Sunday’s Travel section in The Washington Post carries the big headline “Meet Me In Havana,” or online, it’s “So nice to meet you, Havana.” Inside the headline was “In Cuba, finding vivid color and colorful people.” Team Obama has made it possible to go on “people-to-people” trips to Cuba.
This kind of detail was in small print in the “Travel Tips”: “Bring extra toilet paper or tissues. Public bathrooms often have no stash.” Post writer Andrea Sachs also paid tribute to the “reassuring fist pump” in the omnipresent image of communist thug Che Guevara:
The country’s hip-swinging music and lip-smacking cuisine have traversed the 90 miles to U.S. shores, defying an embargo that bans rum and cigars but can’t restrain the more abstract keepsake of culture.
Much as I tried to purge any preconceived notions, I arrived with stereotypes dancing in my head. And in many regards, they were confirmed. At the airport, classic American cars from the Eisenhower era idled curbside, awaiting passengers. En route to Havana, billboards splashed propagandist slogans, some pro-revolution and others anti-us (a.k.a. U.S.). (The half-century-old “blockade” is an incendiary topic. One sign stated that more than 70 percent of the population was born under the embargo.) Che Guevara’s face was as ubiquitous as McDonald’s golden arches are here. His mustachioed mien and disheveled locks appeared on roadside signs and posters, a reassuring fist pump of perseverance.
Guevara’s image of “perseverance” only appeals to communists who hate the United States, and perhaps Cubans who’ve never learned what a savage killer he was. Sachs occasionally related the realities on the ground, albeit with the usual nods to “free” goods like health care:
The city stayed mute on the subject of homelessness, so Isabel Leon Candelario, of the Historian’s Office of the City of Havana, answered for it. “Mainly, they don’t want to work,” she said. “There is plenty of work to be done, construction and agriculture. It is hard to find homeless. Maybe one or two people in the evenings, a drunk person.”
The government — socialist in its politics, communist in its ideals — guarantees housing and jobs, plus provides free health care and education. Despite ration cards, the Cubans’ biggest expenditure is food. Yet according to Ludwig’s footnote on the topic, most people can’t support themselves on federal wages and must work a second job to acquire hard currency. He, for example, receives extra funds through gratuities. Other secondary sources include tutoring, translating or performing in the streets with a pair of costumed dachshunds. Whatever it takes.
But the WashPost writer was not exactly one of those rebellious reporters seeking to make trouble for the Castro regime. She has signed up for a "highlights of the revolution" tour, and she can't gin up the courage to walk away from the pack. She just admits it in the newspaper:
The Friendly Planet itinerary, packed with homegrown and institutionalized goodies, kept us busy from breakfast till dinner. The company never issued a statement requiring our participation, yet I sensed a tacit obligation to board the bus every day.
To clear up any ambiguities, I asked Ruby Goldman, the American representative of Friendly Planet, whether I could duck out to the beach. I had a plan in mind, involving a $3 public bus ride that left from Parque Centrale. I just awaited permission.
“You can do anything you want,” she said inside the Havana Club’s rum museum, “as long as you do the people-to-people. I’m not the police.”
Despite her consent, I felt like a truant for skipping out on the planned activities. Guilt squelched my independent streak. Resolved to behave, I pulled out the day’s events and started underlining.
Off to the "Museum of the Revolution" she went...