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  • Writer's picturePaula Cullison

To Cuba with LOVE

To Cuba with Love

Originally published in Frontdoors News on April 5, 2016

article and photography By: Paula Cullison

Wanderlust is great, traveling is better.

With the upcoming lift of the embargo to end the blockade and the possibility of direct flights, more US tourists will seek to experience Cuba. But be prepared, keep an open mind and brush up on your Spanish.

The flight from Miami is only one hour; the distance from the Florida Keys to Havana is about 90 miles. It seems hard to imagine that so few miles can make such a world of difference, but it does. Tourists are treated royally in this small island nation of 11.2 million inhabitants and 43,000 square miles—about the size of Virginia. Air conditioned coach buses took us from place to place.

The warmth of the climate is reflected in the warmth of the Cuban people who remain very polite in their curiosity about foreigners. During my eight days, I met tourists from a variety of countries such as England, Wales, Ireland, France, Germany and Chile. It is important to remember that only American tourists had restrictions, because of our 50 plus years of the embargo, which has limited Cuba’s ability to trade.

Even though there are over 80 hotels in Havana and over 300 on the island, most of the best rooms are booked well in advance by large tour groups. With an influx of American tourists, finding accommodations can be tough.

A tour of the city began with a stop along the waterfront to see the statue erected to Elian Gonzalez, the young boy whose mother died in her attempt to flee Cuba. The return of Elian to his father in Havana became an intense political battle.

We visited the very impressive Revolution Square which is the political and administrative center of Havana, Cuba. Because of its historical and cultural values, Revolution Square was declared a National Monument in 2010. The most important structures in the Square are a tall star-shaped tower, and the statue of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero and acclaimed poet and journalist.

Revolution Square has an area of 775,000 square feet, making it one of the largest city squares in the world. Since 1961, and for over fifty years, Havana’s Revolution Square has been the site of most major social and political events in Cuba, thus becoming a symbol of the political process in the country.

The Malecón is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for five miles along the coast in Havana, Cuba. A walk along the Malecon provides Havana residents with an opportunity to relax or socialize. In high tide, certain affected areas are cordoned off and warning signs are posted.

Being in Old Havana / Habana Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was fascinating. One gets a glimpse into what the city was like in its glory days and what will happen once the blockade is lifted and the restoration work begins. It is easy to see why Ernest Hemingway, the famous American writer, fell in love with Cuba.

We wandered over to the Plaza de Armas which is lined with interesting Spanish colonial buildings dating back to 1584 when the plaza was built for military exercises. Now book stalls surround the plaza. It is like strolling along the Seine in Paris without the water. No matter where we went, the Cubans were always polite and friendly.

I was surprised to see such a variety of international books, including one on Michael Jackson, as well as vintage 33RPM records for sale. Nearby is the Ambos Mundos Hotel where Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bells Toll.

We later met with Dr. Isabel Moya who discussed gender, disabilities, and discrimination with representatives of the National Sex Education Center – CENESEX. Walking the worn streets of Havana makes one keenly aware of the inaccessibility factor.  Discrimination exists in Cuba, as it does here. Maybe not as obvious, but it does. Eliminating discrimination on all fronts is a topic of open discussion.

Moreover, sex education and tolerance is part of the school curriculum beginning in fourth grade. The birth rate in Cuba has fallen to .9 and the population is aging rapidly. As for the LGTB community, organizers have created an annual event entitled International Day against Homophobia. The May 17 date was chosen to commemorate the decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization (WHO) back in 1990. In his autobiography, My Life, Fidel Castro has criticized the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality.

We had another delightful lunch at the Jardin de los Milagros, a palador restaurant which can be termed as a quasi entrepreneurial / government partnership. They are usually run as a family business. Choices for our lunches were: seafood, chicken, pork and vegetarian – plus salad, rice and beans.  Included was a welcome drink- a mojito, the national drink of Cuba; flan, cake or ice cream and coffee completed the meal.

A visit to Callejon del Hammel with muralist and painter Salvador Gonzales Escalona showed us how avante guarde the Cuban artists can be. There we were treated to a performance of traditional Afro-Cuban music and dance.  The pedestrian only alleyway is filled with creativity including the sounds of drummers and other musicians.

Art, dance, and music are integral part of Cuban life. Here the drumming, rhythmic chants and high energy twirling dancers seem to summon the spirit of the orishas, the Santería deities, which are part of the Yoruba religion of Africa. The Santeria can be seen as a combination or synthesis of the cult of the African slaves and the Catholic religion.

One evening we met with Dr Alberto Faya, musician and Chairman of the Music department of The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba which is a social, cultural and professional organization of writers, musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, and artist of different genres. It was founded on August 22, 1961, by the Cuban poet, Nicolas Guillen. Their objective was to unite the intellectuals within the young Cuban Revolution to maintain a genuine Cuban culture. UNEAC is a non-governmental social, cultural and professional organization having consultant status on the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Dr Faya, singer, song-writer and guitarist, presented us with the history of Cuban music in instrument and song. He is also founder of the Moncada Band, a Cuban jazz group, which includes his talented son.  All were impressed by the creative musical compositions and talent of the performers. Interestingly enough, one of the young band members had recently performed at Lincoln Center in New York, as part of a cultural exchange.

We met with Dr Rafael Hernandez, director and editor of Temas, a journal dedicated to the social sciences. He is Professor of Political Sciences and Director of the Forum entitled The Last Thursday of the Month where pressing issues are debated and discussed. The focus of his talk revolved around the implementation of a new media system, the expansion of small and medium size business, as well as the use of the coop model (government / business partnerships) for non-agricultural ventures. He has taught as a visiting professor in the US at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Texas. One can find his publications on line; it is an indication of the ability of the media to criticize governmental policies. Temas features political articles, some of which are critical of the government.


Education in Cuba from pre-school to PhD/MD/JD is totally free.   There is a high regard for learning. This was evidenced during the annual Book Festival where over 100,000 attended, most of whom were teenagers. All were very neatly dressed; some donned ‘Brooklyn’ or ‘New York City’ T-shirts.  When asked, they eagerly posed for photos. Set in the park like environment along El Morro fortress (originally built in 1762 – an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the British invasion) with a view of the water and the Havana skyline, the event had a festive quality about it. Booths set in former offices showcased the books from numerous countries, mostly from South American as well as publishers from the US. This year’s featured country was Venezuela.  Attendees also enjoyed music from a few groups, ice-cream, and beautiful weather.

We also visited the Literacy Campaign Museum and learned how Cuba achieved a 99% literacy rate from Director Luisa Campos of the Pedagogical University.

Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba was a year-long effort to abolish illiteracy in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution.  It began on January 1 and ended on December 22, 1961, becoming the world’s most ambitious and organized literacy campaign which involved over 250,000 volunteers. As a young teen Prof Campos, along with 100,000 youth, taught reading in the countryside to the farmers. After a day working in the fields, the farmers would be taught by the light from miners’ lamps. The books were simple and the themes were political, social and health related. In 2011, American producer and director Catherine Murphy created a documentary about the Cuban Literacy Campaign entitled MAESTRA. The film includes interviews with volunteers who taught during the campaign and archival footage from 1961.

We visited a Health Clinic where we met with representatives of the Ministry of Public Health. Medical examinations and treatments are free in Cuba. It was obvious that waiting time is short, as only four or five people were waiting during our visit. Medications are dispensed through the clinics by a doctor. The over the counter drugs, so prevalent in the US, are virtually non-existent, as is illegal drug addiction.

Cuba has about 80,000 doctors (most of whom are women). Cuban medical teams have been sent around the world to help during disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. They offered to send hundreds of doctors and medical professionals to the U.S. in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but the Bush administration declined the offer.

The World Health Organization lists Cuba as having 6.7 physicians per 1,000 people, the highest on the planet. The U.S. in comparison has only 2.5. World Health officials list Cuba as the world’s first country to have eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.


The mission and vision of Organopónico Vivero Alamar is to be a cooperative farm, focusing on agricultural production and services. Dedicated to professionalism, honesty, immediacy, discipline, hospitality and the shared values of commitment to the country and to the individual, Vivero Alamar strives to be a national and global leader in sustainable agriculture.

Organopónico (organic urban farm) Vivero Alamar contributes to the needs of people, offering a wide range of vegetables, ornamental and medicinal plants, and other food products. Vivero Alamar also provides community services, applies innovations in science and technology to the farm, and provides technical assistance and training to those interested at the local, national, and international level.

Vivero Alamar is a farm located in Alamar, a large barrio (public housing project) just outside of Havana, Cuba. Founded in 1997 by Miguel Salcines, a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture, the farm developed as a way to feed the surrounding neighborhood. Vivero Alamar is just one of many organic urban farms that have emerged since the early 1990s. It has become one of the most well-known such farms, both in Cuba and around the world. Originally an 800 square meter (8611 square foot) vegetable garden, the farm has grown to over 25 acres and includes animals, fruits, herbs and value-added products like vinegars and spices. It also employs over 160 people.

Vivero Alamar sells its produce to nearly 50,000 people every year. Prior to its existence, fresh produce was much more difficult to obtain. Today, the farm plants three million seedlings and harvests 300 tons of vegetables annually.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary economic partner, the country struggled to reinvent itself. Without an outside source to provide farm equipment, tools, fertilizer or chemicals, the country’s farms became organic by default. Cubans embraced this new way of farming. Today, organopónicos like Vivero Alamar are completely sustainable and organic. They are constantly innovating and finding ways to nurture and harvest crops to provide nutritious, fresh food to their communities.

We visited Community Project Espiral, a grassroots project dedicated to educating young people about environments, social justice and sustainable development issues.  The group was composed of members of all ages committed to making a difference. One of the members was a 15 year old boy who was the current Cuban National Karate champion.

We were treated to a performance by Okan-Tomi, a grassroots company that explores and reworks Afro-Cuban dances and music traditions. The choreography, the costumes, the music, and the dancers surpassed my expectations. Like the others, I was mesmerized.

A day long visit to Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve and National Park in the Sierra del Rosario of Pinar del Rio was a nice break from being in the city.  We learned about the history of this community (of 1,000) founded in 1970 and the massive reforestation program implemented in the early 1970s. In residence is a very talented young artist, Henry Aloma, who has been ‘discovered’ by an American and has been invited to exhibit at the Armory in NYC later this year. Needless to say he is very excited and is working on putting together a new show. While there, we also visited the on-site elementary school and the local café. We encountered members of the Washington State Audubon society who were on a week long birding trip through Cuba, home to over 350 recorded species.

One evening we were treated to a Music and Dance Workshop with Liliam Lombera, a professor of Afro-Cuban music and dance at the University of Havana.  Her love for her culture and its music was apparent. She was able to get us dancing to the rhythmic music provided by a local quartet and singer who entertained nightly at the hotel. How can one stand still when those conga drums get going! After this session, I made a bee line for the Hotel Nacional to see a performance (night club type show) of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was terrific! The following night, a friend and I went to a local Cuban jazz club and were impressed by the quality of the musicians. The place was packed with locals and tourists alike. Music is an integral part of the lives of the Cuban people.

At the John Lennon Park, a government employee is tasked with putting sunglasses on the statue when tourists arrive and then taking them off for safe keeping. We took a group photo with John. The Cubans, who are fascinated by The Beatles and other rock music, congregate at a nearby club called Submarine Amarillo.

We visited the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), an old cooking oil factory that has been restored and is now the venue for concerts and exhibits of vanguard art in Cuba. This was definitely one of the biggest surprises. The young educated professionals and university students seem to flock to this location. It is a reflection of what the future of Cuba is about. It is a place for the young to congregate and discuss art and other issues of the day.  To say that the art was avant guarde is an understatement. Perplexed by the symbolism of one of the pieces, I asked the student guide to explain the significance of the wire formed into a face looking upward and a large part covered by a black plastic bag. She explained that one’s thoughts are hampered by the government’s restrictive policies on TV program transmission.  The black bag was covering the TV antenna and thus blocking certain channels (like CNN …which we could get in our hotel rooms).  WOW!

The music, pulsating throughout FAC, was very hip and the bar seemed to be well stocked. The central courtyard was open to the night air and provided a welcoming place for friends to gather. On the upper level, I met an artist / photographer / whose work featured naked women at the beach; most of his work bordered on the grotesque. It seems to speak to the issue of ‘the naked truth’…something he was seeking. He told me that the women were all from Havana and that they knew each other. Although an Israeli born in Argentina, he had been living in Cuba for the past 25 years.  I don’t know if the government was funding his work, but seriously doubt it.

Cojimar, a fishing village frequented by Ernest Hemingway, is a sleepy little spot to the east of Central Havana. We had lunch at Casa Grande situated on the second floor with a great view of the sea. It is at Cojimar that Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea. A statue facing the sea marks his impact on Cuba and honors his memory.

Lunch at La Torre Restaurant, situated on the 35th floor of an office building in Central Havana, gave us a commanding view of the entire city as well as the harbor. The food and service were excellent.

The choices for lunch during our week in Havana were: seafood (lobster / shrimp), chicken, pork or vegetarian. A salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers were offered at each meal along with bread. There was always a ‘welcome drink’ aka Mojito … and another beverage of choice (water, soda, beer) Dessert was either flan, ice cream or a cake. Then there was coffee.  Since we had a full buffet breakfast in the morning and a huge lunch usually at 2:30 p.m., I seldom ate dinner.  In spite of this, I still managed to gain a few pounds.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (founded in 1913) exhibits Cuban masterpieces from the colonial period to contemporary works.  Beautifully displayed in a palatial building with an inner open air courtyard, it was a pleasure to become familiarized with the best of this country’s artists. Wandering through the galleries, one can see the influence of the international masters. Needless to say, we were impressed. There, we met a small group of high school students who were enjoying an afternoon of art.


Every night and even during the day, young people congregate outside hotels and other building where WiFi Hot Spots are available. On their laptops and smart phone, they access the wider community via the internet. University students are presented with monthly time sensitive internet cards (free). Once time is exhausted, they need to either wait for the next allotted card or buy a card. Internet and cell phone access is limited. I asked some university students what they do when time on their internet cards runs out. The answer brought a smile to me face. They use books from the library to complete their research. How refreshing! Time was when I did so too.

As Cuba evolves, it will try to develop a new form of Socialism …. perhaps using the Scandinavia model. It is apparent that there is serious concern about American businesses ‘taking over’ once the embargo is completely lifted. But I doubt that this will happen. Hopefully, we see the best in American entrepreneurship prevail and partnerships developed. We have a great deal to learn from the Cubans who have successfully lived with less for two generations. I read that Cuba is the #7 nation on the happiness scale. There is more to Cuba than rum and cigars. I look forward to my return visit.

Money: The currency of Cuba (for the tourists) is the Cuban Convertible Peso, known as the CUC. The exchange is about $1 = 1 CUC. The locals use another currency in the market place.  Tourists need not concern themselves with this. When exchanging money, it is best to use Euros, as no fee is charge.  There is a 17% fee charge on changing US dollars to CUCs. Before my trip, I went to a local bank and got some Euros. Call ahead to make sure they have Euros on hand.

Crime: There is indication that crimes in Havana are below the average for most Latin American countries, especially when it comes to theft, murder and rape. It is well to note that pornography and prostitution are both illegal. As I understand it, on campus rape is virtually unknown.

Domestic problems within a neighborhood are handled by a local council.  As with traveling in any large city, one must be cautious and use good common sense. Personally, I never felt uncomfortable.

My week long trip was merely a glimpse into Cuban life. I look forward to returning after the embargo has ended.



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