Over three years ago my son was performing in an all-nation orchestra in
Orlando Florida over Thanksgiving break. I had been to Cuba in 2011 with the
Washington State Bar Association and thought, as long as I am going to Orlando, I
might as well investigate how easy it would be to take my son to Cuba for a short trip.
I contacted Cross Cultural Journeys, a Bainbridge Island tour company that specializes
in trips to Cuba. That conversation lead to plans to take the high school jazz band to
Cuba in April 2020, with fundraisers and lots of planning. Unfortunately, Covid
cancelled our trip.
I had a travel voucher with Cross Cultural Journeys so I decided to risk going on their
trip to the Havana Jazz Fest in January 2022. It seemed like a safe bet but then
Omicron hit just before the trip. My son and I decided to go for it anyway.
We had some last minute scrambling to do to get a PCR Covid test within 72
hours of arriving. We found facilities that could provide quick results, both tested
negative and board a plane for Havana in Ft. Lauderdale early in the morning of
January 17, 2022.
My son is a sophomore studying jazz trumpet at the prestigious University of
North Texas music school. He plays clarinet and saxophone as well. He was eager to
attend the jazz fest and participate in jam sessions with Cuban musicians. As soon as
we got out of the airport his jaw was dropping (according to his self report because
we were wearing masks). He was amazed by the colors of the old cars, the buildings,
even the dirt.
The Cuban government strictly enforces a mask mandate and everyone
outside and inside had masks on. We were in Cuba but still had to worry about
obtaining a Covid test to get back into the country.
The jazz was amazing. We saw at least one band a day, often two. We brought
about $300 worth of reeds for saxophones and clarinets to a music conservatory,
along with wet-dry sandpaper to make stiffer reeds less stiff, a gift that was very
appreciated. My son was invited on stage to play a trumpet solo with the students
and a virtuoso piano player we had seen, Nachito Herrerra. We also saw a private
performance of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, an Afro-Cuban rumba ensemble whose
music is distributed in the US and who were nominated for a Grammy in 2001.
I learned something interesting about the Cuban protests last July. My understanding from the mainstream press was that the protests
were over oppressive measures by the government and problems caused by Covid. I
read in the alternative press that the protesters wanted better health care, which is
provided by the government, so in essence, a demand for more socialized medicine. I
heard something different from the Cubans I met.
Our tour guide, Jesus, was a party member trained to serve in the diplomatic corps,
but decided to work in the small private sector instead. He was happy with his
decision, boasting that he had visited 31 countries while his friends in the diplomatic
corps had only visited 16. He explained that on paper, Cuba has democratic
institutions. It has a grass roots level of democracy where people have input over
neighborhood issues like trash collection. Those grass roots participants can
nominate someone to run for an election. Candidates cannot nominate themselves.
Sometimes they are party members, sometimes not. They have a parliament with
The problem is that the Communist Party, which has about 1 million
members in a country of 11 million, makes all the decisions. The protests were to
pressure the party to allow elected representatives to have some real power. He
was upset that one of the main protest organizers had just been sentenced to a
twenty-year prison term, though he thought the government would offer some
amnesty in the future, perhaps as a part of an international deal.
The owner of the home where we stayed was in the diplomatic corps, but
also decided to leave government service. He hopes the government reforms wisely
and fears a sudden upheaval. As a negative example he used Hungary, which has
become fiercely nationalistic, arguably atavistic, largely due to the sudden change
after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Jesus and the owner of our temporary residence in Havana, Noel, both
complained to me about agricultural policy. The government had put price caps on
farm products making them too cheap for farmers to survive. This centrally planned
decision was not what a country suffering from the steep drop in tourist revenue
due to Covid needed. Cuba is going through a hard time right now.
However, we went to a small private farm owned by a Nicaraguan woman
and her Peruvian husband. They have been farming in Cuba for seven years, turning
marginal land into a productive farm. Cross Cultural Journeys was able to schedule
this farm visit in after I requested it because I am a board member of Bainbridge
Island’s Friends of the Farms. This flexibility was one bonus for charging ahead on
with this small tour group during Covid.
The government allowed these two foreign farmers to start their small
organic farm and farm-to-table restaurant on land that is not good enough for a
larger scale agriculture. We toured the farm and had a delicious lunch; the wife
having studied culinary arts in France where they met. They reported that the
government had made things difficult for them, restricting how much water they
could use or questioning their choices of crops and imposing price caps. However,
they said that the government had recently eased a lot of restrictions, including
price caps, and made it easier for them to farm. Now they just need more tourists!
The farmers reality check made me wonder if Cubans have a sense of learned helplessness from so many years of central economic planning. The farmers tried to tell their neighbors about the recent reforms, but they didn’t believe them because the government hadn’t told them yet. In this rapidly changing environment, people who operate private businesses must be proactive and it seemed like a
foreign entrepreneur has more skills and inclination to adapt without having to be told to do so.
The main tourist areas were almost entirely devoid of tourists. There is a gas shortage that cuts down on traffic. The thick smoke from the old cars was hard to ignore though. Despite these challenges, Cuba seems to be plugging along. There’s nothing like being there to provide a human face to this place so close to the US, but so cut off.
Overall, it was a great experience. Wi-Fi was not easily obtained. Being
unplugged from my phone and having the opportunity to take in a country that is so
different was just what I needed. I speak Spanish which made it easier. My son
wants to learn more Spanish and even dreams of studying trumpet in Cuba.
Cross Cultural Journeys organized a great tour. There were only two other
people on the trip in addition to my son and me, but they had not been there for
over two years and getting back to Cuba to see how things are was essential.
CCJ had rented a 1948 Dodge stretch limousine that was on call for us the entire trip. The
private house we stayed at was clean and comfortable, with a delicious breakfast
served every morning. We ate at private restaurants. The cuisine of Cuba is not
especially distinctive, heavy on rice and beans, but the fresh seafood, including
lobster, fish and octopus, was phenomenal and fairly cheap.
On our last day we went to the medical clinic, which treated former
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez when he had cancer, for our Covid test. I had a
sunburn and sore swimming muscles from a day at the beach and that combined
with my nervousness made me feel like I had Covid for sure. As soon as my negative
test came back my symptoms went away.
It was a trip that has been planned for three years and I probably wasn’t even totally aware of the stress it’s been causing
me, wondering if my investment in this potentially amazing experience for me and my son would ever pay off.
In the end, it exceeded expectations!