Author: Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Department of Art History
From the moment that our plane landed at José Marti Airport in Havana I knew that this Penn Alumni Travel trip would be very different from ones that I had accompanied previously to places such as France, Spain, Argentina, and Chile. After having successfully passed through immigration and while waiting for our luggage, my husband and I were waylaid as a young women in an official brown uniform began to interview him about his reasons for traveling to Cuba. She wanted to know what he planned to do while there and what things he had brought with him. The questions were not particularly invasive, but they did seem to be endless. As he submitted to this plodding interrogation in the middle of the baggage area, we waited and waited for our suitcases to come off the carousel.
After about 20 minutes, the airplane’s cargo began to slowly emerge from the behind the black rubber flaps of the handling area and onto conveyor. Typical of many flights that I have taken to Latin America and the Caribbean, they included a large number of items that were swathed in the bright blue plastic wrap on offer at most international airports as cheap protection against both spillage and curious fingers. In this case, rather than swaddling mostly soft-sided suitcases and duffels that are not easily locked, the plastic also covered all sorts of odd-shaped packages. Some of these had funny protrusions that I soon began to recognize as canned food and other grocery items. This piqued my interest and the novelty of it quickly distracted me from the banal questions with which the official was peppering my husband. I began to look a little harder at the things that my fellow travelers were bringing into Cuba from Miami.
While we waited for our luggage to emerge, I saw several doors, a 60-inch television, countless boxes, and many enormous suitcases drop down on the conveyor. Most of the items that had once been wrapped tightly in the blue plastic had now been cut open so that the curiosity of the Cuban officials — or perhaps the United States officials back in Miami — could be satisfied that their contents were permissible. As remarkable as this display of highly eclectic consumer activity was to me, it soon made sense when we arrived at our hotel in Central Havana and began to explore the immediate neighborhood. There were only a few shops and the ones that we ventured into hardly had anything for sale on their shelves.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I had asked friends and colleagues who had been to Cuba in the past few years about how much money they recommended I bring on the trip. I was curious about this due to the financial restrictions that travelers from the United States encounter. Under the current embargo, the Cuban government is not permitted to do any business with US banks — ATMs and credit cards issued by US banks will not work there — so one must bring cash in hand when traveling to Cuba. In addition to the query about money, I also asked people what sorts of things they had brought home. They all remarked that they had purchased very little as there simply was not very much to buy, regardless of whether or not the items were “permitted” under the embargo (more on this farther down). I did not fully understand what they meant until I saw the many, many empty shelves in the Havana shops. It was then that I began to understand the impact of the US embargo, what the Cubans call el bloqueo or the blockade, which not only makes everyday life incredible difficult for the average Cuban. Unless Cubans have access to international travel and foreign currency, it is nearly impossible for them to buy many of the simple things that they need, such as the doors and canned food that I saw sticking out of those blue plastic wrapped packages at the airport.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was a guided walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage site centered in Old Havana. There we saw the city’s incredible colonial architecture, which dates back to the 1500s and is currently being restored by Habaguanex. A national company run by the Cuban government, Habaguanex uses the profits from a group of hotels that it runs in Old Havana and Central Havana to fund the restoration and reconstruction of various buildings in the historically significant parts of the metropolitan area. Prior to receiving the UNESCO designation and the accompanying funds it provided, many of the buildings in this part of the city were disintegrating into the barely functional ruins that today characterize much of the once-spectacular Cuban architectural landscape.
The key element in the spiraling disintegration of Cuban architecture, which began following the Revolution over 50 years ago, has been the arcane rules governing property in the communist state. The communist real estate laws that govern multi-family dwellings, which include most of the three and four storey apartment buildings in Havana, seem to make little practical sense (to me at least). Under Cuban law, families are responsible for the upkeep of their own apartments, but nobody (except for the State, perhaps) is responsible for the upkeep of the building. Therefore, unlike with co-ops or condominiums in the US, there are no superintendents on duty and little that goes wrong in the common areas, with the façades or the exteriors of buildings, is repaired. While this is the situation throughout the island, its toll has been particularly acute in Havana, where an average of 3 buildings collapse each day. This terrible situation makes the recent intervention of UNESCO both timely and welcome to both those who live there and to those of us who visit. Since its founding in 1994, Habaguanex has facilitated the restoration of Old Havana using a two-pronged approach: 1) it trains youth in traditional construction and decoration techniques that have all but disappeared from practice, and 2) the renovations create a desirable tourist area, which in turn enables the process of restoration to proceed through the production of much-needed funds. A win-win situation.
On our last night, after a week in Cuba, I began to repack my suitcases, neither of them were as large or unwieldy as the strange things I had seen coming off the belt when we arrived. I had only a few books bought at the National Gallery, a couple of vintage posters from the used book market, and some CDs recorded by musical groups we had heard. Unlike my experiences on other trips, where I sometimes have had to purchase an extra bag for my purchases (for example the Paris to Normandy cruise I took with Penn Alumni Travel in June of 2013 where a new summer wardrobe and several bottles of aged Calvados were acquired) this time it was pretty easy to fit these things in. Such “informational materials” are the only items that one is permitted to legally bring back to the United States, and as the faculty host I was “playing it safe,” having resisted the lure of the myriad Che Guevara t-shirts and Cuban flag-adorned aprons and bric-a-brac.
Cuba is simply not the place to visit if you want to go shopping — Bermuda or the Caymans are the places for deals on Swiss watches and designer sunglasses. However, if you are interested art, music, dance, and architecture, then Cuba is a revelation. Thanks to the experts at Academic Arrangements Abroad, who organized our trip on behalf of Penn Alumni Travel, during our week in Cuba we experienced the very best of these things that the island had to offer. I will leave it to Alyssa D’Alconzo, Director of Alumni Travel and Education at Penn, who also traveled on my departure to discuss more of the amazing activities we experienced. (Look for Alyssa’s blog on March 27th.) Now, less than a month later, I am actively making plans to return to Cuba soon (perhaps with some Penn Art History students in tow) and see more of this complex and marvelous country.
[Interested in travel to Cuba? Penn Alumni Travel will be returning February 14-21, 2015. Email Emilie C. K. LaRosa at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to a priority reservation list.]