By Sharon Semanie
For the Troy Daily News
Cuba is a Caribbean island frozen in time.
The ornate architecture with its Spanish influence dating back to the colonization of Spain is a tourist‘s dream; however the historical buildings are in disrepair and crumbling down around the promenades where they stand. Automobiles are vintage 1950s models which have withstood the test of time thanks to the ingenuity of Cubans who work tirelessly to maintain them for everyday travel.
Despite the time warp, which separates this island from the neighboring Florida Keys 80 miles away, Cuba serves as a reminder of how little progress has been made under the Communist regime of former president Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, now successor.
Until recently travel to Cuba was limited. The embargo has been modified and many Americans are now part of cultural, educational or people-to-people exchange groups exploring the island inhabited by 11.1 million natives.
Among those who recently traveled to this northern Caribbean island were Dan and Margaret French of Piqua.
They were part of a global couples forum visiting under the auspices of the World Presidents Organization (WPO) whose mission is primarily to “exchange ideas and business information,” according to French.
French, who serves as CEO of French Oil Machinery & Co, and his adventurous spouse are among five couples representing Australia, The Netherlands, Denver, Dallas and Piqua who left Miami for Cuba on Oct., 15 for an eight-day whirlwind excursion. The same couples have participated in 32 meetings — twice a year-since 2000 traveling to other destinations including Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Slovenia, Brazil and, yes, even Piqua. The only destination cancelled, noted Margaret, was Iceland due to volcanic ash that erupted several years ago impacting travel throughout Europe and abroad.
Led by a professional moderator, the WPO couples traveled to Havana, Cuba, from Miami on American Airlines and immediately impressed by the cleanliness of the island. Dan and Margaret admit they were “bowled over” by the fact that there was no apparent trash or graffiti anywhere. Alongside highways, however, are billboards with pictures of Revolutionary Ernesto “Che“ Guevara, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution, Castro, Nelson Mandela and anti-American signs showing “Cuba punching Uncle Sam in the face.”
With government controls as rigid as they are, fines are reportedly steep for abusers. They suggested Cubans are so “poor” that natives will grab whatever materials they can find for other purposes. One example, noted Margaret, were street lanterns where lower-level patterns were removed and parts “cannibalized” to be put to use elsewhere. Wires from telephones are reportedly removed and utilized as guitar strings.
The Piqua couple spoke of government ration stores — showing some photos with nearly bare shelves — where Cubans obtain monthly rations consisting of two pounds of chicken, five eggs, five pounds of rice and beans. Cards are issued to residents in December to be used each month toward their food rations
“They (natives) scrounge and grow anything they want,” explained Margaret. “However 90 percent of what farmers grow on land co-ops is given back to the government.”
When Castro assumed power in 1959, Cuba no longer was allowed to import automobiles, according to Dan. Although it’s only been in recent years that Cubans are permitted to own a car, maintenance is essential and auto parts stores exist with many parts “cannibalized” from elsewhere.
“Parts are obsolete,” he suggested “and necessity is the mother of invention.”
Riding in an Edsel convertible was among the highlights enjoyed.
Cuban music is alive and well and “absolutely phenomenal,” interjected Margaret. “There is live music everywhere — primarily salsa — and it’s certainly infectious” on the streets as well as entertainment venues.
The visiting WPO couples were privileged to have a private 2 ½ hour music session in the apartment of a famous musician where members talked about Cuban influences in music. Again they cited the need for guitar strings managing to extract telephone wires to accomplish their feat. Fortunately for the musicians, an acquaintance “smuggled” some strings into Cuba from New York. The group has recorded CDs and have performed at both the Rhode Island and New Orleans jazz festivals.
During their visit, the WPO contingent had an opportunity to tour a cigar factory in Havana but were prohibited from photographing employees rolling the cigars where tobacco ranks among Cuba’s top exports along with coffee, sugar and skilled labor. The average salary for a Cuban, noted French, is $20 in U.S. dollars per month adding that residents do receive free education and health care.
“Transportation is limited. People are flagging cars down and travel via group taxis or by horse carts,” Dan French said.
The main export is “human capital” — mostly nurses, doctors end teachers — who work outside the country under government contracts with portions of their salaries returned to Cuba.
The visitors stayed at three different hotels, including one owned in a joint venture by Great Britain and the government. They described the facility as a “four-star Cuban hotel” or comparable to a three-star elsewhere. Accommodations also included a hotel in Cienfuegos, a government-owned facility. The third stay was a hotel in Trinidad built with Spanish and Cuban influence and cobblestone streets. The couple indicated more hotel chains are expected to sprout up in Cuba although the government’s demands has hit a roadblock.
Meals were often enjoyed in “paladars” or restaurants situated in private homes throughout Cuban neighborhoods. The group enjoyed lots of lobster, pork and chicken along with beautifully arranged side dishes of avocados, fritters (including octopus), fruits and vegetables and a variety of wines all served with crystal and china plates.
The group traveled one evening to the Tropicana night club in Havana to enjoy Cuban music, dancers in ornate costumes and headdresses and bottles of rum and cigars plus 6-ounce bottles of Coca Cola on every table.
The Frenches, who’ve each visited more than 70 countries and amassed a million-plus airline miles over the years, described their latest venture to Cuba as both “interesting and enlightening,” but quickly added they are not accustomed to traveling to Communist countries. The closest until now, they added, was the border separating North and South Korea.
“We were delighted we went,” they added, however suggesting Cuba continues to operate under a very oppressive government.