I want to see Cuba. It’s been my deep desire for decades. And now, as trade and travel restrictions for Americans have begun to soften, and President Obama and the first family’s visit to Havana has put compelling images of life on the island in the news, I find my desire to one day see it for myself has now become my dream. I want to see what those who fled Cuba left behind.
I cut my teeth in journalism on the streets of Miami in the ’80s and early ’90s. It was a great time to be in the business. There were no slow news days for me. I worked with teams of journalists on one compelling story in particular that brought Cuba and its people front and center in my life, both professionally and personally.
It was the 1980 Mariel Boatlift Crisis. Cuba’s Fidel Castro opened freedom’s gates and within months 125,000 people boarded anything that would float and left their homeland in search of a better life. Most of the refugees made landfall in Miami and were quickly absorbed into the already established Cuban Community.
Newsgathering wasn’t pretty during that time, what with extreme overcrowding, widespread crime and deadly violence, and rampant racial division and hate. Over the years as my Spanish improved, it opened the door to insights and experiences that would leave their mark on me. But their effect wasn’t always positive. For every time I experienced the joy of an uplifting and inspiring story, I was equally repulsed by another. It was an incredibly interesting time.
Today it’s the history and the culture of Cuba that intrigue me most. More to the point, as much as I would like to see what was left behind after the exodus, I am more interested in learning about the people who stayed behind. Elite Cubans with money and connections were among the first to leave, followed by their less wealthy relatives. But those who stayed fascinate me.
I recently sat down with Durhamites who were in Cuba just two months ago. I wanted Roberto Matos and his wife Elizabeth Turnbull to tell me what life is like now on the island as more roadblocks to American travel fall.
Roberto is originally from Ranchuelo, Cuba, and Elizabeth is from Fermathe, Haiti. They met and fell in love years ago in Old Havana, Cuba. A long-distance romance could no longer satisfy their deepening love, and so in 2002 they left their respective homelands and migrated to the United States where they could be together.
The couple put down roots five years ago in Durham, and opened a restaurant on Main Street – a sandwich shop called “Old Havana.” They say their customers frequently engage them in conversation about Cuba while enjoying fully loaded sandwiches of slow-roasted pork, or plates of white rice, black beans and fried plantains. They are happy to discuss the cultural affairs of the communist nation, but there is one subject that is taboo – politics.
“Leave it at the door,” Roberto says.
Over time, they say their patrons’ casual queries about food, art, and entertainment shifted from passing interest to one specific question: “When are you going to take us to Cuba?”
In February, Elizabeth and Roberto thrilled their friends when they coordinated a people-to-people visit to Cuba with stops in Havana, Veradero Beach, and Cienfuegos for 27 travelers. Elizabeth and Roberto were just as excited as their fellow travelers, for it was their first visit in six years.
A lot had changed. They told me that American tourists are filling up the hotels and restaurants, and spending plenty of cash. That’s the positive side, they said. The trouble is, the infrastructure is not equipped to handle the influx of travellers. Cuba has an inventory of 63,000 hotel rooms, but many of the people-to-people tours concentrate on Havana, where there is an acute shortage. Cuba’s tourism development plan calls for adding more than 13,600 new hotel rooms this year, mostly in beach areas.
Elizabeth and Roberto felt the sting of having their hotel accommodations switched with little notice. There are pricing wars, overbooked inns, and differing opinions on the definition of “confirmed.” The couple says their group had a much better experience when they moved away from the fancy hotels and started booking accommodations in private homes. Roberto says it is clear to him that the government will not be able to handle the explosion of new visitors without the help and participation of its people. He says the state has already created space and opportunities for private citizens to run small businesses, such as rental housing, farming, and showcases for artisans and their art. That’s what gives Roberto hope for the future of the Cuban people.
But it’s complex. Elizabeth and Roberto say that as much as there is growing optimism in the private sector, there is fear and insecurity in the government sector. They know change is coming, and state agencies stand to lose a lot. The couple watches as a delicate balancing act plays out. They desperately want to believe that in time the standard of living will improve for those who are impoverished and hungry right now.
Eleven million people live in Cuba and most will never have the opportunity Roberto had to leave. But he believes that ultimately the people will prevail because of their long history of innovation, ingenuity and their spirit of entrepreneurship. That’s the Cuba he and Elizabeth are so proud of and only too happy to share.
For now I can only imagine what it’s like to actually be there. But my new friends in Durham say they’re arranging another, smaller educational and experiential trip to Cuba early next year. I will be with them and my dream will finally come true! Be still my heart …
You can contact Pam at pamsaulsby@gmail, on her website at pamsaulsby.com and follow her on Twitter @pamsaulsby.
You can see pictures of the Elizabeth and Roberto’s visit to Cuba on their website at http://oldhavanaeats.com