Denver Bar Association
December 2007
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An Ultimate Cuban Experience

by Donald Alperstein

As a referee of international fencing, I have enjoyed traveling to many interesting places and meeting people from around the world. Recently, I made my first trip to Cuba.

Having limited time, I didn’t venture to the beaches and other wildly popular tourist destinations. Instead, I confined my peregrinations to Havana itself, where few visitors abide.

A picture of the Havana skyline with the national Capitol’s dome.

Havana must once have been a jewel. Its architecture and layout are among the most beautiful I’ve seen, but the city is horribly dilapidated and oppressively poor. Feral dogs range everywhere. The roads, particularly outside the city center, once were paved but are now worse than dirt, with huge potholes and chunks of paving that obstruct, rather than facilitate, travel. The cars evince a curious mixture of 1950s Americana and late-model Japanese and European sedans. Many of the older vehicles were converted to diesel when the original motors could no longer be maintained, and with no emissions regulation, vehicles belch black smoke. I inhaled a lot of soot.

Fortunately, an old friend from the Cuban fencing federation asked his daughter and son-in-law to give me a resident’s tour of Havana. I visited many places that foreigners usually don’t, including the couple’s home and his workplace, an ice cream factory. Their house sat at the end of an uncharted cul-de-sac that looked horribly poor. They had to turn on the water service to use the plumbing. The tiny kitchen lacked an oven, and all cooking for the five residents was managed on a two-burner gas-fired hot plate. The home was very small — I would guess around 900 square feet — divided into small living and dining rooms, a kitchen, 3/4 bath and three bedrooms. The family had a computer that received local e-mail, but Internet access was restricted and very expensive. They enjoyed a few consumer products, such as a digital camera. Private cell phones, on the other hand, are highly regulated and very rare.

I could not ascertain the true crime situation. Most Internet resources, including the U.S. State Department and CIA sites, indicate crime is low. However, the hotel desk clerk advised against leaving the premises carrying any kind of bag, purse or briefcase, and my local friends always used a "club" to lock the steering wheel of their beat-up and rusted Daewoo, which was about the size of my desk. My only encounter with the ubiquitous local constabulary occurred when three Americans and our Cuban hosts packed in the vehicle to attend a ceremonial cannon firing at the colonial fort. We were stopped and interrogated because the policeman was concerned we were being kidnapped. I have no reason to think that abduction of foreigners is a common occurrence, and perhaps such caution indicated a desire to avoid international incidents rather than a concern about pervasive crime.

Donald Alperstein looking very possessive of a colonial cannon.
The Cubans were friendly or indifferent to Americans. I encountered a great deal of official anti-U.S. propaganda directed at the government, but none targeting the American people. Ché Guevera’s image is everywhere. He is lionized and has greater visibility than Fidel Castro. In a classic example of revisionist history, no mention can be found that Castro forced Ché from the country over divergent visions of the future; Ché having been a traditional Marxist and Castro mainly a nationalist. When I noted the number of apparently homeless people — something that seemed contrary to conventional socialist tenets — it was explained, soto voce, that the economic system embraces "Fidelism" more than "Socialism."

I saw nothing reminiscent of Cuba’s former close ties to the Soviet Union. If there were cars of U.S.S.R. origin, I didn’t see them. None of the propaganda or historical markers mentioned the relationship. The closest I saw to acknowledgement of the Soviet Union was in a museum display that held the engine of an American U-2 shot down in October 1962. The description referred to "the so-called Missile Crisis." That museum catered to Cuban nationals, and we had to "go native" to make it past the entrance.

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