CUBA .......   March 22nd to March 29th, 2002

A Diary by lawyer Rod Williams

Cuba is one of seven  listed by the US as a terrorist country.  An embargo by the US on travel and trade to Cuba has been in effect since 1961.  There is currently a move on to lift the embargo.  A US citizen can not travel to Cuba as a tourist.  You must enter for a different purpose.  I went with the William C. Velasques Institute on a license approved by the US Treasury Department for non-commercial purposes (a cultural exchange for the purpose of compiling information related to Cuba).  It specifically excludes travel for commercial or tourists activities.  This license will expire on June 19, 2002 and , although the Institute has filed for a renewal, It is anticipated that it will not be renewed because of the Bush Administrationís opposition  to the Castro regime and in particular because Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, has a very strong and wealthy group of anti-Castro supporters in his corner, that helped give Bush the electoral vote in the last Presidential election.  On our charter flight was a group of State Senators from California who were in Cuba to visit with government officials.  This group is sponsoring a resolution in the Senate to eliminate the embargo.

Cuba has a population of 11 to 12 million with over 2.2 million living in Havana.  After the collapse of communism in Russia, the economy of Cuba hit bottom as it had been receiving about 85 % of its imports from Russia.  Today, tourism is its main industry.  People travel there from all over the world but in particular from Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe.  There are approximately 6 to 10 new hotels with ratings of 3, 4 and 5 star.  Other hotels have been refurbished, such as the National Hotel and the Rivera -- The latter having been built by the Mafia.

The airport is small.  Flights to Havana from US are limited...Miami has 3 flights per week and the one that I was on (Tapa Airlines) has one per week from LA.

The following is summary of notes that I made each day re my observations and thoughts:

Friday, March 22nd, 2002.........Arrived that night at the Melia Cohiba Hotel (5 star).  It is across from the water (Florida Straits).  My room on the 4th floor had a view of the pool and the water.  Hotel is very modern with numerous restaurants and bars.  Rooms are large and well furnished with phones, TV, bar and safe.  The TV had some US programs, including ESPN.  I could not get CNN on my TV for some reason but others did.

That night had a glass of wine in the hotel bar (2.00) and went across the street for a spaghetti dinner, great jazz band and drinks.  Total costs for 6 and drinks...16.00  

Saturday, March 23rd.............Took a city tour.  A few blocks from our hotel are many very old and beautiful homes.  Many have large pillars.  All are in need of repair.  The embassies are located in this area.  The streets are very clean and the roads are well maintained.  There are lots of parks and squares...monuments of heroes...You see apartment buildings everywhere.  Trees are large and beautiful.  A few beggars.

OLD HAVANA....again the buildings are very old and in desperate need of repair.  This is a big tourists area with hotels, bars and flea markets.  Had lunch with drinks (13.00).

That evening stopped at he National Hotel for drinks.  One of the oldest in Havana but has mucho history.  It has pictures of all the VIPS that have stayed there over the years.  Most of them were movie stars.  It would be a fun place to stay.

Had dinner at the Floridita Restaurant in Old Havana.  Very exclusive and expensive.  This is where the Daiquiri  drink was allegedly  invented for one of its most famous patrons...Ernest Hemingway (his bar stool is marked and robed off from the public).  The bartender became famous and was buried in the Christopher Columbus cemetery (I will describe this later).  

Sunday, March 24th, 2002........Took a 2 hour bus ride east of Havana to Varadero beach.  The road was a four-lane divided highway.  Traveled thru mountains.  Very green and lush looking.  Had a rest stop at a place called Bacunayagua...a beautiful look-out point in the mountains.

On the way to the beach, several black autos with a  motorcycle escort passed us at  a high rate of speed.  Our guide said it was in fact Fidel Castro in the 2nd vehicle but who knows!!!!!

Varadero Beach is the largest resort complex in the Caribbean.  We stayed at the Club Palmsros Hotel for the day.  Many beautiful resorts with golf courses.  It reminded me of resorts I have seen in Hawaii and Tahiti.  Al Capone had a home here.  We visited the old DuPont (French) home, which is now a bar and restaurant.

That night we went to a Cuban show at the Tropicana Restaurant and Bar.  

Monday, March 25th, 2002......Meeting with Estrella Morejon Leyva..she is spokes-person for the Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC) (radio-TV-music) in the garden patio of their office.  They can say or express themselves on any social issue. (E.g. transsexuals)

They can criticize the government BUT it must be done in a diplomatic way and , of course, they can not advocate the over-throw of the government.

Had lunch at the La Ferminia Restaurant with Cuban music entertainers.  I purchased a CD.  This was a former home.

Meeting with Miguel Coyula (architect) from the Department for the Integral Development of Havana.  He was a great speaker.  His English was perfect.  Had a very large scale model of Havana and explained its development now and for the future.  Later in the week I meet him again at a reception and chatted with him one on one.

Had dinner that night at the Guarida Restaurant.  Dinner, wine and tip...30.00. Excellent food but was located in a building that appeared it would collapse at any time.  It is a place that you would not even enter unless you went with someone who knew about it..  

Tuesday, March 26th, 2002.... Visited the University of Havana and the Law School.  Met with a Deputy Dean and a professor of family law and inheritance of the Law school.  They both gave brief presentations and then opened for questions.  Some very pointed questions were asked and complete answers were given to all (even though some espoused the views of the State).

The legal system and its laws are based on roman , French and Spanish law.  The new family law code was enacted in 1975.  Unfortunately, we did not meet with any criminal lawyers and so many of the questions I had were not asked.  There is no presumption of innocence.  There is a movement to change this.

 The court system is comprised of one supreme court, 14 provincial courts (appellate type courts) and municipal courts (trial courts).  Judges are elected.

Pro pers are not allowed.  All litigants must have a lawyer

Lawyers do not work for the State.  People can choose the lawyer they want.  Lawyers set their own fees but State can regulate the maximum amount of a fee in any individual case.  Reputation counts.  The better lawyers get the most business.

A good, reputable lawyer will earn 15,000 pesos per year, which is 580. Per month and based on a conversion rate of 26 this will be about 40.00 usd dollars per month (about the same as a doctor).  A judge will earn about 7,000 pesos per year or a little less than 20.00 usd dollars per month.  At least this system recognizes the worth of a lawyer vs. a

There are no laws directed at domestic violence but there is a movement to establish this.

Had Lunch at the hotel pool and dinner in the hotel.

Went to a ball game that night....Cost .10 cents to get in.  No hotdogs or beer for sale.  You could purchase hamburgers and peanuts.  One of the teams we saw was the one that El Dukee played for before defecting to the US (by boat).  He now plays for the Yankees.  The other team...La Isle..was the team that Livian Hernandez played for before defecting from the Cuban baseball team while playing in the US.   My new Cuban friend (more later), who is an avid baseball fan, went into the La Isle dugout and for 10.00 usd got me a Cuban baseball signed by all the players.

Two new ball-players to look for..........Kendri Morales, age 18, switch-hitter...a power hitter.  The other is Mae Rodriguez, age 21, a pitcher with a fast-ball of 100 plus.  

Wednesday, March 27th, 2002...... Meeting with the Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cuba.....Rafeal Dausa Cespedes..... He wants the embargo lifted so Cuba can trade and have normal relations with the US, including tourism.  He claims the embargo is supported by a small but wealthy and influential group in Florida comprised of former Cubans who are anti-Castro. This is based on Castro naturalizing the Country and confiscating private property when he defeated the Bautista government. Prior to 9/11, he claimed that a majority of our congressmen were in favor of lifting the embargo but that event has taken much of the enthusiasm out of the movement because of other concerns.

Guantanamo Bay Treaty of 1905....US pays rent of 4085. Per year.  Treaty allows either side to terminate.  Cuba has tried for years but US ignores them.  Cuba has not cashed a rent check for many years.

Although US has no formal relationship with Cuba, we do have what is called an ďAmerican Interest SectionĒ in Havana. Cuba has a similar section in Washington, DC.  So, there are daily communications between the two countries.  NOTE: I had never heard of this before.

Prior to the collapse of communism in Russia in 1991, Cuba got 85 % of its trade from Russia.  So Cuba was left with no money, no imports and no world credit.  Tourism is one way out of this dilemma but Cuba only has 35,000 hotel rooms.  Last year they had 1.8 million visit the country.  Sugar and tobacco are their largest exports.

That afternoon I visited the Ernest (Papa) Hemingway home, 20 miles from Havana.  It is now a museum.  Has over 9000 books there.  Has a large pool and the boat that was the basis for the Old Man and the Sea.

Also visited the Christopher Columbus Cemetery on 132 acres.  It has 53,000 monuments.  It is in this cemetery that the Floridita bartender is buried.  I saw his monument.  The cemetery is a good indicator of how many rich people lived in Cuba at one time (or famous). Each monument has a history of its own. There is one gravesite that is said to represent a miracle.  Years ago a mother and baby died together.  As was the custom, the baby was placed between the motherís legs.  After the father died, the grave was reopened to put his body in and the baby was now found being held in the motherís arms.  No, Columbus in not buried here. His remains were sent to Spain. The Cubans admit this.  In Seville, Spain, I saw the monument inside the church where Columbus is supposedly buried.  Burial services in Cuba are free, except for cremation.

On the way back to the hotel, we gave a ride to a young man in a white coat.  He was a doctor going to a meeting. He is married and has 2 children.  He said that many doctors have left the profession to make more money.  He thinks these people are too selfish.  They only want to benefit themselves not the people.  He says he is happy with the system and that his true compensation comes from the look in the eyes of the people that he helps.

Later that day we had a meeting with Rafael Alarcon, Deputy of the General Assembly.  He gave a brief presentation and then took questions for an hour.  He is the 3rd most powerful man in Cuba, only behind Fidel and Fidelís brother.  He is well liked by the people and many think that he will become the president when Fidel dies.   He believes the main problem existing between Cuba and the US is the lack of understanding between the two,which is based on lack of communication.

That night we had a reception with Cuban officials and the California delegation at the National Hotel.  Had dinner at the Prado restaurant (Italian) in old Havana...Spaghetti dinner costs 4.00.  Across the street is the new Parqu Hotel, a joint venture between the Dutch and Cuba.  This hotel is within walking distance of many places in Old Havana.  I think I would like to stay here on my next visit.

Yes.............this was a long day.  

Thursday, March 28th, 2002..... A day trip to the Pinar del Rio Province.  A bus ride of 2 hours 30 minutes.  As we drove west from Havana, we passed thru some of the most beautiful areas in Cuba.  Saw large plantation type homes occupied by State officials and embassies.  Rolling hills, green and fertile with grazing cattle.  Saw sugar cane fields, rice paddies, palm trees, banana trees and tobacco fields.  The highway was 4 lane and divided.  Saw a few tractors but most of the farming was done with a hand held plow pulled by cows or water buffalos.  Most of the small farmhouses had palm thatch type roofs.  We drove down into a valley surrounded by mountains on 3 sides. Drove onto a narrow 2 lane road and finally to the town of Vinales.

Near here we saw the Mural de la Prehistora painted on a 1200 foot cliff of the Sierra de Vinales.  It represents the theory of evolution but has been called by some a horrendous piece of graffiti. 

We then visited the Cueva del Indio ( a cavern with an underground river running thru it).  We walked down into the cave and then took a boat ride out.  It is here that I rode a water buffalo.  Have

Had lunch in this area at Laermita Restaurant.

That nite many went to the ballet but some of us toured old Havana and listened to Cuban music and Spanish flamenco dancers.  

Friday, March 29th, 2002...........The last day.............Visited the Museum, Corona Cigar factory and flea market.

The Museum of the Revolution was the former Bautista headquarters.  It has the complete history of the revolution, including many pictures and weapons.  The first armed revolution by Castro was on 7/26/1953.  It failed and Castro and others were tried, convicted and imprisoned.  He was given a sentence of 15 years.  However, due to public pressure and the fear of the people revolting in mass, he was released after spending about 2 years in prison. Castro went to Mexico, organized the people with the help of others and returned to Cuba in December of 1958.  He set up a camp in the mountains west of Guantanamo Bay.  On December 31, 1958 the revolutionary army attacked and took over the Bautista headquarters. Outside the door to Bautistaís office there was and still is what appears to be a full-length mirror.  However, the mirror concealed the hiding place for Bautista.  He some how escaped from the building and fled in his helicopter on January 1, 1959 to the Dominican Republic.  He took with him 40 million dollars in government funds and died in comfortable exile in Spain in 1973.  Castro entered the city of Havana on January 8th and on February 16th he was named Prime Minister.  In April 1959, Castro made a private visit to Washington to address a gathering of the National Press Club.  To avoid meeting Castro, Eisenhower left on a golfing holiday and VP Richard Nixon received Castro at the White House for an hour-long meeting.  Shortly thereafter Nixon put in motion a process that eventually led to the Bay of Pigs.  In 1961 the US broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, banned US citizens from traveling to Cuba and started the Embargo.

There are 800 workers in the cigar factory.  It produces 50,000 cigars per day.  A worker has a quota he must meet every day.  Assuming he produces 123 cigars a day, he will earn approximately 10.00 per month.  He is allowed to take home 2 cigars a day.  As we walked thru the factory, the workers would sell cigars at 1.00 each.  It is obvious that hundreds are stolen a day and sold on the black market.  You work for 6 months and get 1 month of vacation.

ECONOMY, THE PEOPLE AND OBSERVATIONS IN GENERAL: Based on socialism but with the trend towards tourism you see a little capitalism starting to appear.  Fidel Castro is loved by everyone. He is a HERO. However, they can and do talk about him .  They tell jokes involving him, will offer criticism of him and discuss what they think will happen when he dies.  Know one knows where he lives.  This is a well-kept secret.  They know nothing of his personal life. 

The Cuban people are very warm and friendly.  They love their baseball.  Crime is very low.  Narcotics are not a problem at all.  A few may use Marijuana

The real property is owned by the State but the land will stay with a particular family and will pass from one generation to the other. You cannot give the property to someone outside of your family without permission from the State.  You pay rent to the state.  I heard many say there rent was 1.00 to 1.25 per month. Other examples of costs are Utilities..1.00 bill....30 cents per month.  There are no taxes.

The most a person will earn a month in pesos is our equivalent of  40.00 (e.g. doctors).  To exist, you must have dollars so you see many people not pursing their chosen profession but working as waiters, bartenders, taxi drivers, tour guides, etc.  I meet taxi cab drivers who were professors, electrical engineers, economists and even doctors.  I meet a bio-chemistry doctor who was working as a waiter part-time to earn usd dollars.

Phones are a luxury..  Cell phones are not allowed.  Some have TVís but American channels are blocked.  There are 3 TV stations but only broadcast from 4 to 10 p.m.

Education is free for all, including college and professional schools such as medical and law.  Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  They claim that 80 plus of the young people go on to college.

Lets say you own a cow............this cow can not be sold to an individual  nor  the milk it produces.  You sell to the State or it must all stay within the family.

If you want to have a party at your must get permission from the State and they will tell you how long it may last.

Cuba is now producing 20 % of its own oil.

All medical is free. Doctors live in a specified area and will provide treatment to all people living there.  E.g....Doctor I meet...she has over 200 families with approximately 1000 people in her area.

All Cubans have a food ration book.  This limits what and the quantity that you can purchase of food items. (Of course, if you have dollars, you can buy more)

As in Russia, there is an underground economy that is probably larger than the one on the surface.

Some of the best paying jobs are medical doctors, policeman, and those in tourism.

Pay will range from 600 to 1000 pesos a month...conversion rate is 26 to one.  So, these jobs will earn 30. To 40.00 usd per month.

Had a long conversation with the wine connoisseur   re the State.  He does not want to see the embargo lifted.  He is happy with system because it gives you free education and medical. His believes are contradicted by the fact that he works in the hotel because he cannot make a good living as a college professor.

Many want the embargo lifted.  Others do not. They like Americans but hate the Russians.  They want a better life but, in my opinion, are willing to continue with the system because they have certain guarantees and are not certain what a new system would give them.  Although the State says it wants the embargo lifted I am not certain this is what Castro really wants to happen.  Many believe that Castro is afraid that many will leave the country if embargo is lifted.

There are no fast food restaurants, as we know them.  The are almost no billboards.  The ones you do see are pictures of Fidel or statements of support for the state.

Most Cubans that I had contact with spoke very good English.  They all expressed a genuine fondness for Americans.  None of them seemed to have fear of talking with us about the embargo, the economy, Fidel or any other subject.  It was difficult to determine what percentage of the Cubans belong to the Communist Party, although they freely admitted that those that did belong got the better jobs.  As I noted above, Russians are not well liked in Cuba.

AUTOMOBILES: Many old American cars of the 1950's.  But you also see new or fairly new Toyotas, Mercedes , vans , Suvs, and other European autos. Saw some Fiat dealerships. The automobiles are owned by the State.  Very few individuals own private cars as they are extremely expensive and most Cubans just cannot afford them.  

Vladimir Ferriol and his wife Mayelin Yilar...  Robert Tafoya meet them last year.  He is a waiter at a hotel, although he has a college degree in history and economics.  She is a doctor.  As a doctor, she is furnished with an apartment and a phone.  Her office is below the apartment.  She is paid 40.00 per month.  I took numerous photos of her office.  She is the doctor for her neighborhood...approximately 200 plus families and 1000 people.  Vladimir is an avid baseball fan.   Address: Marta Abreu #164 A at Enrrique Villvendas y final, Cerro, C. Habana  Phone # 879-4898

back to
back to Mike Baird's Cuba story