A proud local car owner poses in front of his life’s work. Classic American cars can be found all over Cuba, remarkably well maintained. (All photos: Bill Fink)
With the recent White House announcement on the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a new political era has begun. But for the foreseeable future, the current tourism rules will remain in place: namely that most U.S. citizens can only legally visit Cuba as part of a licensed “people-to-people” educational tour. Yes, you may soon be able to bring back a bunch of cigars and rum, but you still have to be part of one of these tours. But is going on a People to People (P2P) program actually a good way to see the “real” Cuba, or are they just state-sanctioned window dressing meant to confuse tourists? I joined one of these tours earlier this year to find out.
People to People
P2P tours bring visitors to recently opened capitalist-style farmers markets.
The basic concept of P2P tours for Americans is that since U.S. tourism to Cuba is banned, you’re going there as part of a cultural exchange. So the good news is you can legally go to Cuba. The bad news is you’re not going there just to relax — the tours are packed with 40 hours per week of mandatory “educational” meetings. If the idea of going to a Caribbean island and never going to the beach seems absurd to you, then congratulations, you’ve begun to appreciate dysfunctional U.S.-Cuba politics. “We’re actually not allowed to use the word ‘rum’ or ‘beach’ in any of our U.S. brochures,” one tour operator told me.
Despite these restrictions, on my trip with Classic Journeys, (one of the approved companies that run the trips), I enjoyed my first mojito about 30 minutes after I arrived in Havana, relaxing very far from any classroom in an upscale hotel bar. Between scheduled exchange visits, I was allowed to roam freely throughout the city. The definition of an “educational” visit is clearly flexible. Our group dined in Old Town Havana at the Moneda Cubana “paladar,” one of the private restaurants legalized by Raul Castro’s reforms. Our people-to-people exchange during this visit consisted of the waiters telling stories while serving us cocktails on a rooftop overlooking the Caribbean. This is the type of education I can get behind.
Just because you’re on a cultural exchange doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the good life: Hotel Saratoga’s bar in Havana.
People-to-people tours’ focuses and agendas can vary widely. Some are serious academic or medical exchanges dedicated to research that actually does take place in classrooms. Others take sort of a nudge-and-a-wink approach to the cultural exchange concept and spend the bulk of their time in bars and restaurants. My tour was a middle ground between the two extremes, offering some fun along with the serious.
Our formal exchange sessions included official visits with artists in their studios, kids in a grammar school, conservationists, and with the acting rabbi at a synagogue. The interactions ranged from artists’ sales pitches to more interactive Q&A sessions with locals eager to share their perspective. My group of 10 joined improv lessons with a theater group (“Now everyone please become a tree”) and picked up some socialist accounting tips from a farmer (“I must sell 90 percent of my crop to the government, so I keep 20 percent for myself,” he said with a smile).
The P2P exchange group goes for full immersion in a Havana improv class.
These group encounters added cultural insights lacking during a typical island vacation. But after a week, even the most sincere exchanges begin to become tiresome. I slouched like a surly schoolkid when our guide dragged us off our bus to yet another appointment. But I was treated to a pleasant surprise of “Love and Hope.” The Amor y Esperanza center in Viñales is a center for young adults with Down syndrome. The students proudly demonstrated their arts-and-crafts skills while the director talked of the center’s mission of promoting job and social training. We then sat in front of a stage set up for a student song and dance production. The nervous students were beside themselves with delight as we applauded their excellent performances. As we were pulled on stage for a chaotic group salsa dance, I felt like I was part of a genuine people-to-people moment.
A visit to the Amor y Esperanza “Love and Hope” center allowed local kids with Down Syndrome to show off their talents.
The Countryside of Old
In the same spirit of love and hope, the whole town of Viñales has the movie-set feel of a Caribbean romance. The twin revenue sources of tourism and tobacco have brought a measure of prosperity and capitalism to the small town in Cuba’s central highlands. Houses are done up in bright pastels. Kids stroll to school wearing spotless uniforms. Shiny classic cars cruise the streets alongside bicycle vendors selling fresh fruit. Mustachioed cowboys ride horses into the fields where oxen pull plows like they did a century ago.
P2P tours bring visitors to the Cuban countyside, where they discover peoples’ close relationship with their animals.
Our hiking guide told us, “We do 100 percent organic farming here. But, of course, we don’t have any choice.” The U.S. has blocked export of modern pesticides and GMO crops, and the old Soviet industrial supplies have all run out. So it was with some confidence that I snacked on fruit sold at a farmer’s hut during the hike.
Traveling the Cuban countryside reveals traditional farming landscape.
In Viñales, due to our people-to-people focus, we were able to take home a cigar-related keepsake even better than a box of Cohibas — the experience of a behind-the-scenes tour of a tobacco factory. “Factory,” that is, if you consider 30 women rolling piles of tobacco leaf at tables in a warehouse to be an industrial project. Communist party slogans lined the walls in the same manner as those “Success is…” posters hang in U.S. corporate offices — background decorations largely ignored by all. The foreman, like 90 percent of the employees of the workshop, was a woman. “We just have more patience than men,” she said to explain the skewed ratio, “and you need patience to make fine cigars.” When I asked her what brand she liked to smoke she said: “None! I’ve been working here eight hours a day for 20 years. The last thing I want is the smell of tobacco when I go home.” So much for the party line.
One of the “patient woman” workers rolling tobacco in the cigar workshop.
City Life: The Hot Corner, Cold Water, and a Warm Engine
Back in Havana, our tour guide went on a quest for an old-school shave, one where the barber uses straight razor, hot towels, and home-made foam. He walked from barber shop to barber shop in the lower level of crumbling colonial palaces and the ruins of previously glamorous art-deco buildings. One shop had no hot water. At the next, the shaver was out on break. The third said they had neither hot towels nor razors. “But we have great conversation — please, come on in!”
Unescorted walks on the streets of Havana reveal alley games of beisbol.
This is the essence of contemporary Cuba — what the country lacks in material resources (due to a combination of the U.S. embargo and 50 years of socialism), it more than makes up for with a friendly, engaging populace, ready to share their passions on any topic from sports to cars, their kids, or the price of housing — topics easy for any American to relate to, as long as you understand Spanish or have a translator to create your own unofficial people-to-people exchange wherever you go.
For one of these informal chats, our guide led the group to “Esquina Caliente,” the “Hot Corner” of Havana’s Central Park. This is the epicenter for debate about Cuba’s national sport of baseball. We arrived to see about two dozen men shouting, gesticulating, and stomping in comic anger about opinions on the ongoing national championship series.
We introduced our own topics into the debate. One of our group asked who they felt was the best player ever. In a flash, a wiry local man in his 30s pulled a piece of paper from his pocket listing Major League career batting averages and home-run totals and declared Barry Bonds the winner. I asked what they thought of former Cuban national team member Yasiel Puig’s defection to the U.S. to become a multimillionaire. “Glad he can get what he deserves!” said one. “Brings pride to Cuba!” said another — opinions coming as fast as line drives to third base.
A classic car cruises down a colorful street in Vinales.
Even Cuba’s famed collection of classic American cars can become a subject for a people-to-people exchange. Our group approached a cabbie in downtown Havana leaning against the hood of his chili pepper-red 1958 Plymouth, one of about two dozen classic cars lined up under palm trees in the central park. My group leader said: “Nice car. Can we see under the hood?” The cabbie’s guarded expression turned into a big smile, and he eagerly exposed the engine and explained in great detail the tricks he used to maintain his pride and joy. We learned the secret to keeping a half-century-old vehicle running in Cuba is globalization — with a local flavor. “My car, from USA. But engine, French Peugot. The transmission, Argentina, drive shaft, Soviet. And the color,” he said, waving proudly to his flaming-red paint job, “puro Cubana!”
The cost of joining a people-to-people trip on a charter flight to Cuba is certainly more than it would be for an American to visit independently (and illegally) via regular service from Canada or Mexico, but the payoff for me was that, due to a well-coordinated itinerary, guides, and access, I was able to both literally and figuratively look under the hood of modern Cuba — to share experiences, perspectives, and opinions with regular Cubans during a unique time in their country’s history.