Cuba – a million miles from Miami

Impressions from a visit to the island nation

By Jason Koler

A note before we start: My journey to Cuba ended with more questions than answers and although the country was just as I pictured, it was far from what I imagined. This editorial is not meant to be neither sympathetic nor critical of the current or past political climate, but rather a brief observation of our experience.

Our first full day on the island began with sliced guava, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and bananas served with a carafe of strong café with a big bowl of raw sugar and warm pot of leche. The previous evening the proprietors of our casa particular (bed and breakfast), Alberto and Malena, had graciously inquired about our preferred breakfast time and were pressing guava through a strainer long before the affects of the previous evening’s 11-year-old Santiago rum had worn off. As the fresh papaya worked its natural wonders on our stomachs, the guava juice arrived in a tall, glass pitcher – cold, frothy and refreshing.

Our guides, the Cuban-born pilot/engineer Alejandro and the American-born photographer Larry Benvenuti had the campaign figured out. Day one included a tour of old Havana with mojitos in the original Sloppy Joes, then a daiquiri in the Floridita and finally supper at El Laurel on the canal leading to Marina Hemingway.

Day 2 began with the same breakfast. Fruit, juice, ham and cheese omelets, café and bowl of crusty Cuban bread with butter and jelly before hitting the highway in our rented Kia to see the majestic blue waters of the Bahia De Cochinos (Bay of Pigs).

Ocean waves crashed against the Malecon as we sped past the formerly luxurious Mafioso/Batista hotels. The cars could have easily been props in the Godfather movies and the smell of their exhaust was sweet, thick and inescapable.

We met up with an old guajiro (farmer) friend of Larry’s named Miguel Toledo Rodriguez. Larry met Miguel back in 1996 when he stopped for a milkshake at a local’s house after finishing an exhausting, four-mile hike to Caburni falls and back. He lives next to the waterfall in the mountains of Escambray (middle Cuba) and is battling cancer, so we brought him medical supplies including catheters and vitamins. That day I had the freshest coffee of my life, with Miguel, his son and grandson. It was roasted right from the tree in the farmer’s backyard. Fortunately Miguel was in better health than Larry expected.

Although trapped in the ’50s due to America’s unwillingness to lift the embargo and the Cuban people’s reluctance to oust the communist government, the Cubanos appear happy with their limited choices and current state of affairs. They are not starving. They enjoy free healthcare and a 99 percent literacy rate.

There is no high-speed wi-fi or 4G to keep their cellphones vibrating continuously with a never-ending stream of tweets, updates, texts, voice mails. Instead they talk during meals. And not as loud as in Miami restaurantees.

The service stations are not overstocked with 50 varieties of potato chips, beef jerky, soda and bubble gum. Instead you can get a pack of cigarettes, bottle of Coke (with real sugar) and bottle of Havana Club Añejo for 8 convertible pesos ($8). Enterprising young men and women sell peanut and honey bars to passing motorists and scatter when someone yells, “Policia!” In some stations the Cristal beer is stacked to the ceiling and although there may not be a toilet seat, the attendant keeps the baño clean and a careful eye on the soap.

They are not skinny from malnutrition and they are not fat. The Cubans do not yearn for iTunes, McDonalds, and Ford Fusions. They seem happy with pressed ham and cheese sandwiches, bootlegged CDs, and 1951 Chevrolets with Power Glide transmissions. Revolutionaries Jose Marti, Che Guevera and Fidel Castro are celebrated with the same heroics Americans lavish on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

And the appearance of a healthy economy is embroidered throughout with the resourcefulness of the Cuban peoples. They supplement their government paychecks through private tourism-based enterprises, which pay considerably more than their government jobs. The state issues permits to drive a cab, rent rooms in their homes, or play an instrument.

Although there is no Amazon, Bed, Bath & Beyond or Home Depot the homes are neat and maintained. Broken tile is recycled or transformed into beautiful walkways. Nothing goes to waste. Plastic sandwich bags are washed and reused.

Even as we departed the Havana Airport the generosity and kindness continued. While attempting to spend my pesos, I came up a dollar short at the duty free shop.

“It’s bueno,” said the lady behind the counter.

“Muchas gracias.”

For many, including this American, the Cuban Thaw cannot come soon enough.

‘Album De La Revolución Cubana’

Kids’ stamp book a rare find

By Alex Press


When walking through downtown Havana I came to Parque Cespedes where there was a sort of open-air flea market going on with antiques, books, paintings and trinkets. A children’s book caught my eye with a violently colorful cover of Fidel Castro holding a rifle, complete with a boat exploding in the background and planes dropping bombs.

The vendor explained to me the book accompanied a marketing campaign for canned Guava jelly (mermelada de guayaba). For each can of jelly purchased, buyers received four stickers to paste into the book that boasted of Fidel’s and the Revolution’s accomplishments.

It brought me back to when I was a child and Sunoco gas station was running a promotion by giving out coins with fuel purchases. There was one for every state and a map to put them in.

The book’s child-like propaganda covers a lot of history —from Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara’s exile in Mexico to spearhead the war against capitalist exploitation in 1956, all the way to Batista’s fall, in 1959. Every action-packed page tells of the bravery of the comrades in the struggle.

It was an interesting find for sure. I looked online to do some research on the book and it turns out to be extremely popular. A paperback copy like mine sells for $1,800 on Amazon, but I’m holding on mine.

A look at a Cuban farmer

By Larry Benvenuti

My favorite photo ever taken was shot in 1996 in Topes de Collantes, Finca Cuba, Sancti Spiritus Province, Cuba. It is of my friend Miguel Toledo Rodriguez. My friend Dennis and I had just returned from a hike down to the Caburni Falls (Salto de Caburni) in the Mountains of Escambray. We were at the head of the trail at a Cuban lady’s home when Miguel approached us with machete in hand.

While drinking our mamey fruit milkshakes that the lady offered us weary hikers, we chatted with Miguel about life in the mountains and about farming there.

Years later in the early 2000’s we met up again at his farm. Throughout the years, I’ve sent Christmas cards.

And 19 years later, in February 2015, once more my three traveling buddies and I connected with Miguel Rodriguez and his family at his farm bringing some needed medical supplies and gifts. His daughter in law, Martica, who works at the Meterological Station nearby, provided the translation for this part of our humanitarian trip. Things worked out wonderfully, and our meeting was a highlight of our mission to Cuba.

He still looks great, too.

A sea of possibilities

Commodore Jose’ Miguel Diaz Escrich speaks diplomacy

By Alex Press


The first words Marina Hemingway Commodore Jose’ Miguel Diaz Escrich said to us as we entered his office: “I’m not a politician.” Two weeks ago, myself, the Weekly’s Jason Koler, photographer Larry Benvenuti and Dr. Robert Douville of Key West traveled to the island nation for a week. Escrich told us he cannot speak to how Cuban officials feel about relations with the U.S. But he could, and did, speak eloquently about how the Keys and Cuba are connected by the sea and his hopes for improved relations between Cuba and the United States. I was able to understand most of it, with my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and his translator.

Marina Hemingway is the largest marina in Cuba and the port of entry most accessible to vessels from Key West. The marina can accommodate up to 400 vessels as big as 1230 feet long. And, it’s just a 10-minute cab ride from downtown Havana.

Commodore Escrich is well known in Cuba, as well as the Keys and Miami. Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz saw Escrich a few weeks ago and said he is a great guy for whom he has much respect. In fact, Escrich is an Honorary Conch and his certificate is on display in the marina clubhouse.

For the last several years, Escrich has been traveling to the Miami boat show and making his way down to the Keys. Pat Croce provided the commodore with a place to stay in Old Town as well as meals at his restaurants when he was in town about three weeks ago.

“The United States will make relations with Cuba through a boat race, like how Ping-Pong started U.S. relations with China,” he said, hinting about a plan that’s in the works.

Just like Keys residents, Escrich is concerned with protecting the coastal waters of Cuba and keeping pollution at bay. Although boats are seldom seen offshore due to government regulations, many have already expressed concern about possible oil wells off Cuba. Research from Leo Oppenheimer with the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law determined an oil spill in Cuban waters could have drastic impacts on fisheries, coastal tourism, recreation, and natural resources in both Cuba and the United States for decades.

Commodore Escrich was especially interested to learn about the Pigeon Key Foundation from Koler, who is on the board, which specializes in marine research and collaborates with NOAA.

After walking through a gate and taking a picture of a fancy Marina Hemingway sign, I noted the number of empty boat slips. At a quarter occupancy, the vessels there flew flags from Canada, Bahamas, European countries and a few from the U.S.A. Travel partner and photographer Larry Benvenuti told me it was filled with U.S. boats when he visited during President Bill Clinton’s time but not so much during President George W. Bush’s term.

The marina’s facilities include a massive hotel, mostly empty now compared to its heyday in the 1990s, called Hotel El Viejo Y El Mar (The Old Man & The Sea). The entry is marked with a fountain in disrepair that includes a statue of Ernest Hemingway and a swordfish. The translator told us upgrades are needed.

“We do not have the infrastructure ready American tourism yet,” he said.

It’s apparent, the upgrades are underway in other parts of Cuba. Scaffolding stands next to 100-year-old buildings in Havana, including its National Capitol Building, a close facsimile to the one in Washington D.C. and a reminder of American influence. Renovations are taking place all along the Malecon, as well, the giant seawall around the water’s edge on Havana.

Escrich is optimistic about changes to come, but realistic. He said he has great hopes for improved relations with the U.S.

“But that’s in the hands of both Cuban and U.S. politicians,” Escrich said.





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