Old Car, Havana, Cuba

Was it Winston Churchill that described something as a “riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma?” I think he was talking about Russia, but the same could be said for Cuba. After spending 10 eye-opening days there, we’re left with a profound sense of wonder, and an abiding respect for the spirit and resilience of the Cubanos.

The history of the 1959 Cuban revolution is well-documented, and it’s known that the early days of the Castro regime were ruthless, bloody, and authoritarian. But just how oppressive is the regime today, especially now that Fidel is gone? And if this is a truly classless society, how do some people seem to be relatively well-off, approaching middle-class, when so many others are just scraping by? How does this communism thing work (or not work), anyway? And how could this system have Castro slogan, Havana Cubabeen allowed to operate virtually unchanged for as long as I’ve been alive (ahem, 57 years), in a place that’s only 90 miles from U.S. shores?

And here’s the biggest question of all: what’s in store for Cuba in the next few years, assuming that relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to thaw? (With the new POTUS, this is now a shakier assumption and an even bigger question mark.)

In 10 days, we were able to barely scratch at these questions, much less get any answers. But one thing is clear, just as it is in any country, anywhere in the world: the hope of Cuba is in its people, not in its politicians.

Here are a few of our impressions.

The old cars are real. And yes, many are running on a wing and a prayer.

They’re everywhere, and they range from the beautifully restored convertibles that have been tarted up for the tourists, to rattle-trap “frankencars” that operate as collectivo taxis (we rode in a fair number of those).  We couldn’t get enough of them.

The architecture is simultaneously stunning . . . and crumbling. Especially in Havana.

Cuba has spent millions restoring Havana Vieja, the historic city center, and it is fabulous – now listed as a UNESCO heritage site. Just a few blocks away is Havana Centro, the working-class quarter in which the buildings were once just as grand, but are now in danger of falling into oblivion. And people still live in them. How does it work? Do they pay rent? Does the government provide them housing, substandard as it is?

Havana Centro is not for the faint of heart. Sadly, I counted no less than three dead cats (don’t get me started on the plight of dogs and cats in Havana) and it was pretty common to see headless chickens or pig heads left on street corners as Santaria offerings. The smells, sights, and sounds were sometimes overwhelming. But we loved the energy of this neighborhood and the spirit of its people, from the kids playing kickball in the streets to the veggie vendors.

It’s not all about the U.S.

Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
The high-end Hotel Nacional has a storied history

Because our travel there has been restricted and the U.S. trade embargo has dealt such a blow to Cuba for so many years, it’s easy to forget that Cuba has been hosting visitors from everywhere else for a long time. Tourism is tremendously important to the economy, and Cuba’s tourist infrastructure – from hotels to restaurants to souvenir stands – is pretty similar to that of other Latin American countries we’ve visited.

At the same time, it was odd to not encounter  any U.S. brands, anywhere, not even Coca Cola! But there were a couple of notable and puzzling exceptions. If the embargo’s still in place, how DID that hot sauce from Louisiana, or that Italian sparkling water imported by a U.S. company, get to Cuba?

People are not as afraid to speak out as we expected.

As part of our requirement for people-to-people exchange (one of the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens are now allowed to travel to Cuba) we made an effort to talk to as many people as we could about the experience of being a Cubano.

  • Almost everyone felt hopeful and optimistic, and believe that Cuba is truly on the “cusp of change” (not my phrase but I like it!). Most held President Obama in high regard and tend to be more guarded in their opinions about the new president-elect.

    Havana Book Stall, Cuba
    Iconic posters at the outdoor book market
  • Only one person we talked to – we’ll protect his identity except to say that he is in academia and a person of letters – was very bitter about “the brothers” (Fidel and Raul Castro) and what they’ve done to the country. “We are all slaves here,” he said. Sadly, we weren’t able to press him on this since we were just sharing a cab.
  • Many people are really struggling, especially in Havana. There seems to be a huge
    Havana, Cuba Market
    The cupboards were almost bare in this market

    dearth of consumer goods, and the cash with which to buy them. The reason for this was not clear to us: five decades of suppressed capitalism? The U.S. trade embargo? A system in which only communist party members have buying power?

  • Most people were NOT effusive about Fidel, even with his very recent death. It was not at all what we expected in a regime based on a true cult of personality. However, several people felt that Raul’s ascendance will lead to more freedoms and greater opportunities. Already, Raul has opened the door to increased capitalism through such programs as the casas particulares, in which people are allowed to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists and keep a percentage of the income. We stayed in four of these, and we’ll describe them in a future blog post.

Our Cuba trip was a life-changer for us. There’s no way to boil it down into a single blog post, so stay tuned for several more entries and lots more photos!


  1. You guys are livin the life! Good job. Enjoy your posts.

  2. Thanks, Susan, can’t wait to read the followups. Your comment on the ‘new POTUS’ makes me wonder if your visit may have been timely, that future interactions will be curtailed. Let’s hope not, for everyone’s sake. Great stuff, as usual. Keep it coming!

  3. Your writing of the traveling you’ve done provides an eyewitness account for those who aren’t able to make the journey themselves, as well as intrigues those with a greater sense of adventure.
    I continue to be amazed, yet not surprised, that most US citizens have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker that the USA is the supreme Country of the world and all others are substandard. Many Americans (possibly ALL who elected the new administration) buy into this “fact” believing that the rest world is a scary, unruly place with people that must be, both cautiously watched and kept in their place. You and John have blown that stereotype out of the proverbial water. Thank you, Susan, for yet another great view of humanity. ME

    • Well, you know what Mark Twain said:

      “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

      I forget the exact statistic, but something like fewer than 30 percent of Americans own passports, and a pretty big percentage have never even left their home state. So there you have it.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  4. Janis Peace Reply

    I loved reading your blog! Good job!!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to write!!
    Love Janis

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write about your experiences in Cuba! Can’t wait to read the next one.

  6. Oh, I have so many questions for you. We are going to Cuba in March. Ron’s sister has family there and she has been to Cuba many times via the Bahamas. Where did you fly from? We are flying from Liberia, CR directly to Havana. I heard that if we fly from CR, or another country, even though we have U.S. Passports, we are simply shuffled through customs without meeting one of the 12 requirements. And when we leave, we fly directly to Mexico for a month, so we won’t enter the US until May 2nd from Mexico.
    Also, did you exchange US dollars for Cuban pesos? I heard the exchange rate is horrible because a fee has to go to the government. Instead, we were told to bring EUROs to exchange.
    I can’t wait to read more about your trip. I am looking forward to this trip because Ron’s sister knows so many local Cubans that live there and we want to visit before Cuba is lost to us again because of the PEOTUS.

  7. Those old and beautiful cars certainly lend themselves to the feeling of stepping back (50, 60 years?) in time as well as a sense of faded glamour. And, since we’d never pass by a UNESCO WHS, I’d love to see Havanna viejo. We’ve had Cuba on our bucket list for years and the “forbidden” mystique has made it even more alluring. Hoping that one of these days we’ll make it there and, in the meantime, I’ll look forward to your impressions, pictures and stories. Anita

  8. Great post! Can’t wait to hear more about your Cuba visitM

  9. Well, hello! I was just alerted to your blog by our common friend Lisa and strangely enough, her comment came as I was trying to finish up a second post on my own Cuba trip a few weeks ago – a trip that engendered many of the questions you pose here. I want to read more of yours – and I will! – but I’m running to catch a flight now. Looking forward to a ramble around your blog, and thanks for visiting mine.

  10. I love this post. Having been to Cuba a few times myself, this blog brings back soo many fond memories of the Cuban people.

    Thanks for clearly putting the time and effort into creating such a great memento to Cuba and her people.

    For anyone who hasn’t visited Cuba…. seriously you need to add it to your bucket list of places to travel.

  11. Very insightful post. I have been considering travel to Cuba but concerned about how the new administration will affect travel there. It was refreshing to read a post that both celebrates the beauty and resilience of Cuba while also revealing its limitations. Many other blog posts on other blogs has focused more on the tourism side of Cuba and I am much more interested in the people. Thanks for the unique perspective!

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