President Obama made a historic visit to Cuba on March 22, calling for the end of Cold War policies, the half-century-long embargo and the limitation of American visitors.
The truth is, though, that many curious and enterprising Americans have been visiting Cuba for a decade or more, returning home with tales of a country under stress, but also one filled with welcoming citizens who love music and baseball, are fiercely proud of their country and are anxious for more Americans tourists.
Jim and Margaret Janis of Carlsbad are among the pre-Obama visitors.
They traveled to Cuba in late December/early January because “we believe the American trade embargo may be lifted, or at least substantially weakened in the next few years, especially if a Democrat becomes the next president,” Margaret Janis explained. “If that happens, we think Cuba will change a lot, and very fast. We wanted to go before that happens.”
The couple chose to visit the island country with the tour company Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), “because it allowed us to see most of the island, including some of the sparsely populated, mountainous interior. They also took care of our visas and lots of other details.”
The couple’s 14-day itinerary included Holguin, a provincial capital in the northeast; Santiago de Cuba on the southeast coast; the colonial town of Cienfuegos; Santa Clara; and Havana.
Besides having an affinity for Spanish Colonial architecture and a nostalgic pull for old American cars (“Cubans refer to all old cars — European, American and Russian — as ‘American’ cars,” Margaret Janis explained), “we were also interested in how the average Cuban lives, Cuban society, politics, history, economics, art and music.”
The tour brought them conversations with a doctor and nurse at a neighborhood clinic; artists in their studios; members of a modern dance company; musicians-in-training for lyric opera; and community action groups.
One memorable encounter occurred at the music school in Holguin.
“The 16-to-18-year-old students did a few dances and songs for us,” Margaret Janis recalled, “and the soloists, who were classically trained in opera, had absolutely spectacular voices.”
Another memory was created at a privately run print shop.
“The staff was doing everything from making (new) paper from recycled paper, to printing, illustrating and binding books — all without modern equipment,” Margaret said. “The Linotype and printing press dated from the early 1900s and were totally mechanical, not electronic. The papermaker was making pulp using an old Russian washing machine. He said the machine was ‘hell on clothes, but great for shredding paper.’”
Margaret Janis discovered she had something in common with the papermaker.
“I explained, in my very poor Spanish, to the Linotype operator that my grandfather had been a printer, and would have used a machine similar to his. He was very interested in that, and sat down and produced a line of type (backward for use in the printing press) of my name, and gave it to me as a gift. It’s a treasured souvenir.”
Though Cubans are known as a happy people, “it is hard to get to know (them) without recognizing what damage the embargo has done to each and every one of them,” Margaret Janis said. “Despite that, they love Americans, are thrilled that we are now getting to Cuba, and are cheerful, industrious and inventive. (They truly have) the ability to make something out of nothing at all.”
However, she added, “we are not naive. We know about the human rights violations of the Castro regime, the stupid rules that make the typical Cuban’s life miserable, and the wage leveling ($25 a month is standard government pay), which forces everyone to have something on the side, whether it’s black marketeering, selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, running a private taxi (usually horse drawn), prostitution or working in the tourist industry (provides tips) to make ends meet.”
The Janises were happy to see President Obama travel to Cuba and believe it bodes well for Cubans.
“If relations between the U.S. and Cuba were fully normalized and full trade relations resumed, Cuba would rapidly change for the good,” Margaret Janis said. “Fifty years of embargo hasn’t worked, so it’s time to try something else.”
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org