Mr. Mestre will speak on Sept. 30 at a meeting of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (thepcfr,org). INTRODUCTION
I am a Cuban exile living in New York and this is my account of my first trip back to Cuba in January of 2013, 53 years after having left at age 11 with my family. Unlike most Cubans who emigrated and settled in the Miami area, my parents moved to Argentina, where my mother was from and where my father had decided to found a television station and TV programming company which went on the air in October of 1960, eight months after leaving Cuba. Television and radio were my family’s principal but not only business in Cuba. My father and his two brothers were also engaged in food and beverage production, construction and auto retailing, as well as drug wholesaling and distribution, a business they inherited from my paternal grandfather.
All this was left behind and confiscated by the Castro government, and my father poured all of his savings abroad into his Argentine venture, which fortunately proved successful.
When we left, my two older siblings and I had already enrolled in boarding schools in the U.S., whereas my younger sister continued her education exclusively in Buenos Aires. My two U.S.-educated siblings eventually returned to Argentina, where together with my younger sister they all still live, having married Argentines and raised Argentine children.
I attended law school in the U.S. but after slaving away for four years as an associate at a large New York firm, I stumbled into investment banking, which I am still engaged in and which I have to thank for having afforded me a privileged life style. My three children and U.K.- born wife of 40 years all speak Spanish to varying degrees, with the oldest child, who lives in Mexico and is married to a Mexican, having shed any trace of an American accent (but substituted it for a strong Mexican intonation). Our offspring seem proud to acknowledge that they are half Cuban/Argentines, but suspect that they feel no more Cuban than they do Argentine or British or American, since I did not emphasize their Cuban origins during their upbringing. They are close to their Argentine and U.K. cousins, and some of that has permeated their sense of identity.
This account of my return was written first and foremost for me, as I wanted to understand and record the strong cross-currents of emotion which I experienced like countless other Cubans have during their first trip back. But it is also for my wife and my children, as well as my siblings and their children, friends and anyone else who might have an interest in Cuba.
An obvious question that any reader might have is why I waited 53 years to return. I don’t have a good answer. Maybe it was because I just never prioritized it. I have had a long, successful career and I was too busy working, preferring to take my allotted vacation time visiting other family in Ireland, Argentina and Uruguay, where my parents had a summer home, which my sisters and I have kept. It also takes a special effort to travel to Cuba legally, as without relatives in Cuba I needed to find some other permitted travel category to avoid running afoul of U.S. travel restrictions. It may sound strange, but my two sisters have gone three times, and my father once and my mother twice before they passed away, so in some respects I felt I had returned vicariously through them, and experienced some of what they experienced through their pictures, stories and my younger sister’s book and journal about her Cuban travels. This of course makes no sense. And finally my trip had a concrete purpose – visiting Cuba Emprende, which is fully described below.
Some Cubans have not returned for political reasons – aiding and abetting the enemy, so to speak. Or not wanting to spoil a memory of what Cuba used to be. This never was my case. In fact, the reader should be able to discern what my attitude is towards travel to Cuba and engagement with Cubans as a stimulant for democratic change that will brighten the lives of the most affected victims of the Cuban revolution, the 11 million people who endure living there. And I also hope to inspire some Cubans who have been reluctant to return to reconsider. My trip was not a political statement but a personal journey of rediscovery, intimate and entirely mine.
DAY MINUS ONE
I left the house, said goodbye to my wife and headed to LaGuardia for the American Airlines 6:00 p.m. flight to Miami. I had three passports in hand, two dark blue – U.S. and Argentina – and one light blue – a Cuban passport with a special stamp that says “autorizado para entrar y salir de Cuba” -- authorized to enter and exit Cuba. Lots of cash as well; you can’t use U.S. credit cards in an embargoed terrorist state.
The plane was delayed – “there are 15 planes ahead of us waiting for takeoff” announced the pilot - and I disembarked at 9:30 p.m. with only 30 minutes left before my self-appointed 10 p.m. bedtime hour. I was meeting my fellow travelers at 6 a.m. in the airport hotel lobby, and I did not want to commence my journey on anything less than a full night’s sleep.
But where was the airport hotel? My reservation sheet said “located at the Concourse E entrance”, but I was in Concourse D with no visible signage to suggest that Concourse E was connected to Concourse D. “How do I get to Concourse E?” “Turn right at D twenty seven”.
The walk to D27 was 10 minutes. The tunnel connecting D to E was another 10 minutes race walking at a New York pace. Finally, the E concourse! E27-40 to the right, E1-26 to the left. A nearby directory made no mention of the airport hotel. A quick phone call to the hotel: “Where the @*#% are you?!” “Look for baggage claim – we are on the other side of security”.
Right, left, up, down, finally an Exit sign and a lonely security guard. “Is this the way to the airport hotel?” “Yes sir, it’s right on the other side of that door”. And it was! More importantly this was a perfect introduction to my return to Cuba. The hotel looked exactly the same as it did the last time I stayed there 35 years ago. “Does the hotel have a gym?” “Yes sir, but it’s been closed for renovations for TWO YEARS”. Huh? My room did not disappoint me with its 60’s décor, chipped paint and slightly askew door that let in ample light from the well-lit hallway through the cracks between the door and the ill-fitting door frame.
After a vigorous, pre-dawn, in room workout based on the Canadian Royal Air Force routine I used to follow 35 years ago in our first New York City apartment (and as a result of which I was sore for the next three days), I met my fellow travelers in the hotel lobby promptly at 6:00 a.m. First was John McIntire, group leader, trip organizer and fellow member of the Cuba Study Group, sometimes referred to as the “CSG”.. The CSG is a not-for-profit organization comprised of Cuban American businessmen and women who believe that engagement, dialogue and the development of civil society is the most effective way to promote democratic change in Cuba. Travel, commerce and relaxing the economic embargo are also key to helping the 11 million real victims of a failed totalitarian experiment seek a better future for themselves. CSG’s founder, Carlos Saladrigas, is vilified by the Miami hard liners for his conciliatory views. Some hard liners in the Cuban government fear that the CSG is a Trojan horse fronting for the exiled Cuban diaspora in its quest to recolonize Cuba.
The catalytic reason for my trip to Cuba was to visit Cuba Emprende, a foundation that since May 2012 has been operating a school for entrepreneurs in Havana modeled after Pro Empleo, an 18 year old Mexican not-for-profit organization that annually graduates 8- 9,000 actual or aspiring small businessmen in Mexico. Cuba Emprende’s instructors were trained by Pro Empleo’s instructors and Cuba Emprende uses the same curriculum and course materials as Pro Empleo. John McIntire is Chairman of the Board of Cuba Emprende, which is completely separate from CSG but has benefitted from the financial support of several CSG members as well as other interested Cuban exiles. John’s father was manager of the Sears Roebuck store in Marianao and his mother was Eulalia “Lalita” Salazar, a well known Cuban TV and radio personality. After Cuba, John’s parents moved to Venezuela where they met and became friends of my first cousin Alberto and his wife Josefina.
Also joining us were Yemy Zonana, 53-year-old Mexican CEO of Pro Empleo on her first inspection visit of Cuba Emprende; Consuelo Isaacson (nee Arostegui), CEO of Friends of Caritas, which funds Caritas in Cuba, the only NGO allowed to be widely active in Cuba due to its Catholic Church umbrella; and John Hickey, retired IBM lawyer and Unitarian Minister, Boston neighbor of Consuelo, board member of CSG and Friends of Caritas and Cuba Emprende, and Cuban-at-heart despite speaking flawed Spanish and having lived in Cuba only three (though formative) years. I clung to my fellow travelers as we headed to the far reaches of Concourse D, butterflies active but well hidden and glad to be able to lend Consuelo a hand ferrying one of her two large suitcases containing myriad supplies, gifts, medicines and other sundry items for friends, relatives and who knew who else. I suddenly felt guilty for wasting an opportunity to bring gifts even though I did not know a single person on the island.
ABC Charters – someone said ABC stands for “A Better Chance” – had made all our travel arrangements and their representative at the counter was clearly displeased with our “late” arrival at 6:15 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. departure. All our travel documents were in order and much to our surprise, no hordes of excited Cubans were there to delay what turned out to be a very ordinary check-in and security clearance process. The flight was operated by American Airlines and the boarding gate sign saying Flight 1926, 8:00 a.m., Havana, Cuba seemed disorientingly routine. Consuelo was clearly a “notable” and anyone traveling with her is automatically upgraded to business class. This allowed us to board first and observe the rest of the passengers traipsing to coach. I had been warned to expect boisterous, jewelry bedecked returnees intent on wearing visible evidence of their economic success. Instead I saw mostly ordinary Cubans conversing in hushed tones and at least two “tours” of mostly elderly individuals with their giveaway tags and complimentary travel bags advertising their cultural, religious or educational adventure, having probably signed up by just Googling “Cuba Travel”. What embargo?
Miami to Havana is a very short flight – 40 minutes – and was barely enough time to fill out my Cuba entry customs form and be told not to lose the pink copy that would be returned to me lest I wanted to extend my stay indefinitely. It was cloudy – not much to see – until suddenly, there it was – Cuba – 1,000 feet below. Large squares of farmland, some green, some brown or yellow, and scattered gray buildings, no different than what you see approaching Kansas or Tokyo. But wait, the browns were a little tired and the greens not quite verdant. Was this my imagination or was most of the land uncultivated? “There are two international arrivals buildings in Jose Martí airport – one of them is reasonably modern and the other, which is just a hangar, is reserved for charters from the U.S.”, said John McIntire, sitting next to me. Small offense meant, small offense taken. Touchdown, a somewhat bumpier than normal taxi, and a full stop next to the only other plane in the entire airport. One of those old fashioned portable stairs was pushed to the plane and out we went onto the runway, greeted by a dozen people milling about to ensure we did not get lost on our 100-yard walk to immigration, all in dark blue airport and airline uniforms.
The first thought that came to mind was one that I will never forget. Cuba was no longer just a memory or an idea, something that you talked or argued about but couldn’t really relate to. There it was and there I was, and the place really did exist, I could see it, touch it, and embrace it.
We went in a side door and directly in front were various cubicles with immigration officers in attendance. I picked one with only one person in line and almost immediately it was my turn. A young woman looked at me from behind a counter and a small camera hanging from the ceiling. “Buenos días”. “Buenos días”. I handed her my Cuban passport. She ran it through the scanner, punched lots of keys, looked up at me and said “Retírese un poco por favor para sacarle una foto”. “Sí como no”. Click, and after another 30 seconds of staring at her computer screen she gave me a warm smile and handed me back my passport. “Pase por favor” and she buzzed the locked door which I then pushed to proceed to customs. Not a single question, no hesitation, just another Cuban coming back after 53 years.
With my carry-on luggage I could have whisked through the cavernous baggage claim and customs hall but we had all agreed to wait for each other and go out together - strength and comfort in numbers, so to speak. Well, our strategy backfired, at least for one of us. John Hickey was approached by a man in a khaki uniform. “Venga comingo por favor”. Maybe it was good fortune they chose the one person who could hide behind “Hablo muy poco español”. Fifteen minutes later John was still nestled against a far wall in deep conversation with his inquisitor. The rest of us decided maybe it would be prudent to stop tempting the roving entry police and wait for John outside, leaving the other John behind as his lifeline to the group.
Another 15 minutes and both Johns emerged looking relatively non-plussed. “What was that all about”? “Not clear; they kept asking what I was doing in Cuba over and over again. I think I was randomly selected”. Subsequently I learned that John had been in Cuba as recently as last December and that a couple of years back he had been detained for 14 hours and released at MIDNIGHT. More like unrandom. Conversation on the Havana Tours mini bus taking us into town was muted by a reminder that everything in Cuba is bugged.
My fellow travelers were thoroughly enjoying watching me, nose up against the bus window, eyes wide. At the end of the airport drive was a giant billboard denouncing El Bloqueo – The Blockade- and proclaiming La Revolución. We drove past the Russian-looking Plaza de la Revolución, which I did not recollect. “Rumor has it that Chavez is interned in a state of the art medical facility several stories below the plaza”. Really? We kept driving through non-descript neighborhoods, low slung buildings lining both sides of the two way road, moderate traffic flowing at a respectable Saturday morning pace. We could have been in Honduras or Guatemala, but one more turn and there we were driving along the Malecon, surf pounding and spraying, once magnificent rundown buildings staring out into a strangely lonely sea, not a boat in sight. In most countries the sea transports you mentally over the horizon; in Cuba it is the barrier that imprisons you.
We turned right skirting the entrance to La Bahía de la Habana – Havana harbor – again no ships- and then right again to the Plaza de Armas. Off with our bags, wheeling them over the pedestrian only cobblestone square that fronted our hotel, the Santa Isabel. We were now in the middle of the magnificently restored section of Habana Vieja – Old Havana. Our rooms were not ready – it was 10:30 a.m. – so we left our bags with the doorman and our hand luggage and valuables in John Hickey’s room (which was ready), and we returned to the lobby to set off on our first walking tour of Old Havana. The hotel was a limestone, three story colonial building, elegant but not opulent, reminiscent of a bygone era, everything done in perfect taste. The rooms were air-conditioned with stocked mini-bars and small flat screen TVs overlooking an enormous terrace that in turn looked onto a plaza busy with book vendors setting up their stalls displaying mostly books evoking the struggle of the people and celebrating the Revolution and its heroes Fidel, Raul, Che, even Camilo.
I befriended the receptionist-Maria, a pleasant, perfectly groomed and uniformed woman who gave me maps and agreed to investigate hiring a car to take me to Varadero the following day. I didn’t know if she spoke English as we obviously conversed in Cuban Spanish. We addressed each other as “Usted” – Cubans, unlike Argentines, default to the formal. I felt strangely content, happy; I joked around with Maria. She smiled back, polite to a fault.
We started strolling down Obispo Street, past Droguería Johnson, a meticulously restored wood paneled apothecary, Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and the Ministerio de Finanzas y Precios (!), and into CADECO, the money- exchange office where after a brief wait at the door I was ushered to one of the cashiers on the left of a U shaped room with about a dozen money tellers. I stood in front of a 25-year-old black, neatly dressed man, and I indicated I wanted to change $500 US dollars into CUCS, the Cuban convertible peso which is the only currency accepted in establishments catering to tourists and which is on a par with the US dollar except that the Cuban government exacts a 12.9% transaction fee, making the effective exchange rate 87.1¢ per US dollar. Soon the teller and I were deep in conversation. He was amazed to learn that I was back after a 53 year absence and he told me I had left one year before his mother was born. He seemed unfazed that I was changing what was probably two years’ salary for him; I did not tell him that I thought this would be less than two days’ spending money. I also asked to change $50 into “moneda nacional”, which is the ordinary Cuban peso used for local transactions. That rate is 24 to 1 and as the largest denomination is 20 pesos, I ended up with a large wad of slightly faded, wrinkled, monopoly-like bills that I stuck into my back pocket, where it would remain during most of my stay. I shook hands with the teller and went back out to join my colleagues.
We wandered the streets of Old Havana, down narrow alleys full of tourists and locals enjoying the fresh morning air but by and large ignoring each other. None of the street names meant anything to me – Amargura, Lamparilla, O’Reilly, San Juan de Dios, Empedrado. Occasionally a store owner would invite us in or try to interest us in something; a simple “no gracias” in perfect Cuban Spanish was usually enough discouragement, although often accompanied by a puzzled look – those tourists don’t look Cuban…. Soon we were at the Cathedral, a small colonial gem painstakingly and beautifully restored in anticipation of the Pope’s visit a year ago.
It was almost noon and time for lunch in view of our 6:00 a.m. departure. We tried to no avail to get into an open air paladar which John McIntire had called 10 days ago and again 3 days ago but it was fully booked and remained so. An important lesson for Cuba travelers is that the best paladares are not a very well-kept secret and are in high demand during the peak travel months of December – March. The Cuba experts (John, John and Consuelo) conferred among themselves and decided that we would go to the rooftop of the Ambos Mundos hotel, where service could be slow but where the view was sublime.
We backtracked to the Ambos Mundos, took the filigreed iron, turn of the century elevator to the rooftop, and ensconced ourselves in the best shaded table with 360 degree views, including the harbor, El Morro Castle, and most of Old Havana itself. A musical trio was playing a bolero, waiters were busy serving tourists mojitos and beers and everyone in the place was talking “animadísimos”. The service and food turned out to be mediocre but the setting more than made up for it. Cuba for tourists certainly seemed to have potential.
After lunch and a quick hotel check-in we set off for the artists’ market, a 15 minute walk to a warehouse crowded with stands displaying paintings, photographs, wood carvings, souvenirs and all manner of hand crafts. We initially stuck to the tourist paths of Old Havana down Mercaderes onto Plaza Vieja, another magnificently restored square festooned with banners celebrating Environment Day and anchored by a jarring maroon metal statue of a child riding a rooster. A chivirico salesman brought back a rush of childhood memories, and for one CUC I treated my companions to the sybaritic pleasure of a fresh off the frying pan chivirico dripping with powdered sugar. Yemy from Mexico had never heard or much less seen or tasted a chivirico, but described it as a Cuban flatbread churro.
The bronze statue of the Caballero de Paris was so lifelike I thought at first it was a human mime in full costume pretending to be a statue. The children playing “béisbol” in a church courtyard served as a reminder that baseball must have indeed been invented in Cuba. The market turned out to be above average for its genre, thought 90% of the paintings were garish, brightly colored caricatures of costumed locals singing, dancing and generally having a good time. I entertained three purchases – a large naturalist face of a dark haired pale woman with aquamarine eyes, an abstract row of vertical lines against a textured ochre background, and a photograph of an old, wizened Cuban woman with a large cigar in her mouth. I opted for the photograph, which the artist slowly and proudly autographed for me before rolling it up and securing it with real imported duct tape. I passed on the abstract lines even though the vendor assured me that the artist, who happened to be his father, could paint a new vertical version that would better fit our wall space and deliver it to my hotel in 48 hours – all for 50 CUCS. Interestingly, the men and women tending the hundreds of stalls were overwhelmingly white, young and trendy, clad in denim and abundantly adorned with tattoos, body piercing and Rastafarian hair. This was not the model I had envisioned of young dedicated revolucionarios.
On the way back to the hotel we went off the beaten path, and the other Havana revealed itself to us. This could have been Aleppo or Bosnia with the sounds of mambo and cha cha cha instead of gunfire. Buildings that should have been condemned and torn down were teeming with humanity, men in Depression-era undershirts leaning out of crumbling balconies whiling away the balmy afternoon. Clothes set out to dry were tended everywhere against a backdrop of unpainted, pockmarked walls missing corners, edges and entire sections. Here and there lumber had been substituted for columns and beams, allowing entire structures to lean perilously. It is widely known but never reported that every day some building in Cuba collapses, burying and killing whoever happened to be there at the time. A group of young boys played in the rubble of an empty lot next to the rusted hulk of a merry go round, oblivious to the devastation around them. There was not a white face or an air conditioner anywhere in sight. At no time did we feel unsafe and no one paid any attention to us.
Back again through the Plaza Vieja, where a troupe of thirty odd teenagers clad in all white festive traditional dress were performing a rumba style, in line Conga dance, undoubtedly part of the Environmental Day celebration. A crowd of enthusiastic onlookers -- part tourists, part locals -- surrounded them, swaying to the music. This was more participatory celebration than tourist entertainment, and everyone, including the dancers, seemed genuinely to be enjoying themselves.
The group decided it was time to unpack and take a rest in their rooms before dinner, but it was only 4:30 and I headed for the taxi stand half a block from my hotel. I spotted a bright blue 1954 Chevrolet coupe and after a brief negotiation with Armando (45 CUCS for 2 hours), I jumped into the front seat. Armando had offered me the option of his other car – a magnificent brown and white same vintage convertible - and his other driver, who also happened to be his son and partner in the taxi business. However, I opted for the lower profile alternative. Armando, I subsequently discovered, had two other sons, one who sold pizzas and the other who tended a knick-knack shop in El Morro castle.
I had a very specific itinerary in mind. The first stop was to be the Hotel Nacional, only 2 km away. After a brief jaunt through the lobby and a glimpse of the wall pictures of all the famous people who had stayed there, we drove a few blocks to the FOCSA, the iconic 33- story mixed use commercial, office and residential building built by my father and his brothers and still the dominant feature of the Havana skyline. The massive structure had recently been refurbished on the outside and painted a somewhat jarring pale yellow with bright green trimming. No time for an interior visit so off to CMQ, home of Cuba’s premiere radio and television networks and the flagship enterprise of my father and his two brothers.
The only problem was that Armando, being only in his mid 40’s, had no idea what or where CMQ was. After some back and forth he decided to take me to the building that houses Cuba’s main broadcasting studios and is known as the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión or ICRT. We stopped at a side entrance and I approached the man and woman guarding the door.
“Is this the building that used to house CMQ”?
“Yes it is”.
“Oh. Well, I am here on a sentimental trip, having returned to Cuba just today for the first time since I left 53 years ago. I am the son of the gentleman who used to own CMQ”.
The guard’s eyes bulged wide as saucers and an expression of utter disbelief crossed his face. A big smile followed. “Pues bienvenido!” We chatted for a while. I tried to talk my way in for a brief look around but regrettably he could not let me in. He did say I should go to the end of the street, turn right to the middle of the block, go up the stairs, bear left (to the right would be a restaurant) and there on the floor I would see the letters CMQ. I followed his instructions. Going up those stairs I could not quite picture what the original main entrance must have looked like, but there on the second floor in enormous black letters and invisible to passersby on the sidewalk below I could see CMQ emblazoned as part of the original maroon tile work, impervious to the ravages of time.
During my four-day Cuban sojourn, I met only two surly compañeros and one of them was the startled sentry unceremoniously seated on a folding chair next to “CMQ”and clearly unaccustomed to any visitors, particularly one with camera in hand.
“You can’t be here!”
I gave him my best rendition of the sentimental–trip-after-53 years- and-was-it-okay-to-take-a-picture speech. He gave me a furtive look, glancing over my shoulder as if expecting to see a horde of Miami infidels close behind, or maybe a member of the Cuban secret police keeping score. “O.K. but hurry up!” Click. Nonchalantly I walked around and spotted a plaque on the wall commemorating the founding of CMQ. “Can I also take a picture of the plaque?” “No! You must go now”. And so ended my visit to my father’s and his brothers’ enduring but fading legacy.
Back in the car, the next stop was the Necropolis de Colon (Cemetery), a visit that had been recommended as a sort of diorama of the history of Cuba. I arrived after the guided tours had ended for the day, but the guard at the gate was characteristically accommodating. He charged me a 5 CUCS entry fee (destination unknown) and called out to a uniformed guard to take me around. Not surprisingly the guard turned out to be respectful, polite and extraordinarily knowledgeable. “What would you like to see” he said as I stared at a sea of white marble mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. “Maybe the tomb of La Milagrosa, or Máximo Gomez or Alejo Carpentier, or the firefighters’ and medical students’ pantheons”.
Yes, Alejo Carpentier, that’s what I wanted to see. I had read his book, Los Pasos Perdidos, as a sophomore in college and I could still remember my professor, Jose Pupo-Walker, urging me to consider a major in literature and pursue an academic career. My guard-guide took me next to the tomb of Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame, his faded photograph prominently displayed above the smooth marble surface, followed by numerous others burial structures in varied shapes and sizes bearing many familiar sounding names including Catalina Lasa, the second woman ever to be granted a divorce in Cuba and undoubtedly an ancestor of fellow Cuba Study Group member Jose de Lasa. It is customary in Cuban cemeteries after a few years to disinter and transfer the remains to smaller boxes, which are then reburied in the same plot, presumably making room for relatives and extending the useful life of the burial sites. I needed to be on my way. “Is it permitted to tip guards who accompany visitors like me?” ”Yes, very much so”. I parted with the princely sum of 10 CUCS and headed for the exit gate.
My last objective for the day was to find the Havana Yacht Club, where I never sailed but where I did play basketball and bowled small sized duck pins which were tended by boys barely older than myself who would disappear into the rafters as soon as a ball was rolled and reappear to remove or reset fallen pins. As I subsequently learned, the land and summer home which became the Havana Yacht Club were donated by Sir Joseph W. Todd and Charles Todd, great great uncle and great grandfather of Deidre Todd, classmate of my brother Roberto at our old school Ruston Academy. But alas, neither Armando nor anyone else we stopped knew what or where the Havana Yacht Club was. We drove generally west and north toward the coast, over the Almendares Bridge, detouring into el Bosque de la Habana – the Havana Forest, a slightly creepy, moss-covered, densely canopied woodland unpopulated except for the military installation we passed on the left protected by a solitary guard at an unmarked gate.
The environs of Marianao were the rich suburbs of pre-revolutionary times and today home to embassies and party apparatchik, marked by lightly trafficked meandering roads and luxurious vegetation that permitted partial views of the once resplendent but now aging residences of extraordinarily varied architectural styles once featured in the black and white pages of “Life” and “Look” magazine.
We never did find the Havana Yacht Club but we did turn around at the guarded gate of a long driveway at the end of which stood a magnificently preserved – at least it so seemed at a distance – Georgian building framed by the glow of the setting sun. “What is this place?” I asked the uniformed guard “This is the old Country Club, now known as the Club Habana where you come in, pay a fee and spend a day by the pool.” The Country Club was one place children were rarely taken. I had vague memories of russet-colored leather furniture, dark wood paneling and long green vistas of manicured lawn where men went to play golf.
It was time to return, and after an obligatory photo of Armando and his car we said our goodbyes. A quick change of clothes and at 7:30 we met in the lobby and returned to the taxi stand, where John McIntire had hired Miguel and his mint condition 1956 Mercury roadster to take the five of us with room to spare to Le Chansonnier, a paladar. After getting lost in the darkened streets of Vedado we happened onto an old mansion which inside housed a well apportioned, fully stocked restaurant with courteous, professional service, a wide variety of imported wines and acceptable quality food.
Cuba is a country of complexities, contradictions and pervasive unfairness. And so ended my first day, dare I say it, home.
Up early for a seaside jog along the entrance to Havana harbor and El Malecon. It was Sunday and not too many people were up and about except fisherman casting for breakfast in the contaminated waters and a few other joggers. Professional fisherman were getting ready to go out in their “catanas” – small, wooden, motorized boats moored 50 yards offshore – big enough to venture a kilometer or two out but not seaworthy enough to head for the Florida Straits.
It is prudent when jogging along the Malecon to keep an eye glued to the ground to avoid the numerous obstacles that can trip and hurt you -- broken pavement, uneven tiles- while the other eye takes in the crashing waves guarding over the once noble but now crumbling row of sea-facing buildings, unpainted and uncared for. The end of my outward leg before turning around was marked by two notable landmarks, el Monumento al Maine – the monument commemorating the U.S. warship Maine, which was mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor on the eve of the Spanish American War– and a few yards further west a bronze statue of Jose Marti, the Cuban George Washington who died in 1895, carrying Elian in the crook of his left arm while pointing accusingly at the U.S interests section building a few blocks away. Elian was the 7-year-old orphan of a woman who perished fleeing Cuba in 2000 and who was the subject of a tug of war between Cuba, who wanted him returned to his father, and Cuban exiles who wanted Elian to stay in the U.S. with relatives. The inscription at the base of the Maine monument seemed odd, and I learned subsequently that the words had been changed a few years ago to reflect an appropriate degree of Revolutionary anti-Yanki fervor. The atavistic Marti-Elian statue is sometimes described by locals as Jose Marti telling Elian where he needs to go to apply for his U.S. exit visa.
Back for a quick shower and breakfast in the sidewalk café section of the Santa Isabel’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in the room rate and consisted of anything and everything you could ever want – juices, cereals, eggs, meats, breads, etc. What were the waiters thinking when they served such bountiful repasts? Three out of the four days we were brought an extra breakfast which nobody ordered and which was dutifully sent back, possibly, I supposed, to be consumed by the staff. Maybe that is what they were thinking.
Today was a very special day. I was going to Varadero, the resort where my family had a vacation home literally on the beach and where I spent carefree days of sand, sea and boundless joy until all was cruelly and brusquely taken away in March of 1960, two months after my eleventh birthday. My driver turned up in the hotel lobby promptly at 10:00 a.m. His name was Manuel Vazquez, 44 years old, ex-emergency room nurse, divorced, father of a 21-year-old daughter who lived with his ex-wife in Tampa, Florida. Manuel was currently living with a woman who had her own teenage daughter and who Manuel referred to as his stepdaughter. Manuel was typically Cuban – neither white nor black, medium height, medium build, short-cropped hair with streaks of grey, and neatly dressed in a yellow polo shirt and khaki pants that almost looked like a uniform but without insignias; he turned out to be exceedingly polite, respectful and educated.
I had requested and paid for (200 CUCS for the round trip plus tip) a modern car and I was not disappointed as I got into the front seat of a 2005 Blue Lexus in perfect condition except for a small dent above the front grill. Never mind the car had 230,000 km; the air conditioning worked perfectly. The 123 license plate was an unexpected bonus.
Immediately we were on our way on the Via Blanca, the 4 lane coastal highway that leads to all points east out of Havana. Traffic was light – the opposite of what you might expect on a Sunday trip heading to the most famed beach resort on the island. Cubans apparently like to spend Sundays at home, maybe as a way to cope with deprivation stress or maybe because they lack the means to go anywhere. Soon we passed the smoke belching diesel power plant that furnishes much of Havana’s electricity, followed by a scattering of blackened oil pumps not 100 feet from the shoreline rhythmically sipping crude from Cuba’s meager reserves of heavy oil. This was a surprise; I had no idea Cuba had any oil, much less along its most famous shoreline.
Eduardo the interrogator soon took over from Eduardo the sentimental returnee.
“Manuel, tell me about the economics of being a tourist car-for-hire driver”.
Manuel explained. He shared the car with one other driver and was expected to generate 1,200 CUCS of revenue the 15 days a month he drove, or 80 CUCS a day. If he fell short he was expected to make it up the following month; if he exceeded budget he pocketed 1% of the surplus. His salary was 300 moneda nacional pesos a month, which translates to $12 dollars. The government owned agency paid all expenses except spare parts, which were for Manuel’s account. So why did this make sense? First of all, a medical doctor makes 900 pesos a month, or $36, and one must judge on a relative basis. Secondly, tips.
But all this was going to change in five to six months. Drivers would be allowed to lease a car for 30 CUCS a day and assume the benefits and risks of economic ownership. However it would not be this car –
probably a Hyundai. This car would be kept by one of the top officers of the agency. I did not ask how much the top officer would have to pay for the vehicle.
“Is this a good deal?” I asked.
“I am not sure”. There were a lot of taxi licenses being given out, and anyone who owned a car would also be moonlighting as a taxi driver – 30 CUCS a day was a year round commitment, and the tourist season is very short.
“My wife is very nervous about this”.
“What does your wife do?” His wife was a chemist in a pharmacy making 450 pesos a month, or less than $20. Manuel had talked to his wife about buying a churro machine for 550 CUCS , a business which someone had assured him could produce 30 CUCS of revenue a day. But his wife was scared, she was not sure, she did not understand risk and reward.
Manuel wanted to emigrate to the U.S., even if it meant starting over again. He applied for but was denied refugee status; however, his daughter, a U.S. citizen, had agreed to sponsor him and he had been assured that his papers would arrive in 12-24 months.
Manuel asked me whether I wanted to visit Las Cuevas de Saturno – Saturn’s Caves – which was just outside Varadero. That rang a bell as a place I may have visited in my childhood and I said yes. So we pulled into a parking lot full of Chinese buses and-just-off-the-plane Chilean tourists. I asked Manuel why he parked at a noticeable distance from any bus. Well, not long ago he hadn’t, and a bus had backed into his prized vehicle, crumpling the front hood. Manuel managed to collect 30 CUCS from the offending driver, not enough to cover the 50 CUCS repair bill. Where else in the world can you repair a crumpled hood on a Lexus for $50?
The Cuevas de Saturno turned out to be a series of crystalline fresh- water swimming holes inside moss covered grottos reminiscent of the Cenotes in Riviera Maya, Mexico, and hardly worth the standard five CUCS entrance fee. Nor did I have any memories of ever having been there. How do you say tourist trap in Spanish?
Soon a giant Varadero sign appeared and I leaned forward in my seat desperately seeking landmarks that would help me locate my childhood summer paradise. Varadero is a long narrow isthmus with an inland waterway on one side and miles of blindingly white sand beach lining mottled, turquoise waters on the other. We turned left over the first bridge and then left again for a few blocks, looking for our house on the right. But Varadero had changed! Driving slowly and craning forcefully, I recognized nothing – our neighbors’ houses were gone, replaced by sketchy motels, apartment buildings, and souvenir shops. When we reached the canal that connects the inland waterway to the open sea I knew we had gone too far, and as we began to turn around a sentry came to the rescue. “The first building is the old Grau house which you may not have recognized because an annex has been added to it”.
I explained that as a kid I used to spend my afternoons fishing for “mojarritas” from the banks of the canal. “There are no more fish here. Everything was fished out during the Período Especial after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were starving”. I had heard the same thing in Havana except people there ate the cats, which explains why there are no cats in Havana.
Back the way we came and this time we stopped at a cluster of three mustard colored houses, where I got out to go to the beach to get my bearings. Another sentry, another friendly encounter – “Yes, of course, look around, no problem”.
I hesitated in front of the middle house and immediately recognized two of its distinguishing features – a flat roof and a wooden staircase descending from the second floor onto the terrace that bordered the beach. The old stone retaining wall was gone just as my sister had warned me. Yes, this was my old house, and it looked exactly the way my parents had described it when they visited in 1986 – dilapidated, with crumbling masonry, peeling paint, practically abandoned. The living room where we used to listen to the record of the Broadway musical The Pajama Game was walled over, and the garden level terrace perched above the sea was overgrown with vines and covered in sand. But the house was still in use, having been subdivided into rooms for let as part of a hotel down the road. As if on cue a guest - overweight and lobster faced- struggled up the dunes and scurried towards the hallway.
“Hi, where are you from?”
“I am from Canada”. Judging by his strange accent he must have been a French Canadian.
“How do you like Varadero?”
I gave him my first-time-back-and-this-used-to-be my-house speech. I might as well have pointed a gun at him; before I could say another word he fled to his room. Maybe he thought I was going to stake a claim asking for my house back and evict him.
I explained to Manuel that my uncle and cousins lived in the house on the left, and that one of those cousins would many years later marry Valeriano Lopez, who lived in the house on the right and was Varadero’s only barefoot water skier. All of us were accomplished water skiers – I learned at the age of six – and my father kept a bulletin board in the house with a golden star next to each of our names for every milestone achieved – one for getting up on two skis, one for learning to cross the wake, one for slaloming, one for learning to ski backwards (only my older sister earned that one) and so on. One Christmas card picture featured our whole family of six being towed simultaneously and aligned in order of height.
Standing on the beach I went back in time, remembering every grain of sand, and feeling the memories wash over me- the women in their floppy straw hats huddled in the warm water gossiping for hours on end, the leathery skinned pirulero ferrying his tray of colored candies up and down the beach, the sweet taste of mamoncillo dipped in sea water, and my mother in a bathing suit covered in a loose shirt and a large hat sorting through the piles of seaweed which had washed on shore the night before, looking for cayajabos (prized ocean seed) to add to her collection. I could almost see myself as a 10-year-old boy on the beach donning fins and a face mask and venturing into the water with my spear gun in hand in search of ocean prey. I told Manuel that in the afternoon we would walk down those wooden steps after our naps and look for the telltale fins of toninas (porpoises) slicing through the sea on their way to their nighttime homes. Manuel said he had never seen a tonina in the wild, only in a local aquarium where you could pet them in a tank for 40 CUCS.
We drove the length of Varadero and with some effort and after a few inquiries pulled up at the old Hotel Internacional, where I used to go to get my hair cut and buy bubble gum and comic books. It was also on the other side of town from where my cousin Alberto had a near fatal motorcycle accident, causing him to be bedridden for many months with a raised broken leg in a cast. The lobby looked familiar, the beach unspoiled and dazzling. Our next and last stop was the nearby Casa Dupont – the old stately home of a distant branch of the Dupont family and now the best hotel in the area – classically apportioned in stained woods, brass fittings and pale linen fabrics, but inexplicably deserted.
It was time to head back to Havana but not without a quick lunch stop. We pulled into “El Rancho”, which advertised itself as the best meal in Varadero, with wooden tables neatly arranged under a thatched roof, bohío style, and anchored in the center by an enormous pyramid of wine bottles as if to assure all customers that this was no ordinary establishment. I invited Manuel to sit with me, which he did hesitantly. The only items on the menu were full main courses; I opted for the fish, Manuel for the half chicken. We ate in semi-silence and as I was paying the bill Manuel said “I am not used to eating half a chicken; usually it’s only just a leg or half a breast. ‘Comi como un salvaje’ ”. I ate like a savage – a quintessentially Cuban expression that I had not heard in a long, long time.
I get sleepy in cars, especially following meals, and after making sure Manuel was not similarly afflicted, I closed my eyes. Who knows how many minutes later I stirred, signaling I was awake. Manuel broke the silence. He clearly had been deep in thought and spoke slowly and deliberately.
“You know, I am 44 years old and I know nothing about the world.”
We talked about how much rented cars cost in the U.S. I explained that there were three major rental companies in the U.S. and that the average daily rental price was $40-$50, a fraction of what it was today in Cuba (which could be as high as $250 a day for a late model car). This average rate in the U.S., however, varied markedly by market, day of the week and season and was heavily influenced by supply and demand. I also explained it was illegal for the rental companies to collude in setting prices, a criminal offense for which you could serve jail time, and that it was competition that kept prices low. These were concepts that were completely new to Manuel, but he seemed to grasp them.
I asked Manuel about some of his other customers. He told me about the Cuban exile who had returned desperately looking for any relatives – he eventually found several – and as part of his quest he needed to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. First he was told it would take 10 days, which was impractical given he was only staying a week. Manuel suggested he make a donation of 10 CUCS to the obviously overworked and under-appreciated employees at the birth certificate registry office, and lo and behold he had his document in 10 minutes.
I had always been curious about the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, or CDR’s – the local neighborhood committees established in the early days of the revolution, ostensibly to ensure public safety, health and sanitation and act as a sort of public ombudsman. In reality these were set up to spy on neighbors, weed out contra revolucionarios, and maintain party discipline. Manuel explained that the CDR’s had lost much of their relevance, since their enforcement mechanism was denial of access to jobs with state run enterprises, which not long ago was all there was, and to the schools which prepared you for those jobs, but those jobs were either non-existent or undesirable. Manuel knew the woman who was the head of his neighborhood CDR, but she had lost her revolutionary fervor once she had secured what she really wanted – better housing for herself and her family. Manuel had long ago refused to serve on night time guard duty as was his obligation – two hour stints between the hours of midnight and six in the morning. But how could he do that and then report for work at 8 a.m.?
At the last meeting of his CDR the president had urged all in attendance to come forth with their grievances, assuring all present that there was nothing to fear in doing so. A few grumbled about the butcher shortchanging them or the periodic blackouts. Manuel raised his hand and spoke. “My name is Manuel Vazquez and I want to talk about the extraordinary mismanagement of this country”. There was an audible gasp from his neighbors. Manuel continued. “I am a trained nurse and I want to know why we are exporting hospitals to places like Bolivia and Peru when the hospitals in this country are an embarrassment and a threat to the health of their patients. For example, the hospital where I work is filthy, there is excrement in the hallways and the men in charge of cleaning are never to be found”. Manuel went on in great detail about that meeting, which obviously had meant a great deal to him. I was reminded that a fundamental tenet of the Cuba Study Group is that the creation of a private sector which decreases the population’s dependency on its government will empower its people to demand true reform.
All too soon we were back in Havana and it was time to say goodbye. I gave Manuel a 40 CUCS tip and my card and encouraged him to contact me if he ended up emigrating to the U.S. I suspect that he will, and that he will find it difficult to start over again, but that he will persevere and prevail, just like the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have preceded him. If he contacts me I will send him money, even if he doesn’t ask for it.
I still had two hours before dinner time, so I headed down Obispo Street towards the Parque Central. I ducked briefly into CADECO as I was low on cash, and I ran into the only other surly person I met during my trip – a female cashier who refused to convert to CUCS the wad of 50 dollars in moneda nacional pesos which it turned out I really had no use for, directing me to a non-existent CADECO office three blocks away. As I was leaving my friend from the day before spotted me, greeting me with an enthusiastic white toothed grin and vigorous wave of the hand.
At the Parque Central I sought a shaded marble park bench from where I could observe some of Havana’s most notable colonial edifices, all of them resplendently restored – the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (the old Centro Asturiano), the Hotel Inglaterra, the Gran Teatro de la Habana, and diagonally across, the Capitolio Nacional. Just as interesting, however, was the group of half a dozen men gathered next to me, some seated, some standing, all of them speaking animatedly at once, gesticulating as only Cubans can, undoubtedly recounting wildly exaggerated stories and expressing their opinions about anything and everything with Catholic conviction. I could only catch the occasional word and I dared not inch any closer, but the moment spoke eloquently through those voices which I could comprehend without understanding, men enjoying each other in full disregard of their hopeless circumstances. I was later told that the Parque Central is famous for the baseball discussions that occur there every day, mostly about the Cuban league but also the U.S. major leagues and its roster of Cuban players.
It was also important that I took pictures to share with friends and family, so I set out with camera in hand to create a proper record of my meanderings. “Meester, you want taxi?” said a well-dressed young man who approached me with the swagger and look of a “chulo” (Cuban cool guy and occasional pimp). “No gracias”. “Ay, Ud. habla español? De dónde es?” Oh, you speak Spanish, where are you from? “Yo soy de aquí!” I am from here! It must have been the what-do-you-think tone of my voice that did it, for the man pivoted and fled without so much as a “buenas tardes” or “disculpe la molestia”. Momentarily perplexed, I soon happened upon the only plausible explanation – a camera toting, back talking local, dressed as a tourist loitering in the Parque Central, could only be a member of the Cuban secret police. I didn’t know whether to be flattered, offended or amused.
Dusk arrived quickly, so I hastened back to the hotel to meet the group plus three others who would be joining us for dinner --Jorge Mandilego, 42-year-old director of Cuba Emprende, an electrical engineer by training who prior to Cuba Emprende served as the co-director of Taller San Jose, the in house printing company of the Catholic Church in Cuba; and Andres and Nicolette Moreno, the 30 year old Venezuelan CEO of Open English and his California wife, who also worked at Open English and was responsible for new product development. As Chairman and original backer of Open English, John McIntire had invited Andres to give a lecture the following evening about entrepreneurship to students and graduates of Cuba Emprende and Cuba’s only MBA program, which is sponsored by the Universidad de Murcia in Spain. Open English is an extraordinarily successful start-up company that offers online English courses to students all over Latin America. It had recently completed a $55 million round of financing, already returning over $20 million to its original investors.
Dinner tonight was to be at Cuba’s most famous paladar – La Guarida. Transportation was again provided by Miguel and Armando, who seemed somehow to have cornered the taxi market for guests of the Santa Isabel. Located on the third floor of a lugubrious, ruined mansion of a once prominent Cuban doctor and made famous as the setting of the cult movie Fresa y Chocolate, La Guarida occupies but one corner of what is otherwise a voyeur’s window into modern day Cuban apartment living. As we worked our way up the staircase to the restaurant we could observe a color TV playing what appeared to be a foreign program atop a frail wooden table in a kitchen devoid of any appliances except an ancient stove. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling and tangled wires snaked around yellowed pvc pipes, walls and doors were missing everywhere, vandalized or fallen and never replaced. The lives of building dwellers and restaurant goers briefly intersected in derelict hallways where we could see and ignore each other, separated by unbridgeable circumstances. The meal and the paladar did not disappoint – excellent in every respect but truly memorable for the incongruity of its surroundings and the poignancy of its social context. This would be a difficult trip to forget.
In a moment of weakness I had agreed to forego my every day endorphin generating exercise routine in favor of meeting Consuelo and John Hickey at 6:45 a.m. for a visit to one of Caritas’ projects in Cuba – a breakfast program for school children at La Merced Church, a 15-minute walk through some of Old Havana’s direst neighborhoods. Waiting in the darkened lobby, I observed someone rising from one of the sofas, having evidently slept there. A late arrival whose room had been given away? John Hickey had ordered a cup of coffee at the lobby bar and was served by a just wakened employee clad in a T-shirt. What was going on? Well, it turned out that rather than commuting daily and returning home each night, many hotel employees opted for working straight through 48 or 72 hour shifts in order to avoid contending with the highly unreliable, suffocating Cuban public transportation system, which could turn a few kilometers’ journey into a debilitating three or four hour ordeal. They had nowhere to spend the night and they slept wherever the hotel’s management would let them.
Old Havana in the gray of a tropical dawn had an other-world quality. Human silhouettes glided through its unlit, trafficless streets, early risers on their way to work, or perhaps nowhere. We observed one or two of those ubiquitous lines that mark subsistence Cuba, people with their heads bowed waiting patiently for their meager rations of bread, rice and beans. The fading darkness and the eerie quietude enveloped us and we spoke only to reassure ourselves that we were not lost. We walked briskly and melded into our surroundings, deep in thought.
Suddenly we were at the church, where a middle-aged, bespectacled balding man in sandals was greeting young school children, each one affectionately and by name. Oscar, the church’s lay assistant, gave a little cry when he saw us and he embraced Consuelo joyously, and then shook John’s and my hand. “Come in, come in!” Despite being in one of Old Havana’s most fallen neighborhoods, La Merced appeared to be well maintained, with its open courtyard, wooden doors and classical stone walls. At the end of the courtyard’s perimeter was an open room with about twenty children seated around tables having breakfast or playing an assortment of games, neatly dressed in school uniforms of mustard or burgundy skirts or pants, depending on sex and age, and white shirts. Breakfast was powdered milk (fresh milk is generally unavailable in Cuba) and buttered bread served by two women volunteers from pitchers and trays laid out along a side table. It was evident that there was no set schedule as new children arrived and others grabbed their book bags on their way out. No one failed to say hello or goodbye to Oscar and Father Gabriel, the pastor of the church who had now joined us, with a firm handshake for the boys and a kiss on the cheek for the girls. The older ones extended the same courtesy to us even though we were never formally introduced; these children were, at least in this setting, polite and well-mannered.
It struck me that all of the children in the room were black and all of the adults were white. Cuba is a mixed race society but the lines are often not any more equitably drawn than in capitalist America. I engaged Oscar and Father Gabriel in conversation. “Tell me about this program and about these children.” There were currently 43 of them in this program, all of them from this neighborhood and most of them from impoverished, broken families. In the poorest neighborhoods, fathers were largely absent, succumbing to the pressures of supporting a family by simply abandoning them, or in some cases fulfilling their responsibilities by seeking gainful employment anywhere it could be found on the island. Life was very hard for these children. One of them, Oscar told me, had an older brother who at age 15 ran away to become a male prostitute only to be found a few weeks later, dead in a gutter, his body visibly covered with bruises and bite marks. Another had chronic anger-management issues fueled by a mother who encouraged him to kick, punch or bite at the slightest provocation - “pelea y defiendete!”. This breakfast program provided not only nourishment for children who would otherwise go to school on an empty stomach but also a few moments of order and civility, an opportunity to teach friendship and kindness.
“What about school?” The older ones put in a full day – 8 to 3 or 4, the younger ones half a day. They did learn reading, writing and arithmetic, but the teachers were not what they used to be – not like 15-20 years ago. Nobody wanted to be a teacher anymore; you couldn’t live on five or six hundred pesos ($20-25) a month. Teachers were now 18 or 20 years old, more interested in reggaeton than education. Morals and ethics were not part of the curriculum, but still taught were the values of La Revolución and its heroes – Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and the eternal noble struggle of the Cuban people against the evil empire from the North holding the country in the death grip of the blockade. As we observed a few minutes later on the way back, all Cuban schools start their morning sessions with a spirited rendition of the Cuban anthem by students and teachers with right hands pressed over their beating chests. I told Father Gabriel about the old days, when priests were educators, including the one who taught sex education at my school by drawing pictures on the blackboard of a penis and a vagina and the route that semen had to travel to create life (true story but I did not tell Father Gabriel the graphic part). Instead of impressing him with the enlightened state of the pre Castro educational system, he looked at me quizzically, perplexed by the oddity of this story. I decided not to tell Father Gabriel about my highly regarded swimming coach at the Biltmore Club who did not know how to swim, and who had so much in common with that priest.
We bid our farewells and hastened back to the hotel, where we gathered for the short walk to the offices of Cuba Emprende at the Centro Cultural Felix Varela, a large magnificently restored colonial building behind the Cathedral overlooking Havana harbor and the Morro Castle. Cuba Emprende occupies a section of the second floor. The rest of the building used to house a temporary residence for priests, which was relocated to the site of our scheduled, next day meeting with the bishop of Pinar del Rio, and was now utilized for a wide variety of Church sponsored activities, including lectures, exhibitions and assorted gatherings. We climbed a broad marble staircase onto the second floor hallway that overlooked the open air courtyard and turned into a set of rooms that comprised the offices, classrooms and meeting rooms of Cuba Emprende. From the second floor we could hear and observe John McIntire, who had stayed behind on the first floor and was hiding behind a massive column struggling to silence his Cuban cellphone, which at that moment had decided to play its salsa musical ring tone and refused to be turned off.
Our first stop was the tiny administrative office of the school furnished with two metal desks and a metal cabinet. There we also met Perla Baltar, Jorge Mandilego’s assistant and Cuba Emprende’s overall administrator. Our first task was to unpack the suitcase of office supplies which John McIntire and Yemy Zonana had ferried from New York and Mexico – two computer mouses, ink cartridges, a video camera with tripod to film classes, and various other items. I had a fleeting vision of what might have happened had they been asked to open their suitcases at customs. I approached the balcony with the magnificent view but was warned to mind my step since half the retaining wall was missing and nobody wanted to see me plunge to the pavement below.
It was now time to attend classes, which were in session daily from 8:30 to 12:30. There were two sessions being conducted simultaneously, each with 19 students seated in a semicircle along three walls of a large airy room that sported a brand new rare air conditioner, indispensable in the summer months but silent during the 75 degree days of Cuba’s balmy winter. This first class was being led by Anibal Oliva and it was the first day of the first of four one week modules teaching human resources and development (really designed to explore each student’s motivations in starting up a company and to develop the self-confidence and people skills necessary to succeed), organization and management, finance and accounting, and marketing. The school had so far graduated 149 students since opening in May of 2012. The program also includes post-graduation assistance to those who choose to submit a business plan and subsequently qualify for participation in an incubator program, which includes access to the teachers and other experts on the school’s payroll whose job it is to help businesses get off the ground.
Anibal, I subsequently learned, was one of seven instructors who had been trained by Pro Empleo’s Mexican visiting instructors, five of them 28-32 years old and the other two a moderately older married couple. All of them seemed to have second jobs even though being an instructor was supposed to be a full time endeavor sufficiently well paid by local standards to support oneself adequately. Anibal, it turned out,was a well-known radio and television sports commentator and a somewhat prickly individual who displayed occasional misgivings about being employed by an organization funded by Cuban exiles.
The 19 students were about half women, half men, half black, half white and about two thirds young (20-40) and one third middle aged (40-60) and almost all highly educated – in other words, a representative cross section of Havana’s professional classes. One of the students, a black middle aged man, was in the middle of presenting to the class his new business idea (Anibal was going around the room asking each student to do the same) so we entered the room quietly and listened attentively. Five minutes later we were still listening to what was a rambling, incomprehensible monologue about some concept to disintermediate the intermediaries that pervade certain sectors of the Cuban economy. I guess it would have been counterproductive to cut him off, this being day one of the module intended to develop self-confidence.
The next presenter – a 35ish white blonde-was an architect with some notion of opening a design arts enterprise. Although she was an articulate, gifted presenter, she was equally incapable of being concise, finding it necessary to share with us in excruciating detail her emotional journey to the realization that she no longer wanted to be an architect. I thought of Fidel Castro and his legendary long- windedness, a trait that apparently endured in modern-day Cuba. Yemy Zonana came to the rescue. She stepped forth, introduced herself to the class, took out her I-phone, and announced that she would record a one to one and a half minute presentation by each student. And so we learned about each and everyone’s background and aspirations, no different than similar countless stories anywhere except in one critical respect: the concepts of private property, risk and reward, profit and loss, self-sufficiency and wealth creation were new to this society, with no role models and nobody to turn to for advice or assistance.
One man had been working for 10 years in Cuba’s Trademark and Patent office and he wanted to strike out on his own. A middle aged woman owned a house on the beach and she had some notion of organizing other beach house owners to offer a broad array of seaside rental homes to vacationers. A woman with an untamed wave of frizzy brown hair was interested in real estate brokerage. A secondary school computer teacher who had heard of Cuba Emprende from a neighbor wanted to open a party and banquet hall, while an interpreter and tourist guide just wanted to hone his skills. Another woman had recently started offering customized music tracks to small businesses such as restaurants and hair dressers and she needed to learn how to draft and negotiate contracts with her customers. In her own words, “se habia lanzado a la tremenda”-- roughly translates as she had brazenly plowed ahead—and she was very lost.
It was difficult to listen to those stories of hope and innocence in full knowledge that many would fail and some would never even try, but you could hear the stirrings of something new and wonderful, a discovery of self and a sense that maybe the future could be brighter. The women in the room, if you looked carefully, were all wearing make-up and jewelry – hoop earrings, dangling earrings, pearl earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Their clothes were smart and varied – dresses, skirts, pants, even short shorts. The attractive woman with a long braid draped over her left shoulder and a carefully bared right shoulder was not surprisingly going to open a beauty parlor. The men invariably had watches and dress shirts. The occasional T-shirt was patterned; nothing was frayed or ripped except if it was a blue jean, and that would be a fashion statement. Their appearances underscored their seriousness and fueled their pride, or maybe gave them the confidence which they were not totally confident they had.
The second class was in its second week, taught by Rene Abreu who, at 32 years of age, was the oldest of the school’s 28-32 year old group of instructors. The student profiles were similar; the business plans equally varied, and in some cases ambitious or unique. Katriska – whose name was a reminder of a Soviet past -- wanted to found a cooperative to provide technical consulting services to the construction industry. Fernanda imagined an on line tourist and travel agency. Anabel thought of a private secondary school. Gladys and her brother owned a single peanut tree which in their minds constituted the seed of a full-fledged peanut business. An elderly man revealed that he was the manager of a state owned farm which simply did not work; he wanted to lease land to farmers whom he could help build efficient agricultural enterprises. He added that he was willing to be quoted. Emelina was a retired textile engineer who wanted to get into the textile and accessory manufacturing business. Jorge thought he wanted to buy a 3D television set to create a sort of movie theatre in his home but after a few days at Cuba Emprende he had much more ambitious plans. Naid’s husband was a painter and she wanted to learn how to market his works and possibly open an art gallery. Humberto operated a sort of bed and breakfast out of his apartment and he was beginning to realize that building a real business entailed more than just advertising rooms for rent. The most colorful was probably Pedro, who worked at a state owned agency which brought German tourists to Cuba to learn salsa. He had lived in Germany for 12 years and he wanted to open his own competing business. Bye, bye government.
Our next meeting was to discuss the logistics of travel later in the week to Holguin, Cuba’s third largest city located 500 miles east of Havana. Three of our group members were scheduled to meet with the Bishop of Holguin about setting up a local Cuba Emprende satellite school, and instead of making the grueling 10 hour trip by car, it would be preferable to fly. This meant securing a last minute plane reservation, no mean feat in Cuba, a task which was successfully assigned to Rolando Suarez (aka Piro), a member of Cuba Emprende’s five person local advisory board and the Catholic Church’s principal lawyer in Cuba. Jorge Mandilego and Piro himself would accompany the delegation; their tickets came out to 750 pesos, or $30 each. In contrast, John, John and Consuelo would each have to pay $150 one way. Interesting pricing model, founded on the principle of charging according to each customer’s ability to pay.
Next in store were four applicant interviews to which Yemy and I had been invited as observers. Admission to Cuba Emprende is practically automatic though not always immediate due to increasing demand, but it is thought that students will be more committed if taken through a selection process. Yemy and I sat quietly to the side while Jorge Mandilego and Liset Echenique (Cuba Emprende’s admissions and human relations director, married to Raul Gil and together with Raul instructor of the human development module) interviewed a middle aged, pleasant looking woman who wanted to open a gym on a vacant property her family owned. She was an estomatogola – a word that suggests stomach specialist but in modern Cuban Spanish means dentist. Health conscious Cubans who want to exercise have nowhere to go, she explained, hence a gym. Jorge and Liset described the Cuba Emprende program in some detail and concluded the interview by reminding the applicant that the names of those admitted would be posted on a bulletin board the following week.
Next up was Gaby, a 42 year old overweight psychiatrist who worked in the Cuban medical system for 7 years, until at age 35 she quit to devote full time to raising her then 7-year-old child. Currently she was an unpaid part-time volunteer in the Cuban court system working with juvenile victims of violence and she was keen to get back to work on a full time basis. She could not find employment and her idea was to start an organization that served the needs of battered women. Jorge gently asked her how she supported herself and her child as a single mother. Gaby’s father was a medical doctor who had been stationed in South Africa for 16 years, and like all doctors who were sent abroad he was paid in Cuba, ensuring his eventual return. Gaby was supported by her father and at age 42 she yearned to be independent.
Next was the 24-year-old daughter of the dentist, having accompanied her mother, and she too wanted to enroll in Cuba Emprende. She was a trained dentist as well, two years out of school, and her idea was to start a confectionary business for which she had no seed money but was eager to learn. We were impressed by her energy and enthusiasm; she was clearly undaunted by her realization that she could not make a living as a dentist, the profession to which she had fruitlessly devoted years of study and training.
The last applicant was the most unusual – a 62-year-old Chilean who owned and operated a photography business in Old Havana catering to tourists. In Chile he had been a photographer for a Communist newspaper and following the overthrow of Allende in 1973, he fled the country by journeying to the Peruvian border by bus from Santiago, 1,200 kilometers away, and walking across into Peru. He hid in Lima for two weeks and eventually sought asylum in the Cuban embassy, which then arranged for his emigration to Cuba. His goal was to learn, expand his horizons and maybe improve his business prospects. At his store, he related, French and U.S. tourists were good spenders, Mexicans and Italians never bought anything. Yemy made the point of visiting his establishment the next day to dispel the Mexican stereotype, and she reported that the woman behind the counter was unfriendly, the photographic exhibits were uninspired, and the furniture layout impeded access to many of the photographs on display. I guess there was no reason to believe that anyone who chose to move to and voluntarily remain in Cuba for 40 years would know any better.
It was time for the most anticipated visit of my trip – lunch at my childhood home, the residence of the Portuguese ambassador to Cuba. In anticipation of my trip, my sister Ani had contacted Nancy, the long serving secretary at the Portuguese embassy whom Ani had befriended on her last trip to Cuba in 2010 and who had known my widowed Tia Esperanza, my adored maternal grandmother’s sister, amateur poetess and volunteer sitter to the Mestre children every time my parents traveled abroad. Nancy had e-mailed me that Ambassador Luis Barreiros would be delighted to invite me to breakfast or lunch and forwarded his e-mail address and office and cell telephone numbers. Sitting in my office in New York, I had dialed the Ambassador’s cell phone and to my astonishment he had answered on the second ring. We had made a date – 2:00 p.m. on Monday and we would meet at the embassy at 1:45 p.m. so he could drive me to his/my home.
Camera in hand, I walked back to the Santa Isabel taxi stand four blocks away and enlisted the services of Eduardo and his 1949 Plymouth. It was a 15-minute ride so there wasn’t much I could find out about Eduardo – an intensive care nurse who worked 24 hours straight followed by 3 days off, allowing him the flexibility to pursue the much more lucrative taxi business. Eduardo had family in Miami and had served as a nurse in Nicaragua and El Salvador but had no interest in emigrating. His relatives visited with some frequency and with the change in Cuba’s policy towards foreign travel by Cubans, Eduardo wondered whether he could ever convince the U.S. authorities that he would not be a stay risk if granted a tourist visa to visit his relatives.
I was dropped off at the Portuguese Embassy, a modest building in Marianao’s embassy row, and I met up with Ambassador Luis Barreiros, the only man attired in a suit I encountered during my four day visit, other than one of the Cuba Emprende students who dressed up for his business plan presentation. After personally turning off all the equipment in the Embassy’s secure communications room, the Ambassador escorted me to his Portuguese government issue BMW for the 10 minute drive to his/my house. On the way I learned that Luis was a 64 year old career diplomat scheduled for retirement and repatriation to Portugal in May of this year, having served 5 years in Cuba. His prior postings included New York, where he met his wife with whom he eloped, Boston, Croatia and Iraq during and for 18 months after the U.S. invasion. Luis was the only Portuguese national in the Embassy and he confessed that Cuba was a rather dull place to be an ambassador from a country that mattered little to its host. Except for the time he presented his diplomatic credentials upon arrival, he had had no contact with anyone of importance in the Cuban government. Moreover, the annual influx of Portuguese tourists to Cuba had slowed to a trickle after peaking at 75,000 just before the Great Recession.
Soon we were in leafy Cubanacan, rebaptized after the Revolution and formerly known as the Country Club. We stopped in front of 5ª Avenida number 15015 to wait for a link fence gate to open automatically before turning left onto the circular driveway that fronted what used to be our family home. I had seen multiple pictures over the years taken by my parents and sisters on prior visits so visually I was prepared for how small the house seemed and how much the vegetation had grown in 53 years. But the overwhelming overall impression was one of sameness, of how little had changed, and of unreality at actually being there, transported to a place that could not possibly still exist. I began to associate what I saw with scattered memories of a long ago childhood, mental pictures and experiences laid out like photos in an album that had been ripped out, thrown into a pile, and randomly reassembled. As a child I seldom played in the front driveway but I could remember once standing near the sidewalk on the day of the Cuban Grand Prix waiting for the race to pass and Stirling Moss to whoosh by our house, or furiously pedaling down the street returning from school or a visit to a friend’s house. We headed for the front door, which was on the left side of the house and usually reserved for visitors; the family and certainly the children almost always went in and out the kitchen entrance on the right.
The entrance hallway had decorative Chinese designs and these seemed strangely familiar. The wood paneled library on the left with bookshelves covering an entire wall was unchanged except the furniture was different and out of place. Inside the house the flashbacks continued. A sofa lay where my mother’s desk used to be, the place she sat to tally the household’s bills on a mechanical adding machine with a protruding lever that needed to be pulled to record each computation on a two inch roll of white paper. The recess where the library sofa used to be, and on which I used to sit observing my mother, was now empty. However, the hidden door built into the bookshelves was still there and it could still be opened with a gentle push and a click, revealing behind it a closet lined with still more bookshelves and, as my host explained, the remnants of my parents’ collection of mostly decorative book “classics”, now relegated to this special secret place.
The house’s layout had been preserved and so all the rooms were familiar and recognizable – the large rectangular living room with its original moldings intact, the dining room with the same faux antique mirror, sliding doors and serving commode, one of the few original pieces of furniture remaining. I thought of Tia Esperanza entertaining us around the dinner table during one of my parents’ absences, including the time she offered us a “peseta” (20 cents) if we could come up with a male first name that contained all five vowels (I collected with the help of the butler, who came up with the correct answer - Aurelio). One of our favorite places used to be the inner courtyard with a sitting area and built-in bar on one side, and “el shelter” or covered but open passageway cum dining table on the other side. “El shelter” connected the kitchen area to the bedrooms. The bar and remnants of the wrought iron vine attached to the wall behind it were the only original pieces in this area. The built in fish pond in the courtyard where I once pushed in my friend Luis Menocal had been filled in and stoned over. Family meals were served in “el shelter”, including the one time I blurted out at dinner “Que quiere decir cojones?” (“What does testicles mean?”) – proudly displaying my keen interest in learning the meaning of new words I had overheard at school. “El shelter” had also witnessed its share of family drama, as in the time I threw a fork at my brother and struck him prongs first below the eye.
Walking through the bedrooms area I became somewhat disoriented but I did recognize the old-fashioned closet doors and the 50’s style, well preserved but unrenovated bathrooms, including the shocking pink tile in my younger sister’s bathroom. My room was the hardest one to reconstruct visually, and I couldn’t quite picture the placement of my bed with built in shelves which, pretending to be asleep, I could reach to tune in the late-night Caribbean baseball playoff games on my vacuum tube radio. And the bathroom in which my brother once locked me in looked awfully small, as did my parent’s bedroom, where I recalled watching television in the sitting area or browsing through pages of Life magazine documenting in black and white photos the 1956 Hungarian revolution. My parents had separate dressing rooms and bathrooms, and I marveled at how much my mother’s original French style make-up table and upholstered banquette resembled similar pieces in their later Buenos Aires apartment. The stall in which I would occasionally shower with my father and the masculine closets and drawers built from rich dark tropical woods seemed frozen in time. I could still see my father emerging from the door that connected his bathroom directly to the garden walking briskly in his bathing suit towards the pool for his afternoon, post-work swim.
At the rear of the house was the playroom with sliding door cabinets that used to be full of toys. In this room we would see movies borrowed from the film library of the family owned television stations, including my favorite – Sahara –a World War II story of heroism in the North African desert. The Ambassador proudly pointed to the square hole on the wall at one end of the room behind which the projector cast its moving images onto the roll down screen still affixed to the wall at the other end of the room, features which the Ambassador had insisted be preserved during the house’s recent restoration. The rear door of the playroom opened to the outdoor area referred to as “la pista”, a side garden with a now seemingly small circular walkway where we used to ride our bicycles endlessly in circles. At one end of “la pista” was the casita, a small structure which stored bicycles, baseball equipment, sundry play things and my brother’s train set. In the middle of “la pista” we used to have a trampoline (“la lona”), very much a novelty in Cuba, and on very special occasions we would show movies outdoors.
At the other end was a raised, paved area where we used to do calisthenics under the direction of Rolando, who was hired for his power of alchemy in converting baby fat to muscle. A black belt in judo, boy scout leader and an idolized athletic director at our school, Rolando was later suspected of being a pedophile by students who experienced his overly affectionate post workout rubbings. Nestled at the base of the wall separating this area from the front driveway was the grave of Lucky, our cocker spaniel who together with Happy, the mutt, and Axel, the German shepherd, constituted the Mestre family menagerie.
The back garden was in some respects our home’s signature space, with its luscious vegetation, giant ficus tree and lit path winding its way to the swimming pool and pool house at the far end, beyond and to the side of which stood the chain link fences and gates connecting us to my two uncles’ homes, one now the residence of the Bulgarian Ambassador and the other one of a select collection of many confiscated residences which used to be occasionally occupied by Fidel Castro himself but which now housed a telecommunications company. Above the latter stood a grain silo-like concrete structure of unknown purpose. Beyond the former was a partially obstructed view of the North Korean Embassy, whose inhabitants carefully avoided all human contact.
The garden was immaculate, missing only the avocado tree and nursery behind the pool house, as if still carefully tended by our Japanese gardener Misuno, who lived up in the trees perennially covered with cuts and bruises from his periodic falls. The pool shimmered in the bright sunlight and I remembered during its construction the pig that we kept tethered at the bottom awaiting sacrificial slaughter at the altar of the Mestre dinner table on Christmas Eve. Then there was the accident – a friend of cousin Mechy, upon being accosted by Axel, climbed on top of a glass top poolside table which shattered under her weight, leaving behind shards and the one blood covered jagged piece that had pierced her back before she was rushed off to the hospital.
The last room I visited was the kitchen, recently restored but only to its original condition, and therefore unmodernized, with its multiple cupboards and center island in the pantry, separated from the cooking area dominated by the industrial size stove and oven. I was startled by the two maids and male chef who greeted me, the latter evoking vivid memories of Arturo, the Chinese chef whom I used to follow around and from whom as an infant I picked up my first few words of Chinese accented Spanish.
After the tour we had drinks in the inner courtyard sitting area – I sipped sparkling water while my host cradled a glass of white wine – followed by lunch in “el shelter”, where we were joined by the Ambassador’s wife and at which we were served meat, a rare treat in Cuba. The private slaughter of cattle in Cuba was banned in the early days of the Revolution by central planners who were seeking to increase the dwindling supply of cattle, not realizing that the unintended effect would be that no one would want to raise cattle, thereby exacerbating the scarcity of meat.
During lunch we engaged mostly in small talk. I touched upon my family history, life in New York and Cuba Emprende. The Ambassador and his wife reviewed the highlights of their diplomatic postings, the challenges of securing basic necessities in Cuba and the importance of the satellite dish sitting on the rooftop, their main information lifeline to the outside world. Their social life revolved mostly around diplomatic gatherings, and that very evening they were attending an event at the French embassy in honor of the acclaimed Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, where I subsequently learned they would mention to Cardinal Jaime Ortega my apparently newsworthy visit. The French embassy was the family residence of our good friend Maria de la Natividad (“Natica”) del Valle, who was raised by her grandfather Estanislao del Valle Grau together with Natica’s sister Gloria while Natica’s parents and five other siblings lived on the family’s sugar mills in the Cuban countryside.
At an appropriate conversational pause, I protested that I had extended my welcome and requested that a taxi be called, but the Ambassador insisted that he personally drive me back to the hotel. At my request, he made a small detour to pass by my old school, Ruston Academy, situated downhill on the other side of what used to be a vacant plot but was now a parking lot occupied by a handful of official looking buses. I occasionally rode my bicycle across that tract of land on my five minute commute to and from what was essentially a transplanted American combined elementary and high school; other times I was taken or picked up in our 1956 Buick station wagon by our chauffeur Ramon or infrequently by my mother, the only time I ever saw her drive a car. John Hickey had warned me not to even try to visit the building as it now housed some sort of military installation.
Upon arrival at the Santa Isabel, I wished the Ambassador all the best during his remaining four months in Cuba and I hurried back to my room for a short rest before our next appointment, Andres Moreno’s presentation. The 60 or so individuals in the auditorium of the Centro Cultural Felix Varela were as diverse as the Cuba Emprende classes I had attended earlier in the day, and it was unclear whether they appreciated that Andres had traveled to Cuba at John McIntire’s request for the sole purpose of this lecture, an inspirational primer on how to become a successful entrepreneur based on Andres’ own experiences at Open English. Limiting his PowerPoint visuals to five slides enunciating five basic principless plus two sample humorous homemade commercials eschewing high priced Madison Avenue talent, Andres was highly effective in his Venezuelan Spanish with his self-effacing style but highly confident delivery packaged in a familiar-to-the-audience Caribbean charm. His message was succinct: visualize the next version of yourself, rely on your strengths to build your project, define your priorities and restructure your life, generate infectious passion and never give up, as your moment will arrive. Andres carefully and wisely avoided any specific mention of actual capital raised or revenues generated lest he disconnect with his audience, which might react poorly to being lectured by someone running a large company that had no relevance to their micro enterprises, the equivalent of a naval engineer teaching the basics of rowboat construction.
Follow up questions came from the lady in red, Caridad Limonta, a graduate of Cuba Emprende whose home based apparel business was thriving, and Victor “Bikini”, the colorful owner of a bikini shop proclaiming to be Cuba’s best (and only one?) of its kind. Seven years ago, Caridad had found herself confined to her home due to a debilitating health problem, forcing her to abandon her job at a state owned clothing enterprise. Looking for something to do, she began sewing on her treadle sewing machine. Soon she had more work than she could handle, and she started to hire others to help her. Today she employed her husband and son, operated 22 machines, and has extended her product line to include tablecloths and bed sheets. Her story has had more than its share of ups and downs, and in her own words, “cada caida es una restructuracion de la vida” – each fall is a restructuring of one’s life.
Victor too became an entrepreneur late in life. He was a professor for 20 years and a judge for 15 before founding a woven bikini business, with himself initially as a one man designer, weaver and marketer. Today he had 57 full or part time subcontractors, half of whom made bikinis and the other half a full line of ponchos, scarves and other woven accessories. He has learned to vary his product line according to the season, and he dreamed of opening stores in Acapulco and Miami. He was a born salesman – simpático, peripatetic and supremely confident.
Dinner that night was around the corner at Nao, a richly furnished paladar in a restored section of Old Havana featuring traditional but uninspired Cuban fare. Cuba Emprende was hosting faculty and staff at two tables and I ended up seated next to Jose Monti, the school’s accounting officer, whose other job was chief accountant for Taller San Jose, the printing business from where Jorge Mandilego, Cuba Emprende’s CEO, had been recruited. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to extract information from an unsuspecting soul, I launched into an inquisition of Cuban accounting practices, and perhaps more importantly, the historical relevance of accounting in Cuba’s centrally planned economy. Not surprisingly, Jose argued even State enterprises oblivious to the notion of profit and loss needed to keep track of how much was spent and who footed the bill. And yes, depreciation did exist, as did FIFO and LIFO, debits and credits, cost of goods sold and other fascinating concepts familiar to accountants the world over. A fitting end to my third day and an effective transition to a good night’s sleep.
The next morning three of us lingered over breakfast engrossed in a discussion with Jorge Mandilego over what to do about a poisonous relationship which had developed between Anibal and Guennady Rodriguez, two of Cuba Emprende’s instructors, and which was affecting morale at the school. Some of us argued for decisive action, even if someone had to be terminated; others preferred a softer approach. Welcome to management, Jorge.
I had a free morning and had been advised to visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba, housing Cuba’s premier collection of Cuban art, and if time permitted, the international section of the museum, exhibiting a second rate amalgamation of European and Egyptian works inside the magnificently restored old Centro Asturiano, arguably the most beautiful building in Old Havana. After a few wrong turns down the narrow streets of the old city, I happened upon an elegant, thoroughly modern, architecturally sophisticated three story building spanning an entire block and oddly situated next to a small plaza proudly displaying an army tank, guns and other relics of the Cuban’s struggle against Yankee imperialism. The Cuban art museum was a total surprise and evidently a well-kept secret judging by the very few tourists who had opted for a cultural visit over the raucous sidewalk bars serving mojitos and cervezas. The third floor was dedicated to 18th, 19th and early 20th century works of remarkable variety and quality – portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, still lifes and richly textured scenes of colonial life authored by names I recognized as belonging to traditional Cuban families whom I had never suspected of exhibiting genuine artistic talent. I was suddenly proud of my Cuban heritage for its unheralded artistic accomplishments, but saddened by the way this jewel of a collection had undoubtedly been assembled, taken from the abandoned homes of the heirs of the very same painters whose remarkable creations hung before me, bathed in the natural light that poured in through countless windows and skylights.
On the second floor I found edgy, modern art, most of it from post-Revolutionary times. This too was a surprise, but of a different sort. In an obsessively controlled environment how did these works come to pass? Who told those painters to paint or sculptors to sculpt? Most of the large canvases, giant mobiles and multi-colored portraitures predated the recent nascent permissiveness towards private initiative. Haltingly, I looked for the telltale signs of protest or rebelliousness that are often subtly expressed in modern art, but I could detect none. Somehow and perhaps incorrectly, I convinced myself that this entire exhibition was motivated by political considerations to promote the virtues of a supposed dynamic, egalitarian society in which modernism and freedom of expression could thrive.
As presaged, the international section of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes had nothing on its walls that seemed of note, so I focused on its architectural details. From the top floor interior rectangular balcony one could appreciate the vast interior with its marble balustrade and ample columns. I descended quickly down the stairs and angled towards an adjacent enclosed courtyard with an extraordinary stained glass ceiling depicting in the most colorful, earthy tones a Spanish galleon in a harbor surrounded by the topography and flora of the New World. Through subsequent research I learned that this edifice had been built in 1927 by the architect Manuel Bustos and that after the Revolution it housed the Supreme Court of Justice.
I had invited myself to a lunch with the teaching staff of Cuba Emprende so off I went. We assembled in one of the conference rooms where two tables had been pushed together to form a T and were joined by, among others, Rene, Guennady, Liset, Perla and Bernardo Romero. Bernardo, it turned out, had already started a computer repair business with two full time employees in an old converted storefront, an establishment which Yemy later visited and reported as being well laid out, neat and customer friendly. Lunch was simple Cuban food cooked in some secret kitchen inside the school’s premises accompanied by a choice of freshly squeezed guava and tamarindo juice. To foodies everywhere those juices alone were worth the trip to Cuba, undoubtedly purchased directly from farmers who grew and pressed the fruits and transported somehow to Havana before the unrefrigerated nectar could ferment in the tropical heat.
I asked Guennady whom he was named after. His parents had found inspiration in a Russian spy novel that became popular in the 70’s and whose protagonist was Guennady, an apt namesake for an only child. I inquired of no one in particular what was the most difficult part of being a Cuban Emprende instructor. Rene replied that the lack of practical experience could be an impediment to becoming an effective “asesor” or advisor to graduates who elected to submit a business plan and who subsequently qualified for post graduate assistance to incubate a start-up. Not a surprising answer and a real concern going forward.
At three o’clock we were expected at the official residence of Cardinal Jaime Ortega for a private audience with his eminence. We were ushered by his personal assistant into the immaculate, two story turn of the century residence of Cuba’s highest prelate, a man often criticized for walking the impossible line between co-existence with the Cuban government and defending humanitarian principles while preserving the Church’s independence. Cuba Emprende operates under the auspices of the Catholic Church in rent free Church owned premises, and so it was important that we paid our respects. The walls of the Cardinal’s reception room were lined with the red robed portraits of his predecessors, and when the Cardinal came in he sat in a rocking chair strategically placed under his own portrait, inviting those of us seated across from him to look alternatively at the person and above him at someone’s artistic rendition of the person.
The Cardinal warmly greeted Consuelo and Jorge, whom the Cardinal had recommended for the Cuba Emprende position, and he acknowledged the rest of us. He immediately launched into an apologia for no longer being able to obtain religious visas for Cuban nationals who wouldn’t or couldn’t procure Cuban passports; religious visas were now reserved for ordained priests, nuns or Church personnel on specific missions to the island. The Cardinal had obviously heard complaints about this new policy. He asked about Cuba Emprende and somehow we landed on the subject of his recent visit to an integrated guava paste plant in the province of Camagűey, where the guava was harvested from home grown trees, processed into dulce de guayaba, packaged, and either sold on the premises or shipped to other retail outlets throughout the island. This was an example of how the Cuban economy was undergoing a fundamental transformation. During a pause in the conversation, I asked his eminence to comment on broader changes in the country. He alluded to the ever increasing number of government officials who understood that the pace of reform must be accelerated.
Promptly at 4:30 we were ushered out and headed to our next appointment, an interview with Monsignor Serpa, the bishop of Pinar del Rio, a forceful pastor who had responded positively to Cuba Emprende’s interest in opening a satellite school in Cuba’s westernmost province, a few hours’ drive from Havana. The meeting was to take place in the Casa Sacerdotal, a hotel residency for clergy visiting from the interior or abroad (and where Mons. Serpa was staying), housed in a two story square edifice with a wide open air interior porch and inner courtyard designed to maximize ventilation and shade, a must in the unairconditioned tropics. Following our session we would hold a Cuba Emprende board meeting in a borrowed conference room on the second floor.
We were greeted by Mons. Serpa himself, a larger than life figure who was recently repatriated to Cuba after ministering in Colombia for over twenty years. He was clearly accustomed to dominating a conversation and he launched into a long explanation of the differences between Havana and Pinar del Rio, whose agrarian population might not be suited for entrepreneurship as taught by Cuba Emprende. The farmers in the area were passive and accustomed to subsistence living. Moreover the Cuban government retained a monopoly over the raising of tobacco, sugar cane and the other cash crops which any entrepreneurially oriented farmer would want to grow. Vegetables were largely “deregulated” but there was no distribution system, so a crop of tomatoes ready for market would just rot on the driveway. Mons. Serpa told us the story of a local woman farmer who was being harassed by government inspectors and in desperation exclaimed, “If you don’t let me grow and sell my crops then you will force me to support my family the only other way I know, which is to sell my body”.
Mons. Serpa acknowledged that there were a few urban centers in Pinar del Rio visited by tourists which could be served by Cuba Emprende, but he averred that the obstacles were many and that only he had the key to overcome them. I asked him what his understanding of what we were looking to him to provide, and he fired back “An executive director, instructors, a venue and students – you want and need everything”. He paused for dramatic effect and in a subdued tone said “I am expensive…”.
The meeting continued for another 15 minutes but I no longer paid attention. Jorge and Yemy urged Mons. Serpa to visit Cuba Emprende’s facilities in Havana and audit a class, but Mons. Serpa protested he was too busy. Piro asked what the next steps were and someone suggested a visit to Pinar del Rio. Everyone feigned enthusiasm for continuing our discussions and the meeting ended.
Upstairs in a conference room the other two local members of Cuba Emprende’s local advisory board were waiting for us – Carlos Alzugaray, ex Cuban Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, ex head of the Cuban mission to the European Union, ex consular officer in Ethiopia, Canada, Argentina, Bulgaria and Japan, lecturer, professor and head of North American studies at the University of Havana, and presumed active member of the Communist Party; and Sara Vazquez, an executive of a bottled water joint venture between Nestle and the Cuban government. As I later discovered, Carlos was a member of an upper class family who had cast his lot with the Revolution. He had a daughter who studied in Russia, then moved to France and now lived in Queens. I chose to think of her journey as a metaphor. Sara and I never found an opportunity to interact.
The board meeting got under way and it was no different than a hundred board meetings I have attended over the course of my career. As chairman, Piro proved effective in moving the agenda along. Minutes were approved and the first item – an allegation of illegal dismissal by Camilo Condis, a terminated Cuba Emprende instructor – elicited a spirited discussion but little support for the complainant. Camilo’s appeal for reinstatement was denied. Jorge reported on today’s ecclesiastical meetings and I volunteered that, in my opinion, Mons. Serpa would be a difficult partner. Jorge Mandilego then gave the CEO’s report, including a detailed accounting of Cuba Emprende’s performance to date. Data reviewed include a number and profile of applicants, students, graduates, dropout rates and business plan submissions. Yemy Zonana pointed out that Cuba Emprende’s performance metrics were very much in line with those of Pro Empleo, including costs per student (about $250). The results of an employee survey were reviewed and potential expansion plans were deliberated without reaching a conclusion.
That night John McIntire and I were hosting a dinner for the board at Le Atelier, a paladar owned and operated by Niuris Higueras, a Cuba Emprende graduate. The establishment was perhaps best known for the pornographic religious art that graced its walls (nude Christs, nuns in provocative poses, etc.), although it is also one of the best eateries in town. Piro and Carlos offered us rides to the restaurant in their cars. They both drove Ladas, and getting into one of these legendary vehicles became an opportunity to live a John le Carré moment. I was not disappointed as I squeezed in behind the driver’s seat assuming the fetal position. The starter motor ground a few times before the engine reluctantly came to life with a most unusual cacophony of metal battling metal. Carlos extolled the virtues of this marvel of Russian engineering – usually reliable and easily repairable with readily available inexpensive replacement parts. But beware of counterfeit parts; these were had to detect and could ruin your automobile. As we bounced from pothole to pothole in this mad max contraption, I pondered one of life’s great questions: who bothered to make counterfeit parts for a Lada – the same people who counterfeit Gallo wine?
At the restaurant we were seated outdoors next to a table of French tourists accompanied by two outrageously attired Cuban gay men. The group was loud, festive, and oblivious to the stark reality of the desperation that drives young men and women to the streets to put food on the table. I sat next to Liset on my left, Piro on my right and Carlos across from me. I talked a little about my background; Carlos knew my family, describing my father as one of Cuba’s most respected figures, intelligent, eloquent, “de reputacion intachable” – of unquestionable reputation. Carlos was retired. He reminisced about his diplomatic career and promised to call next time he visits his daughter in Queens, probably in the spring (although Wikipedia states that he had been denied a U.S. visa in 2003). As the wine flowed Carlos tilted his head and quietly said “You know, we need to let bygones be bygones, and focus on the future together, not the past”. He was right, of course, but I couldn’t force myself to agree with him. I also desisted from delving further into his past.
I asked Carlos and Piro whether the newly announced lifting of foreign travel restrictions for Cubans wishing to go abroad was genuine. They both assured me that it was, though Piro, a lawyer, added that in very selective cases where individuals have important domestic commitments a passport might be denied, effectively grounding that person. Piro cited as an example the case of the rector of Havana University, who had a two year contract and could be denied a passport given he might not return if he travelled abroad, a concept Piro seemed okay with. Under most legal systems, I explained, failure to meet a contractual commitment has certain consequences, including possible monetary damages and forfeiture of rights under the contract, but fear of contractual breach is never a basis for denying an individual his or her freedom to travel, a fundamental civil right. I piled on. I was used to going wherever I wanted whenever I wanted and I was free to express my opinions, no matter how unpopular or objectionable, without fear of reprisal.
Having ogled the Cardinal’s residence earlier in the day, and thinking that now could be an optimal time to invest in Cuban real estate, I asked Piro whether he thought there could be a way for Cuba Emprende to purchase a building to serve as its permanent home, both as an investment and as a way to reduce its dependence on the continuing good will of the Catholic Church. Piro furrowed his brow and with a nod of the head responded that he believed where there was a will there was always a way. For example, he had recently established a trust for another organization to achieve a result that no one believed was possible, and he would certainly give the matter some thought. I stopped short of asking him when, in his opinion, would I be in a position to buy and restore for my own account one of those magnificent colonial structures, a place from which to reconnect with my birthplace and begin to build a bridge to this strange world that until three days ago I did not know existed.
Tomorrow too soon became today, time to unsuspend our lives. Yemy and I were picked up by Havana Tours for the 30 minute drive to the airport, where we met Andres and Nicolette, who had made their own transfer arrangements. The waiting areas were full of passengers headed to a handful of destinations – Miami, Grand Cayman, Mexico – people and places undistinguished and unnoteworthy. The emigration process was routine, with no trace of drama or intrigue. I slipped out of the country the same way I came in, unremarkably even if under watchful eyes. Nobody had said hello and nobody said goodbye.
I was met in Miami by a private plane sent by Avis Budget to ensure that I could make a board dinner in New Jersey that I would otherwise have missed. I could not think of a more jarring transition, undoubtedly unfathomable to Jorge, Armando, Eduardo and the countless others whose lives I briefly intersected. My younger sister wrote a beautiful mournful book 15 years ago chronicling her 1986 and 1996 visits to Cuba. It is entitled “Mis Tres Adioses a Cuba” – My Three Goodbyes to Cuba – the first goodbye when she left with the rest of us in 1960 and the other two at the conclusion of those two visits. She yearned, no wept, for the country where she had been born and with which she was still one, but was resigned to its loss, irreversible and forever.
I pondered those words as I was sitting on that plane alone. During my trip I had discovered an unexpected connectedness to Cuba and its people, who have not lost their humor or hope for a changed future. My sister might have been right then, I wasn’t so sure now. Forever, after all, is a long time. Through the looking glass, everything is possible.
Mr. Mestre will speak on Sept. 30 at a meeting of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (thepcfr,org).
Two months after my trip my wife and I hosted a dinner at our home for Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s 37-year-old high-profile dissident and inveterate blogger. Yoani was on an extended tour of Europe and the Americas having been granted permission to travel abroad after countless, well publicized unsuccessful attempts to secure an exit visa. Others in attendance were CSG members and their relatives and friends, including fellow Cuba travelers John McIntire and John Hickey.
Having studied literature and describing herself as a journalist, Yoani is eloquent and passionate, speaking only Spanish with a quintessentially Cuban accent punctuated by unmistakable Cuban mannerisms in a throaty voice that belies her willowy frame, carefully enunciating every vowel and syllable in a distinctly unCuban fashion. On her trip she has discovered that there is a Cuba outside of Cuba, men and women who openly bleed their Cubanness and who have embraced her for her courage and for who she is and what she represents. Yoani spoke of her fierce independence, having left her home at age 17. She recounted how she and her husband – her mate for life-- led a desperately impovished life until they both found an opportunity to start a tourist business that catered to Germans, who by law every two years could take a two week educational trip of their choosing at the state’s expense. A measure of economic independence gave her the means to become a journalist and begin to report the unfairness, dysfunctionality and oppressiveness of life in Cuba from the point of view of the post-revolutionary generation. An entrepreneur at heart, she equates economic independence with political autonomy and the ability to demand self-determination. The oxygen for change is technology, a force that can infiltrate and erode even the most hermetic and repressive political system.
She explains that, in her opinion, she was allowed to travel abroad because of the unsustainability of the alternative given the government’s much publicized lifting of foreign travel restrictions. There are also those who hope she won’t return or that she will somehow self-destruct. She reports this with an impish grin and a chuckle. Someone asks her how quickly and how far can the system reform itself. The system, she believes, is too rigid to change. She resorts to her favorite metaphor. Think of a house whose foundations are cracked, with crumbling walls, a leaky roof, windows that don’t close and buckling floors. Hurricanes, storms, winds, rain – they all lash at that house but the house still stands. Then one day the owner decides to change a door and as he takes out the second screw in the third hinge the house suddenly collapses.
Another guest hesitatingly asks whether there is any possibility of a Cuban spring – protesters spontaneously taking to the streets. Not likely, asserts Yoani. First of all, Cuba’s population is relatively old. It has a third world economy but a first world birth rate (1.4 births per woman), depriving the country of the masses of unemployed youth that have spearheaded movements elsewhere. Secondly, although Cubans are brave and capable of fending off sharks in the Florida straits, they are unwilling to confront uniformed policemen on the streets of Havana. Too many years of an oppressive, totalitarian regime have conditioned them to stand down against authority, especially of the lethal kind. And lastly, the Cuban government has built a far better and stronger cage than has any African or Arab state.
Yoani is headed to Washington to meet with Congressional leaders and then on to Miami. Yoani is resigned to making little headway in the halls of Congress when advocating a more flexible Cuban policy. Some of us advise her that she should be more optimistic, that by temperament Americans are “influenciables” – open and persuadable – and that she carries enormous credibility and moral authority. She is silent, a sign that this message sinks in. With regard to Miami she is concerned she will be entering the lion’s den, home of a wing of Cuban conservatives that is reluctant to engage with and support Cubans on the island for fear of ceding influence and control in a post Castro Cuba. We tell her to relax; she is a lion tamer.
Following this dinner one of our guests wrote us a thank you note.
“I left your home in awe. The more I think about Yoani the more I see her down the road as being a key participant in Cuba’s transition to democracy. In due course she can be the one leader of the opposition that commands the respect of the Cuban nation as well as that of the international community. I think she is presidential timber. I only hope I get to see that day…. All in all it was one of my most memorable days in life. I met face to face with an exceptional human being.”