I’ve cruised into many ports throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, but none are as scenic and breathtaking as the approach to Havana, Cuba.
As fellow cruisers excitedly gathered on the upper deck of the Carnival Paradise, we were simply awestruck as the sun burned away the clouds and revealed the Havana coastline, one that most Americans have been denied for over a half century.
Slowly we made our approach to the port, gliding past the 400-plus-year-old El Morrow Castle and fort and were greeted next, by the magnificent Carrara Marble El Cristo de la Habana (Havana’s statue of Christ).
Finally, the picturesque Malecon seaway and boardwalk, along with the iconic 1950s-era cars and the beautiful, but worn, Spanish colonial buildings came into full view, as Havana locals welcomed us with big waves and honking of car horns.
I watched as elderly Cuban passengers cried in realization that they had finally returned home after decades of an American embargo and diplomatic bickering.
We quickly disembarked and were screened by beautiful Cuban customs officials, the women uniformed, surprisingly, in mini-skirts, fishnet hose and heels, making American TSA attire appear drab by comparison.
Next we exchanged American dollars for Cuban currency and we were off, via a modern Chinese-made air-conditioned bus, on a four-hour whirlwind, government-approved “people –to-people” excursion to many of the legendary Havana must-see destinations. We visited a local art gallery, a community project run by Havana artists, the iron mural of Che Guevara at the Plaza de la Revolucion, and a store to purchase hand-rolled cigars, rum and coffee.
Then, as we drove along the Malecon we quickly ducked into a tunnel which transported us to the majestic Christ statue for a quick and up-close visit before returning to the ship to freshen up.
When night fell, a group of us (one was fluent in Spanish) returned to enjoy Havana’s night life in their ‘hood, which it definitely was.
I felt very comfortable for, contrary to images of famous Cubans like “Ricky Ricardo”(Desi Arnaz), singer Gloria Estefan, actor Andy Garcia and even Fidel Castro, one quickly discovers that Havana is very black – as in about two-thirds black. After all, the Spanish did bring Africans there to work the sugar cane plantations during the slave trade.
It was also extremely safe, with policia (cops) walking beats throughout the tourist areas as well as in the ‘hood.
So we fearlessly club-hopped listening to wonderful local salsa artists, ultimately landing in a lounge frequented by locals and sampling Mojitos, Cuba Libres and Cristal, their local beer. I was even able to engage three local Cubans (probably in their early twenties) in a political discussion which ran the gamut from communism and socialism to Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Not surprisingly, because of Cuba’s excellent educational system (thanks to Castro), these young adults were very bright and have a better understanding of American and international politics than many Americans of their age.
My Cuban brothers and sisters embraced, kissed and warmly welcomed us so sincerely that I almost felt as if I were back home among friends. In fact, Havana put me in an East Boogie state of mind for a number of reasons.
First, the Afro-Cuban rhythms pouring from the clubs and bars into the streets were reminiscent of the days in which East St. Louis was party central of the St. Louis area and Cubans seem to have dancing in their DNA, as couples danced sensually to salsa, rumba, timba and other Latin grooves just as East Boogie earned its reputation.
Conversely, despite their party spirit, Cubans have a spirit of resilience that is apparent. Despite meager socialist government rations and an average wage of $15/month ($40/month max for professionals), most Cubans are very creative at supplementing their income through providing goods and services to themselves and tourists, as well as gardening, tutoring, etc.
They are survivors, just as ESL residents survive, despite poverty and minimal city services and have always been creative at working the system or hustling to offset the lack economic opportunities.
Cuba was supposed to fall with the collapse of Communism, just as East Boogie was supposed to fold when white flight and businesses made their exodus. Both have survived, though barely.
The solution to Cuba’s plight is the redevelopment of its oceanfront property and the continued infusion of American trade and tourist dollars. In like manner, East Boogie must develop its riverfront and attract industry, jobs and economic opportunities, which will provide jobs for its residents and move them from the welfare rolls to the payrolls of employers.
While I was there, the U.S. Embassy looked like a ghost town, due to Trump’s withdrawal of American diplomats. I suspect that more restrictions are to follow. So, if you plan to visit Cuba, I advise you to go soon. It may be your last chance.