“Que hora es?”
This simple, frequently asked question often serves as a window into the heart and soul of Cuba’s culture, as seen by Americans who find themselves within its borders.
The question — "What time is it?" — was a common segue during our visit, used by many of the Cubans we met when they were interested in learning more about someone who is different from them. The Cubans we encountered were curious, polite and genuine. Also, they actually did seem to want to know what time it was. We didn't see many checking cell phones or wearing watches.
But asking the question opens the conversation, which is a more interesting prospect than learning the time. The askers will realize that you speak English and the questions begin. They want to know more about you: they want to chat. For many Cubans, this is how they learn about the outside world — especially America, which has had strained relations with the embattled country since the U.S. embargo on trade and travel that went into effect more than a half century ago.
One result of that cutoff was the debilitation of Cuba’s economy, so the cushy traveler accustomed to all-inclusive resorts or five-star anything might be quick to dismiss the country based on images they’ve seen in the media, uneven footing and stray dogs. But for those who seek culture over comfort, the island is a fascinating destination that promises a thought-provoking experience.
Instead of catching up on Facebook, Cubans, most of whom cannot afford Internet access, gather in city squares to discuss literature, ideas and housing swaps. There's an an art of conversation here that's waning in many developed countries. There is beauty — in the human sense — all around.
But the poverty in Cuba, which identifies itself as a socialist country, might be jarring to anyone who could afford a plane ticket there. There are no “rich” parts of Cuba, no fancy houses, no designer boutiques — there is only a ghost of an era when those things were present. But as Cubans say, no one is starving to death either. The people receive a ration and a salary from the government; although it’s not much, it is enough to live humbly. Health care and education are free and provided by the government.
The casinos and nightclubs in Havana, once booming with high rollers from around the world, are now crumbling after decades of abandonment and neglect — and no money for upkeep. After a few days in Cuba, American travelers might miss the comforts of home.
But Cuba offers its own comforts — ones that are engulfing and romantic to those who are open to them. Standing in the back of a community karaoke session where neighbors perform carefully planned numbers in front of a supportive group of peers who gather there nightly to dance and applaud each other, it will hit. At least that’s where it hit us.
What Cuba lacks in access to iPhones and malls, the country is strong in a spirit of togetherness that can be lost on East Coasters who don’t even know the name of the person living in the next apartment.
In Cuba, they call this La lucha — the Cuban way of life. It may seem like a daily struggle just to get by in this country, but they are all in it together.
To travel legally as an American tourist to Cuba means accepting that you must abide by a strict itinerary. You may go, you may see, you may enjoy — but when and how will be decided for you by a travel operator, which will do most of the work toward obtaining your tourist visa. One of the larger operators, Insight Cuba, says the "cultural activity"-packed itinerary is necessary in order to receive license approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.
People-to-people tours are meant to “ignite meaningful, engaging experiences” with locals, as described by Insight Cuba, which has tours starting at $2,195 for four days, including transportation, hotels, meals and activities. That means lots of interactions with community members and discussions with artists and neighborhood program leaders. Many of those experiences, though, do offer a glimpse into Cuban life and serve as invaluable opportunities to make connections with locals, see some fantastic Cuban art and maybe take a dance lesson or two.
The hotels we experienced, while typically the nicer options available, are comparable to mid-budget European hotels. Three daily meals will be served at a variety of state-run restaurants, organic farms and paladares — privately run restaurants on which the Cuban government has loosened the reins in recent years.
Cuban food struggles with the arguably unfair reputation for being bland, mainly due to a lack of available ingredients. While meals may not be luxurious, they are fresh and very often delicious — though travelers should be weary of hygiene, and Insight Cuba takes special precautions to monitor food preparations.
Unfortunately, what the itinerary won’t include are some of the things Cuba is most famous for: its beautiful beaches and attractions like the renowned Tropicana nightclub, which, of course, is owned and operated by the Cuban government. These are considered “tourist-oriented” activities, which are not authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control within the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Upon renewal, [the OFAC] wants to see each itinerary in detail for every departure including each activity, and what the benefit is to the local Cuban people and the American travelers,” Insight Cuba president Tom Popper said.
There also won’t be much free time on these people-to-people tours, except in the early mornings and in the evening after dinner. Travelers so inclined are free then to do as they please, but those types of additional activities will be an out-of-pocket expense.
Popper estimated that between 25,000 and 35,000 people have taken people-to-people trips to Cuba since 2012. As many as 150,000 Americans have traveled illegally to Cuba in recent years, meaning through a different country of origin, he said, though there is no official data on this. Illegal travelers risk fines from the U.S. government.
It's not hard to find evidence of Cuban exiles in Miami who are opposed to the Castro regime. It seems to be a consensus among the Cubans we spoke with that those exiles are to blame for the drawn out tension between the two countries. Some speculate that President Barack Obama will initiate an act of Congress to lift the embargo before he finishes his last term.
“In the end, we don’t care if it is socialism or capitalism, what we are going to have,” Marlon Diaz, a Cuban tour guide who works with people-to-people groups visiting with Insight Cuba, told Metro. “We don’t want any Cuban from Miami to come back to Cuba just to tell us what to do and to take those steps.”
Members of Cuba's younger generation seem to be attracted to the idea of leaving their homeland for the permanent residency promised to them after one year in the United States under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Natalia, a recent college graduate living in Havana whose last name Metro has declined to publish, said they are taught from a young age in school that the U.S. is imperialistic, but their own views are formed as they grow up and learn about American culture through people visiting the island.
“The general idea is that the government is evil, and the people are quite nice,” Natalia said in a surprisingly frank discussion during which her peers proved more reserved in speaking with a journalist.
Natalia said her older sister left Cuba on a fake piano-playing contract in Belize. From there, she traveled onward to the United States, where she has begun the necessary paperwork to bring Natalia into the country.
“If I am going to be completely honest, I am going to the States and not to another place because of the starting help that we have when we go there," she said. "When you are a Cuban and you get there, they help you for a year and that is quite a thing. They help you to go and fight for your life.”
Others, like Diaz, said they have no intention of leaving Cuba, even if they could — though they certainly wouldn’t rule out a visit.
“I would love to go to the States someday,” he said. “I think in my time, the blockade might be over and I can go there if I choose, and then come back to Cuba. I think life in the U.S. is very hard as well.”
Salas would soon find himself working as a photographer alongside Castro and other personalities of the revolutions, like Che Guevara.
“I came here because I was 18 years old,” Salas, now 72, recalled from his home and studio in Havana. “I’m at a New Year’s party in New Jersey, freezing my butt off. Someone else heard on the phone Batista fell. On Jan. 1, I tried to figure it out. On Jan. 2, I was in Havana. For me, this was a novelty — Disney World. It was a fantasy. It was very exciting.”
Salas worked for two newspapers and a magazine in Cuba, making money he said he couldn’t make in New York.
“Just the fact of going around with this personality,” Salas said of Castro. “There was no one in the world like him. He was the James Dean of that realm and I was next to him. Who wants to go back to New York?”
Salas spent much of his career traveling with Castro, who he said had unbelievable stamina in his younger years, often working 20 hours per day. While Castro never put rules in place for how close Salas could get, he said there were unspoken boundaries he understood as a photographer. While he believes Castro made many missteps, he points out that the longtime leader was only human, prone to mistakes like anyone else.
“You can like him or you can hate him, I’m not going to get into that part,” Salas said. “You can’t deny he is an exceptional person in many ways.”
He added, “Many of the problems Cubans have today have to do with mistakes he has made, and he is still the cause of some of those things. But you’ve got to remember they all started from nothing, including him.”
Salas, who never moved out of Cuba, has noticed what he calls “cosmetic changes” in the country’s policies in recent years.
“How far are they going to go, I don’t know. It’s not very clear,” he said, speaking of Cuba’s future. “One of the main factors is to find a solution to the relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Because all the pretense they have in the argument with the Cubans, they used to have with the Chinese, the Vietnamese. So what’s the big deal — know what I mean?”
Salas hasn’t seen Castro in many years. He published a book of his photographs of Castro and garnered international recognition for much of his work. As a U.S. citizen, he could return to the States anytime he wishes, but chooses not to.
“This is my way of life,” he said. “This is important as far as the history of Cuba. It s important to them. It’s important to me. To be here is a way of life.”
Follow Cassandra Garrison on Twitter: @CassieAtMetro