January 11, 2002

Cuba 40 years later

By Richard Ybarra

Sunday, Dec. 16 marked the first direct trade between Cuba and the United States. The first shipment of 500 tons of U.S. chickens and 24,000 tons of corn arrived as part of what was called a "one-time" cash deal for these products.

In 1961 just before ordering the economic blockade against Cuba, President John F. Kennedy is reported to have ordered 200 boxes of Montecristo cigars.

Any way you look at it, the math suggests he did not intend to have our country go 40 years without the best cigars in the world.

Today, Cuban cigars command prices up to $2,000 per box. Even with the blockade, many Americans find ways to get them via Canada and Mexico, two of our many allies doing business with Cuba.

On that Sunday as the cargo container ships were arriving, a distinguished group of Americans was departing after spending nine days visiting and touring Havana and nearby areas.

The group of 24 Americans included journalists, economists, regionalists and urbanists who were on a mission to view and assess the current lifestyle and regional issues faced by Cuba 40 years into the embargo and nearly 10 years after the fall of its biggest financial booster, then known as the Soviet Union. The trip was organized by national columnist Neal Peirce and his group Citistates.

I had the opportunity to be part of the delegation who traveled on this nine-day U.S. government-licensed trip to the island nation of Cuba.

As a Dec. 16 Bakersfield Californian editorial pointed out several days after the historic sale, the cold war era embargo made sense when it was initiated. But today it makes as much sense as trying to separate Ernest Hemingway from The Old Man and the Sea, the immortalized real-life portrait of Cuban fisherman Gregorio Fuentes.

The lessons learned and gleaned from the visit were many and varied. From the first steps off the plane leading through Cuban immigration questioning, long-held mysteries and myths were somewhat dispelled.

Soon after, the group came to understand Cubans like Americans and American dollars. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the dollar is the preferred currency to the two types of Cuban pesos.

First late-night impression of Havana, both from the air and bus ride from the airport to the city, was that of a dimly-lit metropolitan area, due mainly to fuel shortages for generating power. It reminded me of California's recent blackout phenomena. We learned Cubans are working toward self-generation and rely on Venezuela and Mexico for gas products.

As the trip unfolded, so did the reality of Cuba and Havana. There is a saying in Cuba about its capital city, "Havana, they who have not seen her cannot love her."

Only two of the 24-member delegation had previously visited the island nation. Most knew only what they had read and seen reported through the years via U.S. media. The eye-opening experience shed new light on old perspectives.

Events and experiences, which left lasting impressions on the group, included various aspects of urban life, health, culture, art, music, lifestyles, economics and neighborhoods.

On visiting Americans

Cubans we met on our many hours of day and night venturing into the city proved to be among the friendliest people imaginable.

They knew more about our country than we knew about them. One striking example was a group of young men who were visibly arguing in the city's central park.

The American group approached and engaged the men while a Cuban policeman observed the discussion. One of the Spanish-speaking Americans inquired as to what they were debating.

The group was stunned and broke out in laughter when told, "We are arguing about Michael Jordan, whether he was greater before or after his comeback and how he scored 15 points last week because he got poked in the eye."

Another visible American influence was the abundance of vintage 1948 to 1959 American cars serving as taxis. Although walking is the preferred transportation for many Cubans, it was surprising to see women and young girls safely hitchhiking in and out of the city.

Health

For a country where the average salary is $10 per month and does not have much in the way of soap products, the people are very clean and healthy.

While their diets are basic, there are few overweight Cubans. At the Arias Americas Maternity Hospital, the group learned Cuba's child mortality rate is lower than our own. However, they also mentioned the need for medical supplies, especially ventilation and high-tech equipment.

Culture and music

Perhaps the richest treasures of Cuba are their people and blend of Spanish and African cultures, evidenced by the salsa and traditional African music and dance. The American visitors learned about the blended cultures of old, heard and met some of the top musicians, including Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame, grammy-award winner Chucho Valdes and current sensation Los Van Van.

The tour also visited Ernest Hemingway's home and had a personal visit with 104-year-old Captain Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway's immortalized fishing buddy of The Old Man and the Sea. Although his frail health confines him to a wheelchair and he no longer speaks, he received the Americans in his home.

During the visit, one of the Americans bent down, looked into his drooping blue eyes and expressed what an honor it was to meet him. From somewhere deeper inside, the famed Old Man raised his right hand one more time and slowly waved his weathered hand and fingers in a gesture of acknowledgement.

One journalist asked an American official stationed in Havana what he admired about Cuba.

"They have lowered poverty, improved education and health and have safe streets" he said. "We need to keep the pressure on them to open up their society though."

Art

A professor from Kentucky, who is an expert on Cuban art, gave lessons and pointed out certain artists whose paintings command one to several thousands of dollars in the U.S. and on the internet. Most of the travelers met with the artists and negotiated prices certain to be the envy of friends who see these great paintings and styles.

Politics

While some of the remnants of what we once saw when the USSR fueled the Cuban economy are still present, the threat they once seemed to pose no longer exists. Their Comite's De la Revolucion, or neighborhood revolutionary committees, now engage in neighborhood cleanups and function somewhat like our neighborhood watch programs.

At one Hotel Nacional patio mojito and Cuba libre sipping session, one American was compelled to ask a clarifying question of the Cuban American who had convened this small group of hotel guests.

"Now did you say this group who was just here chatting included two former Bay of Pigs invaders and one former Cuban army official who fought there as well?"

"Yes," the Cuban American answered. "They are friends and have participated in forums discussing that battle and the subsequent acts and actions."

Old Havana

One of Havana's greatest attractions is the Old Havana area. This beautiful collection of several hundred blocks of colonial-style architecture borders the famed Malecon Sea walkway facing the ocean that has held up against years of weathering and lack of rehabilitation.

The Malecon borders Old Havana and its harbor. It is renowned as Havana's pedestrian lovers lane. A few of the Americans found how much its sidewalks were in need of repair as they desperately attempted to enjoy their jogging routines.

It is said one of Old Havana's architectural monuments falls daily. The few that have been repaired and repainted are elegant testaments to what is and can remain a world treasure, if the $10 billion needed can be acquired in a race against time.

Trade and business

Like their Canadian, Russian, Latin American and European counterparts, many American companies are already at work building relationships with Cuba in anticipation of the normalized relations certain to happen in this decade.

U.S. agricultural representatives were plentiful at the Hotel Nacional. Cuba needs what the U.S. has to offer, most importantly, the cash American businesses have to invest.

From all indications, JFK's last cigar purchase was intended to be short term. We now know short term became 40 years.

Richard Ybarra is Senior Partner of Ycom, Business and Public Affairs Consulting Firm, formerly National Vice President of Eureka Foundation. He can be e-mailed at: TRYCO@aol.com.

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