In the late 1970’s Cuba made a move to try to get scuba diving customers from the US to the Isle of Pines (which Castro had renamed the Isle of Youth). I was part of a group of dive store owners invited on a FAM trip in August of 1979. We took a charter plane from Tampa/St Pete’s to Havana. In Havana we were bussed to a hotel. I want to call it the Sarahi and it was a once beautiful high rise right near the harbor. Once we did get into the hotel it was apparent that it had not been well-maintained. But that is not part of this story.
When we arrived at the hotel we were told our rooms were not ready yet so they told us we could sit by the pool and wait. It was very hot and humid and I, along with most of the other people, was very uncomfortable. Since they had taken our luggage, it was not possible to change into more comfortable clothes. I should mention that we were the only people at the pool. There was a bar at the pool but it was not open and there was really no place to get anything to drink. It was almost like our arrival was a surprise.
When we had entered the country we were required to purchase Cuban Pesos with our US dollars. We were given a book to keep track of what we spent. This did not register on me until we were leaving and my book, plus my left over pesos was checked. I had neglected to record my spending and it was a minor issue with the departure people. I also did not realize that while we were lounging at the hotel, sans luggage, our luggage was being inventoried. When we were ready to come back to the US said luggage was checked against that inventory and if the list did not match the contents we had to explain. I personally seemed to have “passed” but several others in the group were asked to explain things like missing tee shirts.
We had a tour guide who was a young Cuban who had obviously spent some time in the states because his English was not only impeccable but he could perfectly mimic accents from various parts of the states. He would be our constant companion for most of the trip – but there were exceptions.
I, personally, was very hot and uncomfortable sitting around that pool. Since we did not have our luggage there was no way we could change into swim suits or anything more comfortable that the jeans and shirts we had worn on the plane. I got impatient and asked if I could just go for a walk. Our guide said sure. So another dive store person and I set out through what we learned was old Havana.
As we walked we noticed that there were a lot of small children but no pre-teens or teenagers. It was a Saturday afternoon so that seemed strange. I was to learn later that all of the youth of school age were on the Isle of Youth in boarding schools. Some of the things we noticed were grocery stores with long lines. Out of curiosity we got in a line. After about 30 minutes we got into the store. The only thing for sale was heads of cabbage. When we did not buy anything, we received a scolding from the clerk.
Along the street were structures set up that we realized were latrines. They were positioned over the curb and we noted that any waste from them drained directly into a storm sewer.
There were also stalls selling beer. We stopped at one stall and bought a bottle of beer. We were not allowed to take the bottle with us so we had to buy a paper cup to pour the beer into. The cup was really big and it made the amount of beer look small. So obviously we bought a couple more bottles to fill it up. I found the stall fascinating and stood back to take a photo. Almost immediately a man approached me. Since I spoke no Spanish at the time I did not know what he wanted. I was worried that he might be telling me that I could not take a photo. He left for a moment and brought another man back with him. That man spoke perfect English and said that what the gentleman wanted was a copy of the photo because he was in it. I knew that I could do that by taking a Polaroid which I did. I gave the man the photo and he was thankful and amazed at the same time.
Then we started talking to our interpreter. He asked where I was from and when I said Columbus Ohio. He immediately responded “I graduated from Ohio State University.” Then he told us that he was from Cleveland originally. I asked what he was doing in Cuba and he said he had come to Cuba in 1958 to be of help to Castro’s Guerilla warfare training. He was at that time an active member of the US Military. Since this was 20 years later I wondered why he was still there. It was quite a story. Some of it would come out later in letters.
I asked what he was doing now and he said that he was working with the US Embassy (yes we still had an embassy presence on the island – despite reports to the contrary) to help get Cubans visas to leave the country. One thing led to another and he asked if we (my friend and I) would like to meet some Cuban families who had been granted visas to leave the island. This appealed to my news reporter instincts and I said yes, immediately. We agreed to meet him the next morning at a bar that he pointed out.
We continued our walk through Havana stopping to take photos everywhere. Including of military exercise fields and trucks full of solders. Never once were we stopped. At least by adults. After a bit we picked up a following of small children who were asking for candy and gum. We really did not have any, but we had something better – the Polaroid camera. We started taking photos of them and giving them the photos.
About 6 pm we decided it was time to make our way back to our hotel. We arrived just in time to be told that our rooms were finally ready. We were also told that dinner would be served in the grand dining room at 8 pm. The hotel room was very clean and neat, but had obviously seen better days. My roommate was ecstatic to see a bidet for the first time in the bathroom. For the record it did work.
Dinner was a grand affair. Our party was the only one in a very large dining room. The place settings came straight out of Emily Post. There was a knife, fork and spoon for everything. The crystal goblets shined and the plates were gold gilded china. There was a formal change of plates by what appeared to be one uniformed server per guest. My only problem with the meal was with the salad of sliced tomatoes. The tomatoes were green. I don’t mean yellow tomatoes but green and not ripe. This was a pattern that would continue for the whole week. More about this later.
That evening our group was bussed to an outdoor night club – The Tropicana – where the show was excellent. The introduction for each act was given first in Russian, then Spanish and then English. There were about 50 – 60 others seated at tables in this setting.
My companion and I told the tour guide that we would like to go to church in the morning and would meet the group at the airport for the flight to Isle of Pines. He seemed ok with that.
So Sunday morning we met our new friend at the appointed time at the appointed place. At that time he showed us his valid US Passport to prove who he was. His name was Fredrick Stulz and he was indeed born in Cleveland Ohio. Then he took us several blocks away and to a third floor walkup apartment (the first floor does not count so I would have called this a fourth floor apartment in the US). He introduced us to a family. They were Ceda and Tony and Ceda’s daughter and son-in-law. The daughter and son-in-law had the apartment. Ceda, who spoke perfect English explained that since they had their exit visas, they were not allowed to work anymore and that they had to give up their apartment, so they moved in with her daughter until they could leave the country.
My conversation with Ceda covered many topics. For starters, there was a current issue of Time Magazine on an end table. I picked it up. Ceda told me that she would be arrested if she was found with this on the street. (Stulz’s code name was Carter.) She said Carter brought the magazine to them weekly. It was her only source for news outside the island. This, in my opinion, but Ceda was worlds away from a lot of Cuban citizens because outside Television, Radio and newspapers were banned in the country. Her major source for outside news was Time Magazine and Carter.
Ceda had an older son, who had left the island shortly after the revolution and was living with relatives in Los Angeles. She communicated with him via letters that Carter mailed for them, via the embassy.
I learned that Tony had been a truck driver. All drivers belonged to what I will call individual Enterprises (union). Their Enterprises provided them with meals but only if you were a member of that Enterprise. She said occasionally Tony would be in another part of the island at lunch time. If so he could not get a meal because it was not his lunch place. I commented that I saw restaurants all over the city. She said yes, but they have nothing. Then she told me this story:
“I was in a restaurant recently and ordered a glass of milk. I waited and waited. Finally I asked where my milk is. I was told I needed to be patient. There were 9 people ahead of me who had ordered milk. They only had one glass.” Compare this with the luxury meal service at our hotel.
Ceda also questioned why the rest of the world did not know about the competitions that the Caribbean Basin Athletic Association had had the previous week. (That was what the beer stands and the latrines were for). Obviously, no news was getting out of Cuba. And Cubans had no news from us either – for the most part. Except for people like Ceda and her family who were getting smuggled in news.
I regret that I had Ceda and Tony’s contact information for the place they were going to stay in Miami when they left Cuba, but it was in a wallet that was lost about six weeks after this conversation. So I was never able to contact her again.
After our short visit with this family, Carter put us in a Taxi cab and directed the driver to take us to the Jose Marti International Airport. There we boarded a Russian-made replica of a DC 3 for the flight to the Isle of Pines. At our destination we were bussed to the Hotel El Colony that would be our home for the next week. As we arrived, there was water pouring into a beautiful swimming pool. We never got a chance to swim in that pool and towards the end of the week we realized why. The pool leaked. About a day after we got there it was full. By the end of the week it was empty.
This hotel was not as elegant as the hotel in Havana, but it was pleasant and the food was decent. There was live entertainment every night in the small night club. Our friend Carter had clued us in that these performers were probably better than those we had seen at the Tropicana, but that their politics were not strong enough to allow them to perform in Havana.
The diving in Cuba was awesome. More about the diving later. The only issue was the dive boat. It was a huge craft that moved very slowly. They would get us up at 6 am to board the boat. During the two hour boat ride to the first dive site they would cook breakfast. The breakfasts (in my opinion) were awesome. But if you know me, I will virtually eat anything. Two women from another dive store complained about them. But then they complained about everything. Lunch was also prepared on board the boat. Again I thought they were really good.
On our subsequent trips, they still used this boat for diving and still offered breakfast and lunch on board, but they transported the divers from the hotel in fast speed boats. It meant we did not have to leave the hotel until 7:30 am. rather than 6 am. And we got back to the hotel about 4pm. (We still did not get to swim in the pool).
Most of the guests on board the boat were very compatible. Except for the aforementioned women from Atlanta. These two women complained about everything. They did not like the food (anywhere), they did not like the hotel, they did not like the boat, etc. They also complained that the sodas were just colored water (they were). One morning, I enlisted our tour guides help in a little joke at their expense. I had two cans of Diet Coke in my hotel room. I had purchased them at the vending machine at the hotel in Tampa and never drank them. So, when I was leaving my hotel room, I had put them in my dive bag. That morning the tour guide (who was also getting tired of their constant complaining) slipped the cans into the bottom of the cooler on the boat. At lunch time, I got out one of the cans for myself and offered the other to the guide. We made a show of drinking in front of the two women. They went wild. “Where did you get those?” “Out of the cooler.” They literally emptied the cooler to try to find more. It was a great practical joke.
During my conversations with Carter, I learned that Cuba was in serious financial stresses. Carter said that he was helping Castro sell off antique automobiles. These were not the vintage 1950’s era cars that we were seeing on the highways. They were a collection of 1920 and 30’s automobiles confiscated from former residents in Cuba. Remember that in the 60’s Castro nationalized all outside businesses and personal property. These autos came from that.
As for the streets and highways, I was impressed with how good they were and how empty they were. We saw a few worker busses and taxis on the roads, but few personal vehicles. . Carter told me that only certain people could buy gas. Occasionally we would see the now famous 50’s era cars being driven on the streets. We marveled that they were so perfectly maintained. But, it should be pointed out that since the embargo from the US no new US cars were on the island. And the Cuban people did not have the money to buy any other cars anyway.
As I mentioned before, there were a number of grocery stores and restaurants, but they did not seem to offer much. The parks in the area were impeccable though. And pre-school children flocked to them. Most seemed without any real supervision. In our walks through Old Havana and newer parts of the city we saw lots of children but they were never accompanied by adults. The majority of adults we did see were older people just sitting on park benches. Maybe it was because it was Saturday and Sunday and these were days off. I never asked though.
In my conversations with Ceda and Carter I also learned that there was no homelessness in the country. Everyone had been assigned an apartment to live in. Ironically, according to Carter, there was no rent collected on apartments. He said that this was because Castro had never assigned the collection of rents to anyone. As a general rule the apartments were clean and neat, but the infrastructure was not well maintained. There was indoor plumbing and electricity. The electricity did not always work though. I failed to ask about the plumbing. I assumed that it worked as well as the latrines that had lined the streets we had seen the day before. Just emptying into the storm sewers. But I can’t be certain.
Once we were on the Isle of Youth, we did not see any children. Although we were driven by buildings that we were told were schools. And we drove by farms. Well at least we were told they were farms. We saw fields of tomato plants and not much else. I assumed that the green tomatoes we were served for dinner every night came from similar farms. And we were driven by chicken farms. These were free range chickens. I never saw quail farms, but one evening we went to dinner at a restaurant that served quail for dinner and deviled quail eggs as appetizers. The meal was delicious.
Adjacent to the restaurant was a gift shop of sorts. We were encouraged to browse and spend our pesos. There was not much of a selection and I did not buy anything. My idea of souvenirs from places I liked to travel did not fit in with what was obviously cheap goods.
Except for my foray into uncharted areas of Havana un-accompanied by our guide, for the rest of the trip we were always escorted. He was there on the dive boat every morning, stayed with us all day, was present at dinner and accompanied us on the other tours we were taken on.
I said I would talk about the diving. It was truly spectacular. We had a dive guide who was very well trained (a PADI and CMAS instructor) and well prepared. He was using state of the art diving equipment (a gift from a TV reporter who had been on the boat weeks before) and he knew the dive sites well. In some ways he catered the dive sites to me. He told me in perfect English that he recognized my credentials and experience and wanted to show me the best they had to offer. I am not sure this was being complimentary or just trying to make a good impression. At the time I was very much into free diving and I spend a lot of our surface time doing this. On several occasions he joined me. Knowing what I know now – this was probably not the best use of free time. But I was only a Scuba instructor at the time and we all had a lot to learn about decompression and surface interval time.
We dove a lot of canyons and crevasses which were teeming with fish. We saw free swimming rays, eels and sharks all the time. The coral reefs were awesome.
My story of Cuba might have ended with the flight back to Tampa. But for a letter I received about three weeks later. It was postmarked “Cline, Havana, Department of State, Washington DC.” The envelope was bulging with paper.
It was from my new friend Carter. In it he explained that he was basically being held prisoner on the island by the government. He said he had spent 18 years in prison. He did not say what the reason was, but he said that because of his relationship with Castro he was forbidden to leave the country. He said that his wife and daughter (who were both Cuban nationals) were under constant threat that if he left they would not be allowed to leave. He asked me to contact Senator John Glenn and ask for his assistance in getting all of them off the island. (Remember, he had shown me a valid US Passport). He also pleaded for personal assistance. He said that he and his family were in dire need of basic things like clothing. The friend who was with me on our little adventure, was mentioned in the letter, but Carter only had my business card. I sent a copy of the letter to this other person and I believe she followed up by sending clothing and other supplies to the embassy. I do not know what happened from there.
I had been told that Cubans visiting the island frequently arrive wearing several layers of blue jeans and tee shirts. They would leave these extra layers behind for relatives to use as barter for other services, I was told. As I mentioned before, the contents of our luggage were inventoried when we arrived on the island and again when me left. Apparently they never counted the layers of jeans that someone was wearing, or they ignored that.
Carter’s letter presented a major problem for me. Although I wanted to be sympathetic to him and seriously wanted to help him, I was in the dive travel business. I did a lot of international travel. I was honestly worried that getting involved in this situation would put a mark on my passport record and possibly keep me out of other countries. Or something worse. We already had a dive trip scheduled and sold to Cuba for the next year and I did not want to jeopardize that.
So I copied the letter for my records, and sent the original to John Glenn’s office with a cover letter. In that letter I told him that I had met this gentleman on the street in Havana and that we had struck up a conversation. When he found out I was from Columbus he had asked who our senator was now and I told him John Glenn. Hence the connection. I received a reply from Glenn’s office that they would look into the matter and I thought that this was the end of.
Not true. About a year later I received a letter from Carter’s daughter. In it she explained that her father had died and that in going through his papers she found my business card. Since she knew he was from Ohio, she wanted to know if I happened to be a relative. I wrote her back saying that I was sorry to hear of her father’s death, but that I was not related. I told her that I had just met him by chance on the street in Havana while I was visiting. We had connected when he learned that I was from Ohio and I had given him my business card.
That was not the end of it. A year went by and I received another letter. I should mention that the first letter had been handwritten. This second letter was typed. Not sure if there is a significance here, but I thought it interesting. In this letter she asked me if I could intercede with the veteran’s administration and collect her father’s death benefits for her. Part of me was suspicious that this letter might not actually have been written by the daughter. I was somewhat familiar with veteran’s death benefits and knew that they did not amount to much. Which, in my mind reinforced the country’s need for cash. Still not wanting to find my name on some “do not fly list” I was hesitant to follow up. Shortly, thereafter, I showed the letter to a customer in the dive store who was a Cuban exile. His comment was that she did not need me but that she needed a lawyer. He asked if he could take the letter and send it to a cousin who lived in Puerto Rico and was an attorney. I gave him the letter and I never heard any outcome.
What did I learn from my two trips to Cuba? Well by the second trip they had wizened up. The flight, which was still a charter out of Tampa went directly to Isle of Youth, totally bypassing Havana. And we were not longer required to change our dollars into pesos. In fact, we were encouraged to spend our dollars throughout the island. We were taken to stores to buy souvenirs with dollars only. Remember Carter had told us that the Cuban peso had no value outside the island and that Castro needed US dollars. Several years later in 1993 he would have declared the US Dollar legal tender, resulting in an influx of cash being sent by Cuban refugees in the US back to their relatives.
The rest of this is my personal opinion. We were there in the late 1970’s and the first part of 1980. Castro had been in power for about 20 years. He had effectively separated the youth from the adults who “remembered the old days.” By taking them to Communist sponsored boarding schools on the Isle of Youth, he could control their education. Shortly after we were there he allowed “anyone who wanted to leave to leave” resulting in a large migration of Cuba’s older population (and what children they could bring with them) to the United States. This resulted in a base population left on the island of young people that he could mold into good little communists as planned. We are now another 30 years later. So in Cuba we have a majority population who knows no other way of life. Granted there are still those who do not buy it and who still take their life in their hands to try to escape I would assume that the majority of the present population knows nothing different. They think of him as a hero. Fidel might be dead but Raul lives and the communist infrastructure still exists. The people we see mourning the death of Castro in the streets of Havana are for the most part, those who were born in the last 40 years and have known no other way of life. Their standard of living might be pretty low, according to US standards, but it has improved slightly because of the ability to use the US Dollar for a number of years. This, by the way, was outlawed in 2004 and a new Cuban Peso was introduced.
I looked at a recent internet photo of a store in Havana circa 2004 promoting the use of the new peso. The shelves appeared well stocked. The accompanying article indicates that the government had implemented a reduction of 20 percent in the cost of a long list of food products. My opinion is that was a well-staged photo, but that is an opinion. I also noted that the entire top shelf was stocked with alcohol.
Also, while it was illegal to fly commercially from the United States to Cuba for years, it was not illegal to enter the country from other ports. And I understand that Castro actively recruited the tourist dollars because he needed the money. Personally, after my interactions with Carter and subsequent letters from him and his daughter, I decided that I did not want to spend any more US Dollars in Cuba. We ran three trips there. Then the travel from the US was stopped again. A lot of US citizens, however, went there from Canada and Central American Countries as well as European countries on vacations. And I knew friends in the Cayman Islands who were trying to invest in dive operations there. It is, again my opinion, that these visits were carefully monitored and that there was not a lot of contact between visitors and Cuban citizens. Or if there was, they were probably staged events where little real information was exchanged. Obama’s recent visit to the Country was just a formality. It is hard to believe that either he or Raul said anything substantial. There might be apparent improved relations between Cuba and the United States but, there is a lot of healing that needs to happen. Television and outside radio contact has been non-existent for 50 years. All newspapers are government controlled. With free and open access of the Cuban expatriates from the United States, some re-education might occur. But, in my opinion, it will seriously take probably two more generations to get Cuba out of the communist mold.