Saturday, September 15, 2018

A visit to North Korea (with palm trees)



A poster featuring Fidel in the Havana City Forest:
"That human life be preserved! That children and young people enjoy it
in a world of justice. That parents and grandparents share with them 
the privilege of living!" 
Eight of us were sitting around at Happy Hour last month when out of nowhere one of us— I don’t remember who — mentioned cruising, travel or Cuba. I said I had that very morning received an email from a travel agency promoting four-day cruises to Cuba from Miami being offered at dirt cheap prices in September.

“Let’s go,” someone piped up. Everyone agreed that was a swell idea. All of us were, at that point, on our third drink. Florida bartenders that time of year tend to be extremely generous; like the Maytag repairman, they yearn for company so the drinks were extra large. I promised I’d dig out the email and send everyone details.

Within 24 hours all of us were booked, along with three more couples. The next week another couple returned to town and they booked, too. 

And that is how, on Wednesday morning, my wife and I, along with 14 friends, found ourselves on a luxury liner pulling into Havana harbor. 

The view from our ship as we sailed into Havana harbor.
Note the crumbling buildings.
I’ve traveled to every continent (except Antarctica) and visited many places that can fairly be described as third world including Namibia, Colombia, Mozambique, Morocco and Mississippi. 

Cuba makes all of them look like Beverly Hills.

While it’s impossible to judge a country on a quickie visit — we were only docked in Havana for 20 hours where my wife and I along with another couple took a six-hour tour conducted by a guide we had found on Trip Advisor — it’s safe to say all of us were impressed but not favorably. 

The country is beyond poor — the average citizen earns $30 a month. The government controls almost every aspect of their lives but has, since the death of Fidel, loosened up a bit — Cubans can now buy their own homes. That may seem like a move in the right direction but the fact is, the new owners have to maintain their homes out of their $30 paychecks, so home ownership isn’t a prescription for prosperity as it is in other societies. Roads, sidewalks, buildings, even the terminal at which we docked, are crumbling. All the businesses are government owned. The tourist industry is controlled by the Cuban military, a non-sequitur our guide likened to a branch of the government responsible for education controlling sewage disposal. 

Havana, as you know, is known for its ancient American-built cars. I figured those were the exception — a gimmick to attract car aficionados — but no, they’re the rule. Once the Commies took over in 1959, private ownership of cars was forbidden unless you already had one. That is why, today, Havana’s pot-holed roads are filled with finned, chrome-laden cars from the 1950s and late 1940s. All have been repainted many times —often in their original, distinctive, two-toned colors, and refitted with new engines. 

Our wheels for the day: a 1954 Buick with a
Mitsubishi diesel engine

The 1954 Buick in which we toured was equipped with a Mitsubishi diesel engine. The ’58 Buick friends were driven around in had a Mercedes engine. There are thousands of those clunkers in Havana alone and many more, I assume, throughout the country. Most of the original owners have died but the government, in its generosity, allowed them to pass the cars on to their descendants. Any car built after the revolution  — the Kia and Hyundai taxis and the two newer Mercedes I saw — are either owned by the government or by diplomats who find themselves unfortunate enough to be assigned to a country that has been described as “North Korea with palm trees.” 

Vintage cars (and one government-owned Mercedes)
at Revolution Square
Our guide, Raul, met us in the square opposite the dock. An articulate, outgoing guy in his late twenties who speaks near-perfect English, Raul told us he once worked as a government tour guide. He explained that passengers on our ship who took guided tours offered by the cruise line were, unwittingly, being shown exactly what the government wants them to see. Raul took us places most tourists don’t see including a “rations store” where citizens can redeem coupons for small bags of rice, beans and the occasional roll of TP when available. The shelves were mostly bare.

He took us to the National Hotel, perched high atop a hill overlooking the sea, which opened in 1930. Mob boss Meyer Lansky in the mid-1950s convinced the Battista government to cut him in as an owner. Castro seized it in 1959. 

In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the army built a bunker in the hotel garden from which volunteers scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for U.S. warships. The bunker now houses a small museum dedicated to the crisis. I asked Raul which side won. “The Soviets,” he said without hesitation. “Khrushchev had to remove his missiles from Cuba but Kennedy had to take American missiles out of Turkey.”  I had forgotten that if, indeed, I ever knew it. I was 10 years old at the time so I can’t say I stayed abreast of, or understood, every development, but Americans are taught that JFK heroically stood his ground, refused to blink, and the Soviets were forced to remove their intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba and schlep ‘em back to Russia, so we won.  When I got home I looked it up and Raul was right. JFK caved as much as Khrushchev. 


The National Hotel
The bunker was the highlight of my trip because I’m convinced the Cuban missile crisis is the primary reason we Baby Boomers are as screwed up as Generation Xers and Millennials like to claim we are. Many of us were in grammar school. Watching Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports about the crisis, in which the two superpowers threatened to blow each other and the rest of the world to oblivion, was traumatic enough. More damaging to our tender young psyches were the drills during which our teachers ordered us to practice hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from the fallout the mushroom clouds would inevitably generate. We may have been young but we weren’t stupid. We watched Mr. Wizard. We knew the radiation would melt us like the milk chocolate in the hand that wasn’t holding M&Ms.  

And so, expecting to die tomorrow, we have gone through life denying ourselves nothing, knowing there was a good chance we’d be dead before we had to pay for it, which is why many Boomers who would like to retire haven’t saved enough and will have to work until they fall dead from exhaustion rather than fallout.

For six hours Raul and his driver, a silver haired gentleman who spoke no English, took us around town. The cost of the tour was $130. Raul told us they had driven to Havana that morning from a town two hours away and would be making the return trip once our tour was finished.  The two men traveled four hours and spent six additional hours with the four of us. Assuming they split the $130 in half, they each earned a whopping $1.62 per hour from each person in our party and that doesn’t even include the cost of fuel which, Raul told us, comes from Cuba’s BFF, Venezuela. We tipped him generously and stopped en route back to our ship to buy a “Cuba” t-shirt  — but the vendor only had a dozen or so and, of those, only one fit and it was a misprint.  

I promised Raul I would write a glowing review on Trip Advisor, in the hopes future travelers will book tours with his company and ask for him by name, and he said he would be grateful. I wrote it last night. If you’d like to read it, and find out more about what we did and saw, click here:

Enough about our trip to Cuba.  There’s something I want to say to many of my well-intentioned friends and family members who think socialism is swell.  

On paper, the concept is kind and commendable — a government ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of —but, ultimately, the 90 percent who have the ability to take care of themselves in the first place wind up being oppressed, and the 10 percent who don’t would have been better off being taken care of by a democratically elected government.  

I am ashamed to admit I voted for a socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 Florida Democratic primary. I’m not really a Democrat. Neither was Bernie. I’m not a Republican either. I’ve switched parties four or five times and now firmly believe both are controlled by lunatics so there's no reason to keep switching. When I registered to vote in Florida, I had to choose one so I said I was a Democrat, which gave me the right to vote in that primary. I knew Sanders couldn’t possibly beat Hillary, whom I have always detested which is why I voted for him, but if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t. (I wouldn’t vote for Hillary, either. I would write in Rupert, my dachshund, who is not only more more personable but has a better grasp of basic economics than either of them.) For those of you about to delete me from your Facebook friends’ list, I didn’t vote for Trump in the general election either. Once again I wasted my vote, casting my ballot for one of the third party candidates — my way of expressing contempt for both Hillary and Trump and their wacko extremist parties. 

Take a look at Cuba, a country trapped in the 1950s. Then consider the failed satellites of the USSR which, now that they are capitalist, are becoming prosperous. A couple we traveled with own a vacation home overlooking the Adriatic in Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) and report they can’t find workers to renovate it — the economy is that strong now that the socialists are gone. 

Friends and family members excited by the socialist candidates who will be featured on some ballots in November’s election believe these candidates have good intentions, are compassionate, and want to help. Most likely they are, but every socialist-leaning American voter would do well to pay a visit to Cuba to see what socialism has wrought before pulling the lever.

Socialism isn’t pretty in Cuba, Venezuela, China or North Korea. It wasn't pretty in the countries that comprised the Soviet bloc. It would be fatal here and it’s madness to even flirt with it, no matter how much you want to let the world know you’re a good person who cares about injustice which, I’m convinced, is the one and only reason to vote socialist in the first place. 

Our own government is a mess right now but Americans have an uncanny ability to self-correct their mistakes and we will someday get it right. 

Let's hope Cubans someday get that right, too

A Che Guevara poster : "It is proposed to all young people ....
to be essentially that (which) approaches the best of humanity."

Thanks, Google Translate. This one makes such little sense that our
guide/interpreter couldn't even translate it with any degree of accuracy.








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