Hungry4History goes to Cuba! June 15-19, 2015

Hungry4HistorytoCubaHeader

Hungry4History goes to Cuba!

June 15-19, 2015

Leading up to our trip to Havana, Cuba from June 15-19, 2015, people would ask “why Cuba?!” My reaction was always “why not?” For me it began after visiting Key West, Florida several times and standing at the southernmost point marker with my back to an island nation only 90 miles away. DSCF1025Key West and south Florida are so infused with Cuban culture coupled with the fact that you had people trying their best to leave Cuba and come to the United States on makeshift rafts – how could you not be intrigued by this place that had been off-limits to Americans for over 50 years? At the present time Americans still cannot travel directly from the United States into Cuba. U.S. citizens can make “people to people” trips, which differ from tourism. We took part in an Educational and Cultural Tour of Cuba through Auburn University and Cuba Explorations. Our group was required to maintain an assigned schedule which included being led throughout Havana by a tour guide and I must say that Emmanuel “Manny” was the best guide we could have ever asked for to lead the way. As part of a people-to-people trip, the group cannot stray from the agenda and go visit Cuba’s Varadero Beach.

In the U.S. we call it the embargo and for Cubans it is el bloqueo (the blockade) which consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under US jurisdiction. Foreigners have been traveling to Cuba for the last 50 years so don’t think that they haven’t had any tourists visiting the island. The concern for both the U.S. and Cuba however is readying Cuba for an influx of Americans as restrictions lift in the future. After 50 years of no economic interaction with the U.S. it will take time to rebuild but it will happen, slowly and it will be the Cubans that set the pace. So much has happened in the 6 months since ’17D’ that Dr. Carlos Alzugaray has had to update his presentation ““The Normalization of Relations Between Cuba and United
States: The Havana Agenda” multiple times. He explained to us that the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013, President Obama and Raúl Castro were photographed shaking hands but the leaders were very familiar with each other prior to Mandela’s funeral. The U.S. and Cuba have been in talks since the early 60’s. Cubans are working on their stereotypes about America and making an effort to learn more. Even at 83-years-old, Raúl Castro is looking at what can be done between the two countries to improve relations.

December 17, 2014 is affectionately recognized across the island as ’17D.’ It was a day that came as a big surprise, was rolled out in a big way, and considered by the majority to be long overdue. I recently started the book Back Channels to Cuba by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh which explores the 50 year history of communications between Washington and Havana. There was debate as to whether ’17D’ should be incremental or with a big bang. LeoGrande and Kornbluh said to go big. There was swiftness, creativity, audacity, and scope on both the U.S. and Cuba side. Obama promised to take Cuba off the state sponsor of terrorism list and that the embargo had failed and it was time to lift it.

What’s next for Cuba? Cuba currently has 65,000 hotel rooms across the island that accommodate tourists however they are hoping to have 85,000 rooms by 2020. There is a need for more gas stations, taxis, restaurants, and expansion of the international terminal at the airport and the port for cruise ships. There is currently a new shipping port under construction in Mariel, Cuba which is approximately 30 miles to the east of Havana. The new port will handle all international shipping traffic and the remaining port in Havana will welcome the tourist cruise ships. The new port is being constructed and financed by the Brazilians and it will be operated by a Singaporean port operator, PSA International. Additional articles about the new port in Mariel can be found here and here.

As we explored Cuba, we felt welcome and safe. On at least four occasions were were asked if we were Americans and when we answered in the affirmative, their eyes lit up and we even got a two-thumbs up one time. Dr. Santella was spot on in his Wednesday, June 17th presentation that the Cuban people love Americans but not our government. If they only knew that many Americans share the same sentiment but for different reasons.

Don’t be mistaken, while Cuba is considered a developing nation, they are not as ‘off-the-grid’ as many might think. Cuba has relations with 104 countries around the globe and approximately 500,000 Cubans own private businesses and there is a feeling among Cubans that their government will permit more private businesses in the near future. Of course with private business comes taxation and as Dr. Sanchez shared in his presentation on Thursday, June 18, Cubans are not used to being taxed and taxation will have to be a very gradual implementation.

As with other nations in the Caribbean, Cuban has no natural resources to offer such as oil, gold, or silver. They are working with other countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil and expanding upon already established relations with China and Russia. They would also like to get in on the oil market and, in partnerships with Angola and Brazil, have started offshore drilling in search for oil reserves that can benefit the country. Before 1959 Cuba was the largest exporter of sugar but has since closed 2/3 of their 154 sugar mills due to the embargo with the United States. The Cuban government is trying to rebuild the sugar industry by purchasing new mills, equipment, and training workers. Cuba might not be exporting as much sugar these days but they are in the business of exporting services, especially in the medical field. There are about 50,000 Cuban medical personnel in 47 countries. Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade, more formally known as Henry Reeve Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics, assists countries around the world after natural disasters. More information about the Henry Reeve Brigade can be found here and here. Medicine is not a private business in Cuba but the abundance of highly skilled medical staff helps forge relations for Cuba in other countries. In the last 20 years Cuba has had advancements in the scientific industry to include important progress made on vaccines against cancer, most notably a lung cancer vaccine.

As far as restarting business with the U.S., Cuba is waiting on our government to give the O.K. for American businesses to begin talks. Once the green light comes from us the Cuban government will then enter into negotiations with American businesses such as hotels and airlines. Foreign investments will be important going forward to help Cuba build its infrastructure. There is hope that in 15 years they will have private factories where they can build their own materials and less reliance on importing everything. There is hope that the current vice president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 54, will be even more open to growth if he assumes office after Raúl Castro, age 83, steps down as promised in 2018.

Overall my time in Cuba was a wonderful, whirlwind of an experience and there was so much that we didn’t see. I want to return in 2-3 years and see how much progress they have made. I highly recommend it to anyone that is able to go. Experience this country as it is before foreign investors move in and change the city-scape and countryside.

Just a sampling of the photos from our trip. Click on the thumbnails for more detail.

 

2 thoughts on “Hungry4History goes to Cuba! June 15-19, 2015

  1. Professor Litz,

    Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the inspiring read and photos and videos which brought your words to life. I must say: I had no previous idea regarding Havana, Cuba, so this was very enlightening for myself. And I never knew why there’d been no relations between the United States and Cuba (for the past 50 years, as you stated). Also, I found a certain realness in “Cuban people love Americas but not our government. If they only knew that many Americans share the same sentiment but for different reasons.”

    Lastly, you summarized the social, political and economic conditions of Cuba in general, quite nicely.

    • Donald,

      Your comments made my Friday! Thank you so much for checking out my ramblings! I’ve been reading the following book “Back Channel to Cuba” since I returned. I can’t wait to return. I’m working on my Spanish using the Duolingo app. 😉

      Keep in touch!

      -Mrs. Litz

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