Thursday, February 13, 2014


One of the truly wonderful aspects of our visits to Cuba is the friendships we have formed over the years. We have met so many great people, both Canadian and Cuban. The Canadians seem to represent the stereotype our nation has been given: they are unfailingly friendly and completely willing to accept the fact that they are not home anymore, and willing to try to understand the reality of life of the people who actually live here. And the Cubans are happy to meet foreigners and proud to show off their resort and their country. Despite the challenges of living in a land that can best be compared to a political and economic science experiment, they remain unfailingly cheerful, happy and positive. But we have always been curious as to why they are so happy: is it because they are just naturally positive, or is it because they know nothing else than their experience in living in such a closed and insular society?

We have become particularly close to one of the staff at the resort. I will not use his real name because he asked us to keep our visit low key, so I will call him Fred. We've known him for a few years now, and he is easy to like. Fred is a big, athletic, good looking man. He is also good natured, good humoured, and easy going. Over the years, we've been fortunate to benefit from his friendly manner at the resort, and we have done our best to help him out a bit.

This year, we had the opportunity to visit Fred and his family at his home. He lives in Holguin with his wife, Joan, and his daughter Jane (also not their real names). Joan is a dentist, and she also teaches dentistry at a local college. Jane is a ten year old school girl, and is cute and shy: a lovely girl. Together, they make a nice family.

Fred arranged our transportation to Holguin with a taxi driver/ tour guide named Mauro, who I introduced you to in  my first post. The plan was to drive in with Mauro, who would wait for us in Holguin for the day while we did some sightseeing with Fred. Then, we'd go to Fred's house for lunch and  meet the family. After lunch, Fred would go back to the resort with us and Mauro for his afternoon shift.

It was a hot and sunny afternoon when Mauro parked at the Plaza of Flowers in central Holguin. We had been to Holguin about five years ago, and the scene was familiar to us. It was Saturday, so the square was bustling with families enjoying a day off from work or school. We were astounded at the number of vintage cars still working hard: everyone knows about the old cars in Cuba, and you certainly see them at resorts or in the tourist centre of Havana. But here, the cars were plentiful and decidedly less shiny. They belched out black smoke and made strange and loud noises, but they were working. Nothing touristy about them.

Fred joined us shortly afterward and Mauro left us in his care. Fred is proud of his home town and we visited plazas, shops, the local cathedral, and walked the side streets. The stores were interesting to see. When we visited five years ago, the stores seemed to be badly organized and lacking in goods. We remember that, in one particular store, auto parts were stacked beside toiletries, which were beside light bulbs and next to the school supplies. It was basically whatever the store could get its hands on. But in the stores Fred showed us, there was a plentiful supply of goods, all grouped together in some idea of "departments."  Fred wanted us to pay attention to the price of goods. They were not expensive by Canadian standards, but the price was listed in convertible pesos, which meant that they were highly expensive for Cubans. An example would be a washer/dryer set, which cost about 300 pesos. Not bad, but when one considers that a good Cuban working wage is about 20 pesos a month, one begins to see the problem. A washer/dryer is more than a year's wages for an average Cuban.

We visited the basilica and were delighted to see that it was a day for families to bring babies for baptisms. Proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters crowded around the beautifully dressed babies awaiting their turn at the baptismal font. Certainly a proud day for them and further proof as to the importance of family for the Cuban people. Then, to finish off a morning of celebration, we went to a nice covered patio and enjoyed a friendly beer to talk about the greatest of Cuban passions, baseball.

Finally, it was time to find Mauro and drive to Fred's house. Through a rabbit warren of winding, busy streets our '51 Chevy careened and we took in as much as we could. This was the real Holguin, far removed from the downtown areas where the few tourists walked. Now, we were confronted by large crowds of pedestrians and horse and buggies. Fewer cars competed with us for space on the roads, but many large trucks rumbled through the narrow streets. Deeper we went, and, had we been abandoned by our hosts, we would be there still. Finally, we turned off the pavement onto a narrow dirt road and bounced our way past low rise buildings, most of them two and three stories tall. Then, Mauro pulled over and we stepped out to Fred's house.

We climbed a spiral staircase to be greeted by Joan and Jane at the door. A warm welcome brought us out of the hot sun and into the cool shade of their home. As we settled in, Fred told us proudly that he had built the house himself, with some help from family and neighbours. Fred is a carpenter by trade, but he told us he learned plumbing and electricity at school. He began construction in 1995 and it has just recently been completed. He said all these things with a quiet pride that comes from such a solid accomplishment. Fred built the house over top of his father's home, which occupied the main floor. We have seen this many times before in our trips to Latin America. It's a great way to build homes without using up valuable land or paying exorbitant prices for real estate.

We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of good conversation, despite the fact that many of us didn't know the others' language: my Spanish is non-existent, while Joan and Jane know no English. It was largely Fred and Lou who carried the translation duties. Fred's English is pretty good, while Lou's Spanish is surprisingly good. The lunch was plentiful and delicious: we enjoyed pork medallions cooked in oil and garlic, congris rice, friend plantain, and salad, all prepared by Joan. Cold beer complimented the feast.

The house is small, but comfortable and with many "mod cons". We are led to believe that Fred's salary at the resort is the main source of income when he's working. But he cannot count on full time employment. In fact, he told us that he had been called back to the resort only a day before we arrived, and hadn't worked there since April. When he's not at the resort, he and his dad do carpentry and other construction work. Joan's work is year 'round, and she works at a clinic in Holguin. Thus, they can afford good furniture, appliances and, the pride of the house, a modern and spacious bathroom. Out the back and in the central courtyard of the cluster of buildings sat Fred's workshop. All in all, an impressive house.

We were able to trade ideas and information freely and frankly during lunch. Fred and Joan are honest about their lives: they know they live fairly well, but would like more for themselves and for Jane. When I asked them about the changes in Cuba, they were somewhat stoic about the future. Basically, their attitude was that changes were coming, but slowly, and that they would accept whatever came their way. There was no sense of bitterness or disappointment in their talk. Perhaps that is the Cuban way: they are constantly told about their new freedoms, but are completely realistic and resigned to the slow pace. They are also fully aware of life outside Cuba. Fred discussed a wide range of issues with us that showed that he knew what was happening in the wider world. He also expressed a slight regret that Canada and Cuba were not closer, and by that, he did not mean geographically closer, but rather that relations were not better. I expressed my agreement and, as will be no surprise to readers, blamed Stephen Harper for the colder relations.

We said a fond and reluctant farewell to Joan and Jane, found Mauro and made our way back to the resort. During the ride, we passed through more of the twisting and winding streets of Holguin's suburbs until we found our way to the more familiar highway to the coast. On the way, Mauro and Fred kept up a lively and animated conversation in Spanish. Lou and I sat mostly quiet in the back seat. It had been a rare day, and we needed time to digest all of it. We reached the resort where we deposited Fred outside at the workers' entrance. Mauro drove us to the main entrance and we thanked him for his safe driving and interesting insights.

What did we learn? Are we better off for the visit ? And, are we more "expert" in all things Cuban? Hard to answer. We certainly felt honoured to be part of the lives of these people, even for a short time. We learned a lot, but not enough to claim to be "expert." I doubt if even Cuban people themselves would claim to be "expert" on their own country. Cuba is endlessly fascinating, endlessly complicated, and always will be. Why ? Because it is changing in noticeable and interesting ways. We feel as though we have been invited in to a party that is just starting to get going. It would be rude and impolite not to stay a bit longer. And so, we will return to continue our education in this earthly and imperfect Paradise.

Monday, February 10, 2014


The bus ride from Frank Pais airport in Holguin to the Playa Costa Verde resort takes about an hour. We've travelled that road several times now and I honestly think that, if I had to drive the route, I could do it and get to the resort with no problem or road map. I remember a small "incident" about four years ago which shouldn't even have registered with us on that road, but, in retrospect, it certainly did have great portent. We saw several fruit stands along the road: small huts in front of farm houses selling everything from pineapples to bananas. What's the big deal with fruit stands? They were the first signs of the changes coming to Cuba. The stands were owned and operated by the farmers themselves and, amazingly, whatever they sold and earned, the could keep for themselves.

Fast forward a couple of years and the changes became even more apparent. One of the resort's most popular bar tenders, a man called Jesus, opened his own restaurant in the nearby town of Melilla.  Jesus is quite a character: articulate, quick witted, funny, friendly and energetic. I always liked Jesus and figured that when you have a bar tender with that name, you're going to be well looked after. Jesus started the enterprise with his brother in law and was openly encouraging resort guests to visit the restaurant with his own business card. Word of mouth spread the name and reputation of the restaurant. It has the catchy name of "La Finquita Alegre", which, loosely translated, means the Happy Farmhouse. We were not able to visit the restaurant that year because of timing, so we made sure to visit this year.

You may be wondering, "why write a blog about fruit stands and a guy's restaurant?" Good question: such things pass unnoticed here in Canada because they are such every-day things. But in Cuba, these are about as significant as you can get. They mark the start of a type of free-market entrepreneurialism that was unthinkable only a few short years ago. They are the leading edge of the new effort to move Cuba away from the rigid state-controlled communism of Fidel and Raul Castro and into a new era where Cubans can at least have a chance at some kind of personal prosperity.

Cuba has stagnated in the two decades since the fall of the USSR in the early 1990's. The Soviet Union was very much Cuba's "sugar daddy" in those days and helped develop a highly organized and controlled society. There were positives and negatives to this relationship. On the plus side, when Cuba overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencia Baptista in 1959 and installed Fidel Castro as its leader, Cuba moved into the modern world. Its education system developed a large and well-trained cadre of professionals: engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, all of whom are among the best in the world. People were able to move out of the peasantry that they had been living in and became modern and largely urban. Cuba became a very ordered and civilized society. The down side, however, was that, with communism, individual liberty and initiative were stifled and eliminated. The Castro regime tolerated no criticism, and jails filled up with political critics, journalists, and anyone who dared to stand up to the regime. Cuba also became a puppet of the USSR and fought several wars, particularly in Africa and South America, at the Soviet Union's command as proxy troops: undoubtedly, many Cuban families lost sons in those wars in the 1970's and 80's, and many Cubans lie buried in unmarked graves in those far-off lands.

When the USSR collapsed in the 1990's, Cuba was particularly hard hit. The trade embargo placed on it by the United States was still in full effect ( as it is today ) and trade with other countries was almost reduced to a stand-still. The dozen years from 1990 to around 2002 are referred to in Cuba as the "Special Period". Not much is known by foreigners of this time period, but it must have been an exceptionally harsh period. Food was rationed: industries shut down: schools and hospitals ran out of supplies. I would not be surprised at all if people starved in Cuba during that time, and I'd be interested to do some research into this "Special Period". Almost desperately, Fidel Castro realized that he had to open up his island to foreign tourism and foreign investment, which began in the early 2000's and continues to this day.

With foreigners coming into the country, the Cuban government and Cuban people were finally awakened to the wider world outside their little version of paradise. Fidel has given way to his younger brother Raul, who has presided over these small changes. The result: old style communism is on the way out, and a more market-oriented way of looking at things is emerging. The changes are small and almost imperceptible. But frequent visitors notice them every time they go back.

"La Finquita Alegre" is a lovely country restaurant, situated in the back part of a small farm house. It is an outdoor dining area, so that, on a lovely warm Cuban evening, you enjoy the beautiful stars over your head. There is a small bar that is well-stocked with beer, wine, spirits and soft drinks. The washroom is fully functional and immaculately clean. And the food .... excellent !! On the night we visited, Jesus arranged for a whole pig to be roasted on a spit because there were several of us. We had three kinds of rice, including congris which is the famous Cuban staple of rice and black beans fried in pork fat. There were fried bananas, salads, breads, soups, and other side dishes, all prepared skillfully by the chef that Jesus had been able to hire. The server was a lovely woman who, we believed, was Jesus' sister-in-law. And, best of all, we observed that some of the diners that night were Cubans. They may have had to save up a long time for the night out, but it was good to see that not all the patrons were tourists. Drinks flowed: conversation mixed with laughter filled the night: food was delicious and plentiful. It was a wonderful night.

Jesus arranged the whole night for us. Our taxi ride to and from the resort ( in a beautiful 1951 Chevrolet convertible ) , plus one complementary drink, and the dinner itself was included in a package that cost us 20 convertible pesos: the equivalent of $20.00 US. Not a bad night !! Finally, we learned that La Finquita Alegre has its own facebook page: I urge readers to find it and like it.

Is this the face of the new Cuba? Will Jesus and his partners emerge as the new Cuban entrepreneurs? And will Cuba itself be able to control the pace of the inevitable changes that are coming? Will the changes be beneficial ? There are no easy answers to these questions. Only two things became clear to us. First, the changes, now underway, cannot be stopped. And second, there will undoubtedly be winners and losers in the "new" Cuba that these changes create.

For those of us foreigners who have come to love Cuba, we are left with a dilemma of our own. Do we celebrate the possibility of a better life to the winners in the "new" Cuba? Or do we mourn the passing of a place that we have grown to love: a place that was, despite the hardships, a quiet, friendly, slow-paced, simple and honest place. Cuba had and still has no pretentions of being something glamourous or glitzy. But the signs of material prosperity are starting to show. One thing I remain confident in is this: the change will largely be controlled by the Cubans themselves.

On our ride back to the resort in a different 1951 Chevy ( this one a sedan because of the coolness of the night ) I looked up to the immense stars in the heavens over the island. I don't believe in omens, but, as I contemplated my wonderful evening and my full stomach, I believe I saw a shooting star overhead.

Friday, February 7, 2014


We have just returned from our "Cuban cottage" at the Playa Costa Verde resort near Holguin, Cuba. It was our 14th visit to this area, and, as always, we enjoyed it. We reunited with several old friends, Cuban and Canadian, and did all the old and enjoyable things. But we also were able to do a couple of new things which I'd like to share with you.

Lou and I love Cuba, but we're under no illusions as to what it is like off the resort. But our education in this area was enhanced by a wonderful encounter with a cab driver named Mauro. Mauro drove us to the city of Holguin from our resort in a magnificently restored 1951 Chevrolet, a journey of about an hour. During this time, Mauro, a friendly and good humoured man who spoke excellent English, talked freely and candidly about life in Cuba for Cuban people. The following two anecdotes are his and I merely repeat them for your enlightenment.

First, Mauro asked us if we enjoyed cocktails at the resort, to which we enthusiastically responded "yes!" He asked us if we were familiar with the cocktail that featured rum, cola and lime juice. Of course we were, and we answered that it was the famous "Cuba Libre". Mauro asked us if we knew what Cuba Libre meant, and we said "Free Cuba." He then asked if we knew what Cubans called the same cocktail. We were mystified at this question. He said that Cubans, when ordering this drink, asked for the "Lie Cocktail", because the idea of a "Free Cuba", to Cubans, is a lie.

We fell silent and started to ponder this. While we were doing so, Mauro began to tell us another story. Settle back for this one, because it's a bit long, but it describes life in Cuba for the people who live there permanently. His story runs like this:

One day, a man died and went to heaven. He took his place among the clouds, and played his harp and sat peacefully, ready to begin his time in Eternity. Eventually, however, the man became bored and decided that he needed a change. He went to find God to ask for a favour. When he found God, he said, " I want to ask something of you, please, God." God asked what the favour was.

The man said, "I like it here in heaven, but I must admit that I'm a little bored. You know, the same thing every day for eternity. I was wondering if it would be possible to go to Hell, just for a little while, to see what it's like. I must admit, I'm a little curious and need a break."

God thought about it for a while and told the man that he would have to wait until the proper paper work was done before the request could be approved. The man thanked God and resumed his place among the clouds with his harp. Eventually, after some time had passed and the man's boredom approached apocalyptic levels, God came back to him with the good news that the man's request had been approved and he could go to Hell for a short visit.

The man flew down to the gates of Hell. Taking a deep breath, he tried to pry the gates open, but they would not budge. He tried and tried and, eventually, got the gates to open a little. He heard what he thought was music and this encouraged him to try harder. Finally, he pried the gates open wide enough for him to squeeze in. He stepped into Hell and, to his great surprise, found a wild party going on. Music, food, drinks, pretty girls, and wonderful scenery greeted him. He stepped in further and spent a wonderful, carefree and exciting time in Hell, having so much fun and happiness. Eventually, his temporary pass expired and he had to leave. He flew back up to heaven and resumed his seat with his harp among the clouds.

God came by one day and asked the man how he enjoyed his trip to Hell. The man told God how much he enjoyed it and asked if it would be possible for him to go back, but this time to stay. God once again frowned and said he'd have to do the necessary paper work before this new request could be approved. Much more time passed, with the man once again bored with his time in heaven. Finally, God came back with the good news that the man's second request had been approved, and that he could go back to Hell, this time for good.

Overjoyed, the man flew down to the familiar gates of Hell. He tried and tried to pry the gates apart, and they proved just as difficult as the first time, but he was motivated to put all his strength into it, so he could rejoin the party forever. Finally, he succeeded in moving the gates apart a little, but could hear no music. He pried even further, enough to see inside, but saw only darkness. His curiosity got the best of him, and, with a mighty push, opened the gates wide enough to enter. But he saw nothing but blackness, and heard no sound. He took some steps further inside to investigate.

After only a few steps, the man stumbled and fell into an endless pot of boiling water. He suffered greatly and screamed. When he opened his eyes, he saw the Devil himself, horned and cloven hoofed, grinning down at him, stabbing him with his pitchfork. The man struggled, but could not escape the Devil's grasp. Down deeper into the boiling pot he sank, doomed to drown and suffer forever. With his last effort the man looked up to the Devil.

"What happened to the party? Where is the music, the fun, the pretty girls? What has happened to me?"

The Devil grinned and said to him:

"First, you arrived as a tourist. Now, you live here!"

And, with that, the man sank to the bottom of the pot, to suffer and die forever!

We fell silent while Mauro laughed at his story. I looked at the lovely countryside as it sped past. Palm trees swayed, blue sky hung endlessly overhead, and we loved the ride in this vintage car. I said that this must be the most beautiful prison in the world. The salsa music blared louder on the radio and the warmth of the day mounted. Mauro nodded, and we drove on.