By Victor Block
Lying on a white sand beach at the edge of the turquoise sea, I could have been at any Caribbean destination. The major difference was that I was enjoying an experience that few Americans could share for more than the past 50 years. That will change under the recent agreement for Cuba and the United States to reestablish diplomatic relations lift trade barriers and ease restrictions on travel to Cuba by people from this country.
My two visits to that island nation were made accompanying the kinds of special groups, including educational, cultural and religious, that have been approved for travel to Cuba in recent years. I found a country of contradictions that combined to make it an intriguing and inviting place to visit.
The streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja), the original 16th-century walled city, are lined by a treasure-trove of architectural gems. Mountain ranges rise dramatically from verdant valleys and fields of sugar cane. And almost everyone I met welcomed visitors with a warm smile on their lips, music in their soul and a mix of resignation and humor about the challenges of their lives.
Even vintage American-made cars from the 1950s — a prized possession for those who can afford them — add to the dichotomy. Well-to-do owners with the resources to do so have lovingly restored some. Most are junkers kept running by a combination of mechanical innovation, imagination and luck.
In recent years, renovations to formerly stately private homes in Havana — many of which now house several families — have been underway, especially in areas where tourists congregate. Given the backlog of structures that have deteriorated, however, there still are countless buildings whose former glory is hidden beneath crumbling facades and flaking paint.
Behind its faded beauty, Havana has attractions enough to fill many an interesting day. Some three dozen major museums make the city an art lover’s paradise. A number of them offer the unsubtle propaganda, and praise for socialism and the Revolution, that visitors to Cuba soon learn to expect. Others would rank as world class wherever they were located, displaying works of art by the likes of Renoir, Rodin and Picasso.
The aptly named Museum of the Revolution focuses upon the uprising (1953-1959) that led to the downfall of the dictatorial ruler Fulgencio Batista and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. Maps, weapons and other exhibits — many with English descriptions denouncing U.S. oppression, imperialism and capitalism — trace the Revolution in detail. An outdoor display area includes the tiny yacht in which Castro and 81 other men landed in Cuba to begin their improbable, and ultimately successful, revolution.
When I sought to exchange the confined space of museums to the world outside, I found the streets and neighborhoods of Havana to offer an introduction to living history. The Plaza de Armas, the most important square, was laid out in 1519, and served as the center around which early Havana arose.
Strollers, fishermen and lovers strolling hand-in-hand frequent the Malecon, a sweeping boulevard between the city and the sea. The stately old villas of sugar barons and other wealthy Cubans who once resided in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, which were abandoned following the Revolution, now house government agencies, foreign embassies and business offices.
To gain a more complete understanding of Cuba, I also explored other areas of the island. Fields of sugar cane and what many cigar aficionados rate as the world’s best tobacco yield to rolling plains where cattle graze. Cowboys (vaqueros) riding horses, and farmers guiding plows pulled by oxen, come into view. Hills where coffee is grown rise into mountain ranges.
The best beaches on the island rim the northern coastline. The resort complex at Varadero, a two-hour drive east of Havana, has long attracted vacationers from Europe and Canada who have been free to visit Cuba.
Explorations elsewhere on the island provide a wealth of experiences and impressions. Strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets of Trinidad, which was founded in 1514, is to be immersed in a time capsule of Cuba’s colonial past. Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city, is perched in hills overlooking the southeastern coast. Its past includes serving as the capital city during the mid-16th century, a slave port and a refuge for French settlers from Haiti.
In the little village of El Cobre just outside Santiago, even the most ramshackle houses are neat, tidy and often decorated by foliage and flowers. Many of the people I encountered there, and elsewhere in Cuba, looked at me with curiosity, then smiled and offered a greeting in Spanish. One man gestured for me to enter his modest hut for coffee and to meet the family, an invitation that my schedule unfortunately prevented my accepting. After looking around to make certain no one was observing us, another rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt to display for me an American flag tattoo on his upper arm.
This friendliness of people whose lives are challenging and lacking in luxuries is one of my lasting memories of Cuba. Together, my experiences combined to form the confusing, often conflicting, impressions left by that country.
Those recollections linger, along with images of Cuba’s natural beauty, glorious if often faded architecture and other attractions. With the lowering of barriers for people from the United States to visit that country, more Americans are likely to take advantage of the opportunity to follow in my footsteps and return home with their own impressions.