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My Week With Fidel & Ernest

We're back in Miami after 8 days in Cuba - a vacation my wife and I chose because a) it's warm, b) we've never been there, c) the US government somehow feels threatened by the cigars, so we had to see them for ourselves.

To travel legally to Cuba, the US government insists that Americans be part of a cultural exchange licensed by the Treasury Department, and board an unmarked chartered flight from Miami...

Image a special aircraft that takes you 90 miles and about 55 years from Florida. (Which may explain why the flight is $220 per person each way.)

Cuba is a hardcore socialist country - the government owns almost everything, and most workers are paid between $25-$30 a month. Which is why almost every "spontaneous" conversation that people strike up with you on the street here in Havana ("Hello, where are you from?) usually ends with a request for money "to buy milk for the kids." And it's not the Cuban peso they want but the special money only tourists carry (called CUC's) which is what you need to buy the good stuff.

So life is tough. And except for a few historic preservation projects, Havana looks like it hasn't seen a coat of paint since 1959!


But it's not a prison. You don't see military checkpoints, and no, they don't all want to float to Miami.

Why not? Because while the accommodations are definitely rustic, a lot of stuff is free, including all education from grade school.


...through graduate school, and of course, health care.


That includes electrified acupuncture. It does not include privacy, however. I hesitated when I saw this fellow, but our host motioned for me to snap at will. The patient didn't seem to care -- nothing like electrified needles to take the edge off your day.

How about this treatment:


...all free of charge.

Music is a big deal too.


Every restaurant, hotel and public square has a band. Favorite songs: Besame Mucho & Guantanamera.

The other thing you'll find everywhere:


Che Guevara. He gets more face time than Fidel.

Cuba is also the place where your Dad's (or Granddad's) car is living out its golden years.


Havana is a year-round antique car meet. Some of these have been carefully restored and passed down as the family business. Tourists pay hard currency to be driven around in them.

Here's the old Soviet embassy:


It exudes a kind of Stalinist warmth. Unfortunately for Cuba it no longer exudes foreign aid. The revolution now has to pay for itself, and that requires a "We're all in this together" mindset:


That one I agree with. It would remove one more excuse for why the economy doesn't work, because it certainly isn't working the way Cubans expected. It's a patchwork of basic state services and private improvisation. I thought this shot captured the reality pretty well:


The lights stay on -- but it ain't pretty.

The system was opened up to allow small private businesses in 2011. This is a privately-run tourist restaurant in Trinidad.


To be legal, it must be operated in the owner's home. But is the bed really used ("Please, take your time, just wake us when you're ready for dessert...") or is it only there for the inspector?

Cubans seem free to speak their minds, and admit the obvious -- that life here isn't easy and the parts of Havana look like they could crumble into the sea at any moment. But they also think socialism is better than the kind of exploitation that preceded it.


They still seem to believe that it's wrong to get rich, because the only way that can happen is for someone else to get poor. Their priority is to guarantee a basic allotment of food, education, and health care, even if it's at the cost of living in a tiny, poorly maintained apartment building.

Even in Cuba there are those little luxuries.


Notice she is well within 25 feet of the doorway. (We learned that the secret to proper cigar smoking is never inhale; sip Havana Rum between puffs, and stop when the ash reaches the band.)

In the neighborhoods where the tourist money flows, life, at least on the outside, is like a postcard.


That's the main square in Trinidad, on the Caribbean coast, about as it was in the 1800's.

This was my first Caribbean experience -- broad sandy beaches, warm breezes, cheap rum.


Just the occasional botched invasion. Welcome to Bahia de Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs, where we stopped for lunch! I ordered the pork.

When we got to our hotel in Trinidad at Playa Ancon -- this was the view 100 feet from our door:


Our group of 18 came from all over the country, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, Chicago, Texas, Virginia, New York City. And I think we're agreed that socialism or not, Americans ought to be able to travel freely here, instead of this charade of booking specially licensed educational tours and flying across the Florida Strait in unmarked chartered planes.

We ought to be able to fly directly to Havana, spread our capitalist propaganda, and then take a red 1961 Thunderbird to the "Floridita" where the daiquiris kept Hemingway reliably intoxicated as he was writing "The Old Man And The Sea."


I tried one, forgot all my troubles, and we became instant friends.


By the way, the customs agent scolded me at the Miami airport, but he let me keep my six cigars. Nice of my own government to let me keep my own property.

Dave Ross, KIRO Radio Host
Dave Ross hosts the Morning News on KIRO Radio weekdays from 5-9 a.m. Dave has won the national Edward R. Murrow Award for writing five times since he started at KIRO Radio in 1978.