OUTBOUND EXCHANGE REPORT
By Raymond A. Enstam, Exchange
“ambassadors” have just returned from our exchange to Cuba from
September 23 to October 1, 2000, hosted by the Cuban Council of
As we were preparing for the Friendship Force of Dallas
exchange to Cuba, we received an e-mail from Sergeant Michael Wenzel of
the Marine detachment at the US Interests Section in Havana, which
serves as the US “Embassy” there for lack of direct diplomatic
relations. He indicated
that he was in charge of creating a “Toys for Tots” program at the
Embassy, similar to one the Marines have done in other places in the
world. He asked our help in
bringing some toys with us since they were hard to obtain in Cuba.
I accepted on behalf of the group, and sent out an e-mail to all
of the participants describing the project.
Everyone responded favorably and
each of us brought a few toys stuffed them in the corners of our
luggage. We arrived in
Havana on a Saturday night. I had made arrangements with Sergeant Wenzel that I would
call him the next Monday morning and arrange an appointment to go to the
Embassy to deliver the toys.
Unfortunately, before we arrived, the Cuban government had
selected that Monday morning as the day to hold a massive rally to
harangue the United States. There
is a huge platform in front of the Embassy that was erected at a cost of
about $2,000,000 during the “Elian Crisis” to harangue the United
States with demonstrations and speeches.
It is called the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, or
Anti-Imperialist Platform. The
Elian Crisis having been resolved with his return, the Cuban government
had apparently decided to find other uses for the platform.
They had called a massive rally, with Commandante Castro himself
in attendance, to protest the US Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows
automatic asylum to any Cuban who touches US soil.
The Cuban government has labeled it an “assassin law” because
so many Cubans have died at sea trying to reach the US, allegedly
encouraged by this law. Schools
were closed and students were bused in from all over the area to ensure
a big crowd.
We decided that the Marine guards would be occupied that
morning, and there was no way we could get near the Embassy in any
event, so we watched the rally on Cuban television, it being the only
thing broadcast on the two legal TV channels.
After the rally our hosts sent us to a beach outside of Havana to
pass the rest of the morning.
Upon return to Havana,
I called Sergeant Wenzel and we made an appointment for 3:00 that
afternoon. We went to the
Embassy and, after passing through intensive security, we were inside
and met with Sergeant Wenzel in person for the first time.
We delivered the toys and had a conversation with several of the
Marines. Our gifts
constituted the first delivery of toys for the program and we very happy
to have been the initial contributors.
At that point the Ambassador herself, Vicki Huddleston, came to
the lobby to greet us. Of
course, that was a great picture opportunity with her, the Sergeant and
all the toys.
After that, Ambassador Huddleston invited us in for a
briefing on the status of Cuban-American relations and how she viewed
the situation in Cuba. We
accepted gladly and went into the briefing room and spent over an hour
listening and asking questions.
After the briefing, we left the Embassy and walked over to
the Anti-Imperialist Platform. Everyone
in that huge crowd we had seen on television had quietly left.
It was eerie thinking that only a few hours before that platform
was filled with tens of thousands of people shouting at the US, and now
there was no one there but a handful of US visitors wandering around
taking pictures and a couple of security guards watching us.
In all, this was only a small part of a wonderful one week
trip to Cuba visiting with the Cuban people under the sponsorship of the
Cuban Council of Churches. We
spent three days in Havana seeing the sights, and the tragedy of large
numbers of once magnificent homes and buildings now in ruins for lack of
course we also saw the very famous American cars of the 1950’s and
older vintage everywhere. These
are supplemented by old Russian Ladas from the 60’s and 70’s, and
Japanese cars more recently. The
latter belong to the government or to foreigners, because Cubans cannot
We then traveled to Santa Clara by private bus and got to
see a smaller Cuban city and had two nights of homestay there.
Santa Clara is where the remains of “Che” Guevara are buried
and there is a huge monument to him.
In fact, the whole of Cuba is covered with billboards with his
picture and quotes, T-shirts of him, etc.
You can’t escape seeing him everywhere.
From Santa Clara we took a day trip to Cienfuegos and Trinidad,
two very historic cities. In the smaller cities we did not see the antique American cars
as in Havana, the taxis there being mostly horse drawn carts. The trip
through the countryside was beautiful.
The lush tropical vegetation and the untouched seashore was
Finally, we ended up at Varadero, the “Cancun” of Cuba.
On the way we passed by the school of Elian in Cardenas, and all
appeared very normal. Varadero
is a very luxurious hotel resort complex catering to foreigners.
But it is not Cuba. In
fact, Cubans cannot even enter the peninsula unless they have a special
permit as tour guide or employee in the complex.
A type of “apartheid” that I found incongruous in a communist
country priding itself on equality.
I also had this same feeling about the strange division of Cuba
society into those with Dollars and those without.
The average Cuban works for the government, and monthly salaries
vary between 200 Pesos for a laborer to 600 Pesos for an administrator.
A professional such as a teacher, doctor, dentist or symphony
musician makes 400 Pesos. This
is about US $20.00 per month. They
can survive because rent and utilities are very cheap, and because they
can buy in the low price government “Peso stores.”
But purchases in these stores are rationed:
each Cuban is limited to five pounds of rice per month, one and
one half pounds of beans (choice of black, red or white), six pounds of
sugar, twelve eggs, six ounces of coffee, one pound of salt per family,
and a ration of milk for children up to seven years (no milk for older
children or adults). There
is also a ration of meat, but it is never there, so it exists only in
theory. It is easy to see
that those with only Pesos to spend don’t live very well.
The government has recently created “Dollar stores,” owned
and operated by the government, in which you can buy all the food and
meat you want, designer cloths, Nike shoes, etc.
Anyone can go into these stores, but to buy you need US Dollars,
in effect limiting purchases to tourists, Cubans with relatives overseas
who send remittances, and Cubans who work in tourism and get tips.
In this country of highly touted communist equality, they have
created gaping differences between the citizens.
It is like two countries existing side by side in the same space.
Those with only Pesos are living in an impoverished third world
country and those with Dollars are living almost as if in the US, and
these people are neighbors living side by side.
When I say they are living as if in the US, I am speaking
only of material things, of course.
No one has the right to choose their government, feely speak
their opinion, or even leave the country without special permission.
Access to information is also limited.
There are no newspapers except the official Granma, which is not
news but a government sounding board.
There are certainly no opposition papers or foreign papers.
Don’t look for the New York Times!
And only two channels of television are permitted, both owned by
the government. Overseas
channels are blocked. Internet
and email are similarly controlled.
The only ISP, or internet service provider, is owned by the
government and it will allow access only to those approved by the
government with special needs, such as government officials,
universities, tourism promoters, doctors, etc.
In reality there are four economies in Cuba.
In addition to the Peso and Dollar economies, there are the black
market and the barter economies. Those
who receive gifts from outside the country, for instance aspirin and
other medicines that they don’t want, simply resell or barter them.
A similar situation exists in medical care.
Even though Cuba boasts of having the highest ratio of doctors
per inhabitant in the world, and free medical care for all, Cubans find
their medical care is limited to tests and diagnosis of their problem.
There are no medicines available and the doctors cannot do much
about the ailments. Basic
things like anti-biotics for doctors and Novocain for dentists are not
We met one person who was a dentist but was working as a
tour guide. That day we
gave him a $20 tip for 21 persons on the tour.
His tip alone was more than he would have made in a month as a
dentist, and without Novocain he didn’t like doing it anyway.
In spite of all these problems, I found everyone quite
cheerful and friendly toward Americans.
Everyone seems to have a relative in the US and would want tell
us about his brother or cousin living in here.
All of the shouting going on at the American Embassy seemed to be
a different world from the real Cuba, for both the Cubans and the
Our return home was an adventure in itself.
We were scheduled to leave at 3:00 PM from Havana to Cancun,
where we would all switch to planes for various locations in the United
States, with most of us coming to Dallas. The day before we all heard weather reports of hurricane
Keith which was headed directly for Cancun and predicted to hit there
mid afternoon the day of our travel.
Obviously, we wouldn’t be flying to Cancun if the storm was
there. We arrived at the Havana airport still not knowing if we
would leave or spend another day in Havana, and were told that as of
that moment, the plane was still scheduled to leave.
It did leave on schedule, and we arrived in Cancun as they sky
began to cloud over menacingly. We
were told that the hurricane had turned south into Belize, but we were
still getting parts of it and it was still unsure if our plane to
Houston would leave. US Air
had cancelled a flight coming in and all of their outbound passengers
had been switched over to our flight.
After much suspense and worsening weather, we did get out of
there 45 minutes late. Fortunately,
the rest of the trip went as planned and although we arrived in Houston
45 minutes late, we were still able to make the Dallas connection (just
barely!). I found out later
that we were the last flight out of Havana to Cancun for three days!
All subsequent flights to Cancun were cancelled due to the