in the tourism trade can get their hands on crucial, everyday goods -- such as shoes, toothpaste and fruit -- that aren't sold for pesos.

Though these trips appear to fuel the growing "tourism apartheid" on the island, some Cubans we encountered say conditions would be worse without them.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which for decades had been Cuba's chief financial backer, forced Castro to embrace tourism -- and his biggest enemy's currency -- to prop up an anemic economy.

That tourism has brought exclusive resorts, segregated hotels and a general playground for foreigners swinging through the island looking for Caribbean romance. Ironically, these are precisely the circumstances the revolution worked 40 years to erase.

Cardenas calls

A horse-drawn cart in Cardenas
A horse-drawn cart rolls up the main street in Cardenas, known as the home of Elian Gonzales. There are few motorized vehicles in the sleepy city.

Early in the week, we had enjoyed dancing salsa in nightclubs and visiting back-alley rumba bands in Havana.

On the second day of our vacation, we climbed aboard an air-conditioned tour bus and headed to Varadero, Cuba's largest beach resort area.

When we arrived in the lobby of the Sol Palmera -- a sprawling beachfront hotel that featured several buffet-style restaurants, boat rentals and a pool-side bar -- we could barely hide our disappointment.

It was as if we had stepped into the lobby of a Disneyfied resort, complete with sunburned tourists, a lush waterfall in the lobby and a tacky gift shop selling Che Guevara keychains. One of the salsa bands playing in the tiki bar cheerfully sang a rendition of Hotel California, immediately after Guantanamera.

Instead of sitting on the beach, we decided to take a cab to Cardenas, a run-down former sugar port about a half-hour away.

Until a few years ago, Cardenas' only claim to fame was that the first Cuban flag was flown there in 1850. But in November 1999, a Cardenas woman named Elizabet Rodriguez and her 5-year-old son Elian climbed aboard a small powerboat with 11 other people. The boat sank, drowning Ms. Rodriguez and nine others. Her son and two adults were rescued from the waters off Florida.

Elian Gonzales -- his parents were divorced -- became the subject of a battle between his Miami relatives, the U.S. government and Castro. Ultimately the U.S. government sent him back to Cardenas, where he now lives with his father.

Cardenas continues to be a popular spot from which Cubans launch boats, rafts and even inner tubes attempting to reach Miami, about 90 miles away.

There are few cars and even fewer tourists in Cardenas. People drive horse-drawn carriages and the Varadero package tours rarely stop there for sightseeing.

As we walked down the Cardenas' main street, we stopped at the door of an apartment. A shirtless boy grinned at us and held up a crayoned drawing. His mother invited us inside.

Her brother-in-law was a conga player in a band, and performed in the Varadero hotels. Her father was a trumpet player, and he proudly showed us a banged-up horn on which he blew a few notes.

The apartment, while clean, had few furnishings. Plaster crumbled from its surfaces, and several family members huddled around a black-and-white TV in the kitchen.

We asked the woman about Elian. She said that she did not know his family but offered to show us his school, only a few blocks away.

On the way, she pointed out the city's former firehouse, painted bright yellow and now a museum honoring Elian. But the museum was closed -- it was nearing sunset and the entire city was awash in lazy shades of pinkish-orange.

So we walked another block to the Marcelo Salado Escuela Primera, where Elian attends third grade.

While I spoke with the woman who had brought us to the school, Tamara stepped inside its courtyard and snapped a photo. Two policemen approached and called to the woman.

They took our names, hotel address and passport numbers. Puzzled, we apologized profusely. They wrote down our guide's name, address and ID number in their notebooks.

The officers told us that we had done nothing wrong, but that the local woman should have known better. They were upset that we had gone in the courtyard and taken pictures. We tried to tell them it was our fault, not hers.

They nodded, smiled and walked away.

The woman was shaking, almost in tears.

The police would probably visit her house, she said. She could be fined. The local Communist Party office could put a "black mark" on her name. That could follow her and her family for years, she said.

Feeling badly, we gave the woman $20 in case she was fined. We left, not wanting to cause her more problems.

Back in Varadero that night, we went with our tour group to a bar near our hotel. Named the Havana Cafe, it is Cuba's version of a Hard Rock Cafe. Memorabilia and photos of popular Cuban musicians line the walls, a 1950s-vintage American car is parked inside the restaurant, and each night, a band plays traditional Cuban music.

That was the only traditional thing about the place.

The only Cubans in the place were wait staff and members of the stale band on stage. Everyone else was a tourist. We later found out that no Cubans actually live on the Varadero peninsula; many of the hotel workers live in Cardenas or a nearby shantytown. Cubans are not allowed on many Varadero beaches.

Armed guards work checkpoints between the shantytowns and the resorts. Our tour guide told us the guards are trying to prevent "undesirables" from harassing the tourists.

We found it hard to enjoy the cafe. Leaving the tour group, we passed a bunch of young Italian spring-break tourists on our way out.

Two views of the system

The promise of more than a dozen flavors of ice cream was too tempting. I headed for the noted ice cream park in the central Havana district of Vedado.

It is also a good place to meet people away from the tourist crowds. Cubans of all walks of life wait outside in long lines. In a change from what Tamara and I had seen all week, I heard customers with pesos get better treatment than those with dollars -- in this case, more scoops.

Unable to find pesos Thursday afternoon, I was going to try my luck with dollars. I headed for the long line.

Until an employee chased me down.

"Do you have pesos?" he asked. When I said no, he said, "You have to buy your ice cream and eat it over here." He pointed to the ice cream truck. "But then you can feel free to walk around the park."

As he ushered me back to the truck, he asked in Spanish which language was my first: English, French, German or Portuguese. He speaks them all.

Like a gracious host, he told me to pick out the flavors I wanted and then to sit down at a table. Soon he brought over a dish heaped with chocolate and tropical fruit ice cream, smothered in hot fudge.

He liked to talk to the park guests who come with dollars, he said. That way, he could practice his language skills.

It was slow on the dollar side that day, so he pulled up a chair.

The ice cream entrepreneur said that he hoped to get a job some day putting all those languages to use. But he was not complaining, he stressed: Things are better now than they were during the "Special Period" in the early 1990s, when it was hard to find running water and blackouts were frequent.

Tourism has helped the island, he said.

But who is benefitting, I asked. Salaries don't seem to have gone up.

"The system works," he insisted.

Castro knows that the black market exists and knows that many people can make extra money off of that, he added.

As the man spoke, his son walked up with a plastic bag. The employee excused himself and walked to the side of the ice cream truck with his son. He peered into the bag, gave it back to him.

He returned to his seat. In the bag was a pirated movie, something he sells on the black market. This one was A Beautiful Mind.

The government needs tourist dollars to pump back into its economy, he continued. That way the health care and education stay free.

"Why do you think we haven't risen up in all these years?" he asked. "The people like things the way they are."

Not everyone does.

At the National Theater, where we took classes in drumming, salsa and folkloric dancing, the dancers patiently prodded their clumsy American students around the stage.

We felt spent each day after trying to imitate their graceful moves.

These were some of the best dancers in a country with a strong musical tradition. Training is free.

One day, during a break in class, I sat on a wooden bench in the mirrored room with one of the dancers. The yellow leotard top and black tights gripped her petite, muscular body.

Her troupe would soon be going to Europe to perform and teach. But theirs was not the glamorous life, she added.

She picked up a tiny slippered foot to show a worn and faded white shoe. They don't have good support, she said.

Most of her shoes and dancing clothes are old and ripped. The best shoes can be bought with dollars, which she does not have. By the end of the week, just months away from their international tour, the dancers were sneaking their addresses to some of us in the group so we could try to mail them new shoes.

One dancer placed her foot on a blank page in a notebook. We outlined it. We wanted to be sure of the size.

Whose Cuba is it?

On the last day of our vacation, with the "reality tour" turning more surreal, we broke away from the group completely.

I walked down the broken cobblestone streets of Old Havana. I headed away from the bright colors of the restored colonial buildings, whose former occupants had since been moved to high rises in the countryside.

A young man in dark blue jeans and a striped shirt stepped out of a doorway. Do you want to buy a CD, he asked, following me.

He had a CD of Polo Montanez for $5, something I had been looking for. CDs are $15 in the stores. I followed him into a shop with a bar behind a counter. Sitting around a table were his older cousin and his friends.

There were no tourists here.

I handed over five $1 bills. He gave me the CD and invited me to sit down.

The young man used my dollars to buy a bottle of Havana Rum and poured everyone a glass.

He is studying computers, he said, and selling CDs in the streets to make money. He's 25.

In hushed tones, the talk turned to the state of the country.

We are trying to get him out, the older cousin said, wrapping his arm protectively around the younger man. The cousin's father is in New York; they have not seen him in 30 years. His sister is in Miami.

There's no future here, the men tell me.

Relatives in Miami are sending money every year. They are trying to get the 25-year-old out, the men clustered here say, but they don't know how to do it.

Maybe they will pay a foreign woman to marry him. I smile, thinking they are dropping hints. They are not joking.

"It happens," they said.

They rubbed their chins, a common reference to the bearded Castro, and ran a finger across their throats: They are waiting for Castro to die.

What does Cuba look like to you, they asked. Parts of it are pretty, I answered.

The older cousin shook his head.

"This is Cuba," he said, waving his arm at the run-down buildings. The places you have been are not Cuba, he added, referring to the tourist hotel and Varadero.

"The Cuba you see is pretty. To us, Cuba is ugly," he said.

The cousin and his friends talked about the places they cannot go, the hotels and beaches, the discos that now require dollars.

"It's like South Africa," the cousin's friend said.

"It's apartheid," the cousin said.

"It's not even like this is your country," I offered.

"No," they said in unison, "it's yours."

If you want to go

Map of Cuba
[Times art]
Our busy tour focused on Cuban music, dance and percussion. Some of the country's top dancers and musicians taught conga drumming and salsa during morning workshops, and a University of Havana ethnomusicologist taught us about the African influence on contemporary Cuban music.

In between these lessons, we visited museums and toured cigar factories. We met painters, sculptors and people who craft limited-edition books by hand.

At night, we struggled to choose which clubs we should visit -- we could pick from those featuring traditional Cuban son music, 12-piece salsa bands, Latin jazz or trendy discos in Old Havana.

We were in Cuba for eight days. The tour itinerary gave us a broad base of knowledge about the country, and thus it would serve those Americans looking for a structured and legal way to explore this fascinating and complex nation.

Once tour members are in Cuba, they have the option of not participating in group activities and are free to explore what they wish.

THE LAW: Generally speaking, U.S. law does not prohibit Americans from traveling to Cuba but does make it it illegal for them to spend money in Cuba. Certain groups of Americans, such as journalists, educators and those citizens with relatives living in Cuba, may visit and not be restricted by these laws.

But if Americans travel with one of the organizations described below, they may spend money in Cuba because they are going for "educational" or "research" purposes.

Americans also can travel independently to Cuba through a third country, such as the Bahamas, Mexico or Canada. But if U.S. authorities learn of the trip, usually by seeing a Cuban immigration stamp in the Americans' passports, the travelers run the risk of being fined by the Treasury Department. Realizing this, some U.S. visitors ask the Cuban officials not to stamp their passports.

GETTING THERE: Several organizations offer federally allowed trips to Cuba. These two groups focus on culture and history:

Cross Cultural Solutions. We traveled to Cuba with this organization. Each month, it offers "Insight Cuba" trips, for one or two weeks. It also offers "Cuban Music and Exploration" trips, which focus on music and dance, and tours to the Havana Jazz Festival.

Cost: about $2,000 for eight days and seven nights. Price includes airfare from either New York or Miami, transfers to and from the airport near Havana, hotels, all meals, transportation about the island and guides.

Web site:

Global Exchange. Offers a variety of tours to Cuba, including dance and percussion workshops, bicycle tours and language instruction at the University of Havana. Tours are generally 10 days.

Global Exchange also offers trips for those interested in specific aspects such as religion, economic development, tropical birds and "Following Che's Footsteps", which takes travelers to the Sierra Maestra, where Guevara and Fidel Castro fought Batista's army in 1959.

Cost: approximately $2,000, including airfare from Miami, hotels, two meals per day, transportation and guides.

Web site:

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