Saturday, April 30, 2016

Cuba Dispatch #1: Welcome to Havana!

by Pa Rock
Road Warrior

Saturday, 23 April 2016:

Our plane was in the air exactly fifty-one minutes this afternoon for the flight from Tampa International Airport in Florida to the Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti La Habana just outside of Havana, Cuba.  Customs was surprisingly easy and we were soon on big air-conditioned tour buses heading into the city. 

Planes at the Havana airport disembark right on the tarmac and then passengers walk to the main terminal building – not far.  One interesting thing that occurred during the customs check was that the airport security people brought out drug-sniffing spaniels to search for illegal contraband.  Those friendly, tail-wagging customs agents made me really start to miss Rosie and Riley.

There are a few more than seventy in our group traveling with The Nation magazine.  We flew into Cuba on what was called a “chartered” jet since there still is no official direct scheduled flights between Cuba and the United States – but it was a full-sized passenger plane hauling multiple U.S. tour groups as well as many Cuban nationals who had been visiting in the United States.  Most of the Cubans who were flying home were bringing in large consumer goods like flat-screen televisions and computer equipment.  I sat next to a lady who appeared to be a Cuban grandmother.  She was clutching two large teddy bears – and was probably a teddy bear breeder!

On the ride to the hotel we passed interesting sights including the large portrait of Che Guevera that Fox News got so twisted about when someone snapped a picture of President Obama standing in front of it.  (Pictures of El Che are ubiquitous on the island, and there is no way that any U.S. politician could have avoided them all.)  We also went by the small stadium where the Rolling Stones performed last month.

(Why doesn’t Microsoft recognize the name of "Che Guevara"?   Ignorant yuppy, Starbucks-swilling scum!)

We are staying at the Capri Hotel, a recently remodeled eighteen-story affair with a swimming pool on the roof.  Even though it is one of the nicer hotels in Havana, it is still a bit Spartan by stateside standards.  The Capri was built in the 1950’s as a hotel and casino.   The U.S. mafia were the original developers and owners, and it was managed for awhile by George Raft, the actor.  I can see the famous Malecon (sea wall) from my room on the seventh floor.

When Fidel and the other revolutionaries took over on January 1, 1959, the U.S.-backed dictator Batista cleaned out the banks and fled with much of the nation's money.  Ordinary Cubans stormed the Mafia casinos and piled all of their gambling equipment in the streets and burned it.  It took less than ninety minutes for those hardy souls to eliminate gambling on the island.

Our group is so large that The Nation had to split us up.  We have a Green Group and a Yellow Group.  (I am a Yellow.)  Tonight both groups met together for a lecture and Q and A session by our leaders, Professor Charles Bittner, and political author Peter Korrnbluh.  Our meeting was down the street at the historic Hotel Nacional.  Afterwards we split back into our two smaller groups for supper, with the Yellows staying at the Hotel Nacional and dining in a beautiful outdoor café in a park-like setting with a view of the Caribbean.  We enjoyed music by a local group while we ate an assortment of Cuban food, and also listened to the screams of a male peacock trying to arouse his ladies – which reminded me of my peacocks back in West Plains who are really into screaming now that mating season has arrived.  Unfortunately, I did not see the peacock on any of the peahens.

(Peter Kornbluh is a regular writer for The Nation magazine, and he is a co-author of Back Channel to Cuba, a book highlighting the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba during every presidential administration from Eisenhower to Obama.)

On the way back to my hotel, a young Cuban man latched onto me and walked me all the way back to the Capri.    Although his English wasn’t the best, he seemed to be trying to hook me up with one of Cuba’s beautiful young independent working girls.  I declined his matchmaking efforts.  Our group leaders encouraged us to tip the locals whenever possible, so I gave the persistent pimp the Cuban equivalent of a little over a dollar.  He seemed to be pleased.  We exchanged cards, and later when I read his I noticed that it had information regarding a local church – so I guess he was a prostyliznig  pimp – but a very pleasant fellow, nonetheless.

I have met some extremely nice people – in addition to the young man in the previous paragraph - and have particularly enjoyed the company of a retired Methodist minister and his social worker wife from Des Moines.  We became acquainted at Oh Hell Airport in Chicago while waiting on the flight to Tampa.

WiFi service appears to be sporadic and generally awful.  I will write a dispatch each evening and post them sooner or later.

Hasta manana!

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