On route to Havana we arrived at Miami International Airport the night before by car from St Petersburg, FL. We needed to be there for an orientation dinner at Rare Steak house in Miami Beach. We are told to meet at the double escalators in concourse J at 6 AM. There is no flight information, or gate information and no one seems to know what airline we will be flying on. Of course there will be no posting of a flight to Cuba anyplace in the airport. Gate 19 1/2 (read your Harry Potter)!
Finally at the counter we learn it is a TACA Airline charter flight and the Airbus A320 is full with our 16 and the rest Cuban Americans going to see their families and carrying all kinds of baggage for them. The paperwork is standard international stuff and the flight is an easy 60 minutes. Arrival is at Havana’s Jose Marti field, instead of the main terminal we roll up to Terminal 2, reserved for the Miami flights. Outside the line up of billboards are all anti US propaganda, this is just an introduction to barrage of propaganda on every billboard we see. An hour later after passing though customs and immigration we board bus 272 Rudolpho at the wheel and Aliane at the microphone.
Our first stop is the Plaza de la Revolution with the famous image of Che Guevara and the memorial to Jose Marti in the middle.
After a stop at the Memorial to the “Assassinated Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” we finally were taken to the Parque Central Hotel – there was no toilet on the bus!
After lunch we had several hours free, allowed because there was no way to assume the flight would be on time or how long we would spend in formalities of entry. Carol and I set off on our own to explore the neighborhood which is old Havana. Oh my! everything is decrepit. Buildings look like a sneeze would bring them down. We walked the length of the Prado, from the park in front of the hotel to the harbor waterfront. We returned by the route the bus had taken on Agramonte, past the museum of the Revolution – which we were to visit later in the trip.
We continued our walk to The Floridita a bar that claims to have invented the daiquiri and was a haunt of Hemingway when he was in Havana. I am told there is a statue of him at the bar, but the smoke, crowd and noise kept us out. Everyone smokes cigars in Havana, except Carol and me. At the Floridita we picked up Obispo Blvd a lively shopping street where it is possible to buy many items that are not part of the standard ration. This is a place where the only currency is the CUC or Convertible Peso. These are equivalent to about $1 US and the internal conversion rate is 25 Cuban Pesos to 1 CUC. Standard salary is 250 Cuban Peso per week. An ice cream cone on the street was 1 CUC. Cubans with no source of hard currency don’t have many ice cream cones! We each had one, they were delicious and we did not get sick!
Back at the hotel we sat with feet up for thirty minutes and then had a briefing by Ariel and Johanna, JDC Staffers from Argentina, on what we could expect to see and how the economy did (or did not) work. Unfortunately as soon as the lights went down we both took turns drifting off to sleep. Refreshed, we boarded the bus for the Hotel National which has hosted many famous people dating back into the 30’s. This includes many stage and movie stars as well as famous gangsters such as Meyer Lansky. We were welcomed with Mojitos (a light rum drink) as we would be where ever we went. Dinner was wonderful and Carol was surprised when the beautiful baked potato they brought her turned out to be an appetizer and was followed with a wonderful plate of grilled vegetables. This was to be the story of the trip, Carol had wonderful vegetables where ever we went. Our food was also very good. I did not expect to have steak in Havana. I am sure it cost a month’s salary or more in local currency.
After a night’s sleep we started Friday with visits to the two Jewish Cemetaries (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) located on the edge of Havana. For all the pictures Click Here. Both of these cemeteries have their own Holocaust Memorials. There are signs of decay everywhere and some signs that work is underway to repair some of the damage. All of the workers are government employees and all burials are paid for by the government. The stones and monuments are paid for privately.
On the drive we pass by a monument to Castro’s hubris. Havana had been offered the chance to host the Pan American Games in 1991, this occurred just as The Soviet Union was failing and pulling the props out from under the Cuban economy. The four lane divided highway to the stadia is crumbling like all of the infrastructure we saw. Our first sight of the biggest stadium was the giant light stands reaching into the sky, they seemed strange at a distance and soon we could see why, the lights were all gone. As we got closer we could see that everything else was showing signs of abandonment as well. I have no pictures as we did not stop and the view from the bus was fleeting.
Next stop Adath Israel, the Orthodox Synagogue.
There are more pictures. This entrance stands out on a street of dilapidated unkempt buildings.
We met the cantor/treasurer/leader (not the President) and visited the small chapel they use daily and weekly and then upstairs to the large main sanctuary that is only used for community gatherings and holidays. There is also a workshop for elderly and we found a doll they had made to buy, it is now added to the various other soft toys that gather on our bed during the day.
We had lunch with community members at a wonderful covered outdoor restaurant. We had a chance to learn about life in Cuba. Melanie, who sat with us, teaches dance to the youth and is a youth leader for the community. She lives with her husband, her two children with him and his two older children and the eldest son’s wife in a two room apartment (that is rooms not bedrooms!). They are reasonably well off since they do not have to share with a fourth generation, yet! Apartments stay in the family. they cannot be bought, sold or transferred out of the family. According to our guide, Alain – himself a government employee, the only way to acquire an apartment or house is to inherit it. He lives with his girlfriend in her family apartment, she has no family so it is just the two of them. They are on the third floor of a five story building with a non functioning Otis elevator. It cannot be repaired so long as the embargo continues.
After a break, which we used to rest a bit, We returned to The Patronata for Shabbat Services and dinner. After a brief return to the hotel we set out for a late night adventure. We went to the show at the Tropicana. This show has been given nightly since 1939. For more details Click Here. We enjoyed the spectacle and returned to our hotel exhausted, but ready to forge onward in the morning.
On Saturday we resumed seeing sites where JDC is working such as the Sephardic Hebrew Center, which is the smallest and least restored of the three centers in Havana. We also had a visit to a farmer’s market, one of many in Havana. Here famers who have met their quotas can bring surplus crops for sale to the public. Generally the sales are in Cuban Pesos and as you can see even here the prices are controlled Sanitation for the meat is not!
We continued on to a visit to the Catholic Cemetery, which is a grand necropolis covering hundreds of acres and reflecting the desire of Cubans to compete for prestige even in death. The pictures are included in the web album.
We toured Old Havana to see the restoration work propelled by the city Historian who has a “license” to develop commercial properties and use the revenue from the properties to renovate more properties. Sounds like a very Capitalist idea to me. Some buildings are not likely to be restored as they house private dwellings and offer no profit motive.
That is Alain, our guide (spelling is questionable). He took us to a Jewish “themed” hotel in the district as well.
I think I know the photographer.
We ended afternoon with a return to the Patronata to see the adults, young adults and children dance and entertain us. We concluded the evening with a farewell dinner and chance to discuss the events we had experienced in the prior 48 hours. We were later joined by the leaders of the community for the dinner and somehow a bus load of tourists from Boca Raton JCC ended up in our private room as well.
Sunday saw us leave the hotel packed for departure with a stop at the Patronata for a chance to dance with the children and say goodbye. We took the long way to the Patronata with a stop at Papa Hemingway’s House on the outskirts of town. Here is the typewriter where he wrote standing up. On the way to the airport we stopped at the Habana Riviera and finally Lennon Square – that is NOT a misspelling. Someone stole the glasses off the stature so there is an assigned guard with a pair of glasses he puts on the statue for an tourists who want to see it.
What we saw is a vibrant Jewish community reviving from the repression of all religion by the Castro Regime until 1992. This is a small remnant and it is doubtful it would have any existence without the support of JDC and the goods brought in by many Jewish groups visiting. The touring of sites and places, including the Museum of the Revolution really helped set the environment within which this community must continue to exist. I doubt that our understanding of the community would be as complete without it.