his April, a delegation of 19 attorneys and their partners participated in the 3rd annual Journey to Cuba, sponsored by the CBA, Colorado Women’s Bar Association, Colorado Hispanic Bar Associations, Colorado LGBT Bar Association and the South Asian Bar Association of Colorado. The trip was organized by Cuba Cultural Travel, and included lectures and discussions worth 9 CLE credits. It was my great privilege to accompany the trip, which has sold out in every year it has run.
The trip included four nights in Havana, with an optional three-night extension including travel to Pinar del Rio, the Viñales Valley, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Each day featured a mix of cultural activities, guided tours, CLE courses, excellent meals, and time to explore.
For the first part of the trip, participants either stayed in the government-run Hotel Nacional, one of Havana’s most famous and impressive cultural landmarks, or in one of three casas particulares in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. These are private homes that have been converted for paid lodging, much like a bed and breakfast. There is presumably a wide range of quality and amenities among casas particulares, but our accommodations were first-rate. The home I stayed in was owned by an art collector, and our large rooms were situated around a marble-floored atrium packed with eye-catching paintings and sculptures in a wild mix of styles. It overflowed with tropical plants, and books and magazines were stacked high on several coffee tables. We began each day here with a breakfast of eggs, bread, ham, cheese, freshly squeezed juice, and slices of ripe mango, guava, and papaya, while birds flitted between the flowers and tiny lizards scaled the vine-covered walls.
During the Havana portion of the trip, each day featured two CLE lectures, usually first thing in the morning and then after lunch. We had classes on US-Cuba relations; gender and sex relations in Cuba; mediation and family law; Cuba’s emerging private sector; and the business and investment environment facing international companies and non-profits looking to work in Cuba. Every one of the lectures was engaging and informative. The speakers were all prominent intellectuals, able to answer even the most probing questions about the country, with what appeared to be total candor.
Between the lectures, we explored different areas of the city, often with a guide to provide historical and cultural information. We took a walking tour of Old Havana, gaping at the gleaming plazas surrounded by buildings dating as far back as the 16th century, in colonial and baroque styles evocative of Madrid, Rome, Istanbul, and New Orleans. We visited the national Museum of Cuban Art, housing some of the country’s most important cultural artifacts from the early colonial period through to modern day. We enjoyed an architectural bus tour of western Havana, focused on the 20th century gems that sprouted up around the city in its pre-revolutionary economic heydays.
Our meals were taken at paladares, or privately owned small restaurants. Like the casas particulares, paladares are a private form of business that was only permitted by the communist government starting in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant economic struggles in Cuba. Additional economic reforms in the past few years have created an explosion of private restaurants on the island. Previously, prepared meals were only available for purchase at government-run restaurants, which gave Cuba a reputation for having sub-par food — a reputation which at this point is clearly undeserved.
The Cuban style of eating is to serve an assortment of dishes, all at once. While the fare varied somewhat from one paladar to another, it was standard for every meal to include chicken, pork, beef and fish options, along with several vegetable-based side dishes and the ubiquitous black beans and rice, or Moros y Cristianos (“Moors and Christians”). The variety within each meal made it easy to have a different experience each time, even if overall the dishes were often similar from one repast to the next. It became fun to note the inventiveness each paladar brought to the signature national dishes, like tasting how the rich flavors of ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish that literally means “old clothes,” differed from place to place. There was also so much superb seafood that by the end of the trip, several of us found we were tired of eating lobster.
Most evenings were capped by a cultural excursion. The first night in town featured a private guitar and percussion performance by a trio covering the history of Cuban music. On the second night, we enjoyed dinner and drinks at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a former cooking oil factory that was taken over by a group of artists and turned into an unfathomably hip art gallery/night club/restaurant/performance space. This three-floor warehouse took an entire evening to explore, as it showcased impressive and challenging works in a wide range of media, live music on several stages, a giant screen projecting pirated VH1 Classic videos next to a psychedelic mural of Fidel Castro, and multiple bars serving enormous mojitos.
Other cultural events we enjoyed included dance and choral performances, a private concert by the incredible chamber section of the National Youth Orchestra, and a meet and greet with local artists at the home of one of our guides. And wherever we went there was music. At times it seemed like everyone in the country must be a world class musician, singer, dancer, or some combination of the three. Apart from the professional performances we attended, there were guitarists in every doorway, percussionists on every corner and full bands in half of the restaurants and bars.
On the whole, Havana has a crumbling grandeur that is hard to describe, combining as it does the wealth and style of disparate cultures over several centuries, alongside omnipresent examples of disrepair and penury. The effects of the embargo are readily apparent, most noticeably in the jumble of beautiful ‘50s-era Buicks, Fords, and Chevys alongside newer, purely functional Russian and Chinese vehicles, all of them running who-knows-what amalgamations of international parts under the hoods. It was clear that nothing is ever discarded in Cuba, as it might not be replaceable, and it was common to see folks walking down the street with ancient microwaves or radios, on the way to repair shops. All of this made the city feel poor; but at the same time every Cuban citizen is guaranteed housing, education, healthcare, and food rations, and the effects of this are just as obvious. We did not see a single homeless person or beggar, which would be a statistical impossibility in any large American community. Crime is very low. There was a strong sense of civic pride. Havana defies easy analysis or comparison.
After four nights, about half of us said farewell and returned home, each person marveling at how much experience had been packed into such a short trip. The rest of us stayed on for the extended portion, featuring travel into western Cuba. This part of the trip did not include any CLEs, but provided even more opportunity to meet with Cubans and to see life outside of the major international destinations. On a day trip from Havana to Pinar del Rio, a smaller town about two hours away, we visited Proyecto Grabadown, an innovative art school and community center for children born with Down Syndrome, where we were treated to a dance performance and samples of the students’ art. We then swung through the Viñales Valley, considered to be the most beautiful place in Cuba. Steep limestone formations called mogotes rise high into the air there like towering islands in a sea of grass, a stunning geological phenomenon found almost nowhere else in the world. Before this backdrop, we visited an organic farm and restaurant where we enjoyed a true field-to-table experience, and learned about traditional Cuban agricultural methods for protecting crops without the use of pesticides. At a family-run tobacco farm, we learned about the cigar-making process and enjoyed sampling specially prepared cigars the family makes from the 10% reserve of the crop they are allowed to keep for private use.
The final two nights of the extended trip were spent in Cienfuegos, a town on the Gulf of Cazones near the Bay of Pigs. Known as the Pearl of the South, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was settled by primarily French immigrants in the early 1800s. Even more so than in Havana, in Cienfuegos it was apparent that there is more than meets the eye to many of the stained, cracked and generally nondescript facades you can see from the street view. One of the casas particulares the group stayed in had a gorgeous blend of original 19th-century neoclassical and Mughal-style elements, including an enclosed marble spiral staircase, interior balconies overlooking a courtyard, and 15-foot ceilings painted with cherubic murals; there was no hint from the exterior as to the beauty inside.
Basing out of Cienfuegos, we visited Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Valle de los Ingenios, the historical center of Cuba’s sugar production. In sweltering heat, we drank mojitos and chewed on fresh sticks of sugar cane. Throughout the trip we encountered many aspects of Cuba’s 500-year history, but the sugar plantations are of particular importance. It was Cuba’s sugar production that made it an important stop on the transatlantic slave route, bringing the country wealth and people and ultimately creating the Afro-Cuban culture that defines it today. Throughout the trip, this history was ever-present, in the music we heard, in the works of art we saw, and of course in the appearance of Cubans themselves, who are highly cognizant of their blended heritage even if some issues of colorism and prejudice stubbornly persist. Most Cubans follow at least some of the traditions of Santería, a syncretic religion formed from the admixture of Catholicism, traditional African belief systems and whatever spiritual elements were preserved from the Taino peoples who originally populated the island. We were informed that after opening a bottle of liquor, a good Cuban should pour some on the ground to honor the orishas, manifestations of supreme divinity originating in ancient Yoruba religion.
On the last day of the trip, we visited the Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara. While the communist government was a frequent topic of conversation throughout the excursion, this was the first time I felt anything like a government presence. From talking to earlier visitors, I had heard about routine police stops on the street, propaganda and other authoritarian elements. But other than seeing a couple of military vehicles while we were driving from city to city, in my experience Cuba was notable for an absence of recognizable government or police presence. Other than one anti-blockade billboard we passed on the road, most of the propaganda we saw was confined to the inescapable images of Fidel and Che — along with Jose Martí, the Spanish-era revolutionary poet and political theorist who Cubans often speak of as their least morally ambiguous national hero. I saw posters from a government anti-homophobia campaign, as well as presumably illegal posters protesting the incarceration of Cuban political prisoners. While all of our hosts evinced discomfort with saying anything explicitly disparaging of the system of government, they often spoke questioningly or critically about specific government policies.
The Che Guevara Mausoleum was the only place where I sensed something like a religion of the state, most obviously expressed by the severe young women who served as guards and put an immediate stop to anything they deemed remotely inappropriate for that sacrosanct space. I was glad for the reminder, before returning to the States, that Cuba does have an authoritarian, communist government, and its citizens are not free in the way Americans understand the word. It felt like a dose of reality that would have been very easy to avoid otherwise, amidst the salsa music and dancing and free-flowing “Vitamin R,” as the Cubans call their rum.
The week after we returned to the States, Raul Castro stepped down as president of Cuba. We were unexpectedly among the last Americans to set foot in the country during the 60-year Castro regime. At the time, the Cubans we met were cautiously optimistic about their political future. Much has changed there in the last few years, largely starting with the “Cuban thaw” initiated by President Obama, who is beloved in the country as the first U.S. president in decades to acknowledge the common humanity of Cubans and Americans. It is still too early to say how the new political regime in Cuba will behave, or what its relations with the American government will be. The character of this relationship has major implications for average Cubans. The tension that Cubans underscored for us was the question of how to meet the standards of a freer, more open society and survive in a capitalist global economy, without losing the systems that currently guarantee all Cuban citizens at least a minimal standard of living. This is something they seem generally unwilling to compromise on. As an American, I for one was unable to provide many reassuring solutions to that dilemma.
Having now spent time in Cuba, having made an acquaintance with people there and seeing a bit of how they live, I hope against hope that our two countries can continue forward in the spirit of rapprochement. We are both vibrant, multi-ethnic societies with roots in Europe, Africa, and the indigenous cultures of the Americas, marred by periods of discord and human rights abuses, but renowned for our cultural exports, our natural beauty, and our ability to survive adversity. We make better friends than enemies, or at least we should.
Journeying to Cuba was easily one of the most surprisingly profound travel experiences I have ever had. The rest of this year’s participants echoed that sentiment. We were all of varying ages and backgrounds and political persuasions. Yet we were unanimous in finding Cuba to be a beautiful, eye-opening, expectation-shattering place, somehow just a 45-minute flight from the tip of Florida. D