Friday, December 31, 2021

Group and Customized Trips to Cuba

 Information has been provided by trip organizers and is not independently vetted.  You will find on this page specific offerings and/or web site addresses as we receive them.


For local guides who can work directly with independent travelers, click here 


All Star Liveaboard  Scuba diving in Jardines de la Reina Marine Park; meets US licensing requirements   https://allstarliveaboards.com/cuba-liveaboard-diving/


Abercrombie and Kent  high end small group ten day programs starting in Camaguey https://www.abercrombiekent.com/tours/luxury-small-group-journeys/2025/cuba-people-art-culture-trinidad-havana


Center for Cuban Culture + Economy  Small group independent trips led by Dr. Joe Scarpaci  https://cubancultureeconomy.org/   joescarpaci@gmail.com


Center for Cuban Studies  art oriented trips   http://centerforcubanstudies.org/travel-index/


Christopher Baker Photo Tours  famed guidebook author     https://chrisbakerphototours.com/  


Colibri Travel and Tours    special focus on organizing faculty led university tours and teacher led high school and middle school groups    +1 (617) 301-1237  info@colibritraveltours.com  https://colibritraveltours.com/about-colibri-boston/


Cuba Cultural Bicycle Tours   www.CubaBicycleTours.com    https://www.facebook.com/BoulderBikeTours/  tel: 303.823.4636 


Cuba Educational Travel  https://www.cubaeducationaltravel.com/travelhtml


CUBA TRAVEL ADVENTURES GROUP*  WWW.CTAGCUBA.COM  cubatravelgroup@gmail.com  (415) 789-9398


CUBA TRAVEL NETWORK   www.cubatravelnetwork.com  hola@cubatravelnetwork.com Telephone: +53 7 837 1621   


Cuba Unbound specializes in active travel in Cuba including sea kayaking, cycling and walking tours along with multisport itineraries.   They offer both scheduled trips as well as custom tours and are able to design any sort of special interest program, including those focused more on culture, cuisine, music and agriculture.  With over 20 different itineraries to all parts of Cuba, including the far east, they are a one-stop tour operator.   https://www.cubaunbound.com    PO Box 579, Coeur d'Alene  ID 83816  Phone: 208-770-3359  9:00-5:00 Pacific Time  


Cuba/US People to People Partnership / Fund for Reconciliation and Development   Irish Links Program or Update on US-Cuba Relations    jmcauliff@ffrd.org


Cuban American Youth Orchestra  Arts Delegations   https://www.cayomusic.org/cubatravel Student Ambassador Program  One-week intensive trips to Cuba for US-based student musicians. Can include parents or patrons https://www.cayomusic.org/ambassador


Cultural Cuba     https://culturalcuba.com/   Custom luxury travel  312-667-3068 info@culturalcuba.com


Deeper Blue  Scuba diving  liveaboard itineraries to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen National Park and Ciénaga de Zapata.  (discuss with organizer if program qualifies as people to people) https://www.deeperblue.com/aggressor-adventures-resumes-cuba-itineraries/


Environmental Adventure Company   15 tours in 2023  Cuba Culture & Nature  ~  Music & Art of Havana  ~  Best of Western Cuba  Speciality Birding, Fishing, & Cooking Tours Available  https://www.eactours.com/  406-222-5660  info@eactours.com  


Espiritu Travel  customized programs, offices in New Hampshire and Havana  https://espiritutraveltocuba.com/about-us


Friendly Planet   (merged with Insight Cuba)   group tours  https://www.friendlyplanet.com/vacation-packages/caribbean/cuba.html


Havana Music Tours    https://havanamusictours.com/cuba-educational-tour/


HotHouse People To People Cultural Exchange  Solidarity Delegation to the Havana Jazz Festival late January 2024; Applications now through October   application hothouse3.0@gmail.com



Intrepid Travel  an international tour operator includes programs to meet US license requirements, feature bicycle tour   https://www.intrepidtravel.com/us/cuba


Like a Cuban*   https://likeacuban.com/   Rita McNiff <rita@likeacuban.com>


Road Scholar

https://www.roadscholar.org/find-an-adventure/23508/a-look-at-life-in-havana
 
https://www.roadscholar.org/find-an-adventure/22461/cuba-today-people-and-society-havana-cienfuegos
 
https://www.roadscholar.org/find-an-adventure/22143/the-best-of-cuba-from-vinales-valley-to-habana-vieja
 

 Tauck   high end seven day programs Havana Vinales  https://www.tauck.com/tours/escorted-cuba-tour


The Friendship Association of St. Augustine, Florida, organizes delegations with a special emphasis on Baracoa   https://www.acrossthestraits.com/delegations/  Soledad Pagliuca <aimisoledad@gmail.com>


The New Republic tours led by Charles Bittner  November 2-9, 2024   https://newrepublic.com/article/168448/explore-cuba


Travels With Talek*   Cuba Cultural Tours    https://travelswithtalek.com/cubaculturaltour  


Your Tour Guide to Cuba    https://www.yourtourguidetocuba.com/   Sheyla@yourtourguidetocuba.com



* Part of shared booth of Cuba/US People to People Partnership at New York International Travel Show, October 2023

EAC TOURS, LLC

EAC TOURS, LLC


P.O. Box 1562, Livingston, Montana 59047


406-222-5660


info@eactours.comP.O. Box 1562, Livingston, Montana 59047

406-222-5660

info@eactours.com

Independent Guides in Cuba

 This page is aspirational.  Guides as a group are seeking the status of self-employed workers, as reported here.  In the meantime, some have found space to function and are happy to hear from you.  

These are self-created unvetted introductions.   All arrangements must be made and implemented between you and the guide.

Traveling with an independent guide is especially appropriate when using the general license for Support for the Cuban People, described here.


(It will take a while to build the list.  Check back every week or so.)


Olema Barani Perez  
Matanzas, Varadero; olemasaggi@gmail.com, phone number 52737900, available 24/ 7. I am a professional tour guide. I studied English Language and Literature. Cuban History has been my favorite and exploring geography all around the country too.  I can arrange tours all around the western and central part of Cuba: transport, paladares and private accommodation, all best quality with excellent families. I also have a few colleagues who are willing to help in the guiding.




Kizzy Camejo Torres
 Havana   kizzytours@gmail.com Whatsap  +53-5-345-2922  https://kizzytours.com/en/home/    Facebook @Kizzy Camejo Torres  @Kizzytours  Masters degree in Tourism Management. I have been a tour guide in Cuba for ten years. Since 2013 I have my own tour coordination business called Kizzytours.com    I offer tailor made programs in Cuba; a one stop shop for anyone interested in coming to the island. I can provide good advice before and during your trip, transportation, accommodation, tours & experiences and more. I also own three rental apartments in the heart of Old Havana. 



Abel Carmenate Pérez  Havana, Phone number: +53-5-281-1152
WhatsApp, telegram, Facebook / Instagram page: Cuba Taylor Made Tours with Abel; abelholacubatours@gmail.com; 18 Years of experience.  I organize tailor made tours all over Cuba with a deep immersion into Cuban way of life, off the beaten track.   Nature, Culture, History, general interest. All areas covered.


Cuba Careo Tours  https://cubacareotours.com   jnoguera@cubacareotours.com  Phone: +53 52723573


Alber The Hiker
I work as a guide all around the Cuban island  website: alberthehiker.com  TripAdvisor: Alber The Hiker   Instagram: @alberthehiker Facebook fan page: @alberthehiker Youtube: Alber the hiker


Roberly Infante  Trinidad  robeinf@gmail.com ; Phone: +53 58070450 Whatsapp: +53 58070450; Facebook  robert-Cuban Adventures;  I have worked as a Tour guide in Cuba for almost 10 years, doing the job in different ways (multi-night tours and specialized tours) also local tours...I specialize in nature, history and culture, although the tour always touches on different topics...(architecture, art, traditions, religion, etc)


Luis Cristobal Medina Acosta
 luiscma2016@gmail.com  I was a tourism guide for more than 20 years, from 1996.  I was graduated from Cuban universities twice, first in Journalism and later in Law. I have worked in French, Italian and English as a tourism guide.  Right now,  I'm a university teacher in Law, but I will enjoy to also go as a guide.




Jose Manuel Madrazo Benavides 
Varadero-Havana josemanuelmadrazo42@gmail.com contact@thecubanexperience.com    PHONE AND WHATSAPP: +53 52956250 www.thecubanexperience.com  With more than 20 years of experience in the tourist industry, we provide Day Tours and Round Trips to the most important tourist destinations in Cuba, based on the support of local business and neighborhoods. All our services contribute to their development by showing their lives, charisma and hospitality.  WE OFFER a wide variety of customized private tours that will bring guests in contact with the history, culture, nature and traditions of the greatest island in the Caribbean.



Angel Menéndez Otero 
Hemingway Cuban Tours, Havana  hemingwaytour@nauta.cu,  Phones: + 535 264 1168  Available at WhatsApp   On January 1st, 1993 I created my own private business, 29 years of a great experience and magnificent results working with the Italian market and more recently and very successful too with the American Market.  TRANSFERS FROM AND TO THE AIRPORT, RENT OUT PRIVATE HOMES, PERSONALISED TOURS, WALKING COLONIAL HAVANA,  OLD AMERICAN CLASSIC CONVERTIBLES, NATURE & CULTURE, HORSE BACK RIDING, TOBACCO, SUGAR & COFFEE PLANTATIONS, NIGHT LIFE & ENTERTAINMENT, SUN & BEACH, RESTAURANTS  FINER FOOD EXPERIENCE, CUBAN CIGARS & RUM,  DRIVERS & SECURITY



Antonio Montano 
Varadero I'm the owner of a private house in Varadero with all permission to rent it. My business is already on airbnb under the name of Villa Montano.  This is my email tonymont@nauta.cu and mobile number 53-5-277-2559.  I also work as a private tour guide offering excursions around Cuba.  My WhatsApp is antoniomontano974



Leysester Ortega Cruz  Varadero contact@get2knowcuba.com www.get2knowcuba.com   Phone: +53 53428561 WhatsApp: +17472356602  We provide  tours  and customized round trips in Cuba.   All of our services fall into the category of support for the Cuban people .



Nathaly Pérez O'Farrill  nathalyofarrill@gmail.com  Whatsapp Phone +5355589920
Facebook: Nathaly O'Farrill. I have been a tour guide for 8+ years. If I had to describe myself I would say I am a very curious person with many interests,  but history is definitely my passion. Nature is another one of my favorite subjects and I try to be an advocate for the protection of all species and habitats, I love animals, especially dogs, cats and birds.  I  specialize in tours related with History, Heritage, Contemporary Art and the Cuban Traditions, as well as people to people exchange, working with several community projects; as well as Bird watching trips throughout the country. And finally I love music. Music is part of my every day life, especially Cuban music. It makes me happy beyond words to "discover" a new song or a new performer. 




Norge Quintero Matos   Baracoa,  Humboldt National Park  activetourbaracoa@gmail.com   phone (+53) 5 290 7569  http://baracoa.at   Individual, cultural and touristic services. Working in tourism since 1998




Erik Luis Rodríguez Rodríguez  Matanzas   erikrr@nauta.cu  https://facebook.com/FototurErik
WhatsApp / Telegram +53 53683491  I am a free-lance Cuban tour guide. I used to be an university English teacher for some time which provide me with proper communication skills and a wide range of knowledge for tour guiding to cover several themes; such as, history, culture, nature, architecture, Cuban cousine and heritage.  I provide tour guide services for the whole country but mainly the center and west part. My tours are moved by a team of experienced drivers with awesome classic cars dating back to the 1950’s. I have local contact with Air B&Bs, Private Rent Houses and Restaurants with personal excellent services, all with that warm Cuban touch.


Ismary Vázquez  Varadero ismary.vr@nauta.cu  Former English teacher, independent tour guide for 7 years. I've done tours almost everywhere on the island but mostly Havana, Matanzas City, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Viñales, Bay of Pigs.  My phone number is +53 52452810


Riuber Velazquez  self employed tour guide  riuber1974@gmail.comriuber19@nauta.cu
Phone number:+5354939130; WhatsApp & Telegram available (+5354939130)
Our program and services are totally oriented to private and cooperative sector. We have created a kind of alliance amongst all those who provide privately all sorts of services to the touristic sector in Cuba, that is private taxis (mainly American classic old cars), private restaurants ( the so-called paladares), casas particulares, and tour guides. We offer a wide variety of excursions mostly taking Varadero as the point of departure. These include tours to Havana and Vinales as well as to Matanzas, Bay of Pigs, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. All the excursions are accompanied by a tour guide who will be giving all kind of important information about Cuban History, Geography, Culture and updated data as well.

Senator Leahy Sets Standard for US Policy

 

02.07.22

60 Years On, The Economic Embargo On Cuba Is An Abject Failure

. . . . Senate Floor

Mr. LEAHY.  Today, February 7, 2022, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the day the United States economic embargo against Cuba first went into effect.  Sixty years.  Three generations, twelve presidents, sixty sessions of Congress, and six transformational decades ago, dating back to the middle of the Cold War.

The goal of the embargo, which has been expanded multiple times, was unmistakable:  to depose  the Cuban Government by imposing a vast web of punitive sanctions designed to crush the Cuban economy and incite a popular uprising. 

To be precise, in a declassified April 1960 State Department memo confidently entitled “The Decline and Fall of Castro”, the purpose was “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and the overthrow of [the] government.”  

Sixty years later hunger and desperation are pervasive in Cuba, but the Cuban Government remains under the firm grip of the Communist Party.  No opposition party has been allowed to function or to challenge it.  Free and fair elections are as elusive as they were sixty years ago.  Political dissent is not tolerated. 

The U.S. embargo is opposed by every other nation in this hemisphere.  In fact, it is opposed by every other nation in the world, except Israel.  In other words, after sixty years, we have convinced only one other government – just one – to join us, and not a single government in our own hemisphere.  In a failed attempt to isolate Cuba, we have isolated ourselves.

Those responsible for this Administration’s policy toward Cuba have apparently decided that

  • despite candidate Biden’s pledge to the contrary;
  • despite the failure of the embargo to achieve any of its objectives – which the CIA acknowledged in a declassified report back in 1982;
  • despite a worsening human rights situation; and
  • despite contributing to the misery of the Cuban people who the White House insists it wants to help, there is no reason to change course.      

Today, hard hit by COVID and the Biden Administration’s cut-off of remittances and restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, life for most Cubans is an increasingly desperate struggle.  Popular protests against the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, mishandling of the economy, and autocratic rule have been met with a fierce crackdown, summary trials, and lengthy prison sentences including for young people.

I have spoken many times about the stark disconnect between this Administration’s policy toward Cuba and the reality in Cuba, so there is no need to repeat what I have said before.  I am as outraged by the crackdown on protesters in Cuba as anyone.  No one condones acts of vandalism or violence, but provocations and abuse of peaceful protesters are inexcusable. 

I also know that trying to bludgeon the Cuban authorities into submission does not work.  It has not worked for sixty years.

  • It has made things worse. 
  • It emboldens the hardliners in the government who blame the United States for their own failed policies, and who are determined to hold onto power. 
  • It hurts the Cuban people, impeding their ability to obtain medical supplies as basic as syringes and masks to fight COVID, and preventing small businesses from accessing U.S. products. 
  • It flies in the face of our belief in the power of diplomacy through engagement with countries whose governments we disagree with, especially a country 90 miles away with whose people we share so much in common.

Sooner or later – and I hope it is sooner – the Administration needs to face the fact that continuing Donald Trump’s policy of punitive sanctions and vitriol has backfired.  The longer they delay that day of reckoning, the worse it will be. 

We can do better than this.  We can defend human rights, we can stand up for the right of people to choose their leaders in free and fair elections, and we can also do what we do with virtually every other government in the world with which we disagree – find areas of common purpose for the benefit of the people of both countries. 

On this sixtieth anniversary of a Cold War policy of sanctions and isolation that has failed in every conceivable way, let us dedicate ourselves to a new way forward that our allies and partners in this hemisphere will support, that the American people will support, that supports the Cuban people, and that is worthy of the United States.     

 https://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/60-years-on-the-economic-embargo-on-cuba-is-an-abject-failure


*************************


12.06.21

Statement On Cuba by Patrick Leahy

. . . . Senate Floor

Mr. LEAHY.  As someone who has observed the evolution of relations between the United States and Cuba for nearly 50 years, particularly since I first traveled there in 1999, I find the situation between our two countries today bewildering, tragic, and exasperating. 

Bewildering, because senior Administration officials – who have publicly and privately acknowledged that the 60-year policy of unilateral United States sanctions, isolation, and threats has failed to achieve any of its objectives and instead has hurt the Cuban people – have nevertheless adopted that same failed policy as their own.

Tragic, because the policy has emboldened Cuba’s hardliners who have cracked down even more on citizens who dare to peacefully protest about shortages of food, medicine, and electricity, and against government repression.  And it has exacerbated the crisis that has engulfed the island due to the COVID pandemic and the government’s dysfunctional economic policies.

Exasperating, because anyone who understands Cuba could have predicted what has happened since the Trump Administration reversed the Obama Administration’s policy of engagement and would have taken steps to mitigate it.  Instead, the current policy is making the situation even worse.

For the past ten months I have urged the White House to not repeat past mistakes when it comes to our relations with Cuba’s government and the Cuban people, and to pursue a policy based on our long-term national interests.  I deeply regret that has not yet happened. 

Instead, this administration’s policy, so far, has been dictated by a tiny but vocal constituency in this country that has always opposed U.S. engagement with Cuba.  It is a policy that history has shown is doomed to fail.

Currently, the United States and Cuba have diplomatic relations, but to what end?  There is no meaningful diplomacy being conducted, and our embassy in Havana and Cuba’s embassy in Washington are barely functioning.  Consular operations have ceased.  The dialogues we had with the Cuban Government on issues of mutual interest, from law enforcement to human rights to public health – dialogues the Trump Administration cut off – have not resumed.  How can this be in our national interest?

While Cuba remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism due to a last minute, politically driven, vindictive, and factually indefensible decision of the Trump Administration, we continue to have diplomatic relations.  Is this not irreconcilable? And whatever became of the Administration’s review of that deeply flawed designation which was promised months ago?

Cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges have largely ended.  This is neither justified nor in our national interest.  The COVID pandemic provided an obvious opportunity for cooperation between American and Cuban scientists, but that opportunity, like so many others over the years, was squandered due to politics, distrust, and spite. 

The U.S. Treasury Department continues to block remittances from Cuban Americans to their relatives on the island, even though it is their money, not Treasury’s.  Shouldn’t Cuban Americans have the right to decide for themselves whether to send their own money to their relatives, rather than having that decision dictated by the White House?  Remittances help Cubans be less dependent on the government, improve their standard of living, and provide the seed capital for Cuba’s growing private sector which today comprises one-third of the Cuban workforce.

The amount of remittances siphoned off by the Cuban government is a small fraction of what some have falsely claimed, and is no more than what other governments charge.  Let’s base our policy on facts, rather than on rumor and what plays well domestically.

And Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, is the only country besides North Korea where travel by Americans is severely restricted, despite our common history and cultural traditions.  It’s as ridiculous as it is self-defeating.

The White House has repeatedly said that “democracy and human rights” are at the core of its policy toward Cuba.  Those are aspirations – laudable aspirations – but they are not a policy.  We all want to see a Cuba where political freedom and fundamental rights, especially freedom of expression, are respected and where an independent judiciary protects the right of due process.  Those rights are severely restricted in Cuba today as they are in many countries, including some recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S aid. 

Where we disagree is on how best to support the Cuban people’s struggle to obtain those rights. 

I have asked, but I have no idea what the Administration’s practical objectives are in Cuba, or how it proposes to achieve them.  After being told six months ago that the State Department was conducting a review of its policy, we have yet to see any change from the policy it inherited from the Trump Administration a year ago.  What happened to the review?  What did it say?

Several Administration officials have justified the continuation of President Trump’s punishing sanctions because of the public protests in Cuba on July 11.  They say “everything changed” on July 11. 

Cuba is changing.  Access to social media and cell phones has dramatically increased.  Attitudes among the younger generation are changing.  The Cuban government is making historic, albeit hesitant, reforms to relax restrictions on private businesses.  President Obama’s opening to Cuba, which lasted only two years, was instrumental in helping to bring about these changes. 

Rather than acknowledge the unprecedented progress during that short period, those who defend a policy of sanctions say Obama’s policy of openness failed because Cuba remains a repressive, one-party state.  They completely ignore that the same was true for 50 years before Obama, and for the five years since Obama. When it comes to helping to bring positive changes to the people of Cuba, President Obama wins hands down.

But today the United States is once again on the sidelines, clinging to an outdated policy that history has shown will not succeed.  In fact, it is having the opposite effect by denying opportunities to both Cubans and Americans.

United States policy toward Cuba is replete with contradictions, hypocrisy, arrogance, and missed opportunities. Cuba is an impoverished country that poses no threat to the United States, yet we treat it as if it does largely because of our own actions. While we maintain an intricate web of unilateral sanctions that every nation in this hemisphere opposes, the Russians and Chinese are aggressively filling the vacuum as anyone who visits Cuba today can readily see. 

Engaging with a government whose policies are anathema to our own does not bestow legitimacy on that government’s leaders or acceptance of its repressive policies.  If that were the case, we should cease engaging not only with Cuba but with dozens of governments around the world including several U.S. partners, Saudi Arabia and Egypt being obvious examples. 

We condemn the arbitrary arrests, sham trials, laws that criminalize civil society, and the mistreatment and imprisonment of political dissidents.  These abuses are common to many countries, and we apply targeted sanctions and we restrict aid.  But for purely domestic political reasons we continue to impose a vast web of sweeping sanctions against Cuba, even when the Administration knows they have not worked.

I have said it many times:  our policy toward Cuba needs to be guided – first and foremost – by what is in our national interest, not by what is in the interest of a tiny domestic constituency, and not by making demands that we know the Cubans won’t submit to. 

Engaging with Cuba affords U.S. diplomats and American citizens the opportunity to build relationships with Cuban counterparts and identify issues of common interest on which to make progress.  We saw that during the Obama administration, despite some who could not bring themselves to admit it. 

Over time, that is how we can then begin to address the more difficult issues that divide us, knowing that it is the Cuban people, not the United States, who will ultimately determine their country’s future. 

This Administration has had ten months to demonstrate that continuing the failed Trump policy of trying to bludgeon the Cuban authorities into submission can produce positive results.  There is not a shred of evidence that it can.  It never has.  Are we going to waste another year and another after that? 

I hope not, but that is what will happen if the White House does not change course and show the kind of thoughtful leadership on Cuba that we saw during the Obama Administration, and that was welcomed by a large majority of the American people. As Einstein said and so many have repeated, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  This Administration can do better.  It needs to do better. 


https://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/statement-on-cuba

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Karen Dubinsky: A Canadian Perspective

 

The Only Tourist in Havana, December 2021

Student artwork at ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) Havana. Photo: Karen Dubinsky

In 2016 I wrote a book about Havana, Cuba Beyond the Beach: Stories of Life in Havana. It offered a neighbourhood-eye view of the lives of friends and colleagues I’ve worked with in my capacity as a professor who has brought Canadian students to study in Havana for over a decade. I have been visiting Cuba since 1978, when, as a starry eyed twenty-one-year-old, I attended the World Festival of Youth and Students which celebrated “Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship.” Cuba and I have both changed some since then, but still my book ended on a hopeful note. I finished it just as Barack Obama and Raúl Castro were making overtures towards “normalization” and a spirit of hopefulness was palpable in Cuba, especially in the cultural world. Two US presidents, a global pandemic and an uncommon series of public protests later, I returned. What did I find in my corner of Havana today?

Who did I find ought to be the first question. I would need at least two hands to count the friends, children of friends or acquaintances who have left the country. Some for education in Canada, Europe or Brazil, others for jobs in the US. During the pandemic, many with resources have left for refuge or at least temporary breathing space with family in other parts of the world. Two beloved colleagues, both University of Havana professors, died. 

After a series of pandemic-mandated closings, airports have reopened and visitors are arriving, principally to the beach resorts. Less so, at this point, to the city. As I wandered Havana, Leonard Cohen’s ironic poem The Only Tourist in Havana, penned during his visit in 1961, resonated. The city is darker and quieter than it used to be. Everyone wears masks, everywhere, including outside. Curfews have been lifted, schools at all levels have reopened, along with some museums and galleries.  Some favourite cafes and restaurants did not survive, as in Canada others successfully made the transition to takeout or home delivery and have now reopened. Some of the large hotels remain closed. 

Even this level of “normalcy” in an economy dependent on tourism is only possible because of extremely high vaccination rates, which the country achieved by producing its own vaccine – actually multiple vaccines. Every single person I spoke to in Havana knew people who had contracted COVID or had themselves. After a disastrous spike in COVID rates this summer as the Delta variant made its way through the world, Cuba has one of the highest vaccination rates globally, in the 80% range, (including children). Nothing is certain, but in terms of COVID, it seems as though a corner has been turned.  

But at a tremendous cost. Food scarcities are everywhere, and prices are impossible, at least three times higher in the food sector. A series of disastrous monetary reform measures undertaken mid pandemic attempted to unify the former two currency system, but it has just exacerbated racialized economic inequalities. Cubans with hard currency can shop at one store, which contains little, all at huge prices. Those with only Cuban currency shop at another, which also contains little, at huge prices. Every store has what seems to be a constant lineup. Neighbours and friends alert each other when valued products arrive; one friend showed us her food supply telephone tree which contained a dozen names. Others use social media like WhatsApp for the same purpose. Once alerted, people organize their waiting time together. For big ticket items like chicken, people expect to spend five or six hours in line.  “It’s like a picnic, without food,” a friend explained to me, half ironically. 

These scarcities include household goods and, ominously, medicines as well. That a small country in the Global South, economically blockaded by the US, came up with its own vaccine is remarkable. The current scarcity of almost all medical supplies – from simple aspirin to antibiotics to cancer related drugs – is a nightmare. Over the past year there have been concerted campaigns of medical donations from groups around the world with political affinities for Cuba, as well as smaller groups of friends and family members organizing people-to-people shipments. Authorities lifted importation restrictions (for food and medicine) for travellers as well, and Cubans are encouraged, through a recent campaign of TV ads, to have visitors bring them food and other supplies. This “temporary” measure was just extended another six months, to July 2022. I read about this extension the day after I returned to Canada, and my initial impulse was “good, maybe I could organize another trip with bulging suitcases.” Two seconds later a Cuban friend in Canada gave me a needed reality check; this is also a tremendous sign of desperation. The suitcase solution to food insecurity understandably alarms Cubans in the diaspora; it is hardly a sustainable step towards economic reform. Cuban economist Juan Triana Cordoví recently asked a pertinent question: why has it been easier for the country to produce a sophisticated vaccine than to keep pork or chicken on the table?

These are a few of the many pressures that lead to a series of protests in Cuba over the past year. “Unprecedented” is a word that has been overused to describe these events, but it fits. In November 2020, artists and other cultural figures gathered in the hundreds outside the Ministry of Culture, protesting worsening limitations on freedom of expression. People connected to the San Isidro movement in an Old Havana neighbourhood drew attention to these and other restrictions with hunger strikes. Finally, there were the explosive protests of July 11, 2021, when people all over the country took to the streets.

I did a great deal of listening when I was in Havana. In my circle of friends and acquaintances I heard a range of opinions and grievances as well as a great deal of pain. Some started their story of the Cuban crisis in the US: Trump tightened the blockade and other restrictions, and Biden has, despite promises, done nothing to change it. Friends who work in tourism began their explanations with the devastating effect of COVID on international travel. Some have lost what little faith they had in their own government. “Socialism is just a bad economic system; it’s not working in Cuba any more than it has anywhere else,” Eduardo told me, more directly than he has in the past. Many are furious with the Cuban government’s decision to make monetary reform a priority during the global pandemic, which exacerbated already huge disparities between hard currency holders (those with family outside the country, mostly white Cubans) and peso-earners, among whom Afro Cubans predominate. A friend who is set to retire from his job in a state agency pulled out his employment file, and, choking back tears, showed me thirty plus years of citations and commendations for exceptional service. He’s going to retire on a monthly pension which would, at the current official exchange rate, barely buy a single meal in an economically priced restaurant. Another friend teared up as she told me of her daughter’s imminent departure, to join her husband in the US. “It’s a business” she said, referring to the migration system. “The government wants young people to leave so they can send money back to us.”

When I asked people what they believed might make change, the answers were also all over the map. “People are living inside their own problems they have no space to think beyond that,” Jorge told me, which seemed an accurate statement. People had mixed views about the July protests. One greeted me jokingly with a “Patria y Vida” (the title of a song that has become the slogan of the civic opposition movement), then pretended to look around to see if he was overheard. Another had been so angry at me for something I wrote with a colleague in July, lamenting the Cuban government’s hard-line response to the protests, she sent me a rare email telling me how wrong I was. Five months later, she is no less convinced of her pro-government position, but she thanked me sincerely for coming back to visit even though times are so bad. One friend, a long-time party militant, declared that the protests were a wake-up call the government should have heeded before. Others decried what they believed was the use of violence by protestors and lamented that the leadership of the opposition movements was “clownish” and lacking in respectability. “No one is going to bring this government down like that,” one declared (in a tone that evaded the question of whether that should happen or not). Leila told me about a text she received from a Cuban friend in Miami the day of the protests, urging her to hit the streets. “I was so angry at her it took me two weeks to respond,” she told me. “How dare she. Sitting in the comfort of Miami!”

Among the people I spoke to, certainly scarcities of food and medicine and loss of purchasing power were top of mind. “Only the intellectuals and artists really care much about censorship and freedom of expression,” an academic colleague – who actually cares deeply – told me, though of course they are not unconnected. A photographer friend lamented that she hasn’t been able to take photos for months, since the protests, because authorities in her impoverished neighbourhood confiscate cameras from people to prevent the circulation of images of food lineups.

My academic colleague was extremely frustrated by the response of leftists outside Cuba. “Why can’t people outside Cuba see that you can be a leftist and at the same time be critical of this government?” he asked, echoing the words of Cuban historian Rafael Rojas, who termed this “reverse colonialism.” For Rojas, Cuban civic unrest is seen (by Cuban authorities and some leftists outside the country) as “ventriloquists of the empire.” “The Cuban reality is overdetermined by the dispute with the United States,” he writes, “Cuba, therefore, remains a colony.”

I left these conversations sadder and wiser, and more convinced than ever that, despite attempts to paint criticism as always and forever inspired by the US government, this is a conversation among CubansWhich will require Cuban solutions. Of course, the US has intervened in Cuban affairs repeatedly since the 1959 Revolution. But when speaking to me about their reactions to the protests, not a single person told me they thought those who took to the street did so because the US government told them to. That argument, advanced repeatedly in Cuban state media, just didn’t come up. They were too busy being smart, informed, ironic, sad, frustrated, funny, and angry about their own country. 

I spent an informative morning visiting the Martin Luther King Centre, a respected NGO that has been working in Havana since the 1980s. It is connected to the Baptist church and operates as a community education and resource centre in Poglotti, a well-known poor neighbourhood. During the pandemic they joined other NGOs, artists and community groups collecting material aid, mainly medical supplies, and distributing them to the various hotspots on the island. This kind of work outside the state system is relatively new; Cuba has had a complicated and contested relationship with NGOs inside and outside the country. But the work of the MLK Centre is hardly bourgeoise charity. I worked with some Cuban and Canadian friends this summer organizing funds and shipping many boxes of medical supplies from Toronto to Havana, so I was curious to see what they do. Kirenia Criado, a Quaker pastor who was on the receiving end of all those boxes, showed us how deeply embedded in their community domestic civil society groups can be. Her social justice activist spirit would be recognizable to anyone who works in these worlds, in any country. She spoke movingly about how the pandemic forced them to temporarily transfer their work from community building to simple survival. Hence the boxes.  

Of course, there is nothing new about Cuban resilience and ingenuity. “Resolver” and “inventar” have been the language of survival in Cuba for decades. My partner and travelling companion Susan Belyea, who wrote a dissertation on Cuban food security, visited friends in Alamar, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Havana, who in the last year cleared an impressive quarter acre lot near their apartment building and created a bountiful vegetable garden. She noted during this visit that gardens are more obviously visible in the city as well.  The crisis has also created some impressive and useful opportunities for entrepreneurship. We dined on buffalo stew one night, thanks to the largess of a Canadian friend who had ordered it through an online grocery delivery site – one of many that have emerged during the crisis, for a mutual friend in Havana, who shared it with us.

What has always inspired me most in Havana – in addition to the people – is the arts, and especially the community of contemporary alternative musicians. In jazz, hip hop and trova there is a world of political debate, sometimes cloaked in metaphor, sometimes plain to see, always a sign of an active and vibrant conversation between musicians and their audience.  My most recent visit coincided with the return to the stage of Interactivo, a jazz fusion band that just celebrated their twentieth anniversary. Entering “El Brecht,” the basement club tucked under the Bertolt Brecht Theatre where I have enjoyed a decade of amazing musical events, was the strangest and most normal thing I have done in the past two years. Even though musicians haven’t been performing in Cuba any more than they have been anywhere else in the world, they haven’t been sitting still either. Interactivo opened with a new song written by their leader, Roberto Carcassés, “Pero” (But). It was written on the occasion of the first large protest, November 27, 2020, at the Ministry of Culture, which brought people in the cultural world together to oppose limits (increasing in severity) on free expression. Hundreds of people had the audacity to show up, without permission, outside a government building.  Carcassés would likely reject this song as representative of anything but his own view, which is the point. But his view, like those of so many I encountered in Havana, ought to be heard. 

 

But

By Roberto Carcassés, November 2020 

My translation

 

I have an aunt who is a Fidelista

I have an uncle who is a Trumpista

But I love both of them with all my heart

 

I have all kinds of problems,

Material and intellectual

In the lineup for chicken just as with the Ministry

 

I’m a revolutionary

Also, I’m not

They’re both just points on a watch

 

I’m a free Cuban

I always show up

I’m not CIA nor G2*

I’ve seen Fernando** in my concerts

Also Luis and Carlos Manuel***

They all enjoyed themselves very much at Bertolt Brecht 

 

Sometimes words confuse everything

But I’ll tell you one thing

There’s nothing that can’t be resolved by music and marijuana

 

I could be wrong

It’s just my opinion

Representing a minority of one

Association by affinity

It’s the best option

With freedom of expression

 

With love and responsibility

We’re all the same

Cubanidad

I’m a free Cuban

As Marti longed for  

 

I’m Cuban

Ay, look at that woman

She’s the one I like

You like pachanga

You like the party,

I like my Cuba enjoying itself

I like my people dancing

With peace, love and prosperity we’ll keep going

Always forward, in front, struggling

 

But I love both my aunt and uncle with all my heart. 

 

*Cuban state security forces

** Fernando Rojas, Vice Minister of Culture

*** Luis Manuel Otero, imprisoned artist, and Carlos Manuel Álvarez, exiled journalist

Cuba beyond the Beach

Stories of Life in Havana

By Karen Dubinsky

$24.95

Karen Dubinsky started visiting Cuba in 1978, and has lived in Havana intermittently since 2004. She is a professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University and co-teaches a course in Havana for Queen’s students. She is the author of The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls and the co-editor of My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela

https://btlbooks.com/blog/view/the-only-tourist-in-havana-december-2021