Recently we returned from our 44th wedding anniversary cruise with a stop in Havana, Cuba. As it turns out, we were one of the last cruise ships to visit Cuba before the newly imposed cruise ship embargo.
Growing up during the Cold War and participating in nuclear war drills in grammar school by hiding under our desks, my ideas of Cuba were probably different and dated from most of our younger cruise mates. We also half-expected Ricky and Lucy Ricardo to be there greeting us upon arrival, especially during our evening visit to the Tropicana night club.
Instead, what we observed during our day-long visit there was one of the saddest places we have ever been to — in many ways even worse than our many trips over the years doing our mission work in Nicaragua or the parts of rural China that we have seen during our two visits there.
The people of Cuba are literally starving, and their beautiful old buildings that look much like Paris are crumbling into the sea. There are basically no hotels, no restaurants, no shops or stores — certainly nothing like one has come to expect at a now popular port-of-call.
For a major capital city of 2.1 million people, Havana has few cars on the streets, absolutely no traffic jams, and a train system that dates back to the Soviet Union days. Gasoline averages $4 per gallon and the Internet is spotty and sporadic at best. The current GDP per capita is around $6,758 or less than $20 per day. Here in the United States, the current GDP per capita is $53,500, or almost $147 per day.
There are absolutely no opportunities for entrepreneurship, personal growth and development of any kind in Cuba. Visitor visas to the United States are routinely denied, and there is a general feeling of despair and hopelessness throughout the country. Despite the poverty and personal struggles in Nicaragua, the people we have met there over the years were relatively content and happy.
Cuba is the opposite. Just a short 93 miles across the Florida straits at its narrowest width lies a land of peace and prosperity, opportunity and growth — something most Cubans can only dream about. There is a feeling of hopelessness and despair there, unlike any other place I have ever seen during our extensive travels over the years. In addition, it was very striking that there were virtually no tourists of any other nationalities visible on the streets of Havana. The only people there were those who live there, no one else, unlike any other major city throughout the world, where you see a great mix of many different people and cultures.
While in Cuba, we visited the home of Ernest Hemingway, who split his time between Havana and Key West, Fla. His home in Key West is beautifully maintained and restored, as well as the surrounding grounds and landscaping.
In Cuba, like most of its infrastructure, the house is crumbling and the grounds and the landscaping are in need of a major clean-up and overhaul. The many cats that roam the grounds in Key West are nonexistent in Cuba. Throughout the country, we saw virtually no dogs or cats of any kind. There are also many restored 1950s Chevy automobiles that are now mostly used to drive tourists around, and many old, small Russian and Chinese vehicles.
We also had a stop at the Revolutionary Square, which was basically just a big paved parking lot and had a luncheon of fish and rice and beans. We were also taken to a store to buy Cuban cigars and rum at very expensive prices. One Cuban cigar ranged in price between $8-$10 on average, and a small bottle of rum was almost $15.
We were told that no American money was accepted — that proved to be completely untrue. Everywhere we went, the Cuban people couldn’t wait to get American dollars. We also went to a small shopping area with limited goods for sale, including some carved wooden items, artwork and handmade jewelry. I also misplaced my cellphone while taking pictures, and thankfully discovered it was missing before getting back on the bus. A shop owner had taken it where I had left it and only when I realized it was missing and went back looking for it was it brought out from a back room.
In the evening, we went to a performance at the Tropicana night club, where Ricky Ricardo had performed back in the 1950s. Our guide told us that before Cuba fell in 1959, there used to be daily plane flights back and forth from Miami to Havana, bringing tourists to the nightly shows at the Tropicana. The night club is outside, and it was at least 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity during the 2-hour show.
There was a limited amount of food and drinks available, mostly rum and peanuts and a small bread and cheese plate, which cost $15.
Opening the port of Havana to cruise ships and the American dollar gave a glimpse of a better world to the Cuban people with some hope for a better life in the future. It also allowed cruise passengers from the United States to bring personal and home goods and supplies to friends and relatives in Cuba.
In reality, these cruises improved relations between the people of two long-standing enemy nations. Opening the lines of communication has proven to very effective, as evidenced by the fact that 142,721 American tourists in the first four months of this year took a cruise to Cuba and an estimated 800,000 cruise passenger bookings are now affected by an embargo.
When we got off the ship, the cruise staff was upset not knowing where they would be headed next. Nobody was saying anything. The cruise heading back out that afternoon was canceled and another port was to be substituted. So, no more ships were to be allowed into Havana.
Even though it was very sad, we were grateful that we had been able to visit a place that not many Americans routinely visit. It is our hope that the cruise embargo will be lifted soon so that the Cuban people can once again have some glimpse of a better life. It would end the continued infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering on a people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to face a life unimaginable to us as free American citizens, and whose lives will now only continue to get worse as time goes on.