River view in Matanzas. Photo by Ross Humphreys.
This is the last installment in our friend Walter Parks’ travel journal to Cuba, and we hope you’ve enjoyed sharing the trip with us. We invited Walter and Betty Parks to join us on Tom Miller’s Literary Tour of Havana in early January. Miller published Trading with the Enemy in 1992. It is the best single piece of writing we have seen on Cuba in the Castro days. When we returned, Walt (The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, Rio Nuevo Publishers) shared his personal trip journal with the other travelers in our group and now shares it with you. A wonderful trip, a wonderful read. Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell, Rio Nuevo Publishers.
January 10, the last day
In keeping with the literary and artistic theme of our trip, the morning destination was a cooperative print-making workshop that dates to the early days of the Revolution. The Taller Experimental de Grafica was established in 1962. According to Tom’s material, no less a personage than Chilean poet Pablo Neruda supported the concept of a cooperative center where artists could produce prints.
Looking out of the bus window this morning, the buildings seem familiar as we travel downtown. The Cupet-Cimex gas station we have passed so often seems to be the major brand. Wikipedia says Cupet is the state-owned oil company, and Cimex is the largest state-owned commercial operation, involved in all kinds of business.
The taller is at the end of a short dead-end street, next to the Doña Eutimia restaurant, our first day lunch location with Professor Quintana. One hundred twenty artist members produce prints of all varieties from copper-plate etchings to lithographs, sometimes on French and German presses dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. The quantity to peruse was overwhelming – some quite wonderful, but others endless variations of female rear ends or old Chevys. Several in our group made purchases, including me. For Katy, the family artist, I purchased a small etching that had been printed over an old map. The artist, Orlando Gutiérrez, was not there, but his friend told me the process is called Chine colle or “glue paper.” We paid for our purchases in an upstairs office, where the staff carefully wrapped our purchased prints. Our group gave the Cuban economy a considerable boost that morning.
We followed Tom and Ileana through the Old Town streets. One, Zanja Real, had remnants of the 16th century Spanish water system that supplied water (and cholera) from the Rio Almendares (the same as the site of yesterday’s Santería ceremony).
Our destination, the Fototeca de Cuba in Plaza Vieja, was closed, which was okay. At this stage of the trip, we enjoyed just walking around the plaza and hanging out. Some had a beer. Danny had his picture taken with a large, brightly-dressed maní, or peanut seller, who gave him gave him the complete treatment, chanting the maní seller’s call and ending with a big kiss on his cheek.
The percussion instrument is a horse skull.
It was good to walk around the plazas once more – a nice closure to the trip. I found the postage stamp seller I had seen the first day. Our group was getting way ahead of me, but I quickly bought a small collection of antiguos y nuevos for friend Jim. They later turned out to be mostly nuevos.
At midday, Darwin took us to Miramonte, past the Cococabana to a home that had been converted to a restaurant, La Ferminia. The word stands for an endangered bird, but for some reason there was a full-sized replica of a black bull on the roof.
At our table, Tom talked about the current state of affairs in Cuba. Outright repression is much diminished, but the country remains a police state. While Fidel Castro himself is not relevant to current affairs, arbitrary action against anyone is still possible. However, the serious dissident movement is small.
Raul Castro has stated he will step down in four years. Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel seems to be the successor, but who knows what will happen in four years.
Ileana took a few of us to the farmer’s market, an institution that grew up during the Special Period when the government allowed and encouraged individual farming, including urban farming. The produce and fruit looked fine, but Betty thought the prices high comparable to the U.S. Ileana said the market takes both pesos and cucs, but it would be silly to waste cucs where pesos are accepted.
The group had scattered to the decorative arts museum, their hotel rooms, or elsewhere. Steve and I walked to the Hotel Cohiba and back along the Malecon. The warm sun felt good.
The last dinner was in the spacious garden of the home and studio of artist Kadir Lopez. A variety of food was served buffet style. We sat with the Firestones and learned more about Pattie’s sculpture.
The Humphreys, Firestones, and others were going to the Tropicana. They graciously included us, and Katy had said it was wonderful, but we opted not to go. We still had to pack, and Betty was worried about making our connection in Miami.
At breakfast the next morning, the Humphreys reported on their great evening at the Tropicana. John Treat told us more about his experiences in North Korea, how he always has a handler and never lets on about his knowledge of the language.
We said goodbye to Leslie, who, with her backpack, was on her way to Viñales.
At the bus, we said our goodbyes to Darwin and Ileana. Darwin confessed after my questioning that the babe in the steer shift knob was not his wife, and the picture on the visor was truly his wife. In fact, he pointed her out as she walked toward the bus with their young son.
At the airport, we paid our exit fee and passed through immigration where they compared their picture of us with our faces and with our passport.
Then we waited. Our plane was an hour late, which meant a forced march through the Miami airport; immigration; bag claim for customs, which took more than an hour; and a missed connection to L.A. We panicked a bit, but we were able to stand by for the next flight an hour and a half later, and we made that one.
As I wrote this journal, I reflected on my Cuba experience – what was real, what was a view from the tourist bubble. I drew a few conclusions, which may or may not be accurate. Cubans appeared to me to be resilient, resourceful, and fun-loving people. Yet Castro’s Communist system has clearly failed them. The people are poor with few prospects to better themselves. The economy is dependent on tourism and remittances from Cuban-Americans to their families.
What future the people have lies in foreign investment. Great Britain, Canada, Brazil, Spain, and especially China all have a significant presence in Cuba. Only the United States government, pressured by Cuban-American politics, refuses to trade with the country of 11 million people only 90 miles south of Florida. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the issue, but it appears that if American policy does not change, our country will lose out.
In all, the trip was a great cultural experience and we came home with a new set of fascinating friends.
Walter and Betty in Cuba